(read Acts 7:54-60 and 1 Corinthians 13: 1-8a)
The earliest Christians suffered great adversity as they tried to proclaim Jesus as Lord and Messiah. Much of the established Jewish tradition rejected such outlandish claims that Jesus had died and been raised by God from the dead. They not only rejected such claims, they vehemently abhorred them. It was nonsense, blasphemy even. For some of the Jewish leaders, I’m sure their violent objections to Jesus as Christ were the result of a creeping suspicion and vulnerable fear that the message of the disciples might actually be the truth.
Stephen was one such disciple who was determined to proclaim the Gospel message, even to the Jewish authorities who were outraged by such proclamations. Stephen was both a powerful preacher and the one who administered the “food-pantry” for the church in Jerusalem.
One day not long after the resurrection, Stephen went before the Sanhedrin, or the Jewish Council consisting of 23 high priests, and explained to them the history of Israel and how Jesus was the continuation and fulfillment of the prophecy. Just like they had rejected this claim before, they rejected it on that day. Stephen grew angry, insistent. He called the high priests “stiff-necked people,” or bull-headed. He told them they were “uncircumcised in heart and ear,” which is to say their hearts were hardened and their ears were deaf to God’s ongoing revelation. Stephen also said, “You are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do” (Acts 7: 51). Such accusations were a piercing criticism, and they infuriated the members of the Council.
Stephen made a great argument for Jesus as the continuation of God’s promise to Israel, but the Sanhedrin refused to hear it, and the insults that Stephen threw out just enraged them further. They grit their teeth and covered their ears, and then they formed a mob and physically attacked Stephen. They took him out into the streets and kicked him and beat him and threw insults back at him. And besides throwing insults, they also threw stones. In fact, they threw rock after rock at him until he was dead.
But before Stephen died, he uttered words reminiscent of Jesus’ last words from the cross. “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7: 59-60).
Stephen is regarded as the first Christian martyr, the first person whose life was taken in violence because of his faith in Jesus Christ. Ironically, Saul, the very person who approved of the Sanhedrin killing Stephen for his faith in Jesus, a man who participated in the whole event, would also later become a martyr for his faith in Jesus.
How is it that Saul, better known to us as Paul (his Christian name), goes from being a murderer of a Christian to a martyr in Christianity?
For those of you who are unfamiliar: Saul was a Pharisee, a 4.0 Jew and follower of the law. He was enraged by the claims of the disciples (of Jesus) and persecuted the early Church. But a series of events happened to Saul, which forever transformed his life. Saul became a Christian, a follower of the Way, and was renamed Paul. The same Saul who cheered at the death of Stephen becomes Paul, the author of Corinthians 13, who writes, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13: 1). What a great difference that is! In addition to Corinthians, Paul also wrote Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians Colossians, Thessalonians, some of the greatest treatises found in the Bible. He traveled all over Asian Minor and founded many churches. His responsibility was to convert gentiles to Christians. And it is thought that after doing all this amazing work for God, Paul also became a martyr, killed by the Romans because of his Christian beliefs around 60 C.E.
How did he go from a murderer to a martyr? It must have been nothing less than the power of God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of the world. I would like to suggest a Trinitarian explanation for Saul/Paul’s transformation: First, Saul received forgiveness of sins from God the Father/Creator. Second, Saul had a life-transforming vision of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, a vision that made him able to see the truth of God. And third, Paul was empowered by the Holy Spirit to live his life according to the Way and to help others along the Way.
It should be glaringly obvious why Saul was in need of forgiveness after hearing this morning’s text. He was a persecutor of the early church and participated in the murder of Stephen. Yet, God must have forgiven Saul. This is not written in the Scriptures directly, but is inherent based on the fact that God called Saul to be one of the apostles and gave his life a renewed purpose in the world. Without forgiveness, Saul was irredeemable. He was a sinner; one who had broken God’s commandments. He certainly had no place in the Christian Church or as a saint, and yet pages of our Bibles are filled with his spiritual theology and poetic letters.
How did Saul go from being a murderer to a martyr? God forgave him. With forgiveness comes another chance, new opportunities, new life. Can you imagine if we had to work off our debt everyday before we were able to move forward in life? We would all be in such deep pits we would not even have a dream of rising out. But God’s forgiveness makes our transformation possible.
