Finding God in All the Wrong People: Paul

Scripture: Acts 9: 1- 6
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
May 29, 2016

We began a new sermon series last week entitled, “Finding God in All the Wrong People”.  What we have discovered is that sometimes the people least qualified are the very ones that God is looking for.  For example, Peter denied Jesus three times; yet, there is no three strikes and you are out, rather Peter is named the rock upon which the church is built.  Over and over again, throughout the Bible we discover that God often calls the least qualified persons to serve.  Jacob was a liar and a deceiver, yet he becomes the father of the 12 tribes of Israel.  Moses stuttered, yet he led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt through 40 years in the wilderness to the Promise Land.  Rahab was a prostitute, yet, she is in Jesus’ family tree.  David was an adulterer and a murderer; yet, he became the greatest King Israel has ever known.  John the Baptist ate bugs; yet, he prepared the way for Jesus and baptized him. Over and over again, we find God in all the wrong people.  And we discover the same in our scripture passage this morning.

There was a man named Saul of Tarsus.  He was a Pharisee of the Pharisees.  Saul was the most passionate enemy of Christianity — the greatest persecutor.  He hated the Way, as it was called back then.  He became obsessed with destroying any followers of Jesus.  As he was on the Damascus road. Damascus was thought to be the location of the Garden of Eden – though Saul was not there as a tourist –rather as a persecutor. Saul was on the Damascus Road to continue his hateful work when suddenly, the Spirit of the Risen Christ showed up.  Jesus, the light of the world, appeared to Saul with a brilliance brighter than the hot desert Middle Eastern sun.  Saul fell from his horse blinded and landed flat on the ground.  During the next three days, he was transformed from Saul the persecutor to Paul the proclaimer.  For those of you who have had a dramatic conversion, you may very well have called it a Damascus Road experience.  Of all people, those early Christians would have believed Saul, now Paul to be the very last one to be named Christianity’s greatest missionary.  

In fact, Paul is second only to Jesus as the most important person in the origins of Christianity.  There are 27 books in the New Testament.  Thirteen of these books, or letters, are attributed to Paul.  They form the earliest writings about Jesus that we have — written earlier than the Gospels themselves.  To these add the book of Acts, in which Paul is the main character in sixteen of its twenty-eight chapters.  Thus half of the New Testament is about Paul.

Paul took 3 journeys with the hint of a fourth journey to share the good news of God’s all inclusive love.  By foot and by sailboat he traveled to such places as Corinth, Ephesus, Thessalonica, Philipi.  He started churches in these places and then after leaving — he would write letters to the churches, encouraging them to remain in the Spirit, even though he was no longer there with them physically — a letter to the Corinthians, a letter to the Ephesians, a letter to the Thessalonians, a letter to the Philippians, to name a few.  In total, he traveled over 10,000 miles through shipwrecks, snake bites, prison, death threats, a thorn in his flesh to share the good news of God’s love for all through Christ Jesus.  

In one letter Paul went this far in the epistle to the Philippians.  “If I were to enter into a bragging contest, I would win:

–I was circumcised on the eighth day.  That is, my parents brought me up right — according to the Jewish law.  Through my circumcision I have the seal of the covenant upon me.  

–I was born of the people of Israel.  In other words, I was born of the right people.  I wasn’t an alien or foreigner who came and converted to Judaism; I have been what I am all of my life.

–Not only that I came from the tribe of Benjamin.  It was from the tribe of Benjamin that God chose the first king of Israel — King Saul.  Before Paul was Paul, he was Saul and he was named after the first king of Israel.

— I am a Hebrew of Hebrews.  Both of his parents were Jews.  He is saying, “I am pure in my race.”

— I am a Pharisee.  Pharisees were the most educated of the educated.  Paul had his academic daggers.  Not only that, the Pharisees had the strictest and most difficult rules to follow.  They were held in high esteem.  When you said you were a Pharisee, you had something to be super proud of.  And Paul was taught under Gamaliel.  Gamaliel was the most educated teacher of all at that time in history so Paul was educated under the very best!

