The Man the Church Had to Have
The story I have this morning started one day in Jerusalem when a man named Stephen, described as one of the brightest and best of the early Christians, tries to explain Jesus to a hostile crowd who feel his faith is a threat to theirs. People do terribly cruel things at times in the name of religion, and as this crowd hears Stephen speak what for them is a heresy — that he can see a recently executed Jew named Jesus standing at the right hand of God — they cover their ears to such nonsense, grind their teeth in rage, and start a lynching party. Except that instead of a rope around the neck they throw rocks at Stephen’s head until he is blind with his own blood and doubled up in excruciating pain. So they can get maximum velocity with their rocks, these pious men have pulled off their coats and piled them at the feet of a young Jewish scholar, a bystander named Saul, who almost certainly had never seen anyone die as nobly as Stephen did, crying out first, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” and then asking with his final breath that God will forgive those who are killing him.
We have no idea why the man named Saul is present at this execution, but we are told that he watches it with approval and then — drunk with bloodlust himself — begins to go door to door in Jerusalem to drag out men and women who believe in Jesus as Stephen did, and put them behind bars. This is our introduction to a man later known as Paul, who, incredible as it may sound to you at this moment, became what I call in the sermon title a “man the church had to have.”
But at this point in our story he is the church’s most dangerous enemy and he creates a terrifying time for followers of Jesus in Jerusalem. A gifted man with an indomitable will and a genius for leadership and organization, he intends to make a name for himself by exterminating a bothersome minority who are calling Jesus the son of God. How many he arrested, how they were punished, we don’t know, only that he asks his High Priest for permission to extend his terrorism to the city of Damascus. Permission is granted and off he goes, threatening murder, determined in the name of his God to bring back in chains to Jerusalem any Christians he can find in Demascus.
If he had could have made that trip in an hour and a half by car, or half an hour by plane, I think the history of Christianity would have been radically different, but plodding along the winding dusty road for days he had nothing to do but think about what he had just done, what he was about to do next, and perhaps above all what he had seen in the face of the man named Stephen before the rocks made it unrecognizable. We are told that those who watched their Stephen die saw such radiant confidence in his face that it seemed to them the face of an angel. If ordinary men were awestruck at that look, what did the by-stander named Saul feel? He felt sure that day that he was doing the will of his God, but we know from his later life what deep capacity he had for love , what exquisite powers of sensitivity and perception. So what did he feel, watching the way Stephen died?
Perhaps an answer lies in something astonishing which happened to Paul on that trip. It’s described in the dramatic rhetoric typical of the times, but it is no less marvelous if we choose to describe it in terms of modern psychology — a way of understanding it that makes thrilling sense to me. I believe that Paul began that long, slow, monotonous trip to Damascus unable to shake his memories of the face of the dying Christian named Stephen — a man who had infuriated established religion by claiming freedom from the bondage of legalism, but who had obviously found depths of peace and happiness which Paul had not yet been able to find for himself.
Paul was one of the hardest-working legalists who ever lived, but on that day when he saw an inner radiance illuminate Stephen’s face, and heard him pray with rare and beautiful courage for the forgiveness of those who were killng him, Paul must have known deep within himself that here was a power unlike anything he had ever seen. A seed was planted that day, watered with blood and waiting for the right moment. The moment came somewhere along that journey to Damascus when in a blinding flash of illumination, Paul caught on to the concept of God’s grace and the power of love. The experience is described as if it were external, with a flash of light from the skies, a vision of Christ and the sound of a voice, with Paul knocked to his knees and blindfor three days — all of which is read quite literally by some, while others read it as poetic language for some reality that happened in Paul’s heart and could not have been recorded on film —a vision in which Stephen’s face and the Lord he served with such joy coalesced until the voice of Stephen’s Lord said to Paul’s heart, “Why do you resist me? It’s hard for you, isn’t it Paul, to fight back against what is goading your heart?” It had to be the goading of conscience, Paul’s unshakable memories of harming people who had found something better than he had ever known. And in that moment Paul surrendered himself to a new way of life and never looked back.
My claim this morning is that the church had to have this man in order to break free from its purely Jewish beginnings and embrace the rest of the world. The Apostle Peter could not do it, his world was too small. The right man had to belong to two cultures. He had to be Jewish to understand those who followed Christ first, and he had to be Greek to identify with nations nestled around the Mediterranean Sea. And he had to be the consummate bridge-builder between cultures. Remember what Paul’s world was like. The Jewish historian Josephus refers to a tradition that even Moses urged Jews to show no goodwill to other nations and to destroy their altars and temples. The Roman historian Tacitus complains that when a Gentile became a Jewish proselyte he was taught to despise his former gods, repudiate his nationality, and hold worthless his parents, his children and his friends. On the other side, Gentiles hated back, and sometimes urged their army generals to destroy Jews since they refused fellowshipwith other people.
