Some time ago, on television, there was a program about Saint Paul. The announcer was taping from the Vatican in Rome and was interviewing a number of people to answer the question “Who was Paul?” The funny thing about their answers was that not one person knew who Paul was. Some said, “one of the disciples”, while others just shrugged their shoulders not knowing what to say . . . all the while standing outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of the Vatican.
Today’s first lesson describes what happens to Saul of Tarsus (later named Paul) on his way to the Jewish temple at Damascus. Do you remember what his mission was? He was a prosecutor of believers of ‘the Way’ (the original name of people who followed the teachings of Jesus – today we call them Christians) and he was hunting them down, one by one, both men and women, to bring them back to the temple at Jerusalem to stand trial for blasphemy. He believed at the time that the Jewish religion needed to be cleansed of the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. But, of Course, Jesus had another idea.
In order to get Saul’s attention, Jesus struck him blind for three days! I don’t know about you, but that would sure get my attention. And after a series of supernatural type events of healing, conversion and baptism, Saul went on to be Paul, one of the first apostles chosen outside of the inner circle of disciples. It was Paul who nearly single handedly converted the entire Roman Empire to Christianity. It is largely because of Paul, that we, who are of European descent are sitting in these pews today. One of Paul’s letters is read nearly every Sunday of the Church year. It was Paul who came up with the idea of ‘Justification by Faith’. It was also Paul who got the former Jews to accept male converts without the need of circumcision. It was also Paul who proclaimed that the dietary laws did not apply to non-Jews who became Christians. All this, from a former enemy of the original twelve, an ultra conservative orthodox Jew who hunted down fellow Jews to have them put on trial for their religious views and for believing in Jesus Christ. What do you think happened to change his mind?
This is, of course, the kind change that comes from an encounter with Jesus, even today. We may often kid each other about people who we consider ‘Jesus Freaks’, but if there was ever a poster child for a Jesus Freak, it had to be Paul. Here was a man who made a complete 180 degree turn around in his life. Here also was a man who was put in prison for his faith and chained like an animal and finally martyred for his faith like the Lord he had come to trust and love. Here also was a man who was made into an example for all believers to follow . . . a misguided person set straight by God’s own hand.
Many people that I have known in my life have had an encounter with Jesus. Fortunately, I guess, none were struck blind for three days, but some have had to go through some extraordinary lengths to be set on the right track. One of my friends at work was, admittedly a horrible hot head and a drunk who found Jesus in a prison cell. Today, he is still a hot head but has taken steps to control his temper and his drinking habits. Each week he attends Bible Study and a church group. He now holds down a full time job and is on way to becoming a success in life. Another friend was a prostitute before she also, was put into a jail cell and found the freedom of Jesus behind bars. I am sure that you know yourselves, many people who have had dramatic changes in their lives by accepting Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
So why do you suppose that with so much good going on and so much change happening in the lives of people due to Christianity, why aren’t our churches filled with believers? To answer this I want to tell you a story that happened to me some time ago:
At work, we had been doing a finish remodel of a Rite Aid Pharmacy that was open 24 hours a day. We happened to hire a new guy, an extra carpenter, to help out. Since this new guy was hired by our superintendent and didn’t know me, he asked one day if I was a salesman. One of the other carpenters said ‘No way . . . he’s your boss!’ At the time, I sort of agreed with him. But then I got to thinking about and in reality I was a salesman then and still am . . . and in fact we are all salesmen to one degree or another. A salesman convinces others to buy his product or service. A carpenter sells his time to his employer. A doctor sells his skill to his patients. A teacher sells her knowledge to her students. And so on. As a preacher, I am here to sell you (actually to persuade you) to an idea of what it is to be a Christian. As a believer, you are here to learn new ideas that you can pass along to those you know. But do you? Obviously Paul did to the people he knew, or most of us wouldn’t be sitting here today. But what about the people you know.
I am told that at St. Matthew’s, down the street, Fr. Bowles ended every service with the words, ‘The mass is ended and now the service begins!’. Fr. Bowles was right, because that is why we come to church, so that we can serve Christ in all others (especially those outside the church).
But how to you know when you have seen the Lord in others? How do you see Christ in all others? The disciples, in today’s gospel story, were met by a stranger on the shore, who told them where they might find some fish. At first they did not recognize the stranger as Jesus, but after they had hauled up 153 fish their eyes were opened and they knew they were in Jesus’ presence. Now of course this was after the resurrection, and you kind of have to wonder, what were the disciples doing fishing for fish, when they were suppose to be out fishing for men. I think Jesus came to remind them of their real destiny. I think Jesus comes to us too, to remind us of our true calling as followers of ‘the Way’.
Back at the Rite Aid where we were working, there was all kind of commotion going on, all at once. There were ceiling tiles being replaced, shelves being restocked, cabinets being installed, customers milling about and cash registers ringing. In the midst of this chaos, a voice asked, ‘How can you be so calm in the middle of all this commotion?’ It was the new carpenter speaking in my direction. What I should have said at the time was that ‘It is the peace of God that passes all understanding’, but unfortunately what came out was ‘For me, it’s just like being at home!’ So you see, even I can blow a perfectly good opportunity to sell my religion.
If we are lucky, Jesus comes to us again and again in spiritual encounter and renewal. He comes most markedly for me in the Holy Eucharist, in the prayers, and in the wonder and beauty of the natural world. For the apostle John he came in a vision of glory as he wrote the Book of Revelation in the reading today . . .
I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,
“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.
Too many of us attempt to hide from God in our work, or in our play. Like the disciples in the Gospel story, we want to go off fishing when we should be working towards the kingdom. A few of us, like Paul, have great potential, but can only unleash it by being hit on the head, or by being made blind, or by being imprisoned. Sometimes I wonder just what God sees in any of us. But you know, he truly does love each and every one of us, with all our faults and folly. And I believe that is what he wants you to know today. Amen