preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
24, 2016; Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul
Revised Common Lectionary
(Acts 26:9-21) Paul said to
King Agrippa, "Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many
things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did in
Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up
many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they
were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I
tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them,
I pursued them even to foreign cities.
this in mind, I was traveling to Damascus with the authority and commission of
the chief priests, when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a
light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions.
When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the
Hebrew language, `Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick
against the goads.' I asked, `Who are you, Lord?' The Lord answered, `I am
Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have
appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the
things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I
will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles-- to whom I am sending
you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from
the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a
place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.'
that, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared
first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout the countryside of
Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and do
deeds consistent with repentance. For this reason the Jews seized me in the
temple and tried to kill me."
(Galatians 1:11-24) I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that
the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not
receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through
a revelation of Jesus Christ.
have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently
persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in
Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous
for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I
was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me,
so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any
human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before
me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him
fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord's
brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went
into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the
churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, "The one
who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to
destroy." And they glorified God because of me.
Do you care about what other people think about you? Are
there certain people in your life whose approval is critical to you? People you
want to impress or maybe please? You want them to think well of you, so it is
important for you to earn their respect or maybe even their love.
Who are some of those people? You can think about the
present, but think also about the past. My father, for instance, had high
expectations of me, and I wanted so badly to earn his acceptance. There were
times it seemed pretty impossible. That left me pretty anxious a lot of the
time. At other times, it made me angry. Maybe you've had parents or teachers or
bosses that you just couldn't satisfy, even when you gave it your best.
Or maybe you've had a some public challenges—something you
had to do in front of others, and it was important for you to do it well; it
was important not to mess up or to make a fool of yourself. Those kinds of situations
can leave you pretty anxious.
Or, how about this? Have you ever been part of a group where
measuring up to the group norms was critical? Where you were expected to be a
certain way, think a certain way, hold up the group standards, and if you
didn't, you would bring shame on the group, shame on yourself, and maybe even risk
get kicked out as unworthy. With that group, you'd better fit in, you'd better prove
yourself. Or else.
The good young man Saul was living with all of these things.
And he was managing it all. He was successful. He was the best. Practically
perfect. He says of himself, "I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my
people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my
ancestors," than the rest of them. Saul was a member of the strict party
of the Pharisees. A political party, a social movement, and a religious school
of thought. His was a high calling, an inspiring, moral calling, to be a good Pharisee.
The Pharisees stood for what was good and right. Pharisees believed that all
Jews in their ordinary lives could live holy lives, as the priesthood of all
believers. They practiced and taught the mindful observation of the ancient
laws of God, and promoted the careful observance the Mitzvot, the 613
commandments of the scripture.
Saul was accomplished in this great movement. He wrote of his
heritage, that he was "circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the
people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrews born of Hebrews; as to
the law, blameless." He was successful. Practically perfect.
And it made him miserable. He says he was continually anxious,
trying to live up to that perfect standard. And it made him feel threatened and
insecure, because he was constantly under the unwavering eye of God, who not
only saw his actions but could know the thoughts of his heart. Saul found
himself growing resentful and angry toward God, being always under the glare of
that unyielding light of judgment. He found he was self absorbed. Am I doing
all right? Am I being the perfect Pharisee? What if I fail? I dare not fail.
I've got to earn my standing before God and before my associates.
So he doubled down on the system. If he ever felt bad about
himself, he found he could repress his doubts by focusing outside himself,
putting his attention on the ones whom he knew were wrong, those others. They
were threats to the truths he had committed himself to. Purge the heretics. Fight
the evil ones.
So often it is people who are uncomfortable with their own
shadow who experience relief when they project their shadow upon others.
So Saul participated in the persecution of the Christians.
He was there when Stephen was martyred. Saul heard Stephen's ecstatic cry of
glory, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right
hand of God!" And Saul covered his ears to protect himself from the
blasphemy as he joined the crowed to rush to kill Stephen. Saul heard Stephen's
last peaceful words, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit," and "do
not hold this sin against them." (Acts 7) I think Saul saw in Stephen a
peace that had escaped Saul.
But Saul was too invested in the whole system to let any
nagging doubts see the light of day. He headed toward Damascus determined, with
warrants from the high priest. He traveled down that road full of the internal pressures
of the expectations of righteousness, bursting with anger toward those others, fueling
the projections that held the lid down on his own internal angers and anxieties.
He was ready to kill in the name of God, when he was blinded by the light.
"Saul, Saul, why
are you persecuting me?" "Who are you?!" "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting."
In a flash he realized: he's been going the wrong way. He has been wrong the
whole time. But the voice doesn't kill him for being wrong. Instead the voice
anoints him; calls him; empowers him. Spread the good news to the whole world!,
the voice says. It's too big to be just a Jewish movement. You will become
Paul, and you will take the good news to the Gentiles, the rest of the world.
Paul went away to the desert to work through all of that for
a while. And here's what he came up with:
First, he knew how wrong he had been. He did not earn God's
love and acceptance. But that's what he got – absolute love, acceptance, forgiveness,
calling and empowerment. A sheer gift. Unearned. The man who had been trying in
vain all his life to earn his status before God was given absolute divine acceptance
as a gift, even at the moment he was most egregiously in error, intent on killing
God's people. It's grace. It's all grace. A gift from God. Unearned. No strings
attached. He knew: I was God's enemy, and God loved and saved me anyway.
Justification by grace.
All Paul did was to accept the gift. To trust God's
generosity. To accept the fact that he was accepted. Justification by grace
through faith. Trust the gift and the giver.
He also realized, the gift is for everybody. Not just Jews.
Not just the Christians who may get it. God's grace and God's triumph is
universal, for all humanity. "As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all
be made alive." (1 Cor. 15:22)
God's triumph is total. It is also a gift. So we can relax.
We don't have to earn God's acceptance of us. We are already accepted even
while we are unacceptable. We don't have to fix the rest of the world; God
loves them as much as God loves us.
That realization made Paul bulletproof. He no longer worried
about himself, how am I doing? There was no self to worry about, because now he
lived in Christ and Christ lived in him. And if he forgot or messed up, he only
needed to remember and to trust the grace again.
Paul had been loved so completely, that he was free to love
others completely. He didn't have to earn their love or their respect. He had
infinite love and status forever as a gift. There's nothing to risk because
there's nothing to lose. So he could give away his life; he was absolutely
That's a great way to live, isn't it? No pressure. No one to
perform for; no one to satisfy. It doesn't matter what they think about you;
God loves you perfectly. All those groups claiming to have the truth, claiming
your allegiance? They don't matter. You don't have to straighten them out, or,
God forbid, kill them for being wrong. God is perfect truth, and eventually God's
light will prevail. Just love your neighbor as yourself. Love is the great corrective.
Love is the most powerful force in the universe.
Freedom. Total freedom. That's what Paul experienced. When
you've known yourself to be loved and accepted as Paul had, you are free to
accept life as it comes and to respond only in love. That's the good news. That's
really good news.
The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church is to explore and
God's infinite grace, acceptance and love.
For information about St. Paul's Episcopal Church and its life and
mission, please contact us at
P.O. Box 1190, Fayetteville, AR 72702, or call 479/442-7373
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