Transformed by Amazing Grace and Love

A sermon based on Acts 9:1-20
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on April 10, 2016
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Most of us have heard that the Apostle Paul was a tent maker, but did you know the book of Philippians hints that he might also have been a baker when he went to “Fill a Pie.” I am ashamed to say that I just a-SAUL-ted you with a rather a-PAUL-ing pun. So let me a-PAUL-o-gise . . . I’ll bet none of you SAUL any of that coming.
Okay. Okay. Yes. I. Know. I. Need. Some. Help.

Saul’s encounter with Jesus is one of the most important events in the history of the early post-Easter Jesus Following, what we call today the early church. Probably the most remembered parts of that encounter are that it leads to Saul becoming the Apostle we know as Paul, who becomes instrumental in directing and leading the small Jewish sect of Jesus followers to expand and grow beyond Palestine and into other countries and to other peoples; which over time eventually expands and grows beyond Judaism to become Christianity, a religion of its own.

But it is also important to remember that Saul started out as a enemy of the Jewish sect of Jesus Followers, and that he not only becomes a Jesus Follower, but is so forgiven and so welcomed by Jesus’ Followers that he becomes a respected leader of that sect, and is today revered by the faith he helped form, and also once violently opposed.

Paul’s story is pretty remarkable on an individual level for Paul, but also on a corporate level for the Church. Transforming from Saul, an enemy of Jesus’ Way, to Paul who embraces and then exemplifies and leads so many along that Way speaks volumes as to the how the experience of the risen Christ can drastically alter a life and resonate exponentially over time. But it also shows the power of Jesus Followers’ willingness to embrace everyone, even vehement opponents. There are no barriers to Jesus Way of amazing grace and love.

In the New Testament there are different versions and references to the story of Paul’s so-called conversion. I say “so-called” because converting implies that Paul changed religions, but in his lifetime Paul never considered himself converted in that sense. To Paul’s way of thinking, like other Jesus Followers back then, he was not converting from Judaism. He moved from holding Pharisaic Jewish beliefs to holding the Jesus Followers’ Jewish beliefs. In short, Paul went “from one way of being Jewish to another way of being Jewish, from being a Pharisaic Jew to being [what today we might call] a Christian Jew.” 1.

And Paul is not unique in being a Jewish Jesus follower. Just like Jesus was Jewish, so too were Jesus’ disciples, the Apostles, and all of Jesus’ other followers when he was alive and through Easter, up to around the turn of the 2nd century.

The Scripture reading this morning is from the same author who wrote the Gospel of Luke. It’s from a sequel to Luke called The Book of the Acts of the Apostles, usually just called Acts. The reading provides a story written maybe two generations after Paul lived. 2. Acts was written after the Temple had fallen when the division between Pharisaic Judaism and Christian Judaism are growing further apart. The decades distance in time from Paul, and the points of non- corroboration with Paul’s version of the story, suggest we can be a bit skeptical about the total factual accuracy of Acts with respect to Paul. But Paul’s own letters do witness firsthand accounts of some of the Book of Acts stories about him, and that something mystical happened to transform Paul. Indeed the Book of Acts and Paul’s writings seem to agree on main points: “Paul saw a great light; he heard a voice and addressed it as Lord; the voice identified itself as Jesus and the experiences transformed him.” 3.

They also agree that before the experiences Paul vigorously stood against the form of Judaism being practiced by the Jesus Followers. As Paul puts it Galatians 1(13)

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. (Gal 1:13 NRS)

This is some serious stuff Paul’s involved in against the early church. It is not just discrimination, but violent persecution. I picture Paul as being on the fringe* of Pharisaic Judaism acting mean kinda like Westboro Baptist Church acts today. Paul, like Westboro Baptist, did not represent all of his religion, but apparently by our standards a rather zealous mean version that saw fit to violently persecute those with other Jewish theologies.

Paul’s reasons for his initial opposition to the Jesus Followers was likely because many of them believed that they could allow into Judaism non-Jews who had not met traditional Jewish conversion requirements, like being circumcised. Paul opposed them letting in Gentiles (also known as Greeks) without to comply with conversion rules. 4.

Paul begin as an opponent of this belief, but was converted to be a proponent of exactly the same belief – he went from persecuting those proposing open Gentile inclusion to becoming its major missionary advocate. 5.

