preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
25, 2015; Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul
Revised Common Lectionary
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.
You 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.
What a lovely convergence. Today is
the Sunday of the Annual Meeting of St. Paul's Church, and it is also the date on
the church calendar for the annual observance of the Feast of the Conversion of
St. Paul. He is our patron. And I want to try to summarize his gospel in one
sermon. Impossible, yes; but great fun to try.
Saul (his Hebrew name) was a good,
observant Jew, righteous under the law. From the perspective of his tradition,
he was not a sinner, he was righteous. 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 Saul was miserable. His project
of self-perfection made him angry and self-absorbed. It required his constant,
total attention. He was full of anxious internal dialogue. How am I doing? Am I observing every commandment? He could never
relax, and somehow he felt impotent, helpless before the expectations of
perfection, even as he was succeeding at following the law. It made him angry. He
was angry at God, the divine threat holding all of these commandments over his
head. He also projected his anger toward other people, the ones he could see
who were demonstrably in the wrong – those followers of Jesus. He would either
fix them or kill them. Religious extremists with absolute certainties are
sometimes that way.
In this stewing, self-righteous state,
Saul traveled on the road to Damascus determined to arrest "those people."
Then something happened. Saul was given a revelation. He realized that he was absolutely
wrong. The futility of it all hit him. He experienced the risen Christ, and he
was transformed. He became Paul. God commissioned him to go to the Gentiles,
the non-Jewish world, and Paul spent the rest of his life living out what he
experienced in that moment.
What did he experience? Acceptance.
Acquittal. The sheer gift of God's loving acceptance when he was God's enemy. God's
loving acceptance gave him freedom and peace and true purpose. Here's how he
reflected on it later.
In Christ, God enters fully into our
humanity. In Christ, God comes in weakness and humility. And humanity crucifies
him. Our complete failure is exposed. The religious failure of the Jews; the
political failure of the Romans; the death-dealing powers and principalities
that are the structures of human society. It is all sin; all human life is
under the power of sin. Sin crucifies the Lord and Author of life. And everyone
But in the resurrection, God defeats the
powers and principalities. God deals with sin in a final and decisive victory.
God initiates the New Creation. God gives new life to all humanity.
God does it all. In the resurrection,
God takes all our failure and turns it into love. God says to Paul – the angry,
self-righteous perfectionist, "I love you. I accept you. You don't have to
earn your place. You are already accepted. You are already acquitted. It's a
gift. You don't have to do anything but receive the gift of life. Trust me."
That gift came to Paul while he was
in a state of full rebellion – he knew he didn't earn it. Paul realized that if
God gives him that gift, in his ungodly state, then it is a universal gift for
all people in their ungodly states. We are all a mess. So God rescues everyone
with the gift of universal acceptance. God justifies the ungodly.
Paul realized that sin for him was
the total life-project of his trying earning his place in the sun. To earn his
status before God and before humanity. Living like that is a condition of perpetual
anxiety – wondering what other people think about me; pressured to achieve, to
accomplish, to please others, and especially, to earn our own self-acceptance –
we are tyrannical taskmasters toward ourselves. Paul realized, Give up the project. You've already
crossed the finish line. God loves us, accepts us, forgives us, and gives us
new life all as a gift.
We now live in a new world, a new
creation. No more do we live in a world where people fail, are forgiven, and
start over, just trying harder. That's death! Did you hear that? No more do we
live in a world where people fail, are forgiven, and start over, just trying
In the new creation, you simply
accept your life as a gift from God, nothing more need be earned. Faith is the
quality of standing in this acceptance with constant confidence: God has given
me my life as sheer gift.
It takes some courage to stand in
that place. The culture is broken. The culture will tell you that you have to
earn your place. Most of that stuff that we've been proud of, everything we've
grasped to ourselves, we have to be willing to throw away. It's all garbage, Paul
says. Your accomplishments, your resume, your reputation, your status. It means
For Paul, it's an either/or world. We
either live in the Culture of Sin, where everyone competes for their place; or
the Culture of Grace, where everyone is unconditionally accepted and free.
In the New Creation, the Culture of
Grace, all the old boundaries are wiped out. All the ways we divide humanity
are eliminated. We are all one. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, Christian or
non-Christian; there is no longer male or female, gay or straight; there is no
longer slave or free, wealthy or poor, educated or non-educated, left or right,
Democrat or Republican, American or foreigner, powerful or weak. Paul insists: We are all one. In Paul's church, women served
as leaders. Biblical writers of a later generation were threatened by that and
tried to edit his teaching. Paul authorized women to lead prayer, to host the
church in their homes, and to share his apostolic authority.
Yet Paul insists, we are perfected not
in our strengths, but in our weakness, when we let ourselves be dependent upon
Standing simply in grace, accepting
the perfect love of God in Christ, we are free. We are free for love. Since we
need nothing, we can live generously. When you know you've got it all, it's
easy to be generous, he says.
Standing simply in grace, we can unanxiously
reach out in love to care for the needs of others. After all, we're all one. No
one stands in a place of privilege. We are all in need of God's grace and God freely
gives divine, loving acceptance to all.
Whenever we know ourselves to be
fully accepted, we can be at peace. And we can be peaceful with others.
Perfect security. Paul knew himself
to be bulletproof. What could anyone do to him, thanks to the surpassing grace
of God in Christ. So, whenever he suffered, he rejoiced. And Paul suffered. When
suffering happened, he simply connected his suffering to the suffering of
Christ and felt himself privileged to share some of the cross that always leads
to resurrection. That's confidence.
Paul is the picture of a transformed
person. Transformed from an anxious controller, trying to make himself and
everyone else right, to a joyful, confident person at peace with himself, open
and available to the Spirit working through him reaching out in love to share
the grace of being whole, accepted, and loved.
He says that what was given him is
God's free gift to every human. God's free gift to you. Just be who you are.
It's all gift. It's all grace.
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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