>"About Face" — Sermon for 29 August 2010

>Paul in DamascusImage via Wikipedia
(Note:  Leading up to this sermon I felt the need to address the basics of our faith and our need to be totally overcome with Christ so that our lives are lived differently in the world.  It’s something I struggle with myself and I am hoping that the message of the Gospel will constantly come into contact with the lives of individuals, changing them, reorienting them, redirecting them.  Renewing them.  While looking at Philippians 3, particularly Philippians 3:12, I saw Jared Wilson’s “Hijacked By the Gospel” over at The Gospel-Driven Church Blog.  That helped provide the shape of the sermon and, ultimately led it into a pretty evangelical sermon with even a “commitment time” at the end of the service.  It turned out to be an interesting day and I’ve received several follow-up comments from parishioners…which is always cool.)

Sermon Text:  Philippians 3:4b-16 (and Galatians 1:11-24)

The background for the sermon today is really not either text that was read, but one that was implied.  You see, all that talk about “pressing on towards the goal” (and really all of the writings from Paul) actually has its roots in quite an experience that happened to him well before what we read today.  It occurs in Acts 9.

Paul, then known as Saul, was quite the oppressor of Christians.  He arrested them left and right and was on a mission to Damascus to arrest these so-called, “followers of the way.”  Well, on the way something happened.  The “something” is described in the New Living Translation this way:

As he was approaching Damascus on this mission, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him.  He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul!  Saul!  Why are you persecuting me?”  “Who are you, lord?” Saul asked.  And the voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting!  Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what to do (Acts 9:3-6).

Paul rises from the ground and opens his eyes, discovering that he’s now blind.  He heads on to the city and is healed by the Spirit through Ananias.  He is baptized.  And in the same city he was headed towards to round up Christians, he proclaims the word of Jesus.  And, says the Acts passage, “Saul’s preaching became more and more powerful, and the Jews in Damascus couldn’t refute his proofs that Jesus was indeed the Messiah” (9:22)

It can be argued that, beyond the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, this is one of the most (or maybe even the most) significant event in all of Christendom; in all of Christianity…for it is primarily Paul who takes that message of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ beyond the confines of Judaism and into the Gentile world.   That means it’s primarily because of the feet on the ground ministry of Paul that the message of Jesus was first spread to people like us…the non-Jews.

But, if we look at the specifics of this particular event…just on the life of Saul, transformed into Paul, we can’t help but be impressed by the power of the risen Christ to transform and renew and rebuild and redirect.  Saul was headed down a road of violence.  Paul broke from that and proclaimed restoration.  Saul was totally invested in tearing down the church.  Paul was thoroughly invested in building it up.  Saul was headed in one direction and Paul turned in the opposite way.

Paul tells the Galatians in his letter to them, “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” (1:13-14).  And I don’t think we have to doubt that his readers really had heard of his earlier life with all the sordid details.  He was a bad dude.

But God came to him and called him and sent him and now people were saying, “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.”  That’s quite a turnaround.

We may hear about gang members who have a change of heart and now work on the city streets to keep kids from following the same paths they did.  We may hear about those who once struggled with racism in their hearts rising up to be proponents of equality and justice for all.   We may know of those who have struggled with addiction and now work to keep drugs off the streets.

The CEO of Charity: Water (a charity for, as you might guess it, “WATER”) didn’t start out as someone who was interested in using his gifts and talents to bring clean water to the world.  No, he was in the entertainment business in New York City, doing very well for himself.  He became disillusioned with that life and became much more aware of the problems in the world.  His bio on the website says:

In 2004, I left the streets of New York City for the shores of West Africa. I’d made my living for years in the big Apple promoting top nightclubs and fashion events, for the most part living selfishly and arrogantly. Desperately unhappy, I needed to change. Faced with spiritual bankruptcy, I wanted desperately to revive a lost Christian faith with action and asked the question: What would the opposite of my life look like? 

And so, he leads a charity that brings clean water to the world.

We may hear or read or even experience these changes of heart and changes of life, but I’m not sure any of the examples could come close to the total ABOUT FACE of Paul.

I look at Paul’s conversion of heart and minds and faith and life and words and deeds and I AM AMAZED.  The turnaround was so great.  I AM IN AWE.  He lived life with such a holy purpose after that.  I AM HUMBLED.  That God could use such a horrible man for such great things, what could God have in store for me?   I AM MOVED TO CONFESS.  For I don’t live my life with that singleness of focus…but I want to.

I grew up in the church. I really don’t have a great “before and after” story to my life.   There really has never been a period where I’ve sowed my wild oats lived life on the rough side of town.  I never “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”  And I surely never went from town to town arresting Christians.  That would all make for a better story but it wouldn’t be true. My life’s a lot more…uninteresting. 

But I have had some watershed faith experiences.  I can’t say that I was ever blinded by a great light on my way to Damascus.  But I did experience a statue of Jesus beckoning me when I was called to ministry at Senior High Camp at Epworth Forest.  I did have a renewal of faith in seminary as I worked at Duke Medical Center.  The thorn in my side has often been pride and there aren’t many things more effective in making one realize ones’s need for God than trying to be a Christian presence in the hustle and bustle of an ER at two in the morning.  And I did have a Bishop, Woodie W. White, lay his hands upon me and ordain me as a pastor in the United Methodist Church.  I found a picture of my ordination class from 1993 as I was going through stuff to put up in my office just this past week.  It reminded me of it.   Good reminder.

But, most of my life has really not had the singleness of focus that Paul’s seemed to have with his conversion.  As I look at it, my life has had moments of focus along a path filled with distractions.  I’d much rather it was moments of distraction along a path filled with purpose, but it’s really not been that way.

