Second in a Series of 7 Sermons
Dear Friends in Christ,
Many times when one thinks of churchly success, numbers come to mind. Numbers of people packing the pews, numbers that balance the budget, numbers of a growing membership, for example. Looking back at the early church, success seemed to be about the number of sick people getting healed, the number of miracles being done, numbers of apostles speaking in tongues. But in our readings appointed for these seven weeks of Easter, we see that these numbers are only the effects of a deeper change. What makes Christianity so extraordinary is how in the midst of hundreds and thousands coming to faith in the book of Acts, it’s the Holy Spirit changing hearts and minds one at a time. Today we would see how the Holy Spirit got ahold of a vicious persecutor of the church and turned him into an amazing missionary for the church. We want to see first of all how Jesus changes lives, and secondly what those changed lives look like.
By way of introduction, let me tell you what my life looks like ever since Pastor Paul Muther came to town. It looks different. I could tell you dozens of stories proving that to be true, I will limit myself to two. Exhibit #1 – About ten days ago, an organization called Adult and Teen Challenge presented to our youth in a powerful kind of a way, so much so that our youth director Heather, Pastor Muther, and I all agreed that we should get them on the schedule to come back again. Pastor Paul agreed to make the contact. Two days later, his text to Heather and me reads as follows, “Heather, my cat took the business card of the Teen Challenge gentleman that came last week. Do you happen to have contact information for him?” Who says stuff like that?
Exhibit # 2 – On the night of public examination of our 23 confirmands, Pastor Muther and I are doing our tag team approach, and as we are winding down for the evening, Pastor Muther has the microphone and he’s winding up, if you know what I mean. By this time, I’m just sitting and minding my own business, and this is what I hear him say to the confirmands, “If we pastors ever stop doing the work of making disciples, we want you confirmands to come into our office and (slap us upside the head). Who says stuff like that?
Pastor Muther has it right, it is our vision in this place to make disciples for Jesus Christ through a faithful Word and Sacrament ministry. It’s a vision we share with the Father, it’s a vision we share with Jesus who is the Christ, it’s a vision we share with the Holy Spirit, it’s a vision we share with St. Paul and all the saints who have gone on before us and those who will carry on once we are long gone. In terms of slapping upside the head, that’s pretty much what Jesus does to Saul in our first reading for today, he gets his attention with the proverbial two by four, he teaches him what he needs to know, and he sends him in a different direction. Two parts to our sermon today about how God changes lives and what they look like once the old song has been replaced by a new one.
Lesson #1 is that Jesus changes lives through a perfect mix of (extraordinary) and (ordinary) means. There are churches which teach that believing in Jesus is a decision people can make, but the Bible teaches that no one can say that Jesus is Lord but by the Holy Spirit. Some would teach that people need to reach out and find their Savior and make Him their own, but in this place we teach that it’s God who does the reaching, it’s our Savior who comes to us in the waters of Baptism, it’s the Spirit of God who is effecting change in the preaching and in the teaching and in the eating and the drinking. Growing up into Jesus Christ isn’t at all about us pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps, it’s about Jesus pulling us up out of our self inflicted messes and having his way with us!
First, we see in Acts 9, that’s what He did on the Road to (Damascus). Today’s reading picks up Paul’s story with Jesus slapping him upside the head with light flashing, a voice from heaven booming, and eyes blinded. But this wasn’t the first time God had been working on Paul. Paul writes that God had called him from his mother’s womb. While he was still a toddler, God was watching his every step. During his rambunctious teenage years, God kept him in sight. During long years of rabbinical teaching, God was calling him to salvation, Paul just didn’t know it yet. No doubt when Saul saw Stephen accept martyrdom for the sake of Jesus, God was working on him. No doubt when he saw the church growing instead of dwindling in the face of persecution, Jesus was messing with him. And when the time had fully come, God reached down, slapped him down, and brought him into the kingdom. None of this was by accident. All was ordained as part of God’s divine plan. A perfect mix of the ordinary with extraordinary.
