“Saul-Paul: Who Are You?” – 03-17-13 – Lent 5 – Cycle C

Listen to the sermon here:

Scripture: Isaiah 43:16-21 Psalm 126 Philippians 3:4b-14 John 12:1-8

The Lord said, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18,19 NRSV)

“Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.” “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.” (Psalm 126:5, 3 NRSV)

How do people make it through life without this “Lord?” “Yes, the Lord has done great things for us.” In the millrace of life, we need to be comforted and confronted. Are we heading in the right direction? Are we doing the right thing? Are we thinking the right thoughts? Are we speaking the most effective way?

According to my dictionary, a millrace, or millrun, is the fast-moving stream of water that drives a mill wheel or another definition explains a millrace as the channel for the water that drives a mill wheel. A mill is any machine for grinding or crushing a solid substance into powder or pulp.

When we say that the Lord has done great things for us, we are not necessarily talking about pleasant experiences. Some of us need to have our priorities straightened at times in our lives, we need to have the rough edges made smooth. Yes, sometimes we need to be ground into powder to fulfill the Lord’s plan for our life after which we will rejoice.

We get so earnestly busy with goals in front of our minds driving us. We are like a stone which is caught in this millrun – this fast-moving stream of water – where we become absolutely helpless. We think we are accomplishing our self-imposed goals, yes, even goals which seem to be ordained by the Lord. We don’t even notice that we are not in control. At times this millrace or millrun seems to be fun, certainly exciting. It does not seem that anything is hindering us. So on we go, gaining momentum with each forward motion along the way. Never mind talking to the Lord. We surely have the Lord’s blessing because things are working for us.

Enter Saul whom we know as Paul. We will find that Saul was in a millrace and had to be stopped. I am going to speak as Saul-Paul because this story needs to be told from the inside out.

[based on the Holy Scripture and on Wikipedia.org – Paul the Apostle]
I am a Roman citizen. I am a Jewish Roman citizen. My family lived in the city of Tarsus – one of the largest trade centers on the Mediterranean coast. I was quite educated. I became steeped in Orthodox Pharisaic Judaism. I declare in Philippians 3:5 (CEV) that “I was circumcised when I was eight days old, and I am from the nation of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin. I am a true Hebrew. As a Pharisee, I strictly obeyed the Law of Moses.”

I spoke classic Greek as well as a more common dialect of the Greek language prevalent in the Roman Empire. Later, when living in the area of Jerusalem I also spoke Aramaic, the common language of that area – the same language that Jesus used with the people. Talking about common, even though I was well-educated I was expected to learn a trade to earn a living. My trade was tent-making.

How did I get to Jerusalem? I can thank my continuing education. I was sent to the Rabbi Gamaliel, a prominent teacher at the Hillel School in Jerusalem. This school provided a balanced education: classical literature, philosophy, and ethics.

What made me noteworthy? Why are you focusing on me today, 2000 years after I lived? Because in my zealousness, in my righteousness according to the law of my religion, I persecuted the followers of the Way. This Way refers to the beginning of the church of Jesus Christ. This Way refers to the believers in Jesus Christ. In my inherited and educated righteousness, I thought Jesus was a heretic. I foolishly believed that he had to be stopped. Jesus was teaching some new ideas that seemed radical and leading toward a new religion.

I thought Jesus needed to be stopped and he thought I had to be stopped from this millrace style of being. After some upsetting circumstances and events, I was forcefully made to realize that Jesus was not wrecking our Hebrew religion. Jesus was not throwing the baby out with the bath water. Jesus was preserving the baby, the baby being the creation of the earth, the law of Moses, especially the sometimes forgotten idea of loving our neighbor as well as loving God. It is like you can’t have one without the other. Some of us had a tendency to forget that love part. We were law-preservers, law-observing. We had our noses in the air. We forgot that our neck could look down so that we would look more humble, maybe even become more humble.

I was an especially zealous person. When I put my mind and heart to something, there was no stopping me. You will see that I did not lose that zealousness, it was just re-directed.

How did it get re-directed? Well, you may know this story. It certainly is a show stopper. I had it in my strong-willed mind that I would go to Damascus (northwest of the Sea of Galilee) and do some religion-preserving, to rid Damascus of these followers of Jesus, the heretic. In our Philippians 3:6 reading today, we have, “… as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

So on to Damascus I went, accompanied by some companions. Suddenly, I was blinded by an extremely bright light which flashed from heaven. I fell to my knees. I heard a voice, “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?” I said, “Who are you?” I heard, “I am Jesus, the person you are persecuting.”

Then Jesus ordered me – ordered me – to get up and go into Damascus. Well, I did feel compelled by this command and so I tried to get up only to discover that, even though my eyes were open, I could not see. I had to be led to Damascus. Jesus directed me to go to a certain person’s house in Damascus.

The saga unfolds. You may have noticed that the Biblical accounts of these happenings use the word “Lord” and “Jesus” interchangeably. You may or may not know that the name “Lord” refers to the whole of God or to the separate persons of God. It is something like a person named Robert sometimes being called Bob or Bobby or Rob or Robby. Sometimes in my story, “Lord” means the whole of God as in the Old Testament. Sometimes in my story, “Lord” means the Jesus person of God.

Returning to my Damascus experience, I was blind for three days and I did not eat or drink. Then this man named Ananias appeared in my life, in the house of the man named Judas on the street called “Straight.” Poor Ananias! He was dragged into this saga of my conversion, definitely not willingly. Ananias had heard of my reputation and Ananias was a follower of the Way. Ananias feared for his life. But when Jesus commands, followers obey. Ananias heard Jesus say, “Go, for [Paul] is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel. I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:15, 16 – NRSV) Did you hear that? Did you hear the prediction of my suffering to come?”

Actually, I knew Ananias was coming. The Lord told me so. So Ananias made his way and appeared in front of me, laid his hands on me, and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Did you hear that? I would be filled with the Holy Spirit! What is that?

Well, after Ananias spoke and laid his hands on me, something like scales fell from my eyes and I could see. I ate and regained strength. Oh, and I was baptized with the Holy Spirit! How does that feel? What happens? I learned that for me, it is having zealousness in the right direction, with the right goal – at least that is how I will explain it at this point.

Immediately, I started telling people that Jesus is truly the Son of God, the Messiah. That is the story of my conversion. That is how I became a Christian – a follower of the Way. Truly not a meek follower. I was in the forefront. I was an in-your-face Christian. Do you remember that the Lord told Ananias that the Lord would show me, Saul (gradually being called Paul) how much suffering I would do for the Lord’s sake. I did suffer. I was persecuted for proclaiming Jesus as Messiah. I spent years in prison. But I was a new person. I was so zealous, so filled with the Holy Spirit, that I gladly suffered for the sake of my Savior, Jesus Christ. I was finally killed for my determined speaking. In my natural nose-in-the-air fashion, I declare that I surely did more than my share of advancing the Church of Jesus Christ.

Did I sing, “Lord, I Want To Be A Christian” before my “Road to Damascus” experience? Certainly not! That did not stop God! Do you remember my statement that being filled with the Holy Spirit re-directed my zealousness? Do you think God wants us to be filled with active zeal every waking moment? Could there be more to being filled with the Holy Spirit? I have learned that sometimes being filled with the Holy Spirit means being more loving; being more holy; being more like Jesus, giving freedom to the Holy Spirit within me. Yes, the Holy Spirit filled me and carried me and gave strength to me. Then, in the solitude that became my lot, I was daily renewed to walk the way of a follower of Jesus, my Lord and Savior. Amen