Sunday, April 20, 2008

Paul: From Murderer to Martyr

(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.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

God Wins! And so do you!

Was it a long winter and a slow spring, or what? Everyone I talk to is aching for sunshine and warm breezes. Excited to leave their coats and umbrellas at home, to go walking out in nature or play a round of golf. As I sit and write this, the signs are all in place. Spring has sprung! (Albeit, taking its time to blossom). And with the grounds thaw and the daffodil flowers comes the promise of our own awakenings as well.

Especially at Easter time, we are reminded of a very important message: God wins! I know it doesn’t always feel like it, but from the moment Mary arrived at the tomb and found it empty, to when Thomas touched Jesus’ hand and put his fingers in Jesus’ side, the truth has been revealed. Sin, evil, death and the sickness and suffering they bring only have temporary power. God is the victor forevermore!

Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, was a covert to Christianity and understood the significance of Jesus’ resurrection for believers as such: “Paul sees Christians as living in two different times: the present and the future. The past is canceled, for ‘While we still were sinners Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). The future is already ours; eternal life with and through Christ finds fulfillment in the future but is available for us right now. The tricky part is the present.” (Stroble, Paul. Paul and the Galatians. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000. pg. 53.)

As Jesus told his disciples, “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14: 19). The promise of eternal life after our earthly lives is our greatest hope for certain. But we were not created to simply wait around planet earth for a perfect afterlife. No way! The resurrection from the dead is for your mortal bodies also. When we celebrate Easter, we celebrate the fact that all of God’s children receive new life in Christ Jesus today. To be as fully alive in Christ as is humanly possible, that is our present task. The spirit and love inside each of us is like a flower that blooms every spring, becoming part of a new creation, with many happy days of warmth, sunshine and water ahead.

Anais Nin said, "And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom." The process of being made new can often be a frightening and painful process. It means letting go, dropping defenses, surrendering everything you know, even your life! As Paul excitedly proclaimed, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2: 20). Dying to self, and living in God day-by-day is also our Christian hope. Some days, life itself and its many struggles might seem like too much to bare, but it is a wonderful gift and a continual process of maturation into the perfect children of God. Never forget: God wins! And so do you!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

I love you, Jesus, but...

For the three of you who actually read this, sorry I haven't been up to date. Tough times. But I did read this great article about Christianity and religious pluralism. Not that I ultimately agree, but it is interesting.

Do any of you have a problem reconciling this text with JC and the gospel? "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6)."

Check this out! Dan Clendenin often has great posts.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Do Not Be Afraid. Be at Peace. Be Empowered

(Read John 20: 19-31 and Acts 2: 14a, 22-32)

Mahatma Gandhi said, “The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would solve most of the world’s problems.” Wouldn’t it be miraculous if we could each actually do the good we are capable of? Imagine how the world would change.

A similar notion is articulated by the author, Ben Herbster, who said, “The greatest waste in the world is the difference between what we are and what we could become.” Wouldn’t it be amazing if each of us could become what we dream? If we all finished what we started? Do what we say we’re going to do? If there was no such thing as writer’s block? No frustrated artists and musicians? Oh, the possibilities within each of us.

What inhibits us from growing, from becoming the children of God we were created to be? What prevents us from reaching our full potential and using our gifts to make the world a better place? What stops us from carrying out the plans of God?

Is it Self-doubt? Or apathy? Or complacency? that dooms our lives to a continual reinforcement of the status quo?

I would say, “Yes.” Each of us can relate to at least one of these reasons. Lack of confidence, low self-esteem, that stops some of us. Laziness, not wanting to work too hard, that stops us too. Others of us have grown old, tired and weary. We’ve accepted our present circumstance, and no longer have the energy or desire to work towards something new. And the remainder of us, while the dream still remains, something inside of ourselves just won’t allow us to blossom.

Fear is usually the culprit, the reason we don’t do or become. Fear is the reason we miss out on abundant life. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of rejection, you name it. Fear is the evil force that holds us back.

That’s probably why Jesus said, “Do not be afraid” to his followers over and over again. Or “Fear not!” He understood the power of fear, that it can inhibit, prevent and stop even the most gifted and beautiful people from actualizing our greatest selves. Some of my favorite words of Jesus are from John 14: 27. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

Sadly, this morning, In John, chapter 20, verses 19-31, we meet the disciples on the evening of that first day of the new creation, on Easter night. It is a night they should be rejoicing, a night they should be on top of the world, but instead they are cloaked in fear surrounded by locked doors.

I suppose we can’t really blame them though. They just watched their leader be taken into captivity, beaten and murdered. It’s exactly as Jesus had told them, but it was so brutal and shocking, they are left traumatized.