(Secondly) That’s what He did in the early (Church). The Book of Acts records at least ten stories of conversions, several of them individual conversions, and others mass conversions. In Acts 2, Peter preached repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and 3000 were added. In Acts 3 and 4, a lame beggar was healed and Peter did some more preaching and Peter and John stood strong before the Council, and before the day was over, 5000 men plus women and children were believing! In Acts 8 the Samaritan crowds of all people were listening to Philip preaching and they were believing, and Simon the Magician was seeing signs and great miracles performed and he was believing and Philip was explaining Scripture to a Ethopian eunuch, and before that day was over he was asking why he couldn’t be baptized. In Acts chapter 10 and again in 13 and again in chapter 16, the stories of conversion keep on happening, not at all by accident. In every case, Jesus Christ is on a mission, His Church is joining in, and if you were to be traveling the roads of Judea and Samaria in those days, you would be finding a peace that will not be explained and a joy that will not be contained.
(Third) That’s what He’s doing on (Carver Road) Carver Road right outside of Mankato and where Blue Earth County Jail is located. This past Thursday morning, I took the time to practice what we preach in this place, that when people you know are in prison, you should visit them. Three people I know were in jail that day, two of them former confirmands of mine, and one a friend of one of those confirmands. In all three cases, I was well received, in all three cases they knew they had messed up, in all three cases, they had a hard time looking me in the eyes, in all three cases the Gospel was shared, in all three cases, it seemed as though repentance was making room for the forgiveness of sins to sweep over their souls with a new beginning.
Finally, That’s what He promises to do on (your road). God promises to work everything out for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purposes. Listen to what Paul wrote to young pastor Timothy, “I am the worst of sinners, but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the worst, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” That’s another way of saying that Paul’s conversion wasn’t just for the salvation of Paul, it was for your salvation and for mine. No man is an island unto himself, and if you will take that truth on to its logical conclusion, you will be able to see that your conversion, your baptism, your faith isn’t just for yourself, it’s for the sake of others. Which brings us to our second question today, what do lives changed by the Spirit of God look like?
As often as people see and hear Jesus, their lives go in a different (direction).
This was true for Paul. As soon as he saw and heard Jesus the way Jesus wanted to be seen and heard, everything changed. Instead of breathing murder against Christ, Paul began to breathe in new life, courtesy of (the Holy Spirit). In a matter of days, Jesus grabbed ahold of Saul the terrorist and turned him into Paul the missionary. One day he was adamantly against Jesus, and three days later he was for him in the strongest way possible.
So also for the early church. The Holy Spirit took a small group of frightened and confused Jews and multiplied them into thousands of on fire Christians. Instead of running in fear from their enemies, the early Church began (“walking in the fear of the Lord”) Instead of just feeding their own fat faces, they fed the hungry. Instead of hoarding their possessions, they were famous for selling them and giving money to those who needed money. Instead of avoiding the sick and shunning the prisoners, they visited them. One day the disciples were huddled behind closed doors jumping at every noise they heard, fifty days later, they were proclaiming the Gospel unafraid, unapologetic, and unashamed.
In closing today, I ask you to think about what it would like if pastors and teachers and officers and members of this church would spend our days proclaiming the Gospel unafraid, unapologetic, and unashamed. What would it look like in this place if lukewarm turned into burning hot, if indifference turned into interest and if interest turned into passion? What would it look like if instead of merely appreciating what Jesus has done for us in the past, we begin to wonder (what He’s up to today!) What would it look like if we were curious about what Jesus is doing in the hearts of folks sitting next to us in church, if we were curious about what Jesus might be up to in the lives of folks using the food shelf and asking for gas vouchers this week, if we were curious about a co-worker’s marriage is going, if we were curious about the direction our neighbor’s teenage son is going, if we were curious about how Jesus might be messing with the janitor who is sweeping up after us at church, at school, or at work. With that in mind, dear friends, I invite you to notice three blank lines on the bottom of your sermon notes. Your assignment is to take one step down the road of what Greg Finke likes to call in his book joining Jesus on His mission. One small step, which is this, that you would write the names of three people in your life that you want to pray for in this Easter season. Pray that Jesus would be alive and well in this person’s life, pray that the Spirit of God would draw this person close to Jesus, and pray that you would have opportunity to listen to this person’s story.
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