Wednesday 12 October 2022

Paul 1



The Acts of the Apostles is really the only account we have of the history of the early Church. This book of some, some twenty-eight chapters notwithstanding Jesus’ last words and his ascension, begins the story of the Church under the leadership of the Apostle Peter before giving way to the missions, the life and the leadership of Paul. You will recall that Paul had started out as Saul the Pharisee and in the Acts of the Apostles he begins as Saul the persecutor of the church in Jerusalem and we can be reasonably certain that he, Saul was partly if not largely responsible for the murder of Stephen, the first Christian martyr whom the Jews stoned to death.


As a result of these persecutions, the members of the early Church in Jerusalem fled to different areas including Damascus in Syria. And you will recall that it was Saul who obtained authority, letters of authority from the Jewish leaders to travel to Damascus in Syria to arrest the Followers of the Lord’s Way (this was what the people of the Church were known as before they were known as Christians) You will know too, that on the way to Damascus, that Saul was blinded by an intense light and that as this happened he had an encounter with Jesus, we could say that he had an encounter with the living Christ that led to his conversion and his eventual leadership of the Christian Church.


I think it is important for us to understand how after the life of Jesus of Nazareth on this earth, and the fading of Peter in the New Testament narrative, how Paul in the life and the history of the early Church became the dominant figure, the leading figure. For example, the New Testament contains twenty-seven books, and fourteen of these books, letters, epistles are all attributed to Paul. If we were to also consider the Acts of the Apostles, written by Luke, we could say that Paul, notwithstanding the four gospels, ‘strides through the pages of the New Testament as a colossus.’ Without Paul there would be no Christian Church today; that is almost certain.


If you want to see how this man saw himself in his new role as an apostle to the gentiles, we can simply turn to his First Letter to the Corinthians (15: 9-11) in which he wrote:


I am the least important of all the apostles. In fact, I caused so much trouble for God's church that I don't even deserve to be called an apostle. But God treated me with undeserved grace! He made me what I am, and his grace wasn't wasted. I worked much harder than any of the other apostles, although it was really God's grace at work and not me. But it doesn't matter if I preached or if they preached. All of you believed the message just the same.


If we look at that statement you can see the deep humility of Paul. He recognised that in the past that he had caused a lot of suffering to those who were followers of Christ. He caused a lot of suffering before he himself was converted. And what crimes against those followers of Christ he committed! The door-to-door harassments, the imprisonments, the beatings and even worse. In view of all this, you could very easily argue that this horrible man had no right whatsoever to declare himself an apostle. But God had other plans. Paul was saved and transformed by the grace of God to fulfil a mission that would change the world.


I want to bring Paul alive for you, I want to bring Paul into focus for you because we often hear of this man who was so central to the forming and the foundation of the Church. We don’t have any contemporary portraits or picture of him but there is a written description of him that has survived from the second century that reads:


He was a man, ‘small in size, bald-headed, bow-legged, well built, with eyebrows that met, rather long-nosed and full of grace.


From the description I think we could say that he had hardly got film star good looks. Apart from his other features, I think that from all that he endured, being small and well-built would be an asset; Paul was a powerhouse of a man. What else? Full of grace, full of grace. Perhaps being full of grace is hardly anything that could be put on a passport description. Nevertheless, Paul had an undeniable presence, a discernible presence and that presence certainly could be summed up in that description of being ‘full of grace.’ That undeniable presence, that undeniable presence, down through the centuries has left its indelible mark. I think we are privileged today that we too are the inheritors of Paul’s legacy and the clues about his looks, his stature, and his indomitable personality. All this information we have concerning Paul is a gift, the story of his life bequeathed to us, to the Church and to all believers.


What I’d like to do for you, if you will let me, is to impress on you this inspiring image of Paul. Of Paul as a real flesh and blood person who really did live out the message and the final commands of Jesus, Jesus who said:


All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. Matthew 28:18-20


In fact, after his conversion on the road to Damascus he, Paul, gave up everything that he had so that he could serve the Lord. Paul was a man on a mission who had absolute trust and faith in God. We do need to know something of the past, something of the early Church so that we can understand the present, so that we can deal with life in the here and now. This thing we call Christianity is not all ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’, it’s not just a comfort blanket for a sleepy Sunday morning as though it doesn’t really matter, as though Christianity is not about the real world. So, I think we should remember those words of Jesus when he said:


Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother-in-law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. (Matthew 10:34-36)


What we can say with any certainty is that the Church grew out of opposition out of persecution. That sword that Jesus spoke about is a great divider. It is not that we want to be divided against each other our against friends, our neighbours our families but often we don’t have a choice, because the minute you decide to stand up for what you think is right, the minute you speak power to truth you will get opposition and inevitably it will be so if you take a stand for Christ. Jesus said, ‘If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. Today the world hates Christianity more than ever before, but the story of Paul’s life and ministry gives us hope and shows us that for Christians strength comes from adversity. Such is the power of God.


Photograph: Peloponnisios, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


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