The experiential reality of Jesus in Paul’s life, that great light and voice he heard that he called Lord from the start; the voice that identified itself as Jesus, transformed Paul and eventually the whole Jesus movement, right? He takes the very Way he opposed up, and then marshals it forward and in the process eventually it is the norm throughout the church. Gentiles may join the movement, anyone may. Even enemies of the church.

Paul’s beginnings in what we now call Christianity are fascinating just from a historic standpoint. There is something quite remarkable about Paul’s 180 degree change from persecutor to promoter of the faith. I think there is perhaps something even more remarkable about a faith community that is so inclusive and into Jesus’ message that it welcomes into its loving embrace a violent persecutor and allows him to become a promoter. I suspect that loving embrace had much to do with motivating Paul to push and pull the faith to expand and grow and spread Jesus’ Way of that loving embrace as wide as he could.

The love that Paul experienced and the transforming effect it had, and can have, astounded him. He wanted to share that way more than recounting the mystical experience that set him on Jesus Way to that transforming love. His actual blindness-to-sight story can be heard as a metaphoric one. Right? He moves from darkness to light both physically and spiritually. The meanness and violence and persecution gives way to kindness and care and love.
Beyond the historic interest our lesson engenders, it also provides a benchmark, a precedence for inclusiveness, as well as a motivation for us today. It continues to have meaning for us as modern individual Jesus Followers – and as modern church. See, no matter who we are, what flaws we have or think we have; whatever our past; or background; or scars we that cover our body or souls we can (like Paul) experience the amazing grace and love of Jesus and be transformed to our better self.

And we don’t have to wait to be thunderstruck and blinded by the Light to have that experience. We can choose on our own to move onto the Way Jesus taught and experience the amazing, grace and love and transformation. This church seeks to serve as a mediator of such movement onto the Way and to facilitate both personal and communal transformation through grace and love. We can, not only come to church and be welcomed, but also be transformed to the better us– alone, and most especially together.

See a big part of the lesson Kris read today, which sometimes doesnlt get emphasized, is the early church did not reject its enemy Saul, but welcomed him in. And the church itself gets transformed for the better too.

The church did not reject Gentiles, which Paul calls Greeks. It did not reject Gentiles, Greeks or Jews. Indeed the Gospels and the Book of Acts evidence that all manner of people were welcomed and loved. The early church did not reject anyone, and it sought to bring love to everyone.

This modern church that we are in tries to be like the church modeled in our lesson, modeled in the Book of Acts. We, the United Church of Christ and 1st Congregational UCC, do not reject enemies, Gentiles, Greeks, Jews, or anyone else. All manner of people are welcomed and loved. We take very seriously the wonderful words of Paul in Galatians 3 (28) that summarize how our faith and our mission and our ministries are to play out. Those words are:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Paul thinks the idea is so important he repeats it. In Romans 10 (12) he writes

“there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”

And Paul emphasizes it again in Colossians 3 (7-16). He says it so well adding details about transformation from the old ways to Jesus’ Way and its affects, he writes:

you must get rid of . . . anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian,(sith-e-an) slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.

After Paul’s transforming experience he spends his life dedicated to being on Jesus’ Way and bringing others on to it. He tells churches to do what WE are doing, or try to do.

I hear or read criticism about the United Church of Christ and even about what we do as church. How could Christians do it that Way? Well, beside Jesus telling us to, another answer is Paul told us to. He said “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Paul directs Jesus Followers– that’s us – to “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” And he tells us above all . . . “ABOVE ALL, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.” That’s what we try to do as UCC, that is what we try to do at First Congregational UCC, and that is what you and I try to do as Christians.

To finish off addressing the transformed Paul’s advice in Colossians that is why we (quote)

Let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in []our hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. (end quote)

We do that too. We hope to experience the transforming grace and love of Christ, the same grace and love that transformed Paul and led the church to welcome him in and allow him to lead the church itself to transform to become communities of God’s wide embrace of welcome and love.

As the saying goes “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” Paul’s story and the early church’s story evidence that. Our lives and our church evidence that too. May we continue to be a part of the work and mystery of God’s amazing love and grace – and transforming experiences which Christ gives to us in our post-Easter world.

Amen.

ENDNOTES:
1. Borg, Marcus. Crossan, John Dominic, The First Paul, p 24
2. Ibid., at 65
3. Ibid., at 22
4. Ibid., at 69
5. Ibid.
* Paul’s likely religious teacher, was Gamaliel, who unlike Paul taught moderation toward the Jewish sect of Jesus Follower Christians. He advised students to keep away them and let them alone. Acts 5:38; First Paul at p 67.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2016 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED