Sunday, February 28, 2010

The "Real" St. Paul - Persecutor (Acts 7:54 - 8:3)

When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him.

That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.

Throughout the season of Lent, our worship focuses on the life and times of the “real” St. Paul. This is St. Paul United Methodist Church, after all, and it seemed fitting to learn a little more about the life of the man for whom this particular congregation is named. Let me ask you – what do you know about St. Paul? Who was he? What do you think of when you hear his name? (Invite congregational feedback).

My hope is that this will not be just a history lesson on the life of an important figure from the early church, but that the scenes of his life will speak to us today, that we will find our hearts transformed by what we experience, and we will be part of bringing healing and wholeness into the world. May we pray.

I recognize some of the difficulties in talking about the life of the “real” St. Paul. After all, I certainly didn’t know him personally! To my knowledge, neither did any of the rest of us. But what we do have is a pretty comprehensive picture left to us by Paul through his own writings, the writings of his friends and associates, and historiographers of his day.

Paul's life can be divided into two almost equal parts: for thirty years he was a Pharisee, and then for thirty years, as a Christian, he was a missionary who founded communities throughout the Mediterranean basin and wrote to those churches. Today, we’re going to take a telescope look at those first 30 years of his life.

Originally named Saul, St. Paul was born in Tarsus, the capital of Cilicia in Asia Minor, a Greek-speaking region. He grew up in a strict Jewish home, where the entirety of the Law was followed in exact detail. His family was prominent and distinguished enough to have been granted Roman citizenship.

His father had high hopes for him. Fathers want their children to have the best possible. They work hard to provide for their families, they make important social contacts, they sacrifice to get them into the right schools, and they have great hopes for what their children will do in the future.

For a privileged, educated, socially-connected Jewish family, there was no greater hope for a son than that he would become a rabbi. His father arranged for him to travel to Jerusalem and study under one of the leading rabbis of the Pharisees, named Gamaliel, to get the best education possible. He studies under one of the best, and he is sent halfway across the known world to school – an opportunity that very few would have. His father sends him to study in a place where every door of opportunity and privilege will be opened to him.

As a Pharisee, this young man named Saul fell in love with the Jewish law. He loved to study the Torah day and night, and even committed all 613 commandments in the tradition to memory. He was a capable student, a gifted leader, respected for his wisdom and ability to interpret the nuance of the law, and he was quickly rising through the ranks of the religious leadership, gaining respect and authority with the passing of each day. No one was more zealous for the law. No one was a greater defender of thousands of years of religious history and heritage. No one was more interested in preserving the way things had always been.

A new strain of Judaism had risen up in just the last few years, An influential traveling rabbi from Galilee named Jesus had taught, healed, loved, and brought hope. He came proclaiming a message about the kingdom of God, which was all well and good, but apparently some of the things he said got himself in trouble with the government authorities, and he was executed as a political criminal – crucified on a crude, wooden, cross.

However, the incident never really died down. Jesus’ followers wouldn’t let it stay dead. Literally! Even right after his execution, a small group of his followers began to claim that only two days later, he was resurrected. They claimed he had come back to life, and this proved that he was, in fact, who he said he was! A new movement within the Jewish tradition was gaining steam, and the whole thing, it seemed, was devoted to worshipping Jesus and following his teachings, and claiming in their worship that Jesus had done for them only what God could do for them, and that Jesus was, therefore, God.

To the young man named Saul, this was all very troubling. Remember, he had devoted himself to studying the law. He was a Pharisee! No one loved the law more than Saul! And he knew the most fundamental commandment in the law, the thing that Jews prayed every morning and night, that there is only one God, and that God was to be worshiped and loved alone, that no other person or thing was to be worshiped.

But here were the followers of Jesus, worshipping Jesus as if he were God. Nothing could have been more blasphemous! There was no greater heresy than what these people were doing. They had been perverting and twisting and interpreting Scripture in such a way as to claim that Jesus was actually God’s Messiah.

Still, the establishment did succeed in harassing the young church. Its members were persecuted and jailed. Two of its leaders, Peter and John, were forbidden ever again to speak to anyone in the name of Jesus. However, the young Christians answered with boldness: “You yourselves judge which is right in God’s sight – to obey you or to obey God. For we cannot stop speaking of what we ourselves have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). Obviously, something more had to be done to silence the boldness of the early preachers.

The situation came to a head with the effective preaching of Stephen. He was one of the first deacons, elected by the church to help care for the needy and the poor, distributing money among the widows and the impoverished. A man “full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” Stephen was opposed by a large number of orthodox Jews. Some who were from overseas synagogues debated and argued violently against him. Stephen faced a savage retribution on some trumped-up charges by people who had been bribed. “We heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will tear down the Temple and change all the customs that have come down to us from Moses!” (Acts 6:14). It was the threat of changing the customs more than anything else that caused the religious leaders to move with violence against him. Even today, when a church leader or some other person suggest changing the customs that we believe were handed down to us from Moses, watch the opposition from those who have appointed themselves as the guardians of those customs.

So the charges came, and they brought strong reaction from the Council. Not only was Stephen blaspheming against the Temple (a charge that had also been made against Jesus), he was claiming that Jesus had ascended into heaven and was standing in the place of honor and authority at God’s right hand. This was the worst of blasphemies, and the Law had a specific penalty for this: “Everyone who heard him curse shall put his hands on the man’s head to testify that he is guilty, and then the whole community shall stone him to death” (Leviticus 24:14). It was ordered that Stephen would be immediately executed by stoning.

