Sermon for April 21st, 2013. Careful Christianity.
20 You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you, but have taught you publicly, and from house to house. 21 I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.
22 “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. 23 I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. 24 However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me — the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.
New International Version, NIV, Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.
This morning, our focus is on the Apostle Paul. In his early years, he was known as Saul of Tarsus. He was from the tribe of Benjamin. He was a Jew by race, and a Jew in religion; he was one of God's chosen people. Saul of Tarsus was a Pharisee. He studied under Gamaliel – the most famous Pharisee of the day. Saul of Tarsus had been immersed in the Jewish faith since childhood. He was a model Jew, totally committed to his faith – almost nullto the point of fanaticism. One scholar says that if the Apostle Paul had not been converted to Christianity, he could have made his name as the greatest Pharisee of all time. I pray that God would bless our consideration of His Holy Word this day!
As a young man, the newly formed sect of Christianity was Saul's greatest enemy. He rejected the claim that Jesus was the Messiah. His goal, at this point in his life, was to destroy Christianity. Saul had convinced himself that he was doing the will of God. But, we now know that he was dead wrong. At this stage in his life, Saul of Tarsus, like many religious fanatics today, was willing to use violence to further his religion. The book of Acts tells us that Saul was involved in the stoning of Stephen. He actively persecuted the church at Jerusalem. He was an intolerant, hardline, religious radical. Not much has changed in our world today.
However, when he least expected it, Saul of Tarsus met Jesus of Nazareth. One of our Bible readings last Sunday described Saul on the Road to Damascus. We heard that he was on his way to the synagogues in Damascus. His goal was to arrest the Christian disciples who had sought refuge there and bring them back to Jerusalem for trial and punishment. That day, however, Saul’s life was transformed. It was there, on the road to Damascus, that Saul of Tarsus met the risen and glorified Christ. Saul was knocked off his horse. A brilliant light flashed around him. And a voice spoke to him, wanting to know why he was persecuting the Christian faith. That day Saul, of Tarsus was completely changed. He began to see Christ in a whole new way. In 2 Corinthians chapter 5, verse 16 he says:
16 So, from now on, we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.(N.I.V.)
Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus changed him – it changed him from arrogance to humility. It changed him from a legalist to a person who emphasized the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ – that Christ had died on the cross to forgive our sins and had been raised from the dead for our justification. Saul’s experience that day changed him from callousness to compassion. His experience on the road to Damascus transformed him from a zealous champion of the Jewish faith into a zealous champion of Jesus Christ and all that He stood form. Saul of Tarsus became Paul the Apostle. And the church has never been the same since that day.
Paul quickly learned that it's not easy to be a Christian leader. From the first day, his apostleship was challenged. Many wondered how he could be a Christian since he had previously persecuted the church so violently. Many wanted to know if this conversion was genuine or whether he might be a wolf in sheep's clothing. When we read Paul’s writings, it's clear that he wasn't proud of his past. He considered his persecution of the Christian Church to be his greatest sin. And he never ceased be amazed that God had forgiven him and allowed him to proclaim Christ. The Apostle Paul was, in the truest sense of the word, a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul had been personally called – by Jesus himself – to preach the gospel, first to the Jews, and then to the Greeks. All during his ministry, Paul was amazed by the Jews’ stubborn refusal to believe the Gospel. Paul’s goal never changed. He sought to preach the complete will of God, leaving nothing out.
Let's talk for a moment about the content of Paul's preaching. He consistently preached repentance. Repentance is a U-turn on the road of life. It’s sorrow over sin. It leads people to make amends for their sins. The Apostle Paul said that, on our own, by our own strength, we don't have the ability to repent of our sins. That ability – that strength comes from the Lord – it comes from his Holy Spirit, working through the Word and the sacraments. The Apostle Paul said that all people – because of the sin they’re born with – fall short of the glory of God. All people – because of the sin they are born with, and the sins they commit later in life – are subject to judgment and the wrath of God. All people desperately need a Savior from sin.
Paul preached that to have faith in the Lord means to trust Him – with heart and soul, and mind and strength. To have faith in the Lord is to trust him – no strings attached. Faith allows God rescue us from the quicksand of sin. Faith is placing ourselves into the Lord’s hands. Faith means we stop trying to control everything in life. Have you ever seen the bumper sticker – or the license plate holder – that says, “God is my Co-pilot”? The way the Bible describes it, God actually wants to be more than our co-pilot. He wants to be in full control of our lives. That thought is reflected in the Christian hymn that says, “Jesus, Savior, pilot me.”
The Apostle Paul said that what we human beings cannot do on our own, by our own reason or strength, our Lord Jesus Christ has done for us, by his grace. Jesus died, in our place, on the cross. He took our sins upon himself. And God raised him from the dead on that first Easter Sunday. And now, Jesus offers eternal life to all who will simply trust him by faith, as the Holy Spirit enables them. For the Apostle Paul, the Gospel is Christ’s story. The Gospel proclaims Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. And the Holy Spirit makes that possible.
