Better Call Saul

The Sunday Sermon – April 10, 2016 “Third Sunday of Easter”

Acts 8:1,3 and 9:1-8

Better Call Saul

Last week, Joel began telling us a story.

Once upon a time, he told us, a group of disciples were taught by their leader how to share the love of God with the whole world. These disciples, or students, became Apostles sent out to share God’s love to the ends of the earth. And so they went out into a world resistant to their message.

And so our story continues, where we will meet a man who may be the most unlikely apostle of them all…

Introduction

He is one of the most towering figures in all of human history. His influence on the world over the course of two millennia cannot be overstated. Martin Luther, so inspired by his words that they sparked a Reformation, once called him “the wisest man after Christ.” The early church father, John Chrysostom once declared, “Put the whole world on one side of the scale and you will see that the soul of this man outweighs it.”[1]

And speaking from our own time, author James Tabor has argued, “The foundations of Western civilization, from our assumptions about reality to our…ethics, rest upon the heavenly visions… of a single man — the apostle Paul.”[2]

Simply open your bulletin or skim through your hymnal this morning, and you can bear witness to Paul’s legacy. You can feel Paul’s enduring theological touch in the hymns that we sing, in the creeds and the sermons we proclaim, in the sacraments we practice.

“The fundamental…tenets of Christianity,” Tabor says,“can be traced back to Paul — not to Jesus.”

It was Paul who interpreted the meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry for a world still left confused by Christ’s message. It was Paul who taught those theological touchstones that we use to understand this mysterious Messiah. And it was Paul who proceeded to proclaim this Gospel to the ends of the earth.

But that legacy is the end of the story. That is not where our story today begins…

Instead, we begin on the road to Damascus. We begin with Paul, still called Saul, as he is “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples,” ready to ravage the church…

Trouble in the Text

Who was this Saul? Who was this man before he became such a legendary apostle? One of my favorite descriptions of Paul comes from a heretical text not found in the Bible, called the Acts of Paul and Thecla. (I always said that I became a Religion major in college just so that I could study heresy – it was much more fun!)

Thecla describes Paul as “a man of middling size. His hair was scanty, and his legs were a little crooked. His knees were projecting, and he had large eyes. His eyebrows met in the middle, and his nose was somewhat long…”[3] Overall, a very attractive man, I am sure!

He was the unlikeliest apostle, and not just because he clearly wasn’t a supermodel!

A Pharisee, he was zealous in his fervor against this new group, calling themselves The Way. To him, these people proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah were the true heretics.

For this reason, Saul has been ravaging the church and imprisoning its believers. It says that he was “breathing out” threats of murder against them. This phrase “breathing out” is actually literally “breathing in” in the Greek. The idea is not that he’s expelling air, but that he’s inhaling it. His fervor against the disciples is so consuming, it is his life’s breath.[4]

Again I say, Saul was the unlikeliest person to bear the foundation of our church and of our civilization!

And yet, here Saul stands, quite literally, at a crossroads. Out before him stretches the road to Damascus. Little did he know then that this road would lead to the total transformation of his life and ultimately to the radical transformation of the world. What would have happened had he taken a different path? Made a different choice? Refused to believe that his vision of Jesus was real? What if one of the greatest conversion stories ever told hadn’t ended with a convert?!

I love it when author Alan Bradley says, “Saint Paul on the road to Damascus might have pleaded sunstroke, and the world would have been a very different place.”[5]

Trouble in the World

How often do we stand at that crossroads, not knowing where the path before us will lead?

Sometimes God’s call in our lives is overwhelmingly obvious – a blinding light, a burning bush, a voice from the heavens directing the way. But other times, most of the time perhaps, the road before us is not so clear. Often, the path ahead can feel like a great, dark void, stretching out before us with seemingly infinite possibilities. This future, shrouded by the dark fog of uncertainty, can be scary and overwhelming. Where is God’s blinding light when we need it?! The trouble is we live our lives forward, but we can only understand them backward.

Often, however, our own road-to-Damascus transformations aren’t found in such dramatic decisions or climactic moments.

A meteorologist once theorized that one flap of a butterfly’s wings would be enough to alter the course of the weather forever.[6] That thought has always struck me. The littlest, most seemingly inconsequential things in our lives can have such a profound impact, even if we cannot see it at the time.

I often look back on my own life and wonder what would have happened if I had taken a different road or made a different choice. How would that have changed everything? What if I had not attended that summer youth conference with my youth group in high school? Would I have ever felt God’s call to ministry? Think of all that could have changed. Or what if I had not moved to Louisville? What if I had chosen another seminary instead? Would I have ever worked at some place like Churchill or served as a chaplain at a hospital like Baptist East? Would I have met my husband? The entire trajectory of my life, my career, and my family may have forever been altered. Or what if, God forbid, I had not chosen to come here to Pewee? I cannot for a moment imagine my life without each and every one of you in it.

Each moment, each decision, each path we take adds to our story, our legacy, to that indelible imprint that we will leave on the world. And yet, looking out on the road before us now, in this moment, we cannot know where it will lead us. In this moment, with the road outstretched before us, we can only step out in faith, and trust that God is with us at our side. William Muehl once wrote, “The roads to Christian faith are as varied as the people who profess it.”

So if you feel comfortably able, I would like to ask you to close your eyes… I want you to take a moment and think of your own life. Where were your crossroads? Your turning points? Your own roads to Damascus? … What moments and decisions have transformed you and have made you you? … What paths have led you to this place and to this moment? … Now ask, where was God? … Was God like a blinding light or like the flap of a butterfly’s wings?…

Now think broader. Expand that vision outwards. How have those transformative moments and decisions impacted those around you? Your loved ones? Your church? …

Go even bigger now. How have those decisions that have brought you to this place and this moment transformed the world? Whose lives have been touched because you have touched them? Whose worlds have been shaped because you have been in them?

You may open your eyes.

Hope in the Text

Returning to our story, I must admit that ultimately, this is not a story about Saul at all. No conversion story is ever truly about the convert. No, this is a story about God. More specifically, this is a story about a God that is so powerful, so merciful, so loving that for two millennia the entire world could be changed through even the unlikeliest apostle. Though Paul may now be one of the most towering figures in all of human history, this distinction was never for his own power or glory; instead, his life and his legacy always pointed to the glory of God. In the same way, our stories and our legacies are not our own. Our lives are not our own.

I look back again on those decisions, those life-changing moments – both big and small – that transformed my life and made me who I am today, and I can feel God’s guiding hand powerfully at work each step of the way.

Can you feel it too?

Hope in the World

Today I stand before you, and we are at our own crossroads. On Tuesday, Patrick and I will leave for New York, where we will each begin our new ministries. Patrick will serve as a solo pastor at a church there much like this one. And as of this week, I am happy to announce that I have a job offer and, though it is not set in stone, I will likely be serving with the families of organ donors through an organ donation agency in the area! It will be my job to walk with families on that difficult journey, at their own crossroads, helping them to decide if organ donation is the right decision for them. I hope to help them as they seek to honor their loved one’s legacy, as their unbelievably generous donation may give the gift of life to others. This is admittedly very different work than I am doing now, but I am so looking forward to this new and exciting opportunity!

I don’t know what this future will hold. It is still foggy and unclear in some ways. But I know that God is with me, guiding me each step of the way.

In the same way, we don’t know where the path leads here at Pewee Valley. And yet, I believe with all of my heart and all of my soul that God has great things in store for this place!

Like the flap of butterfly’s wings, in the grand scheme of the history of the world, our time together has been short. And yet, you have touched my life just as I hope that I have touched yours, and in doing so, our lives, and the world, have forever been changed by our time together.

And so the story continues…

May God always make your paths straight, and may He light the way. Amen.

[1] https://bogdankipko.com/humanhistory/%20

[2] James D. Tabor, Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity

[3] Acts of Paul and Thecla

[5] Alan Bradley, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butterfly_effect