Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sermon -- Conversion of St. Paul (January 25, 2015)

ACTS 9:1-19a

In the name + of Jesus.

     The hymn, “Chief of sinners though I be” is tied to the words of the Apostle Paul: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” (1 Timothy 1:15)  Though we call him “saint,” Paul referred to himself as the chief of sinners.  Today’s minor festival reminds us why.  Mentioned in Acts by his Jewish name, Saul, he was a persecutor of the Church and of Jesus himself.
     You cannot deny Paul’s zeal or his sincerity.  Paul truly believed that Jesus and Christians were an offense to the true God.  So Paul still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. (Acts 9:1-2)  Paul made it his mission to defend God’s honor, believing that the Christian faith had to be stopped and forever snuffed out.  No doubt, Paul was zealous and sincere, but he was also sincerely wrong.
     He who was eager to be the most faithful servant of the chief priest, however, was converted to be the chief of sinners.  As Paul was making his way to Damascus to arrest, imprison, and perhaps kill Christians, suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. (Acts 9:3)  Paul recognized that it was the Lord, and yet the Lord was not commending him.  He heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  And he said, “Who are you, Lord?”  And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” (Acts 9:4-5)  Imagine the surprise that Paul felt—not just that the Lord would appear to him, but that the Lord was Jesus.  Imagine the horror for Paul to learn that the one he was so eager to defend is the one he was striving so hard to destroy.  When Paul called himself the chief of sinners, this was no false humility.  He felt it.  He knew it.  And he never stopped thanking God for loving him enough to convert him from sinner to saint.
     You might have expected God to regard Paul as a lost cause, marked for damnation because of all his murderous threats and acts.  I think it is a safe bet that no one here would have the same list of sins to confess as Paul did.  Perhaps if we had some Muslim converts from Nigeria or Syria, someone could repeat Paul’s confession.  But do not think that Paul has a solitary hold on the title “Chief of sinners.”  The hymn you sang earlier was not an ode to St. Paul; it is your confession, too. 
     The greatest difference between Paul and you is that the sins of Paul were put into print and can be read by anyone in the world.  Your sins?  Well, they have been kept a pretty good secret, right?  And you would prefer to keep it that way.  You don’t want anyone to know whom you have murdered in your heart.  Nevertheless, you still sin against God by despising those who cross you.  You slander and manipulate and scheme; for this is how you hope to build up your honor.  What’s more, you hate doing what God says is good—forgiving those who sin against you, being patient, and speaking kind words, especially to those and about those who attack you.  Though Paul was acting as a murderous thug, at least his goal was to defend God’s honor.  Your hatred for your neighbor stems from wanting defending your own honor.  Repent.  Each of us must confess and insist, “I am the chief of sinners.  I deserve God’s wrath and punishment.” 
     And yet, God loves you enough to convert you from sinner to saint.  Your conversion was not as spectacular as that of Paul.  Paul once commented that he became an apostle as one abnormally born.  It is not normal for the risen and ascended Jesus to appear to people and personally convert them.  Nevertheless, your conversion is no less miraculous. 
     Because God loves you, he has converted you from sinner to saint.  The miracle of your conversion is that the Lord has you convinced that what he declares to be wicked is truly wicked and destructive.  You repent of your sins and flee from them, even though others should sin against you.  Likewise, you also are now convinced that what God says is good is truly good and beneficial.  Your neighbor is best served when you are patient, kind, merciful, and forgiving.  Some will think you are a fool for believing what you do and living as you do.  Instead, you are evidence of God’s mercy.  You are evidence that God loves sinners; for that God has converted you.  This truly honors God.
     God loved Paul enough to convert him from sinner to saint.  Jesus did not merely tell Paul that his rebellion and hatred were suddenly erased.  Jesus sent a pastor to him.  Ananias had likely been a man on Paul’s hit list.  Nevertheless, Jesus sent him to Paul to put Paul’s sinful nature to death through Holy Baptism.  In this way, Jesus completed Paul’s conversion from sinner to saint.  Through baptism, Paul was cleansed of all his sin.  Through baptism, Paul finally received the righteousness he was trying so hard to attain through his obedience to Jewish laws. 
     God loved Paul enough to convert him from sinner to saint.  No longer would Paul strive to prove his zeal and devotion by putting Christians in prison or the grave.  God’s glory did not need to be defended by threats and murder.  God’s glory is revealed by his love, mercy, and forgiveness upon sinners—even the chief of sinners.  Now, even Paul’s zeal was converted so that he would preach the love and mercy of Jesus to Jews and Gentiles, to scoundrels and sinners and seemingly decent folk.  No longer would Paul make those who bear the name of Jesus suffer; now Paul would suffer for the name of Jesus.  All this because Jesus loved Paul enough to convert him from sinner to saint.
     The same is true for you.  Your baptism has united you to Jesus.  Jesus has paid for all your sins—whether they are on record for all to see or whether they are secret, shameful things that you pray no one ever knows.  Jesus has suffered and died for every sin.  So, do not consider which of your sins are really bad—they all are.  But also, do not wonder if Jesus really has paid for your sins.  His blood has covered them all.  And by your baptism, Jesus has covered you in his blood so that God grants you the very righteousness you need.  What’s more, God’s conversion of you from sinner to saint is more than mere status.  God has truly worked in your heart and mind so that you love what is good and hate what is evil.  Your behavior is not for show.  You are not trying to impress anyone.  You love your neighbor and serve him because he needs to be loved and served.  You confess the truth because you love it.  You live a chaste and decent life in words and actions because this is right and honors your Lord.
     God loved Paul enough to convert him from sinner to saint.  After this glorious conversion, Paul did not become a renegade Christian who acted on his own and did what he pleased.  He was baptized by a pastor to belong to the church.  He became a part of the body of Christ to serve others in that body.  And again, so it is with you.  You have been brought into the body of Christ through a pastor who baptized you.  You are not a renegade who goes solo to do what you want.  You belong to the body of Christ, and you get to serve those who are among you here. 
     Now, God gets to work through you and your personality to serve him and to serve your fellow Christians and your fellow man.  God has loved you enough to convert you from sinner to saint, and he is pleased to continue to work through the church to keep you in his kingdom.  For God not only loves you enough, he loves you perfectly and permanently.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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