Most Sunday School drawings of the stoning of Stephen have completely missed the point. It wasn’t a case of a man being surrounded by a mob who threw stones at him. Death by stoning was much more certain than that. The person being stoned was forced to stand naked on the city wall while the charge against him was read out. He was then thrown down from the wall – perhaps 20 or 30 feet – to the rocks below. His accusers would then carry large rocks – one at a time – to the edge of the wall and drop them down onto the victim’s body.

Those who will stone him lay their coats at Saul’s feet as Stephen is slowly, violently, and cruelly put to death. Stephen is Christianity’s first martyr – he is the first one to have been put to death because of his convictions about Jesus.

A side note here on the word “martyr.” It comes to us from the Greek, and literally it means “witness.” When you read the New Testament and you come across the word “witness,” most of the time it is actually the word from which we get the word “martyr.”

We don’t often think of the connection between these two words, but they could not be any closer! A witness is defined as “someone who has firsthand knowledge about something through their senses.” In Christian terms, we may think of a witness as someone who shares, tells, or demonstrates their faith to others. A martyr is “someone who suffers persecution and death for refusing to renounce a belief.” But early witnesses were called martyrs. The process of bearing witness was not intended to lead to the death of the witness. Yet, during the first centuries of early Christianity, the term acquired the extended meaning of a believer who is called to give testimony concerning their belief, and as a result of this testimony, is often subject to suffering or even death.

Throughout the New Testament, we are called to be Jesus’ witnesses on earth. Even his last words to the disciples before he ascends into heaven 40 days after his resurrection, he says that they – and we – will be his witnesses to the very end of the earth. Perhaps we think this means we will simply bear testimony about Jesus, or we will simply live Christlike lives, or we will tell about Jesus, or show God’s love in Jesus through our lives, or some other such thing. And yes, we will certainly be witnesses in this sense, but Jesus calls us to more. Jesus calls us to bear testimony and to let our lives proclaim him, but Jesus calls us to be so strong in our convictions that we are willing to die for what we believe. We are called to be witnesses who are willing to be martyrs. We are called to say, “Here I take my stand, in Christ alone do I glory, and my allegiance shall not be sheared away by Christ by anyone or anything.” We are called to be that strong in our witness. Stephen took that stance, and even in his death, that there was no question of the power of God in his life.

The death of Stephen finally succeeded in scattering the believers. Widespread persecution broke out and many of the faithful fled to safer towns. And it was Saul of Tarsus, the one we now know as St. Paul, who led the charge, going from house determined to destroy the church, dragging out believers, both men and women, and throwing them into jail.

What I want us to notice is who Jesus’ followers are at this point and who is persecuting them. At this point in history, Jesus’ followers are predominantly Jewish, and they are being persecuted by other Jews! Sibling rivalries, it would seem, run strong.

The perception was that the Christians were completely ignoring their history, when in reality, they saw the way of Jesus as the fulfillment of their history. We see this tension lived out over and over again. Religion is very good at establishing itself and then working double-time to promote the status quo and preserve the way things have always been.

In his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail,’ Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote these words: “There was a time when the church was very powerful – in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society . . . Small in number, they were big in commitment. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.”

It’s what happens when we become confused and fall more in love with our way of doing things than in the way of Jesus, when we are more concerned about our religion than our relationships, when we are preservers of the status quo instead of promoters of justice, when we think that we already God completely figured out, and that we are somehow the master of the mystery of God.

That’s what happened to Saul. He was so convinced of the correctness of his own belief and experience, of his knowledge and training, of his background and pedigree, that he felt a sense of certainty. That sense of certainty led him to feel justified in persecuting Christians, and in fact, he was actually persecuting God. He was so blinded by his own perception that he couldn’t see the new thing God was doing, and in his zeal for God, he was actually working against God.

Now, we know the rest of the story, and we’ll look at the story over the next few weeks. We know that Saul will have an encounter with Jesus along the road, that he will become a great missionary, and eventually become one of the most influential people in Christianity. But before we get there, we have to pause and remember that one of the greatest figures in Christianity started out as one of its most vocal and violent opponents.

So where is the change here? Something died. I’m not talking about Stephen or any of the others who were facing persecution. Something within Saul had to die. Something of his own will, his own certainty, his own confidence in himself and in his own abilities, his own agenda, his own pride, his own sin that kept him separated from God. Something within him had to die, in order that something of God could be born.

And friends, that is the central story of our faith. We are a people who believe that resurrection comes out of death. Too often, however, we want to move straight to resurrection without confronting death. We want the new life of God without putting the old life of our self-will to death. As David Crowder says, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” But when we are willing to die for the right things and allow the right things within us to die, then hope is born. Doing it our way, relying solely on our own understanding or ingenuity, always leads to a dead end. Eventually, we have to come to a place where we call on God and are willing to do it God’s way, and the result is always that hope is born.

This Lenten season, we are all called to allow things within us to die in order that things of God can be born. That’s my question for us to consider this morning both as individuals and as a church: What things within us need to die in order for the things of God to be born? Who is God calling us to be, and what needs to change as we get there? Do we think we’re working for God, but we’re actually working against God?

We can try to hang onto all sorts of things, but many of them only weigh us down and serve as a barrier between ourselves and God. Today, I hope and pray that we will let those things go, and hope will be born.

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