Summary: A talk focusing on the life of St. Paul, but particularly his life as a religious terrorist, and his conversion to becoming a follower of Christ. God can change anyone, including you.
The Vicar wrote to a parishioner, “Be honest. Do you think I should put more fire into my sermons?” The reply said, “No. I suggest you do just the opposite!”
In our Bible reading Stephen is preaching a fiery sermon a few months after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The church was growing but the religious traditionalists were trying to stamp out the new Jesus movement by arresting believers. Stephen’s sermon was fiery because it spelled out very clearly the big story of God, ending with the life and ministry of Jesus ‘the Righteous One’ (7:52). Stephen, with love in his heart and love in his eyes looked at the religious leaders and said, “You stiff-necked people (7:51) …you always resist the Holy Spirit (7:51) …and now you have betrayed and murdered [the Righteous One] (7:52)”. They were furious (7:54) and screamed blue murder when Stephen saw a vision of heaven open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God (7:56).
Stephen was stoned to death (7:59) and all of this was witnessed by a young man named Saul (7:58) who approved of Stephen’s death (8:1).
Our theme at Pensioners’ Praise this year is ‘God’s Servants’ and today’s subject is Saul. Effectively, I’ve been asked to talk about a man who at one time was a religious terrorist. He didn’t carry a gun but he very gladly saw to the violent and bloody death of Stephen, and in the days ahead ‘Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison’ (8:3).
Persecution is not a thing of the past, as this news story, hot off the press, demonstrates: (Show video) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5196cyemEM
At the time of our Bible reading Paul was a young man (7:58). Of course, we were all young once; but Paul was young, zealous and prayerful.
He knew the Hebrew Scriptures – our Old Testament – inside out. He had all the qualifications people looked for to be identified as one of God’s people. He had all of the boxes ticked, and later wrote this about himself: ‘…circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law a Pharisee; …as for legalistic righteousness, faultless’ (Philippians 3: 5-6).
In other words Saul the young man had been a member of the religious community of God since birth. It would be like a young man today who was baptised as a baby, brought up in the church, taught the Bible at Sunday school, strictly applying the 10 commandments, becoming a member of General Synod; and becoming a household name, whilst at the same time seeking to silence or dumb-down the message of Jesus; and such people exist.
Saul hatred Christians and tried to close the Church.
There are zealous Moslems and Jews and Atheists and Humanists today who hate the church and hate Christian believers. Some have made themselves famous or infamous by acts of terrorism, or by writing books, or producing videos or preaching sermons filled with venom towards people who trust in Jesus – just like the young man Saul; but there are also those who go about it with more subtlety, slowly changing the law, seeking to silence the Bible.
Thank God people do not have to stay the same. Thank God he changes and turns people around.
Saul continued to ‘[breath] out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples’ (Acts 9:1). He was given permission to arrest believers in the synagogues of Damascus; but ‘as he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”’ (9:3-4).
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” He replied. “Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do” (9:5-6); and here we have the original Damascus road experience, with flashing lights and a voice from heaven.
Not many of us were converted like that but there are stories today, like this, from around the world.
Saul had two names from birth. His Jewish name Sh’aul and his Greek Roman name Pavlos; and we generally know him by his Roman name because his ministry was primarily to the Greek speaking, non-Jewish, Gentile world. So from Pavlos we get Paul.
St. Paul went on to preach the Good News of Jesus in Damascus, and across the Greek speaking world including Greece, parts of Turkey, and Cyprus; and he wrote many of the New Testament letters.
Considering how murderous he once was towards the early Church, what a wonderful fact it is that Saul later went on to write these most famous of words: ‘Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered; it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres’ (1 Cor 13:4-7).