If you have ever experienced something traumatic, you know the horror doesn’t just go away. It stays with you for a while; it even becomes a part of you. Long after your mind has understood and rationalized what happened, your inner self remains wounded.

In addition to just witnessing the crucifixion, some of the disciples might be fearfully thinking: “If that happened to Jesus, what is going to happen to us?” Could they proclaim him the Messiah, the Son of God without fear of punishment? It would definitely be safer to say nothing, to let Jesus’ revolutionary message die with him on the cross.

This morning, not only do I want us to be able to understand what the disciples went through following the crucifixion, but I also encourage you to think about your own fear. What are you afraid of? Or better yet, in what way has fear stopped you from being the best possible person you can be? How has fear stopped you from accomplishing the noble tasks God has assigned to you in the world?

Jesus did not give his life so that we would remain afraid. The resurrection is proof that there is nothing to be afraid of. Not our own inadequacies, not the power of others, nothing. Not even death.

When Jesus reveals himself to the disciples for the first time since he has been laid in the tomb, he comes into the house, not restricted by locked doors or fearful hearts, and says, “Peace be with you.” In other words, ‘Be at peace. Do not be afraid. Do not let your hearts be troubled. Relax.’ No matter how bleak everything appears, it’s going to be okay. In fact, it’s going to be more than okay. God has raised Jesus from the dead! Do you understand what that means?

Jesus doesn’t just say, “Peace be with you,” once. He says it three times. First, when he enters the house, and the disciples are still cloaked in fear. The second time Jesus says, “Peace be with you” is when he is giving instructions to the disciples that they are being sent into the world with a mission. I’m sure hearing that God had something for them to go and do made them even more afraid, but that’s why Jesus is there with his words of reassurance. And the third time is when Jesus returns the following week to show himself specifically to Thomas, who refuses to believe until he sees Jesus with his own eyes and touches Jesus with his own hands.

Jesus Christ’s message remains the same, “Peace be with you.”

When we remain enslaved by fear, we deny the power of the resurrection. When we remain enslaved by fear, we are not putting our full trust in God’s provision, in God’s plan, in God’s grace. When we let earthly trials and tribulations make us forget that our God has proven himself faithful and victorious over sin, evil and death, fear has captured our hearts, not faith. And that is a problem.

But when we have peace within ourselves and amongst ourselves, we prove that we really are the new creation, that we now live by love and not fear. Peace begins in our inner beings, and when inner peace reigns in our hearts, it flows out to the world.

Being at peace and being an agent of peace is one aspect of living a resurrected life in Jesus Christ, but it isn’t the only aspect. When we stop letting fear control our lives, we also become braver, more confident, more empowered than we were before. Yes, a characteristic of the new creation is people who are brave, confident and empowered to live the life of abundance and eternity.

Jesus came to his disciples, and he breathed the Holy Spirit on them. He gave them the power of God and told them to get up and to go out into the world. He sent them to forgive, to heal and to proclaim his message until he came again.

And can you believe it? They actually do as he said. Peter, who sank in the water because he was afraid, Peter who rejected Jesus three times because he was afraid, that same Peter actually becomes a great preacher, proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Savior to those whom he once cowered in fear to. That Peter becomes the rock upon which this church and all churches are built. That’s amazing. Peter went from being timid, weak and fearful to confident, strong and brave. That’s what happens when we receive the Holy Spirit, and let the Spirit rule our hearts and guide our lives. We become brave. We become bold. We do extraordinary things and become extraordinary people by the power of God that is working in and through us.

In Psalm 16, the Psalmist, perhaps King David, proclaims that the Lord is our counsel, the one who instructs us day and night. What God counsels and instructs us to do, the Holy Spirit empowers us to follow through and accomplish.

“Our fears must never hold us back from pursuing our hopes.” -JFK

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste the experience, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” -Eleanor Roosevelt

“We must have courage to bet on our ideas, to take the calculated risk, and to act. Everyday living requires courage if life is to be effective and bring happiness.” -Maxwell Maltz

“Easter is about the ability of Christ to defeat death in whatever form it faces us.”[1] This Easter, let Christ defeat fear in your lives. Fear leads to death, and death no longer has a place in our world.

Be at peace. Peace brings life. Be brave. Bravery brings us opportunities. And be empowered to become who you were born to become and to do all that you are capable of doing through the Spirit of God that is in you.

"And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom" -Anais Nin

Friends, it’s springtime. Bloom with the flowers. Take the risk that will help you become and do all that you were created for.

[1] Willimon, William. Pulpit Resource. January, February, March 2008. pg. 59.