There are many challenges to being a priest in the modern world. We are living in what’s being called ‘Post-Christendom’, an age in which being a good Christian, going to church and participating in religious practices, is no longer something society pressures people to do, and in some areas, it seems society expects the opposite. And so churches do all sorts of things to attract attention, to bring people in the doors. Some churches form praise bands because they think young people like that sort of thing. Big signs and even bigger advertising budgets were the rage around the time I was ordained. How is it, in the age of short attention spans and scattered families, can we get people’s attention?
Well, if today’s lesson from Acts teaches us anything, “The Lord is willing to do almost whatever it takes to get people’s attention. So we save both God and ourselves a lot of time and energy if we just pay attention to the Lord right away.
“C.S. Lewis was among the most famous Christian authors of the twentieth century. He, however, initially paid virtually no attention to the Lord. Lewis was, in fact, a virulent opponent of Christianity until God graciously got his attention in 1931. He later called his conversion the result of “the steady, unrelenting approach of him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.”
“Saul too “earnestly desired not to meet” the risen Jesus. He grew up in the city of Tarsus, which means that he grew up surrounded by Gentiles. Saul eventually became one of the Pharisees who believed that Israel needed more than anything to return to a strict observance of her religious laws and traditions. After finishing his schooling, he took a job with the religious authorities. Saul’s basic job was to ensure that nothing changed within Judaism. And in his day, the greatest threat to the status quo was a group that called itself “The Way.” (the Way being the Church)
“After all, Saul interpreted what we call the Old Testament very literally. That interpretation left no room for Jesus of Nazareth to be the Messiah whom God had raised him from the dead. That Jesus’ followers claimed he was the Way to God for both Jews and Gentiles. Since thousands of good Jews had already begun following this Jesus, Saul was determined to stop that change by stopping the movement.
“So when Saul hears that the Jesus movement has spread into Damascus, he heads for that great city. He’s so afraid of how Jewish followers of Jesus may change his faith that he rides there to hunt them down….Saul now “breathes out murderous threats against” Christians.”1
We all know what happened next. Saul gets knocked off his donkey (that’s the nice way of saying it), confronted by Christ Himself. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me.” “Why are you persecuting me?” Jesus asked Saul. Note that Jesus didn’t ask Saul why he was persecuting His followers, but why are you persecuting me. For Jesus, there is no separation between Himself and His own – to go after a Christian is to go after Christ.
This weekend, in this very place, five more become Christ’s own. For Liam, Seamus, Pippa, Seraphima, and Lucia, new life is being found; not only will their names be written in the Book of Life, but they will gain the name we share with them, the name of Christian. In the eyes of God they will be counted as sons and daughters, one with His Son, counted along with both the living and the dead who have followed in the Way.
Through the great power and mercy of Jesus, Saul went from persecuting the Way to leading the way; he too gained a new name, two really, Paul and Christian. From the moment he met Jesus on that road to Damascus, he began the process of being transformed into the image of Christ, into the Saint he became. Now it’s time for these new Christians to begin, with God’s help and ours, their transformations into the saints they will become. Welcome to the Way, and may you live as Christ’s own forever.
1Scott Hoezee, This Week