First United Methodist Church
Friday, August 14, 2020
Devils Lake, North Dakota
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This Week's Sermon

June 15, 2020
Acts 26:4-31


They call it the Aha! Moment, also known as Eureka, which is Greek for “I have found it.” Scientists have studied the way it occurs in our thought process; they have learned that physical activity helps it along. Einstein was riding his bike when he thought of the theory of relativity. Continuously pondering over a problem seems to stop the process toward an answer. Ever have someone tell you that you were overthinking?


Artists and authors may call it a breakthrough, scientists often talk about the way the answer they sought just came to them. The man who discovered the process for genetic identification said it only took him a half an hour to realize its potential. Whether it is suddenly remembering where you left your keys or a time of great insight to a dilemma, we have all had an aha moment, that lightbulb over the head experience when we find the answer.


One man’s experience of seeing the light was much more literal, and it changed him, but it also changed the course of the Christian faith, and why we are here in worship today. You are probably familiar with the story of Saul, the one holding the coats during the murder of Stephen in last week’s scripture. He was met by Jesus on the road, who asked him why he was working against Him and His message of salvation. 


Saul became Paul. He saw the light, and then he did not see anything for a while until a man sent by God came to restore his sight. God had called him into service, and he became a very active missionary and evangelist who spent much time imprisoned by the Romans for his work. We are very fortunate to have his letters retained in Scripture as they provide most of what we know about salvation through Christ.


Today I chose to look at the third description of Paul’s conversion in the book of Acts, this one recalled in the presence of King Agrippa met Paul in prison in Jerusalem.   Remember, Paul was an evangelist, a teller of good news, so it is natural he would tell his story for the sake of others. It is not as simple as the first version, though it has the same facts. It shows the strength of his role in God’s plan of ministering to unbelievers.


Some of you know I am producing study material focused on five ways we as United Methodists vow to support our church with our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. This day I am going to focus on promises we make that most Christians make in some form, though the words may vary. My goal is to show how Paul’s testimony involves these vows, not in words, but in the effects of God’s call on his life.


I often tell my confirmation students not to rush through these vows, but to spend some time with them and their rich, historical meaning. Yes, they sound ominous and foreboding, but they also sound like the vows taken by a Crusader. Whoever created them knew what was necessary to commit ourselves to a relationship with Christ as true disciples. 


Let me state these vows for you and then delve into Paul’s testimony to see where they find their fulfillment. This is the first statement: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sins? And the second: Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, oppression and injustice in whatever forms they present themselves?


All that is required of the person making these vows is a simple “I do.” They are not required to draft a paper outlining the ways they plan to accomplish these tasks. Kind of defeats the purpose, in my opinion. The least we could do is give people a little incentive or a few pointers in pursuit of this goal. Lately the second statement has given voice to a generation of Christians who see the existence of evil, oppression and injustice as a goal to defeat in a world filled with the same.


In Paul’s retelling of his conversion story we get a better sense of what he knew he was called to do. Listen for the ways these vows are addressed in Paul’s words. He is addressing the king, giving his statement about why he was arrested for proclaiming God’s message among the Jews who despised his newfound faith in Christ.


“I admit that I didn’t always hold to this position. For a time, I thought it was my duty to oppose this Jesus of Nazareth with all my might. Backed with the full authority of the high priests, I threw these believers—I had no idea they were God’s people!—into the Jerusalem jail right and left, and whenever it came to a vote, I voted for their execution. I stormed through their meeting places, bullying them into cursing Jesus, a one-man terror obsessed with obliterating these people. And then I started on the towns outside Jerusalem.”


What made Paul do what he did? How does a man stand by and watch an execution of a man for proclaiming his faith, holding the coats of those who were putting that man to death? He happily persecuted, arrested, and okayed the death of Jewish converts to Christianity because he thought he was doing God’s work. Unfortunately, we too often see the results of people who use the courage of their convictions to do great harm to others.


This is not the action of someone looking to renounce wickedness, reject evil or repent of their sins. Paul was operating on the side of evil, but in his eyes, he was doing God’s work as a righteous, pious Pharisee. God chose this man to preach the message of salvation to the far corners of the world. If that sounds like justice by retribution, it may be true there was a smidge of that, but even more there was a healthy dose of rehabilitative justice.


