Road to Damascus

Overconfident

Philippians 3:4b-11 (NRSV)

The Apostle Paul, writing to the church at Philippi:

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.


 

The Apostle Paul was not a man clinging to religion for solace or validation after failing to find such comfort elsewhere. By human measures, Paul was a success long before he believed in Jesus Christ as Savior.

He was born to the right people, in the right kind of family. He had both a solid trade, and he also was a scholar. In the Jewish world where religion and politics were one and the same, he was a rising star, a great future ahead of him.

But having been confronted by the power and reality of Christ, Paul threw his resume and the benefits he had accrued away, calling them all “rubbish.” Such is the life-altering experience that can occur when we truly understand who Christ is.

This message should resonate in profound ways―perhaps even disconcerting ways―in a congregation like ours. We are a people who are, on average, better educated than most. We are a people who are, on average, better off financially than most. Many of us have track records of success.

That means we also are a people susceptible to the same trap that ensnared Paul until God whacked him with the heavenly equivalent of a Louisville Slugger. If you’re among the people here today who are thinking, “Hey, the preacher’s not talking to me―I’ve never felt like a success,” then consider yourself blessed, perhaps for the first time. As Christ told us, the meek shall inherit the earth.

“What trap?” the rest of you may be asking yourselves. It’s simple: the trap of self-reliance, of overconfidence. We are a people constantly in danger of believing that because we were smart enough to figure a few things out, we have figured everything out, including God.

Not so, Paul tells us. There is something new to learn. We worship a God who has turned the world upside through Jesus Christ, a God who places the last first, who gives hope to the hopeless, who transforms slaves into rulers in the kingdom of heaven.

The only way the strangeness of God can be grasped is if we first let go of the idea that we have everything figured out. No undergraduate or even graduate degree can save us. Faith is the only way to salvation.

I suppose the one comfort for the targets of this text is God clearly needs Christians with backgrounds like Paul, strategic thinkers with successful records. God did go to great lengths to make Paul his own. I wonder why?

Well, first of all, because God loves everyone, including the self-reliant and even the self-absorbed. He draws us all toward a relationship with him.

There’s a close second, I think: In this time in-between the cross and the final, general resurrection, the church still has to navigate a broken world. Jesus said his followers would have to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

For now, there’s a need for strategic thinkers, for planners, for people who can match wits with evil. Paul stood and fought brilliantly, enduring great harm to his body.

There is just an equal need, it seems, for those who do such work to do it with great humility, understanding that God’s wisdom, not our own, must be our guide. This is why we pray for guidance. This is why we submit to what we find revealed in Scripture, even when what we find troubles us.

Worldly success is fleeting. We are fragile creatures; wisdom and cunning can vanish with one blow to the head. We use our gifts, our talents and our blessings while we can in God’s service, but humble faith is what will sustain us for eternity.

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Mercifully Knocked in the Noggin

Sometimes we can think we’re so right and be so wrong.

The classic example would be the man now remembered as the Apostle Paul, called Saul when among his fellow Jews. Paul always believed himself to be a zealous champion of God, but early in his life that meant persecuting a new sect that had popped up. Its members were followers of a man who had claimed to be the messiah before finally being crucified.

Trained by the finest Jewish teachers, Paul traveled in his work, carrying with him what amounted to arrest warrants. But everything changed on his way to Damascus to nab some Christians.

If you don’t remember the story, you need to take time to read it in Acts 9:1-20. Paul was literally blinded by the light. More importantly, he encountered this resurrected messiah directly, hearing him say, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

It was a terrifying experience, not one most of us would choose to undergo. But I will say this: After his “road to Damascus” moment, Paul had no questions about who Jesus is. And Paul certainly understood what he was to do with this newfound understanding.

What exactly was in this “light from heaven” that shattered and then quickly reformed Paul’s worldview? I would call it pure holiness. In a flash, a wrongheaded man was made rightheaded, filled with an instant understanding of God’s will for the world.

It was a very special, very powerful kind of grace, the mercy of God poured out on a sinner who until that moment was sure he knew what he was doing. Paul seems the kind of sinner least likely to reflect and repent, but Jesus Christ made Paul his own, anyway. In fact, that’s how Paul described his conversion experience years later in a letter to a young pastor named Timothy.

“I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence,” Paul writes in 1 Timothy 1:13-14. “I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”

Few of us have converted to Christianity after actively persecuting Christians, but most of us are at least familiar with how our faith can deepen and shift over time. After all, until we reach the point when our will is aligned with God’s will every second of every day, it’s quite possible that we can think we’re doing God’s work when we’re not.

Like Paul, our antidote to poor thinking is understanding and remembering the power of God’s grace. Until Paul’s conversion experience, he best understood God through the Jewish law and a strict adherence to that law.

