25 January 2017
Text: Matt 19:27-30 (Acts 9:1-22, Gal 1:11-24)
In the name of + Jesus. Amen.
Dear friends, we have good reason to despair.
Our culture is in a state of chaos and disarray. In public life, we apparently no longer know what the difference is between a man and a woman. Political disagreements are settled with rioting and looting. College students and administrators cannot abide alternative points of view. We are divided over issues of race and religion and politics and morality. Traditional marriage is on life support, and an increasing number of children are raised in multiple households scared by serial divorces and remarriages.
There are rumblings of war in our world, and new threats of terrorism that frighten us nearly every day. Our religious liberties are under constant assault. And the massacre of the unborn continues.
Our churches are getting emptier and emptier – including our own. The Christian gospel is ridiculed, the Bible is held in contempt, and anything the church has to say is shouted down. We are a shrinking minority and the attacks upon us become more shrill and fierce every day. Around the world, there are more martyrs in our own era than ever were in the days of the Roman Empire.
Yes, indeed, we have good reason to despair.
But thanks be to God that He is not merely a God of reason, but of love. For love defies reason. A computer can be programmed to follow logic and reason and make decisions by counting the cost. But a machine cannot be programmed to count the costs – and then do what love would do: to at-times defy reason for the sake of the beloved. And this is what God has done for us in Christ Jesus and in the cross.
In times like these, we need to reflect on St. Paul. We need to not only remember his courage in preaching the Gospel to Jews and Greeks, to rich and poor, to kings and high-ranking officials and soldiers and synagogue rulers, his missionary journeys all over the known world, planting churches and teaching, calling to mind his heroic steadfastness as a confessor even in prison, being beaten for the truth, and even as a martyr who died for the Lord, we also need to remember when he was known as “Saul” and was an enemy of God.
Saul was a former name of the man who led a former life: “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” Like many in our culture today, Saul hated Christianity, and was doing anything and everything in his power to eradicate it – even having men and women and children bound in chains and arrested.
In Paul’s own words regarding his “former life,” he says: “I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.”
But something happened that shocked the world, the church, and most of all, Saul himself. While on a road trip to Damascus, Jesus Himself appeared to Saul, as a blazing light from the heavens “flashed around him” and knocked him down. And our Lord Jesus Christ Himself spoke to His violent enemy who was to become his passionate apostle: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”
Jesus isn’t expecting an answer. We know the answer: unbelief, pride, a lack of respect for the life and liberties of those whom he arrested. In short: sin. Sin is what makes unbelievers, consumed with hatred, attack Christians and the faith itself.
But Jesus is now calling upon Paul to repent, to repent of his unbelief by heeding the voice and believing that Jesus is the Christ, by turning away from his pride, by being humbled to beg for help as a blind man, to leave behind violence and persecution of the Christians by becoming a Christian himself, one who would himself suffer for the faith and for Jesus.
And in this one moment of God’s choosing, this single encounter with Jesus, everything changed. The men and women and children no longer had to fear Saul but rather could come to receive him as a brother and as a father.
For the Lord has changed Saul into a believer, a confessor, and soon to be, a preacher of the Gospel. For Paul’s eyes were opened, and He received the Holy Spirit. He was baptized. And he was strengthened by “taking food.” And he took the food of the baptized Christian, the Holy Supper of the very Lord who converted him, called him, and gave him a new direction in life, a Supper he would likewise share with those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
The Lord himself spoke of the convert Paul: “He is a chosen instrument of Mine, to carry My name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.”
For no matter how dreary and gloomy things were for the early church, no matter how much societal pressure from the Romans and how much political pressure from the Jews they were subject to, no matter the treachery and fear, the night raids and secret informers, the chains and the dungeons – the Lord God remained in charge. He had not abandoned His people; He had not fallen asleep at the switch. God allowed things to become dire as a way to prove that they were in fact not dire. This is an easy situation to fix for our merciful Lord.
Paul’s conversion not only paved the way for new churches to spring up across the Mediterranean world, but it also demonstrated that God is not subject to the whims and hatreds of men. Our Lord Jesus called Paul out on his persecutions, and He converted Paul, brought him into the church for a reason: that he might be a blessing, a bringer of Good News to all people.
Paul’s conversion is our conversion, dear friends. For just as Jesus came to Paul on the way to Damascus and disrupted his life forever, this same Jesus comes to us where we are: as babies brought to the font, as adults who hear the Gospel for the first time, as children with an innocent trust in the Word, or even as an elderly person on his deathbed seeking the peace that passes all understanding in exchange for a lifetime of sin. For all of us were converted to the faith, whether we were only minutes old, or after a century or more of walking this earth.
All of us were on the side of the devil until we were exorcised by the holy water of baptism and called by name by Jesus, and we were given a new name as well: the name “Christian,” one redeemed by the sacrificial Lamb, one washed clean in His blood, one declared righteous and forgiven and part of the church that was our enemy prior to our conversion.
For every single Christian has been converted and won over. Christians are not born that way, but they are born again, and like unto St. Paul, once we are called into the kingdom by the King, “something like scales” fall from our eyes. We see reality as it is. We are changed, transformed, yes, converted from sinner to saint, from dead to alive, from an enemy of the cross to a friend of God.
And so, dear friends, while we have reason to despair, we have three things greater than reason: faith and hope and love. We have faith in Him who offers us hope for eternity, and the love of Christ Himself who gave Himself for us even while we were yet His enemies. And those who attack the church now may yet one day prompt us to likewise say: “He who once tried to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”
And the Lord Jesus reminds us not to despair, but to cling to faith, come what may, saying, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
“O Lord, for Paul’s conversion,
We bless Your name today;
Come shine within our darkness,
And guide us on our way.”
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.