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    Sep 08, 2019

    Called to Follow

    Called to Follow

    Speaker: Vivian McCarthy

    Series: Paul, the Apostle

    Category: Discipleship

    It could reasonably be argued that no other human, apart from Jesus himself, has had a greater impact on the world than Paul of Tarsus. ~Adam Hamilton

    There are lots of stories of God calling people in the Bible.  Can you think of a couple?

    Those are good ones.  I think the most dramatic – hands down – call story is the one about God calling Paul to serve Jesus instead of serving the Law.  He was not only knocked off his horse but he was also blinded.  It takes a little more drama for some of us – right?

    Named for the first King of Israel, Saul of Tarsus seems to have been an angry man, but he was a man of faith.  He had been shaped throughout his life as a faithful, highly educated Jew who checked all the boxes.  As today’s scripture reading records, Paul said:

    I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia…a citizen of an important city…circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews…brought up in [Jerusalem] at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law being zealous for God.

     

    Let’s unpack that just a little.

    Take a look at this map

    I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia... a citizen of an important city

     

    Cilicia was the important city.  I hope you can see on the map that it lies at the foot of the Tarsus Mountains, and there was a gateway, of sorts on the east-west trade route between what we now call the Middle East and Turkey.  Back then Turkey was Asia Minor.   In addition to its importance to trade, Tarsus was also known as a city that valued learning.

    …circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews

     

    Secondly, Saul’s pedigree mentions that he was circumcised on the eighth day and traces his tribal membership back to the beginning of the Twelve Tribes.  Remember that Benjamin was the youngest brother of Joseph of special multi-colored coat fame – the brother that Joseph elevated when his older brothers were humbled.  So Saul knows his tribe and alludes to its stature.

    …brought up in [Jerusalem] at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law being zealous for God.

     

    Then the scripture mentions that Saul studied with Gamaliel.  The status of a teacher often bestows status on the student, and Gamaliel was a leading authority as both a rabbi and member of the Sanhedrin of the first century.  We hear that term often during Holy Week, but it might be helpful for me to say that the Sanhedrin was the Supreme Court of the Jews at the time of Jesus – the final authority on Jewish Law.  Very powerful.  So when Paul says, “educated strictly according to our ancestral law,” that is a very meaningful statement.

    It was out of his strict education in Jewish Law that Saul reacted to the followers of Jesus.  Jesus was a big rule breaker, in the eyes of the Jews and especially the Jews who were Pharisees and members of the Sanhedrin.  Those responsible to interpret and uphold the Law are the ones who incited the crowds and worked to get Jesus put to death.  They had power and they were determined to keep the Law pure.

    It was this zealotry that led to the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and unleashed attacks on those who believed in Jesus.  Acts 8, verse 3 tells of how Saul “entered one house after another and dragged off men and women to throw them in prison.”

    The very next chapter of Acts, begins this way: Saul was still spewing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.

    So Saul goes to the high priest and secures the authority to take prisoners in Damascus so he could haul them to prison as well. 

    The Reader’s Digest Version is, there is a blinding (literally blinding!) light, Saul is knocked to the ground, and he hears Jesus’s voice asking him why he is persecuting Him.  Jesus sends him to a place to heal and then invites a disciple named Ananias to go and heal Saul’s blindness.  Ananias tells Jesus this is crazy – he will kill me! – but he goes and heals Saul’s blindness and baptizes him – and soon after that, he began to tell his story and preach about Jesus – much to the astonishment and terror of the Christians in Damascus and then Jerusalem.  Saul is first called “Paul” in Acts 13 when he is in Cyprus – changing his name to the Greek version.

    There were many times that Paul had to prove his pedigree.  That’s why today’s scripture comes from several stories and sources.  As you read the study book, you will see how he got himself in places and situations where people didn’t think he had what was necessary to exert any spiritual authority – and of course, countless Christians were terrified of him.  He had a well-known violent and vengeful past, after all.

    Yet, as Hamilton says in the first sentence of our study book:  “It could reasonably be argued that no other human, apart from Jesus himself, has had a greater impact on the world than Paul of Tarsus.”   By the way – if you don’t want to be part of a small group but are interested in learning more about Paul, please take a book and read it at your leisure.  It contains a wealth of knowledge and spiritual food.

    I know I say this a lot, but one of the most important things we need to know about many biblical characters, and Paul is one of these, is that God didn’t call people who were perfect.  God often called people – like us – whose lives were a mess and used them anyway.  Perhaps the thing I need to emphasize about Paul is how his experience on the road to Damascus completely and utterly changed him. 

    Let me be clear.  Saul didn’t become someone else.  God used the many aspects of who Saul was and what made him what he was and transformed all of that into an effective witness to the love and grace of God that far outweighed the Law that he had followed to the letter up until that day.  Paul no longer served the Law nor understood it the same way as he always had.  He surrendered himself and his thoughts to God.  Paul became a servant of Jesus – and one who had the courage and the grace to question whether the Law was in keeping with the love and grace of God.

    There is one more thing I want to mention today.  Paul’s relationship with the original disciples was rocky at best.  For every reason I have already mentioned today, the original eleven were very skeptical about Paul, and they were very slow to accept him as a fellow traveler in the Way.  Acts, chapter 9, vss 26-27:

    26 When Saul arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him. They didn’t believe he was really a disciple. 27 Then Barnabas brought Saul to the apostles and told them the story about how Saul saw the Lord on the way and that the Lord had spoken to Saul. He also told them about the confidence with which Saul had preached in the name of Jesus in Damascus.

     

    Often when God calls someone, there is a helper – an intermediary, perhaps, like Barnabas.  Peter and Paul could not have been more different – an uneducated fisherman and an elegantly educated student of the law.  But as we study Paul’s life and ministry, I hope you will look for the ways in which Paul was uniquely positioned and prepared to develop theology for the Christian Church.  It is Paul who focuses not on the stories of Jesus but on the meaning and significance of Jesus’ life and message.  And as we read, we can see how his theological work often led him to change his opinions and shift his understandings – not unlike his shift away from total allegiance to the Jewish Law.

    I want to leave you with this.  As you go through your week this week, won’t you take a few moments each day to reflect on those people who have been a Barnabas in your life?  People who may have offered a quiet word of encouragement when you were struggling with something in your spiritual growth or maybe someone who introduced you as someone who could offer something important to others.  You see, you, too have been called – just like Elisha and Ruth and Esther and Paul – to show God to the world.  And we all need a little encouragement from time to time!