The Apostle Paul often spoke of the power and the righteousness of God. For Paul, God’s Law is like a guardian charged with the responsibility of bringing us to Christ. The Gospel, on the other hand, is the good news of what Christ has done for us at the cross. The Apostle Paul said that Christians walk by the Spirit – in other words, they let the Holy Spirit guide them on their faith journey. The Apostle Paul preached the gospel to many different people in many different places. He preached first to the Jews. And his message to the Jews was proclaimed in terms familiar to them – the law, faith, God’s promises, the righteousness of God, judgment for sin, the Holy spirit. When the Jews refused to listen to him, he preached to the Gentiles.
The Apostle Paul founded many congregations in many places – places with names like Ephesus and Corinth and Rome. The Apostle Paul went on three missionary journeys, sharing the message of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul suffered much for the sake of the gospel. He was persecuted and challenged. He learned how to depend on the Lord for the strength he needed every day. The Apostle Paul was a careful Christian – he was a careful theologian. He advocated what I call a “Careful Christianity.” Careful Christianity is lived out in the light of God’s word. It’s nurtured and strengthened by the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. Careful Christianity is lived out in the community of believers.
In our text this morning, the Apostle Paul was saying goodbye to the elders at Ephesus. Paul was certainly no stranger to these people. He had lived with them for three years. They knew how hard he worked and how he lived. They’d seen him endure the hardships of the ministry. Paul told these people that he wanted his preaching to be helpful to them. He wanted his words to be relevant to their lives. He wanted God's Law to challenge them and the Gospel to comfort them. He wanted them to live careful Christian lives.
You know, the Apostle Paul was one of those rare and unusual people who was able to take criticism without losing heart. Because of this special ability, he was fearless in his preaching. He didn’t restrict his preaching just to the Jews. He spoke to anyone who was willing to listen. He tried hard to understand the situation of his hearers, and then to preach accordingly. You know, when it comes to preaching the gospel, one size does not fit all. Everyone's situation is different. People are challenged by different things. People have things they need to learn about the Christian faith. And they also have things they need to unlearn as well.
In our Bible text this morning, Paul told these elders that he had always told them the truth – even when the truth was difficult for them to hear. He never diluted the truth to make it easy for them or comfortable for himself. But now, the Apostle Paul needed to move on. Many more people needed to hear the gospel. He indicated that he would be travelling to Jerusalem. Jerusalem, in those days, was home base for the Christian church. But it was also the center of opposition to the church and its message. The Apostle Paul said that he was willing to go to Jerusalem, not knowing what would happen to him there. But he put his complete trust in the Lord. The Apostle Paul reminded these people to keep a careful watch over their own Christian lives, as well as over the lives of the people they were responsible for. He reminded them that they had been purchased with the precious blood of Christ. He reminded them that they belonged to the Lord. And they were responsible to the Lord for their words and for their actions.
In our text this morning, the Apostle Paul was saying goodbye to a group of good friends. He knew that he might not see them again. Think for a moment about the endings in your life – the last day at a job, for example. Think about the time you left a house that you had lived in for many years and walked out the door, never to return. Think about the time you said farewell to someone very special. As a pastor, I have vivid memories of congregations that I have served, and my last day there – my last worship service. I remember presiding over holy Communion for the last time, thinking to myself that this might be the last time I would see some of these people on this side of heaven. I thought of the baptisms that I had done for those families. Couples I had married. Individuals whose funerals I had conducted. I thought about the visits I had done. The classes I taught. Chance meetings in the grocery store. All that was coming to an end, and my family and I were moving on to a new calling from the Lord.
Once, when I was asked what ministry is like, I said that it's like ships that pass in the night. As pastors, we get to know people for a while and then our connection with them is broken. Some move away. Some drift from the fellowship. The Lord calls some people home. Pastors move on to new ministries. Like ships that pass in the night, we know each other for awhile, and then we move on. That means that the time we have together is very precious indeed.
Since the earliest days of the church, the Apostle Paul has had a tremendous influence. He wasn't ashamed of the gospel, because, as he said, it’s the power of God for the salvation for all who believe. At Mount Olive Lutheran Church, we are not ashamed of the gospel. We proclaim it at every opportunity. We share it with those who have not heard it. We share it with those who have forgotten it. We share it with those who are trying to ignore it. And we also share it with people who love to hear it. The Apostle Paul said that he received information from the Lord and then passed it on to others. When you think about it, we do the same thing. The Apostle Paul was honest and straightforward with people. He called a spade a spade. For many years, he worked hard, sharing the gospel of Christ, founding new congregations, faithfully doing the work that God Lord had given him to do. And he did all these things, not to earn his salvation, because he’d already been saved by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. He did all these things because he had already been blessed, and he wanted to be a blessing to others.
I conclude with this. There’s much we can learn from the Apostle Paul. When you think about it, we share the same message Paul preached. The same law. And the same gospel. And we too, watch in amazement as God transforms human hearts. The Apostle Paul was led by the Holy Spirit, and we are, too. Like Paul, may we learn how to step out of our comfort zone and take risks for the sake of the Gospel. May God grant it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Let us pray: Dear Lord: Lead us, by your Holy Spirit. Guide us. And enlighten us. Grant us great joy in serving you. Help us always to be careful Christians. In Jesus’ name we pray.