“Turn Around, Saul, and Become Saint Paul”
“Turn Around, Saul, and Become Saint Paul”
(a sermon based on Acts 9:1-31, with a prelude from Acts 6:1-8:3)
Rev. Dr. Paul A. Lance, Minister
First Congregational United Church of Christ
201 South Second Ave., Alpena, Michigan 49707
September 13, 2020
Last Sunday, I promised to tell you about the Apostle Paul’s conversion – his call to Christian ministry by Jesus himself while Paul was on the road to Damascus. (!) That’s the text we will hear in a moment. However, in order to fully appreciate the drama and tension of St. Paul’s story of conversion, we have to start a bit earlier...
We have to go back to the early Church, there in Jerusalem, shortly after it began on Pentecost. By now, several thousand people had become followers of “the Way” of Jesus. (Acts 2:41) We are told that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers. (Acts 2:42) The Acts of the Apostles describes that first generation of Christians with these words:
All who believed were together and had all things in common. They sold their possessions & goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And, day by day, attending the Temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:44-47)
In time, this communal sharing of property, meals, and ministry began to break down. In Acts, Chapter 6, we are told that “in these days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists (that is, the Greek-speaking Jews) murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distributions.
The Twelve Apostles who were in charge of the Jerusalem Church appointed “seven men of good repute” to the task of equitable distribution of food & finances & services to the Greek-speaking and Hebrew-speaking members of the community. These were the first “deacons” of the Church – official administrators of the day-by-day resources and ministries of the fledgling Christian church.
One of the seven deacons, who had been commissioned to serve in the daily distribution of food, was named Stephen. Stephen (we are told in Acts 6:5) was a man “full of faith and the Holy Spirit”. We are further told (in Acts 6:8) that Stephen, “full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people”. He became noticed by the Jewish authorities, who charged Stephen with speaking “blasphemous words against Moses and God.” (Acts 6:11) Called by the Temple authorities to account for his actions, Stephen appeared before them. Acts 6:15 says that “gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”
After delivering a powerful testimony (which deserves a sermon of its own just to unpack everything Stephen said while he was on trial in the Temple), this is what happened. I read Acts Chapter 7:47 - 8:3, beginning with what Stephen said at the conclusion of his sermon:
It was Solomon who built a house for the Lord, the God of Jacob. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands. As the prophet [Isaiah 66:1-2] says: “Heaven is my throne, and Earth my footstool. What house shall you build for me?” says the Lord, “or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all those things?”
You stiff-necked people! Uncircumcised in your heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit! As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute?
They killed beforehand those who announced the coming of the Righteous One… whom you have now betrayed and murdered! You who received the Law, as delivered by angels, DID not KEEP it.” (!)
Now, when the crowd heard these things, they were enraged! And they ground their teeth against him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the Glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God! And he said (Ch. 7: verse 56), “Behold I see the Heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him. (!) Then they cast him out of the city, and stoned him! And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. (!)
And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And he knelt down, and cried with a loud voice: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul was consenting to his death.
And on that day, a great persecution arose against the Church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria (except the Apostles). Devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the Church; and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. (!) (unquote)
This was a horrible and violent twist to the story of the early Church. The stoning of Stephen by the Temple authorities brought back the horror of the crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans only a few years earlier.
All the months that the Christians had been “attending the Temple together”, and “breaking bread in their homes” -- all their “praising God” and finding “favor with all the people” -- seems to have been forgotten as the persecution by Saul ramps up.
This violent story is the first time we meet Saul of Tarsus -- a young man studying there the Temple -- who attended (& consented to!) the killing of St. Stephen. (!) This young man, virulently anti-Jesus, is the one I refer to in my sermon title: “Turn Around, Saul… and become Saint Paul.”
Before we hear that Scripture read, however, I want us to linger a moment and consider what we just heard about St. Stephen’s death. Despite the violence being done to him, Stephen prayed twice. First, he said: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And then: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” I could not help but think of Jesus’ own amazing grace when he prayed similar words on the cross as he was dying.
Let me share a song called “Someone Stood Up For Stephen.”
Music & lyrics by Ray Boltz © 1989, Diadem, Inc.: Nashville, TN
(Following the reading of Acts 9:1-31, my sermon resumes…)
Saul of Tarsus, whom we first met as a young man when he was taking part in the stoning death of the Christian deacon Stephen in Jerusalem, apparently had a major “mid-life” change of course! Changing his name from the one his parents gave him “Saul” (named for the first King of Israel) to “Paul” (Greek) is one marker along that journey. That’s why I say: “Turn around, Saul, & become St. Paul.”
We learn in the Book of Acts (22:26) that Paul was born a Roman citizen in Tarsus (which is in modern-day Turkey). He was granted Roman citizenship, presumably, through his father since his mother was Jewish. Through her bloodline, Paul was born Jewish. And when he was circumcised, he was given a Jewish name: Saul.
It is estimated that only 10% of the Empire’s population at that time had been granted citizenship. This leads us to suspect that Paul’s parents were most likely wealthy, or that his father was an important official or business owner in Tarsus, which had been the regional capital of the province called Cilicia. Caesar Augustus had granted Tarsus special status as a “free city”, which meant that the citizens of Tarsus were permitted to govern themselves, were allowed to mint their own coins, and were free from most Roman taxes. (!)
It’s an election year, so I could not help but tell you something of the politics and government of St. Paul’s hometown. A tax free city!