Change: Paul, Part II

Change: Paul, Part II
A Message on Acts 9:19b-25
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Oct. 31, 2021, Commitment Sunday
By Doug Wintermute

Acts 9:19b-25 (NRSV)

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 All who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” 22 Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.

23 After some time had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night so that they might kill him; 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.

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Last week we continued our sermon series on “Change” by exploring Paul’s conversion, how he went from persecuting Christians to being one.

This week we will continue to explore Paul and what his life was like after his conversion. (Hint: It wasn’t all roses and sunshine.)

In the scripture we read today from the 9th chapter of Acts we find that Paul has a trust problem… and with good reason!

Last week we learned that Paul was on the way to Damascus when he was struck blind on the road to Damascus, where he was going to arrest more followers of Jesus. Jesus asks Paul why he was persecuting him, Paul’s heart gets changed, and three days later a very nervous Annanias laid hands on Paul, giving Paul back his vision and filling him with the Holy Spirit.

So Paul does a complete 180 degree turn. He goes from persecuting Christians to being a Christian. He becomes the very thing he hated.

I’ve been trying to come up with a modern metaphor to help us understand just how profound a change that Paul had. I thought about comparing it to someone who is a Republican becoming a Democrat or someone who is a Democrat becoming a Republican, and while those are certainly significant changes I don’t think it ranks on the level of change Paul experienced.

As you know I am a fan of the Texas Rangers baseball team (which means I got to experience much suffering this past season). I wondered if becoming, say a New York Yankees fan (the MLB team I dislike the most) would be a modern metaphor, but again I think it falls short of the significance of Paul’s change. (Even though I really, really dislike the Yankees…)

It really is hard for us to comprehend how massive it was for Paul to change.

As humans we really like ‘rags to riches” stories, tales about people who come from an impoverished background who, through hard work and determination, become successful not only in business but also socially as well.

The story of Paul is just the opposite. It’s a “riches to rags” story.

Jesus got ahold of him and shook things up. And things changed for Paul, and changed dramatically. He went from having it all to pretty much having nothing. He went from being a person respected by the Jewish people to a person that the Jewish people considered a traitor and wanted to kill.

In Mini Methodists Bible study this past Wednesday we tried to illustrate just how big a change Paul experienced. I picked two teams of four or five people each and separated them here at the front of the sanctuary. One team was the “red” team, and the other was the “blue” team. Each team selected a leader to represent them. That leader was then asked to persuade the rest of the class (that weren’t on team) why their team was the best and why they should join them.

We have two Bible study classes, and one of the red team leaders made a very convincing argument for her team. “We are the red team, and Jesus’ blood was red, so that’s why we’re the better team.”

Wow. I hadn’t expected that. I was surprised and thought, “That’s pretty deep for an elementary kid.”

The leader of the blue team was not intimated, though, responding with this: “But the blood is actually blue before it gets to the capillaries and becomes oxygenated, which represents the change we experience when we accept Jesus as our savior. That’s why the blue team is better.”

Wow. Big wow. I don’t who is teaching these kids, but man, they are doing a great job!

After being blown away by their biological and theological astuteness I took the leader from one team, led them across to the other team, and then told both teams that this person was now the leader of that team. The leader of the blue team became the leader of the red team.

As expected, the kids on both teams loudly voiced their displeasure with this development. The blue team was crying out that I had stolen their leader away from them, and calling that person a traitor.

The red team was also in turmoil. They didn’t like that they had a new leader, especially someone from the blue team. They were very skeptical of the deal and thought that the leader might be a spy from the blue team that was trying to use trickery to take over their team.

The kids were very vocal about these things. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right.

That’s when I pointed out to them that what we had done was what happened to Paul. He was a leader of the Jews and so hated the Christians that he hunted them down and threw them in prison, and even was complicit in killing them (i.e. the stoning of Stephen). Because of this the Christians didn’t trust him.

But the Jewish people, the other side, didn’t like Paul either. They considered him a traitor for going over to the other side and becoming a follower of Jesus.

Paul found himself a man with no home. Slowly, though, over time the Christians began to trust him. They accepted him as one of their own

We find that in the scripture we read today from the book of Acts, written by Luke.

We find Saul (same as Paul, remember) having to literally run for his life. The Jewish people were so upset with him, so mad, that they wanted to kill him. So they made a plan and were getting ready to put that plan in place.

Every city back then had walls that surrounded it. Damascus was no different. It had a wall that circled around it. Within that wall were gates, which allowed people and animals to enter into and out of the city. The plan was to wait and watch for Paul at these gates, and then when they found him, grab him and kill him.

Well some of the Christians found out about it and went and spread the word among their fellow Christians. So the Christians came up with their own plan. Under the cover of darkness they put Paul in a basket with some ropes tied to it and lower him through a window in the wall so he could escape.

The plan works, and Paul lives to see another day. But they are often not pleasant days.

In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth that we know as 2 Corinthians we find him describing some of the difficulties he has gone through.

“Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.” — 2 Corinthians 11:24-27

On Wednesday I explained to the Mini Methodist kids the “forty lashes minus one.” This was a part of the Jewish law that was a very specific punishment. If someone was judged guilty the punishment could be up to forty lashes with a whip. But 40 was the maximum. In Deuteronomy 25:3 we read, “Forty lashes may be given but not more; if more lashes than these are given, your neighbor will be degraded in your sight.”

It may be just me, but I kind of figure that being on the receiving end of 39 lashes from a whip is pretty degrading besides being horribly painful. But that was the law. And the Jews, being the very careful people they were, stopped at 39, just in case they had miscounted. Wasn’t that nice of them? (Yes, I am being satirical here…)

Paul went through the “forty lashes minus one” not once or twice, but five times! His back had to be severely scarred from those experiences. And yet he persevered as a disciple of Jesus Christ, writing in Romans 8:18, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

So what can we learn from this scripture that we can apply to our lives?

I think one of the things we can learn from Paul is about free will.

God gives us free will. As humans we have the ability to make choices. Animals have instincts that they follow, but we have free will, the ability to decide between different choices.

Paul is a good illustration of free will. At first Paul made the decision to persecute Christians. I think he based that decision on several factors, both conscious and subconscious.

As a Pharisee, an important religious leader, Paul knew the Old Testament scriptures extremely well. Based on those he used his free will to decide that Jesus was not the messiah. And I think that is because the Jewish people had created certain criteria that the messiah must meet. They were expecting more of a military messiah that would come in and with supernatural power overthrow the occupying Roman army and free the Jewish people.

But I also think that subconsciously Paul chose to believe Jesus wasn’t the messiah because he was a threat to the status quo, the way things were. As humans we don’t like change very much. We like routines because they make us feel comfortable.

But when Jesus came he made the Pharisees and religious leaders very uncomfortable. He called them out for their hypocrisy, for following the letter of the law but without love. So I think Paul had a subconscious bias against the Jesus followers because of this.

But after his experience on the road to Damascus his perspective changed. He made the free will decision to become a Christian, the very thing he had hated. No one forced him to make this decision. The voice of Jesus didn’t say, “Follow me or I will smite thee.” Nope. Paul made the decision to follow Jesus of his own free will.

Choices have consequences, though. And Paul experienced those consequences, especially the very painful ones.

Two weeks ago yesterday, on Oct. 16, 17 Christian missionaries with Christian Aid Ministries–16 Americans and one Canadian–were kidnapped after visiting an orphanage in Haiti. It is thought that one of Haiti’s gangs kidnapped the group. The gang is demanding $1 million per person in ransom or they will kill the missionaries.

The irony of the situation is that the missionaries were from Mennonite and Amish communities, perhaps the most peaceful and pacifist Christian denominations.

Christian Aid Ministries has been asked recently why they allowed missionaries to go to Haiti, a country in crisis run by gangs. Why did they allow that group to go to a dangerous place? The group responded with this statement:

“We live in a very broken world. A world of broken relationships, broken trust, and broken political systems. It is a world of loneliness, fear, and violence. And Jesus came, not just so men could go to heaven when they die, but also to show the kind of a world God intends right here on earth.”

“God desires a world where the hungry are fed, abandoned orphans are cared for, and where lonely refugees are provided for. Jesus came to redeem this broken world, and has called His church to work with Him. We go to places like Haiti because we have found Jesus and His teachings to be the answer for our own lives and we want others to enjoy the joy, peace, and redemption we have experienced in the kingdom of God.”

Like Paul, the missionaries made the free will decision to follow Jesus Christ. The consequences of that decision has cost them their freedom, and it may cost them their lives. I pray that is not the case, but we have to be realistic and understand that it could happen.

How deep is your faith? Is it deep enough that you could be like are Mennonite and Amish brothers and sisters and willingly put yourself in harm’s way in order to reach the least and the lost? Or are we, in the words of musician Andrew Peterson, “shackled by the comfort of my couch”?

Another thing we can learn from Paul is to keep the faith through the tough times.

When I visit with people going through difficulty I often point out to them that nothing grows on the top of the mountains. Beyond the tree line every little life exists on the top of the mountains. But the valleys between the mountains are lush with growth.

When things are going good for us as Christians, when we are on the top of the mountain, our faith doesn’t grow much. It’s in the valleys of our lives, those tough times, when we understand more deeply our need for God and for a savior. And it’s in those times that our faith grows.

That’s when Paul’s faith grew. Many of the letters he wrote, which we have in our New Testament, he wrote from prison. He persevered through the tough times because of his faith in Jesus Christ.

The world is going through tough times right now. As Christians we can throw our hands up in frustration and worry, we can fuss and fume about it, or we can bow down at the feet of Jesus and use this as an opportunity to grow our faith and practice perseverance.

So my challenge to you this week is to be like Paul and persevere through the tough times. Look at difficulties not as something to avoid but as opportunities to practice perseverance and grow in our faith. Use difficulties as a catalyst to develop a deeper faith through Bible reading, prayer, silence, and worship.

Remember that God gives us free will, that we make decisions and that decisions can have consequences. But the love of God given to us through Jesus Christ is the greatest gift ever offered in the entire history of the world. Saying yes to Jesus won’t give us immunity to pain and suffering, but it does give us faith to get through the tough times.

Praise be to God.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

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