–And not only a Pharisee, but he says he was a Pharisee with zeal, with passion, with conviction.  He was blameless before the law.  That is, he never worked on the Sabbath, he never told a lie, he never ate a pork chop or a cat fish.

“Hey,” he says, “if anyone has reason to brag, I have more reasons.  But I consider it to be rubbish or as the Greek says “skybalon” — which literally means dung.  I consider it to be skybalon compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ.

I once had a professor who handed us a roll of toilet paper.  He said, “I want you to write all of the things that you are proud of on this roll of toilet paper — the college you attended, the awards you won, your great achievements.”  And so I did — Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude, Kappa Alpha Theta (that was my sorority), Captain of the tennis team, third place ribbon for a picture I drew in 2nd grade — I was so proud of that third place ribbon — especially because it was in art.  And no one before or since has acknowledged my artistic ability — but my second grade teacher saw my potential.  After 30 minutes he said, “I want you to lift your toilet paper high in the air with great pride.”  I did.  And then he said, “According to Paul, you can flush that toilet paper down the toilet.  It is skybalon.  Flush it down the toilet.”  I wanted to rebel.  Professor, do you know how many hours I poured into my studies, into my tennis, into that 2nd grade art project?  

Saul of Tarsus was quite proud of his accomplishment – but Paul of the New Testament considered it skybalon compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus.

I think of another person who has accomplished much.  Another religious figure, a contemporary religious figure who some have wondered about the presence of God in his life.  Tom Long tells the story of such a figure.  Tom Long, a former preaching professor of mine, was leading a preaching seminar in Atlanta.  Before the seminar began he went looking for a barbershop, he needed a haircut.  And he found one.  And the woman who was cutting his hair said, “I don’t recognize you; have you ever been in our shop before?”  

Tom said, “No, actually, I am a minister and seminary professor.  I am leading a preaching workshop at the retreat center down the road.”

And she said, “Oh, I am a Christian too.”

Tom said, “Really?”

She said, “Yeah, I am a member of Kreflo Dollar’s church.”

Now, Tom Long is not a fan of Kreflo Dollar.  Tom groaned inside for Kreflo Dollar has been under congressional investigation.  He preaches, what we call, prosperity theology – or how to get rich quick.  Kreflo Dollar has a fleet of expensive limos and cars and a private jet and expensive homes – all paid for, Tom believes, with people’s tithes and offerings.  Some of you may like Kreflo Dollar and find his preaching meaningful – but for purposes of this story Tom Long is not a fan.

Like Paul, Kreflo has much to brag about – a television ministry, a multi-million dollar business with limos, mansions, jets, etc.

Tom thought to himself, “Wow, I walked into this place afraid that I may get a bad hair cut and now I am afraid that I may get bad theology.”  But since she was holding the razor Tom decided to go along with this and so he said, “Have you gotten your blessing yet?”  She said, “Oh yes, I have gotten my blessing.”  Tom expected her to tell about diamond necklaces or about the Bentley in the parking lot.  But instead what she said was, “Every Thursday night I get to minister at a shelter for battered women.  I was one myself, you know and the women there really trust me.”

And Tom thought to himself, “My God, Jesus is alive in Kreflo Dollar’s church.”  In a church that mistakenly appeared dead to Tom Long, Jesus brought forth new life.  In Tom’s words, “On top of that, Jesus finds a $9 an hour haircutter and ordains her to the priesthood of the Lord God Most High” (Story told by Tom Long at the Southern California / Nevada Conference of the UCC in 2011).

May we all be wildly surprised by the presence of the Holy Spirit in the most unexpected places and among the most unexpected people.  May we not be so quick to write others off.  May we practice the spiritual discipline (and it is a spiritual discipline) of looking for the Divine in all the wrong people:  someone as far removed as a presidential candidate from your opposing political party, or a religious leader /a modern day Pharisee with a very different theology or maybe someone with whom you interact on a daily basis — the annoying student at school, the nagging neighbor, the overbearing boss, the complaining co-worker, or the difficult family member.  Like Jesus, may we have eyes, ears, and a heart to find God in all the wrong people!