We do need rules; in particular, we need the guidelines for living offered to us through Scripture. God’s law continues to have tremendous value. But God’s grace, made evident in Jesus Christ and poured into us via the Holy Spirit, is the path to eternal life.

Here’s a question to keep before us: Without affirming ongoing sin, how do I inject grace into a situation? In particular, how do I offer God’s grace to others, especially those I might like to convict under some unbending rule I carry in my head?

Better to seek and offer grace on our own than to have God knock us into an understanding of its value.

Interrupted by Jesus

Acts 9:1-9

Paul experienced a blinding, thumped-in-the-noggin’ conversion, but it was the kind of conversion that gives us hope for people hard-headed about accepting God’s grace.

Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus was quick and violent, but no more quick or violent than his persecution of Christians. An up-and-coming Jewish Pharisee, Paul was on his way to Damascus with letters allowing him to bind and arrest the Christians he expected to find there. Instead, he ran into the resurrected Jesus.

As a Pharisee, Paul lived by a basic tenet, that we must follow God’s law to the letter to be right with God. But the startling intensity of the encounter gave Paul immediate insight into an important truth. Because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, it’s possible for God to call undeserving sinners “righteous” despite their sins. We only need to accept the free gift.

The rest of Paul’s story involves a 180-degree turn in beliefs and a straight march into fervent grace-centered Christian preaching, church planting and eventual martyrdom. Paul became the apostle most responsible for spreading to the Gentiles word of Christ’s offer of salvation.

Sudden turnaround conversions like Paul’s have happened throughout the history of the church, and they still happen on a regular basis today.

Historically, several people who became great church leaders have had such experiences. In 386, the man we now call Augustine of Hippo abandoned the life of a 4th century party boy and began to pray to what he assumed was a very angry God. While praying and weeping in a garden, he heard the voice of an unseen child singing an odd phrase: “Pick up and read, pick up and read.”

He picked up a copy of the book of Romans he had been carrying with him and opened it at random, his eyes falling on what we now number as Romans 13:13-14: “Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

After this moment, Augustine devoted himself fully to the Lord and helped turn the early church toward a deeper understanding of the importance of God’s grace.

Martin Luther, the trigger of the 16th-century Protestant movement, credited his willingness to take a stand for the authority of Scripture to the strength he received from a powerful eureka moment he had experienced earlier in life, one in which he finally understood the power of God’s grace.

And most of us in the Methodist church have at least heard references to founder John Wesley’s sudden “Aldersgate experience,” where he realized that salvation is a gift from God, something that can only be accepted, not earned.

While in seminary, I was blessed to see a room full of people have one of those aha moments where a deeper understanding of grace is revealed—where people who are striving for righteousness learn instead to accept what God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ.

Helen Musick was an experienced youth ministry instructor who terrorized the Asbury Theological Seminary campus each semester with her midterm exam.

Youth ministry. Sounds easy, right? Make the kids some popcorn, light a candle, sit around and sing “Kumbaya.”

Nope. Not in Helen’s class. Oh, we learned that youth like the popcorn-candle-Kumbaya thing now and then. But we also had to learn in great detail the biblical, theological, psychological and sociological reasons underpinning their likes and dislikes.

And every last bit of that background was on the midterm. One of her victims from an earlier semester told me, “Dude, be happy if you get a C.”

The day of the exam, I did not feel ready. Neither did most of my classmates. Helen handed out the thick exam packets face down. She then uttered the dreaded words: “You may begin.”

When I turned mine over, I was immediately perplexed. The first few pages were Bible verses, all having something to say about God’s grace. My first clear thought: “I don’t remember her saying anything about Bible verses on this test.”

As I flipped further into the packet, I received my second shock: I was certain I had been handed the “key,” the copy she would use for grading purposes. The answers were all there, in her handwriting.

I looked up to tell her of the mistake, and noticed for the first time that all of my classmates looked as confused as me. Helen had big tears in her eyes.

“For half a semester, I’ve been trying to get you all to understand God’s grace,” she said. “And it’s clear after half a semester that many of you still don’t understand.”

She went on to explain that she had set up the midterm exam as an example of how God’s grace works. It was a real test—the grades would go into her grade book. But everyone would get a score of 100.

We did have to do one thing. We had to put our names on our tests. We had to claim the perfect score as our own, even though we had not earned it.

Interestingly, a couple of students got angry. They had studied hard enough to win an A, they believed, and they thought it unfair that everyone was getting an A. We spent some time gently discussing the older brother in Luke 15:11-32.

Most of us were relieved. As best as I could tell, I might have scored a C on my own—maybe as low as a D.

That’s grace: getting an A from God even when we deserve to fail. I hope all of you learn the lesson gently, incorporating it into your life with ease.

But if not, may the resurrected Jesus whack you really hard, even blinding you until you understand the truth. Accepting grace is that important.