All this means that the man essential to Christianity at that time had to be one who, in Paul’s own words, could become “all things to all men” and bring separated worlds together to create a universal church. Who better to do that than a man like Paul, a well-educated Jew who grew up in a city under Roman control but with a strong Greek flavor from the days when Alexander the Great saved it from Persian armies? No wonder Paul eventually came to believe that from his mother’s womb he was destined under God to make Christianity a truly universal religion. Our debt to this amazing man is incalculable, because if the church had remained a minority Jewish sect we would not be here.
Does that also mean that we believe everything he wrote to some of the churches he established? Social customs probably influenced his advice to the church in Corinth, but try convincing even one choir member I know, let alone a few million other women, that they should stay in their place and never shock people by speaking in church, and that if there is something they want to know they should ask their husbands at home. That sounds strange, coming from the only male Christian who ever said that male and female are equal in Christ, so either Paul couldn’t quite escape his rearing and his culture, or else the port city of Corinth posed special problems for a Christian church. It is painful to hear him argue that a woman should cover her head in church, while a man need not do so because man is the image of God and the mirror of his glory, whereas woman reflects the glory of man, and that since woman was created for the sake of man it is her duty to have a sign of authority on her head.
The only defense I can make for some of those statements is that Paul could not have imagined the world we live in. Even the greatest of men never escape entirely the thought world into which they have been born. He never condemned human slavery, perhaps because he thought it hardly mattered with the world coming to an end very soon. He believed in predestination; I do not. And apart from the Jewish sacrifice syndrome, his theory of blood atonement is not meaningful to me. His use of Hebrew scripture to make Christian arguments should raise the hackles of any fundamentalist who bothers to check this kind of thing and sees Paul lift verses out of context, ignore the original author’s intention, combines verses from different sources to make his point, and drag in allegorical or typological explanations when they suit his purpose. But he had learned that way of handling scripture and could not have imagined our insistence on complete accuracy in building arguments.
But great men are judged by the heights they reach. Only a poet’s best work counts, his bad makes no difference. Shakespeare wrote some dull verse and could not resist even a wretched pun, but lovers of language call him the greatest of all English poets because of all the unforgettable lines that take one’s breath away. Wordsworth’s reputation survives some terrible verse he wrote at times. But in Paul’s case, his worst has been given importance over his best, and that is not fair.
It was Paul who suffered unbelievable hardships to spread the gospel over the Mediterranean world: shipwrecked 3 times, beaten 5 times, stoned once like Stephen,. starved, imprisoned, betrayed by false friends — the list goes on and on, ending with Paul’s statement of how he worries about his churches: “If anyone is weak, I share that weakness. If anyone is made to stumble, my heart blazes with indignation.” He died, apparently, a prisoner, but not before he wrote some of the loftiest and most beautiful words ever put on paper. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another . He elevated love as few men have in the history of the world. He was brilliant, but he came to know that even if one has more knowledge than anyone alive, and lacks a loving heart, it is nothing. “If I could move mountains, and had no love, it would mean nothing. If I sacrificed everything I have to feed the poor, even became a martyr at the stake, and had no love, it would profit me nothing. Teaching is forgotten, eloquence fails, only love endures to give life meaning. “I am persuaded,” he wrote, that neither death, nor life, nor height nor depth, nor any power or any creature can separate us from the love of God.” This from the man we met as a murderer!
It is fascinating to realize that at the time of Paul’s conversion, about three years after the death of Christ, the writing of the first Christian gospel was still 35 years in the future. No formal scripture, no developed theology when Paul begins to shape with his words what the church would become. By the time the gospels were written Jesus is shown doing miracles right and left, but in all of Paul’s letters there is not a single word about wonders done by Jesus — except for the wonder of how his spirit has power to change a life.
One mark of Paul’s genius is that he so often still speaks directly to our condition even after the passing of 20 centuries. Is there an honest, thoughtful person listening right now who hasn’t been puzzled by inconsistent behavior? “I don’t understand myself,” Paul writes. “I fail to do the good things I want to do; instead, I do bad things I don’t want to do. What an unhappy person I am at times!” I hear the same words one day when Jim Forbes, the powerful black preacher for Riverside Church in New York City, speaks to a group of ministers gathered for a morning worship service. “If I am to be truthful with myself,” he says, “I would have to admit that if I lived out the implications of the Christian faith in my daily existence, in my professional life, in my academic life and in my personal life, I would be hurting most of the time…..O, I’ll get up at Riverside and cry out for you, Lord, but the question is, Can I live out what I cry out?” If the faith you profess means anything at all to you, you have asked that question.
And, I hope, looked forward like Paul, and kept trying. “I haven’t learned all I should, even yet,” he says on another day. “I have not reached perfection, but I press on, hoping to take hold of that for which Christ once took hold of me. I haven’t managed that yet, completely, but I do concentrate on this: I leave the past behind (there’s always someone who needs that word!) — I leave the past behind and with hands outstretched to whatever lies ahead, I press on.” You have just heard the secret of courageous life.
Paul knew one other secret, one often forgotten, I’m afraid, by those who preach and those who listen: that we are won to goodness not nearly so much by spoken words as we are by the beauty we see in someone’s life. Wouldn’t you like to leave this morning thinking that for someone it was the beauty seen in your life?
Help us live so well this week that those who meet us will find
new hope and courage for themselves. Amen