“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)

by

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!

Something else about Paul’s hometown Tarsus deserves to be said… It was a place of culture and learning! A Greek philosopher and geographer for the Roman Empire named “Strabo” (who died in the year 24, which makes him a contemporary of Jesus Christ) described Tarsus and its citizens this way:

“The inhabitants of this city apply to the study of philosophy

(and to the whole encyclical compass of learning) with so much ardor, that they surpass Athens (!) Alexandria (!) and every other place which can be named where there are schools and lectures of philosophers.” (Strabo, Geography, Book XIV, 3:13)

It’s very likely that Paul received excellent primary & elementary instruction at the Greco-Roman schools of Tarsus up to age 12 or 13, when he would have been sent away to Jerusalem for further study. During those early years, Paul would have learned to read and write -- studying the Greek poets and learning the basics of Greek logic and rhetoric, which served him well when he became an Apostle. Paul would have learned how to compose letters in Greek. Whereas Jesus never wrote anything (except one time when he knelt down and doodled in the sand beside a woman who was in danger of being stoned to death for adultery), the Apostle Paul has 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament credited to him. He wrote a lot!

Paul writes about his personal background (prior to conversion) in his letter to the Philippians (3:5) that he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (!)

In his letter to the Galatians (1:14) he writes: “You have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it; and I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.”

He talks about his background and his “turn-around” conversion while giving testimony in Jerusalem (in Acts 22:3-4):

“I am a Jew, born at Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel; educated according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers; being zealous for God as you all are this day

“I persecuted this Way to the death; binding & delivering to prison both men and women, as the high priest and the whole council of elders bear me witness! From them I received letters to the brethren, and I journeyed to Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them back to Jerusalem to be punished. (!)

“As I made my journey and drew near to Damascus, about noon, a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. And I fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to me: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And I answered, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said to me: “I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.” Now, those who were with me saw the light, but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me.

And I said, “What shall I do, Lord?” And the Lord said to me: “Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.” And when I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand of those who were with me, and came into Damascus.

And one Ananias -- a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there -- came to me, and standing by me said to me:

“The God of our Fathers appointed you to know His will, to see the Just One, and to hear a voice from His mouth; for you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now, why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.”

This is an enormous “turn around” for Saul of Tarsus, who had so zealously persecuted the church, to become Saint Paul … the Apostle who spreads Christianity all across the Roman Empire.

I suspect some of the same motivation that first prompted Saul to approve of Stephen’s violent execution, and then motivated him further to go from house to house to arrest followers of the Way, motivated Paul’s later expression of Christianity as well. In other words, as he said of himself in Galatians -- “I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” -- Paul probably has the same zealous ambition driving his current religious convictions about the “dying & rising” Christ.

But now Saint Paul will use theological argument, instead of sanctioned violence, to express his beliefs; and when he goes from door to door, it will be in an effort to persuade people to believe in God as he does, not to arrest them.

As a young adult, Saul was convinced that followers of Jesus’ Way -- regardless how devout or gentle, helpful or loving they were -- had to be stopped! Eager to impress the Jewish ruling council of his zealous faith (and perhaps to “make a name” for himself) Saul was ready to do horrible things to other people who understood faith differently than he did. Now, as a “born again” Christian, Paul was not about to hold his convictions with humility! No, he’ll still be bold!

In my opinion, if there ever was a person in the New Testament who needed to be set back a peg -- who needed to be knocked from his high horse because he was going pell-mell in the wrong direction -- leaving acts of violence and even death in his wake, it was Saul, the persecutor. (!) Nothing but God would stop him now!

Some people have suggested that it was a bolt of lightning that struck near Saul, knocking him to the ground and temporarily blinding him. I think some people still imagine the biblical God is a Zeus-like divinity up in the sky who throws lightning bolts at his adversaries. (!)

Paul credits the action to Jesus of Nazareth -- whose Church he was persecuting! -- for interrupting his original plan and giving him a new direction for his faith. He says that Jesus personally called him. (I Cor. 9:1, 15:8) Paul says that he became an Apostle, not because the other disciples chose him, but because Christ chose him and commissioned him. (Gal. 1:12-17)

Now, let’s be clear: it isn’t actually the historical Jesus (whom we know from reading the Gospels) that is “meeting” Saul on the road to Damascus. (!) No, Jesus himself had long since “risen from the dead” and been “seated at the right hand of the Father” (to quote the creed). Saul’s conversion experience took place many years after Easter -- long after Jesus’ Ascension, long after the Holy Spirit re-kindled the church at Pentecost. Saint Paul never met Jesus in his life, nor did he spend any time getting to know about Jesus’ life and teachings from others.

I am grateful that the Risen Jesus (the head of the Church, who is seated at God’s right hand) intervened so dramatically to blind Saul and then place him in the hands of the Church… at the mercy of the very people he was bent on destroying. (!) What do you suppose they wanted to do with him?

Left to ourselves, we might seek vengeance; we may want some “pay-back” (“show him who’s boss”). But this is Jesus’ Way at work…

Despite their reservations, Ananias welcomed this newly turned-around Christian, and then the church members in Damascus did the same. Later, in Jerusalem, Barnabas helped the others overcome their fear of the former Pharisee, and show their faith by forgiving Saul for his past sins, and accepting him into their community. It is their willingness to be open to his change of life and their generosity of grace & mercy that made Saul turn around & become St. Paul.

I doubt that any of us will need the kind of blinding light, voice from heaven, and dislocation that Saul of Tarsus had to endure – because we are not such hard cases to begin with! But each one of us can be ready to do our part to welcome such a one when they find their way into our congregation. Any one of us can be an Ananias for someone who is in need. Any of us can be a Barnabas -- an encourager -- so that alienated people can find a new home in our church. We’re open, we’re affirming, we’re welcoming. Let’s help the “Sauls” turn around to become “Pauls”!

Okay? God willing! Amen.

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