It is important to note however that human beings need to receive God’s forgiveness if we are truly going to gain the fruits of this gift. To live forgiven and not know it is still to be in a pit. But, Paul knew that God had forgiven him and that is why he is able to live a new life, a life guided by love instead of judgment. That is why he is able to write, “Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Cor. 13: 5-8). God’s love never ends, and Paul knew that because he was a recipient of such everlasting, steadfast love.
The Gospel message is that we are all forgiven. Saul is forgiven, and so are you. We are all redeemable. God is able to take the mess that is our lives and the brokenness that is our selves and love us until our chaos turns to order and our brokenness to healing. There is not anything that you cannot come back from. Or to put it in a positive statement, you can come back from anything, any sin, any failure, any weakness, through the One who created you. Over and over and over again we are forgiven, loved no matter our failings because God sees us as we really are: perfect in God’s sight, beautiful, wise, loving and strong. As we embrace God’s forgiveness, we become the people God intends us to be.
The second explanation for how Saul went from murderer to martyr is because Jesus Christ revealed himself to him. Paul had a Revelation (capital R). He saw Jesus Christ and that forever changed him.
When Saul was charging along breathing threats against the Church, he was confused and his perspective was distorted. He was not seeing clearly, but Jesus came to help him see clearly, to help him see as God sees.
The Revelation happened like this: Acts 9 says, “Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ Saul asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’” (Acts 9: 3-5).
There is no denying the power of this experience. Saul went blind from it. Jesus can do that to us. He can come to us with his truth and make us go blind, but when he does that, he always gives our sight back to us. Except when he gives it back, we are no longer confused and operating from a distorted perspective. Now, we see how he wants us to see: clearly, and through the lens of wisdom and love.
I believe that Jesus has revealed himself to every single person in this room. He has revealed himself more fully to some of us, while others of us have only had glimpses. But oh, how grand even a glimpse of God’s eternal Word is! It’s all most of us can take at any one time. And Jesus will continue to reveal himself to us as long as we are seekers on the Way.
Just as we benefit and grow more when we acknowledge and receive forgiveness, so to do we see more clearly when we acknowledge and receive Jesus in whatever form he presents himself to us. Do not limit the way Jesus might teach you. Visions, miracles, Scripture, worship, prayer, a sunset, a child, a headache, a divorce, cancer. He can be in any of it. He is in all of it. While we cannot make Revelation happen, we can be ready when it does.
The third way Paul went from being a murderer to a martyr was by the empowering power of the Holy Spirit.
After Saul saw Jesus on the road to Damascus, he went blind and was taken into the village to get rest. Jesus then spoke to Ananias and told him to go to Saul and explain to him what was happening. Ananias said, “’Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored” (Acts 9: 17-18).
When Jesus removed the scales from his eyes and the Holy Spirit filled him, that is the moment that Saul became a new man, that is the moment Saul became Paul. From then on, it was game on. It was the Spirit who empowered Paul to travel, teach, preach, establish, convert, baptize, write 1 Corinthians and so on.
The roles of the Holy Spirit are numerous. The Holy Spirit comforts, guides, gives discernment, etc, but today, I want to focus on the empowering aspect of the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit is in us, we are more than ourselves. We can do things that we normally are not brave enough, smart enough or strong enough to accomplish. The Spirit is like wind in a sail, it powers the boat onward.
That does not mean you will not have to try. That does not mean you will not have to work hard. That does not mean you will not be fearful at times. What it means is that you can do it because God is in you helping you to do it.
How did Saul become Paul? How did he go from being a murderer to a martyr? By the forgiving, revealing, empowering love of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Creator forgave him. The Savior made sure he had another chance and opened his eyes to the Way, and the Spirit empowered him to do whatever it is they all asked as One God now and forever.
I just described how the Triune God transformed the life of a sinner who became a saint. What about you? How has God saved your life? What has Jesus revealed to you? And what is the Spirit offering to you, as a gift, so that you may live the eternal life for which you are destined?
To be able to articulate what God is doing in your life is what being a disciple is all about. To be able to follow through with what God is doing in your life, that is the crucial next step.