Saul to Paul, Persecutor to Proclaimer

Pentecost 3, 2016, Bunker hill, Galatians 1:11-24

1:15, But when he who set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace.

I thought of Prof. Marvin Middendorf this past week. He taught Greek at Concordia, St. Paul, MN., with such earnestness, that though I was not one of his best students; nevertheless, he instilled a fondness for the language of the New Testament that remains these decades later.

St. Paul was the best student of Gamaliel who was the best teacher of Judaism in his day.  Paul was at the top of his class when it came to knowing the teachings of the law found in the first five books of the Old Testament.   He was an expert in the 600 plus rules that the Pharisees developed to make sure that they had no excuse for not keeping the religious laws.  He was Super Pharisee.  But  his enthusiasm had a dark side .  He was so sure and so fired up over what he believed that he engaged in a violent and systematic effort to destroy those who were following in the Way of Jesus who was the Way the Truth and the Life.  He sought out and arrested followers of Jesus and hauled them back to Jerusalem for trial and possible execution.  Ever since he stood holding the cloaks of the men who stoned Stephen, eradicating the Christian was his way of life.  We would label him a religious terrorist.

But what did it get him?  Face down in the dirt on the road to Damascus, blinded by a great light and hearing a voice ask, “Why are you persecuting me?”  “Who are you Lord?” he asked. The voice answered, “I am Jesus.”  In that moment, his life was transformed from a persecutor of Christ to a preacher of Christ.  The transformation happened not because he was looking to make a change in his life, not because he thought something was lacking in his life, not because he was burdened with his sins, but it was at the pleasure of God, it was pure grace.  Amazing grace.  At that point Paul could have said of his pre-Christ life, “Well that didn’t go as I planned.”  No, God had other plans for him from before he was even born. God has plans for life, not for death.

In our Old Testament lesson the prophet Elijah prayed to God to the restore life to the son of the widow at Zeraphath.  In the gospel lesson Jesus, followed by a large crowd meets a funeral procession coming out of Nain, stopped it, touches the only son of another widow telling him, “I say to you arise.” And to Paul, lying in the dusty Damascus road, Jesus said, “Rise and go into the city and I will tell you what you are to do.”  In that encounter with Christ, a man by the name of Saul died to everything which he had held most dear in life.  He arose from the dust, went into Damascus where he was baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit, he immediately began to proclaim Christ as the Son of God.  He, now a new creation in Christ, takes a new name, Paul.

Now Paul becomes a student of the best teacher the world has ever known, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.  Jesus, who at age 12 was educating the religious experts in the temple; Jesus who walked up a mountain sat down and taught; Jesus, who taught from a boat to a crowd on the seashore; Jesus who while walking to Jerusalem and the cross taught along the way; Jesus who on the evening of his resurrection opened the scriptures to two disciples on the way to Emmaus, showing how everything in the Old Testament, pointed to himself.  Now Paul, for the next three years, came under the tutelage of the risen Savior.

While all of us may be able to think of a teacher whom years later we still appreciate, all of us have also been taught the good news of our salvation through by the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit whom Jesus promised to send prior to his ascension.  We too have been taught by the best teacher the world has ever known.

What we have been taught is not a message of human origin.  The word we have heard preached, and taught and read and studied, is God’s message of our salvation in Jesus Christ.   Paul writes to the Galatians, “The gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel.”  It’s not our Gospel, it’s God’s gospel.  That’s the good news which is before us every week.  That’s the news we need to hear and learn and trust.

Therefore, we owned up to who we were this past week in the confession at the beginning of the service.  We prayed, “Lord if you kept a record of sins, who could stand?”   But we also reminded the Lord, “But with You there is forgiveness; therefore, You are feared.” We threw ourselves on God’s mercy, “Almighty God have mercy upon us, forgive us our sins, and lead us to everlasting life.”  In the sureness of God’s mercy, I said, “I therefore forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Paul also owned up to who he was.  We sang in our opening hymn, “Chief of sinners though I be.” On the human level, Paul really was the chief of sinners. He could not blame it on his teacher Gamaliel.  He could not shift the fault to his fellow Pharisees.  He didn’t even blame the devil. It was his conduct and his conduct alone that condemned.  There is a confession of sins in the evening service of Compline in which the sinner confesses, “by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault,” no excuses.  That is Paul’s confession and ours as well.

Paul acknowledges that God called him by His Grace alone to preach the gospel; there being no merit or worthiness in him. In Paul we see the power of the gospel to change lives.  A pastor tells of a woman who passed by his church every Sunday on her way to her church.  Her church was named, Starbucks.  She was satisfied with the church of Starbucks and those who congregated there for coffee and conversation.  But one Sunday she was drawn to stop by the pastor’s church.  She really couldn’t explain why.  She participated in this rather foreign, at least to her liturgy and hymns and sermon and even went to communion with everyone else.  No lights went on or bells rang for her.  But then the next Sunday on the way to Starbucks she was again drawn to the church.   Eventually she was baptized and joined the church.  She developed a food pantry and outreach to that community.  Sometimes we just can’t explain how the Spirit, through the power of the Gospel, transforms people and their lives.  Sometimes God doesn’t limit himself to our carefully constructed channels.  Sometimes He does things His own way and chooses people of His own choice.

You and I, have been set apart by God to be his people.  We too have been called by Grace.  This morning we are strengthened through His Word and in his sacrament, that we may be enabled to serve God as He chooses.

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