Paul was no friend of the early church. He freely admits this. In fact, Paul admits that he violently persecuted the church. We have further witness of this from Luke’s account in the book of Acts when Luke tells us about the first martyr of the church, Stephen.
Stephen proclaimed the gospel, and he upset quite a few folks. Rather than backtrack on what he proclaimed, he pushed the envelope, and he was stoned. There was a young man who looked after the cloaks of those who were stoning Stephen, and that young man was named Saul, who would later become Paul. This same Saul had obtained permission to head to Damascus and arrest Christians there when an extraordinary event took place that changed his life, but more about that later.
Paul grew up as a Pharisee, and by his own account, he was a very good one. He was the modern day equivalent of the churchman who went to church every Sunday rain or shine; who gave 10% of his offering to the church; who went to Bible study on Sunday and Wednesday night; who contributed to every fund-raiser and who served on the church council. But I think perhaps it went even further than that because Paul calls himself blameless according to the law. This means, Paul ate the right foods, washed his hands at the right times, wore the right clothing, prayed at the right times and associated with the right people. The Jewish faith was not something Paul simply talked about and practiced when it suited him; no. The Jewish faith was something he lived to the nth degree.
Paul was so absorbed into the Jewish faith that it literally was his life. And he was not happy about anything that would threaten his beloved faith. When word started being spread that a group of people dared to say that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah who was raised from the dead, Paul knew this posed a threat. It was obvious to him this was a lie. The Jewish people were not free from their enemies. Rome still occupied Israel. God had not reestablished the Jewish monarchy as no descendant of David sat on the throne. And indeed, no one could be raised from the dead. Once a person was dead, that person was dead–no return from that state. Despite all the evidence, this movement was attracting followers. His fellow Jews were converting and becoming Christian, and this was troubling. How could people follow this lie? How could people desert the truth of the Jewish faith and say Jesus is the resurrected Lord and Messiah? It did not make sense to him. It was obviously false...and a threat. The movement had to be countered.
And Paul was all to happy to oblige. The same drive that made him work to perfection drove him to persecute the early church. He strove to find followers of Jesus and have them arrested. His zealous pursuit and defense of the Jewish faith won admirers in high places, so when Paul heard about the church taking root in Damascus, he asked for and received permission to persecute the church there. Armed with arrest warrants, he headed out.
And that is when his life was changed. In an instant. In the blink of an eye. A light appeared, and a voice spoke, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
“Who are you?” Saul responded.
“I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”
Paul had encountered the Living Lord, and it was a life-changing event. I spoke not to long ago how this event completely shattered his worldview and forced him to rethink everything he thought he knew. It turned Paul’s world upside down, and after all was said and done, he went from zealous persecutor of the Church to ardent missionary and proclaimer of the Gospel to the Gentiles.
Most agreed, the transformation was amazing. The one who persecuted the Church with zeal now became one of its strongest supporters and one of the most obsessed evangelists that ever existed. Paul says as much in our second lesson this morning as he recounts all of these episodes in his life.
He says, “20In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! 21Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, 22and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; 23they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’”
And then we come to a very fascinating statement in verse 24, “And they glorified God because of me.”
Think about that statement for just a minute. “They glorified God because of me.”
I began to wonder if I had heard such a statement in the entire time I’ve been serving as a pastor. I began thinking about all the thank you notes I have received. I began thinking about all the thank you notes I have seen published in church newsletters. I began thinking about all the correspondence I’ve received from other religious institutions and such. I began to think about all the comments I’ve received on my sermons and the comments I have given to others who have preached. And to the best of my recollection, I cannot ever think of hearing anything similar.
Usually, the things churches and pastors get say this or something similar:
Thank you for your words of comfort at the funeral.
Thank you for sending a donation to help us in our mission and ministry.
Thank you for officiating at our wedding and helping us enjoy our special day.
Thank you for helping our family out during this financial crisis.
Now, these words aren’t bad. There is nothing wrong with them, so if you are in the process of writing a thank you letter or what have you, please do not think that I am somehow slamming you. I’m not. But contrast these words with what Paul says:
They glorified God because of me.
While many people thank us, the early Christians were glorifying God because of Paul. This leads me to ask why are people focusing on us instead of giving God the glory?
I have to ask that question because I think it gets to the heart and soul of the purpose of the Church in society. I think it gets to the heart and soul of what our mission and our purpose as Christians is in this world in which we live.
Let me try to be as clear as possible without being too offensive: it is not the church’s job to call attention to itself. It is not the church’s job to simply do good things and get recognized for that. It is not the church’s job to get as many people to join as possible so that we can keep the lights on, the building air conditioned, run a few programs that keep kids entertained, hold a few fund raisers and benefits for those in need, and other such things. It is not a pastor’s job to work hard to get compliments on what he or she preaches or teaches or does at a funeral or wedding. Now, we certainly do all of those things, but this is not our primary purpose. It is not our primary job.
Please listen closely: our primary job is to introduce people to and point the way to the God who makes all of these things possible. Our primary job is to lift up the awesomeness of our God and what He did in taking on flesh, dwelling among us, and reconciling the world unto himself. It is our primary job to keep God as the focus, as the center, as that which our lives revolve around. We do not want people to see us! I know that may be hard to get your head around, but I assure you, I think it is absolutely true. We do not want people to see us; we want them to see God.
And so, we must ask ourselves: are people seeing us or are they seeing God? Are they thanking us or are they thanking God? Are others glorifying us or are they glorifying God? And if they are focusing on us instead of God, why is that the case?
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, the early church glorified you because of your work. Sometimes we get things backward today and strive to lift up ourselves instead of you. Give us the strength, courage, and desire to set ourselves aside so that others may see you and give glory to you because of us. Amen.