I don’t know about you, but there is always so much TO DO in life…SO MUCH TO DO…..

(The following was said rather rapidly…with gusto)

Right now I have kids and it seems that one has to go one way and another has to go another and someone has to be picked up from school and dinner has to be made and someone needs a timeout and, while it might as well be ME, it’s probably someone else’s turn and the little ones need baths and the bigger ones need help with homework and I can’t find my sock or my shoe or my computer or my phone and “Will you please stop arguing!” and “She hit me!” and “Did you write the check?” and the tire’s flat and someone sent me a message on Facebook and “No, I’m not done with the book yet” and “I forgot to give you that phone message” and it’s another trip into Anchorage…but I just went in yesterday…and I have GOT to get some work done and my favorite show is on…well, I might as well BLOG about it…AHHHH!!!

And I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels like this…even if it’s just for some of the time.  Anyone else ever feel this way.  Amen?

It’s enough to make me long for the days of seminary when things seemed simpler.  Go to school.  Get good grades.  Study hard.  All God—all the time…or, at least most of the time.  I’m not sure they were really simpler back then.  I think it’s a matter of perspective.  But it can take a lot to shake me out of all of the activity of life that I find myself in right now.

Sometimes it happens.

Sometimes…

I had a death I worked with this past week.  It was no one from around here.  It occurred out in the woods, on a trail, and I was there to work with the wife who had just been with her husband as he died.  Most of you know I do the chaplaincy thing with the Fire Department and have been doing so for the past nine or ten years.  I’m sometimes involved in happy moments, but mostly it’s when there’s been a death.  I can’t say I “enjoy” it.  But I find it rewarding.  I believe that I’m helpful.  I believe I can be the presence of Christ in the lives of persons as they enter into a very difficult place.  I think I’m appreciated.

But I wanted to share just a moment of this experience with you.  I had to meet some of the family down at the Trooper Station as one of the adult children was coming there to meet up with the others. 
And, of course, on a sunny day, that Tesoro Mall area was hopping.  There were people with their ice cream cones outside in the sunshine.  People were going in and out of restaurants with pizza.  Carloads of people coming in filling up with gas and snacks for the road.  Lots of noise.  The Fifties Music from The Ice Cream Shop spilled out all around.

Sometimes when Fire Fighters respond to scene they become like the Lone Ranger.  Adrenaline kicks in.  All of their training takes over.  They can feel it in their very bones what it is that they are about and what it is that they are about to do.  They are consumed. The whole scene takes a hold on them.  Whatever it is that they were doing before…hiking, eating, watching TV, putting kids to bed…it all goes away.  They are possessed by the role that they are to play.

When I’m at one of those scenes that I get called out to, I’m kind of the same way.  So when that child showed up and reached to embrace his mother and they wept, all the other distractions faded away.  There was no longer any ice cream.  No cars.  No pizza.  There was no music.  There was love and loss and grief and comfort.  And I stepped right into the middle of it…if for just ever so brief a time.  There was nothing else.  There was clarity.  It was kind of like the eye of a storm.  Calm.  Holy.

Then, perhaps as quickly as it all started, it was over.  I went home and pulled out some of the remains of the family dinner so I could eat as well.  I helped get kids ready for bed.  I watched a little TV and caught up on correspondence.  And the next day was a whole new one with the regular busyness that comes into life.

How can I have more of a life like that moment down at the Tesoro, with a singleness of purpose and a holiness around it?  How can my life of faith be such a dramatic ABOUT FACE from the way life usually is so that I am thoroughly consumed by the love and passion and direction of our God? 
The short answer to this is “JESUS”–which I’m sure you probably could have guessed would have been the answer.  But I think we can get a taste of what this is like from Paul’s own words in Philippians. 

In the passage we read, Paul says that he counts all the gains he had had by living as a righteous Hebrew as loss because of “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”  Amen?

He admits that he wants “TO KNOW Christ and the power of his resurrection” in his life.  Amen?
And even as he looks at all the times he has preached the Good News and been accused and driven out and reached out and sacrificed his time and energy and even health, he says he hasn’t reached his goal.  He’s not there yet.  Amen? 

And he says, “but I press on to make [the goal] my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12).

That’s a very interesting phrase there… “because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”  

The NIV says, “Christ Jesus took a hold of me.”

The New American Standard Bible says, “I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.”

The New Living Translation says, “Christ Jesus first possessed me.”

The King James Version says, “I am apprehended of Christ Jesus.”

He is able to continue on this path because he was APPREHENDED, he was POSSESSED BY, he was LAID HOLD OF BY…Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus.  He life was HIJACKED.  It was TAKEN OVER.  He was CONSUMED. 

Paul has been writing his own life story but Jesus Christ stole the pen.  Amen?  On that day, he was handed a new script.  It was an about face.  (From The Gospel Driven Church)

That blinding light was not some flash in the pan on the road to Damascus.  Paul didn’t look at that light, become blinded, and then distracted by the next shiny thing that came his way.  No…he was forever…different.

There is a part of me…I have to admit that it’s just “a part”…that hungers for a life lived differently…WAY differently   A life lived fully aware of the presence and power of Jesus Christ and his calling on my life…a life where I don’t have to wait for the death of someone to bring me those moments of holiness.  If I’m not working towards that goal, then what am I doing here? 

I want to be possessed by Jesus.  And as your pastor, I want you to be possessed by Jesus.  If you are writing your life story, I want Jesus to steal your pen.  If your life is full of distractions, I want it to have a singleness of purpose and meaning.

I want us all to do an ABOUT FACE…and live our lives in Jesus Christ much more fully than any of us are now.  Amen?

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

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