In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.
Intro: Paul is a model for us
We have all encountered Paul before, in fact, for some of us he has become too familiar and we are in need of a break. (For a while, he was “Saint What’s-his-face” to avoid using his name.) But my aim this morning is to shape our view of Paul and to rub off some of the familiarity so that we can see him for what a great example and patron saint for us.
1) Sinner. Paul was raised in the Church, but to his own admission, this upbringing caused him to be the greatest of sinners. Paul had everything going for him. He was raised as a Jew’s Jew. “If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee…” Paul was born of Jews to be a super Jew.
Paul was born in Tarsus, but it was seen early on that he was gifted and so he was shipped off to Jerusalem to learn from the best of the best. As I pointed out a few weeks ago, Paul was trained by the Rabbi Gamaliel, and was his heir apparent. Luke doesn’t tell us, but it is probable that Paul was present in Jerusalem when Jesus came for what we now know as Holy Week. I’m sure he saw the commotion and went down to investigate Jesus’ grand entrance on Palm Sunday. Paul would have come down to hear his teachings in the Temple, and was trying to assert himself by leading the charge against Jesus. “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.” Knowing what we know of Paul, we can almost hear these words on his lips. Then Paul sees the events of Jesus’ Passion and death. And all is right with his world, until the followers of Jesus begin to follow in his footsteps.
We first encounter Paul in as a very dangerous man in Acts during the death of Stephen. Paul is definitely driving the train at that point. So zealous was Paul about the protection of all that he knew that he brought about the brought about the Church’s first great persecution. Paul, not being one to sit idly by, “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” Paul was setting himself up to be the most important man in Judaism outside of the high priest himself.
2) Conversion. Paul reflects later on this time of his life: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” Paul had his famous conversion when Jesus comes to him in a bright light that knocks him to the ground and says, “Saul, Saul. Why do you persecute me?” Then he is struck blind for three days. Then he proceeded to Damascus when he received his sight by the hand of Ananias and was then baptized. This is his actual conversion, but as far as his thinking went, he was still a Jew. That is how he had been taught all his life. He needed to become a Christian in his thinking as well. And so he does.
Acts tells us: “Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews by proving that Jesus was the Christ. When many days had passed, the Jews sought to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul.” His disciples lowered him down over the wall of the city by night, and he fled to Jerusalem. Everyone was afraid of him, except Barnabas who took him to the Apostles and told them of all he did.
Paul gives us more to the story in his letter to the Churches of Galatia: “When he who set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus.”
Paul goes on to say that he was here for three years. Three years, in which he pours over the Bible, mining the depths and seeing for himself how the entire Bible points to Jesus. During this time he truly becomes a Christian mentally. He learns that all those years prior were nothing more than a misspent youth because he had been doing it all wrong! He failed to see Jesus for who he really was even when he saw him in the flesh in Jerusalem. He saw the events and turned a blind eye to them so convinced was he that he had the right answer. But when Jesus came to him and showed him the correct reading, he takes his time so that he can see with his new eyes and learn it anew.
3) Converter. Now that Paul is fully converted, heart and mind, God can use his wonderful gifts properly. God reveals to Peter and the rest that the Gentiles are now to be actively included in the plan of salvation history. Previously God focused on Israel and told them that they were to be a city on a hill and ultimately through them the Gentiles would be saved. The time has come for this to become a reality and Paul is the connection between the two. Paul is the best that Judaism has to offer and to boot he is a converted Christian. He is perfect for God’s plan. And so Barnabas is sent to Tarsus to fetch Paul and together they go to convert the world to Christ.
Paul makes three missionary journeys (possibly even four), each with a bigger scope, planting churches and planting ideas and moving on to let another water and nurture to full maturity. During these missionary journeys, Paul is under more and more stress. The better the job he does the more the world fights against him. Sometimes it is among those whom he calls friends. He and Barnabas have a major blow out causing the two to part company, never to see each other again. He also has a fight with Cephas [Peter] over public behavior.
Sometimes it is with those whom God called him to minister to as in the Church in Corinth. In Corinth there was a certain very influential member in the Church who was living a lifestyle that should not be condoned by the Church. Yet here was the Church holding this man up as an example of their open-mindedness in Christ. Paul comes down very hard on this, which results in the man pushing back and turning the Church against him. This causes Paul immense pain.
And other times it is the opposition that makes life difficult for Paul. At Lystra, Paul was stoned by Jews from Antioch and Iconium. Stoning someone meant taking big rocks and smashing people to death with them. And when they were finished with this, they drug him out of the city supposing he was dead. Bill Creasy suggests that he was actually dead and at Acts 14:20 “But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city…” Creasy suggests that this is actually Paul being brought back to life.
Yet through all this, Paul keeps his eye on the prize. Through all these pain and hardships Paul was responsible for planting churches throughout the Roman Empire. Countless Christians were converted to Christ as a result of his efforts, yet he doesn’t let it go to his head this time. He has a proper orientation that has properly grounded him.
By the time of his death, Paul has been a Christian for a little over 30 years. He says that he would rather boast of his weaknesses that all the great things that he has done, because he knows that he is not perfect. “I do not do the things that I want, but the very things that I hate…I can will what is right but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil that I do not want is what I do…Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”
Paul knows that every day is a struggle for him to do the things that God has called him to do because of his own will he cannot do it, but would chose the evil. But by God’s grace, he is able to accomplish great things. And so he is able in his last days to say to Timothy: “I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award me on that Day, and not only me but also all who have loved his appearing.”
St. Paul, pray for us. In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.