Paul’s transformation was likely the most dramatic in Scripture, not because his name changed from Saul to Paul, but because he had fought so hard and hated so vehemently the truth of Christ. Paul believed himself to be the ultimate example of Judaism. He recounts this in Acts 22, “I am a Jew. I was born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but I grew up here in Jerusalem. I studied with Gamaliel. I was well trained by him in the law given to our people long ago. I wanted to serve God as much as any of you do today.”


Here Paul was saying in no uncertain terms he was 100% the standard of a pious Jew, well educated in the teachings of the law as delivered to God’s people. He was a rabbi, a Pharisee, dedicated to the preservation of his peoples’ faith. One author points out that Paul would not have considered himself a convert to Christianity but saw Christianity as the fulfillment of Judaism.In telling his story Paul was testifying to his repentance of sin, his renouncing of the spiritual forces of wickedness, which he had helped to perpetuate by killing Christians, and he further rejected the evil powers of the world. It would consume a fair amount of his writings and teaching. 


When we sing Amazing Grace, we use the author’s words recounting his spiritual blindness which was healed by God’s gift of grace in his life. Though John Newton’s journey was not quite like that of Paul, still they shared similar weaknesses and barriers to faith. Newton was the son of a slave trader in 18th century England, and as a boy he learned the ways of evil, injustice and oppression that is slavery.


His conversion came one day on a stormy sea and during peril, he realized the faith of his mother was much more valuable than the coarse life of a sea captain with human cargo.   He gave his life to God and eventually became a clergyman. One of his young parishioners was William Wilberforce, who would later go on to be a member of Parliament, an abolitionist, and the main force behind ending slavery in England.


Paul stood before a king and described the day his eyes were opened yet closed by God. He was blind, but he could see in a way he was never able to before he met Jesus. Their conversation went like this: “‘Saul, Saul, why are you out to get me? Why do you insist on going against the grain?’” “I said, ‘Who are you, Master?’ “The voice answered, ‘I am Jesus, the One you’re hunting down like an animal. But now, up on your feet—I have a job for you. I’ve handpicked you to be a servant and witness to what’s happened today, and to what I am going to show you.’”


“‘I’m sending you off to open the eyes of the outsiders so they can see the difference between dark and light, and choose light, see the difference between Satan and God, and choose God. I’m sending you off to present my offer of sins forgiven, and a place in the family, inviting them into the company of those who begin real living by believing in me.’”


We all come to faith by different means, but in only one way, the way of Christ and the call to new life. We are given a choice between dark and light, between evil and good. Once we choose, there is more God requires, but with that requirement comes empowerment, freedom, and forgiveness. I heard someone say this week that conversation is the currency of change; so, could it be that conversion is the currency of faith? We need change to make things better, we need faith to make us faithful.


What I needed to overcome in my life was revealed very clearly to me as I made my way toward ministry, though I was not aware of the direction God was showing me. If you were watching last week you heard about my journey to ministry, not always a pleasant or straight path. It does not matter who you are, at some point you have received God’s removal of an obstacle to your spiritual growth.


Some of us come to faith through great trauma, some by way of discernment, some because of the prayers of others answered, and others through wrestling with their demons in that dark night of the soul. None of us just wake up one day and claim full faith in Christ’s sacrifice for us, not even the man who told me he had been a Christian since he was born.


As with Paul, so it is with us. We must surrender ourselves, not in part, but in total. Once we are truly ready to accept all that God desires to heal, replace, and reinvest in us so that the blood of Christ may have its complete purpose, we are all the more ready to begin the work of change to become the people of God’s own choosing.


This was Paul’s mission and ministry, to declare without question the universal reality of human sin and to give us the formula for the cure, what some have called the Roman road to salvation, related to Paul’s transformational and encouraging writing in his letter to the Romans. It is there we read such teachings as “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” “nothing will ever separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus,” and best of all, But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him.”


 Before him there were prophets like Amos, who wrote, “Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so, the Lord, the God of heavenly forces, will be with you just as you have said.
 "Humankind, he has told each of you what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God.”


 They were, to use a popular phrase, woke; as in past the state of being awake, or having their eyes opened, or after an aha moment.