Saving Joe the Plumber
During the last election, the average, everyday man was identified as "Joe the Plumber." Each year a pastor ought to have at least one sermon on how the average person is to be saved. What better way to save Joe the Plummer than the conversion of Paul the apostle?
You know the story. It's recorded 3 times in Acts. Two are Paul's personal account of what happened. The one we read is Luke's record of the event. It's introduced with: "Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples." What's going on right before this is Philip bringing the Gospel to Samaria and converting an Ethiopian. Hear light, happy music playing. As Paul comes on the scene hear dark, gloomy, Darth Vader marching music. Paul had participated in the brutal murdering of Stephen and went on "ravaging the churchentering house after house, he dragged men and women and committed them to prison." After all that still he breathed threats and murder. Paul was a hate-filled man. You wouldn't have liked him.
Persecuting Christians in Jerusalem didn't satisfy his hatred of Christ. He gets permission to hunt them down 120 miles away in Damascus where many of them had fled after Stephen was stoned. Off he goes with murder on his mind. He's not ripe for conversion; he's not almost a Christian. He's a devil. But what happens? Jesus takes the imitative. While Paul is on his way to hunt down, to hurt, to imprison the people of Christ, the Christ appears to him. He knocks Paul to the ground and blinds him with His light.
However, this isn't vengeance, hatred, or retaliation. This is grace. Jesus calls to him, "Saul, Saul." Whenever Jesus doubles a name, it's a sign of grace, pity, mercy. "Martha, Martha," Jesus says to the worried woman. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem," He says to the city destroying itself with unbelief. "Saul, Saul," Jesus says to the man who killed His children, hurt His body, and hated His Body and Blood.
The proud, hater of all things Christian was slain. As for 3 days Jesus lay in the dark tomb neither eating nor drinking, so Paul lay in the house on Straight Street. He was dead to the world but alive unto God. The text says literally, "Behold he prays!" The Greek indicates that in English we would but prays in italics. Paul prays to the Jesus he persecuted, and after Jesus raises Him from the darkness of death, "At once he began to preachthat Jesus is the Son of Godproving that Jesus is the Christ."
What a story! What a conversion! What a change! You know true Lutherans don't have testimonials in church where you stand up and say what Jesus means to you or did for you. And when a person comes to a true Lutheran pastor worried that he might not really be a Christian because he had nothing like a Damascus Road experience, he's going to be told he ought not to expect one. This being said let me also say unless you are converted as St. Paul was, you cannot be saved.
Scripture speaks of conversion with words like "born again," a "new creation," and "enlightenment." These are radical words describing radical changes. Conversion isn't patching an old garment with a new piece of cloth. It's not sowing a new swatch of cloth over the hole made by your worrying, your pride, your greed, your lust, your using of the name of the Lord carelessly. Conversion is not putting new wine into old wineskins; it's a whole new bottle. Conversion is not remaking, remodeling, or reforming your sinful self by changing habits, thoughts, words, or deeds; it's a whole new person, a brand new creation.
So where is this in your case? Do you think it's being converted to pick up your Christianity on Sunday and check it at the door on the way out? Do you think Christ is like Christmas? You can put Him away in a box, store Him, and get Him out when you feel it's time. If that's what you do with Christ, you're not converted. Jesus won't be your part time God; neither will He be satisfied with part ownership of you. He won't take your sins and leave you with your lifestyle. He won't take your worries and leave you with your opinions. He won't take your prayers and leave you with your view of your problems. It's either all Jesus all the time or no Jesus none of the time. Conversion is that radical, that life changing. It's nothing less than death and resurrection, and if you don't die all the way, to your thoughts, your dreams, your hopes, your fears, you don't raise either.
Well good luck with that. Good luck dying to self when you can't even hold your breath till you pass out. Your desire to preserve self: not just your sins but your way of living, your way of worrying, believing, hoping is impossible for you to kill. O you can fake it. In the Army there's a motto, "Never volunteer for anything." In the Rangers, it's the opposite. When someone in charge says, "I need a volunteer," every voice cries out eagerly, "I'll do it." I've said that, and not meant a word of it. You can fake the changes conversion brings, but you can't fake conversion. Only the Jesus who appeared to St. Paul can convert you as He did him.
Jesus confronts you as He did Paul. He stops you in your tracks with an undoable Law. He debilitates you. He does this by preaching the Law. He can do this with words telling you must, ought, have to do this, this and this and not that, that, and that. Jesus can also preach the law with life. Proverbs 20, 27 and 30 says afflictions reach the same depth as the Spirit. They did with Paul. Jesus stopped him dead in his tracks with blindness. Do you think He only works that way in Paul's life?
You aren't on your way to persecute Christians in Damascus, but you are on your way to do, to think, to live life on your terms. Jesus is back in the box; Jesus has as much of you as you will allow. But He wants all of you because He loves all of you. Your ideas, ways, plans being frustrated are a call to die to them, to give them up, to return to your Lord with the prayer, "Hallowed be Thy name; Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done."
Paul prayed those petitions in the depths of his 3 day darkness, and the Lord answered; He changed Paul. He was no longer the man he was; he was the man Jesus wanted him to be. A man with a lifelong eye problem; a man with a thorn stuck always in his flesh; a man who knew Jesus as Jehovah.
On the road, Paul cried out, "Who are you Lord, i.e. Jehovah." Jehovah answered, "I am Jesus." "I am" are the words the Lord identified Himself by when Moses asked Him His name. Jehovah whom Paul worshipped in the temple and prayed to 3 times a day was none other than Jesus of Nazareth. The God who parted the Red Sea, destroyed the prophets of Baal, and promised to save sinners was the Man who died on a cross and now on the Damascus road stood before Paul alive, but there's more.
Jesus is also the Messiah; the Christ. He is the one promised to Adam and Eve. He is the One Abraham, Job, and David hoped for, and Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel spoke of. Messiah means "anointed one." Jesus was the One anointed to keep the Law that remains undoable to us. While we can't stop ourselves from worrying, from loving others more than God, from trusting men more than God, Jesus always feared, loved and trusted God above all things. He never put God in a box, or faked that God had all of Him when He only had a part.
There goes the heavy weight of God's law that you suffocate under. It's on the back of Jesus and He is carrying it to the cross because that's what people who break just one of God's laws deserve: death and that painful and eternal. Jesus goes to this death, though sinless, because He bears your guilt. All the things others won't forgive you for, your conscience won't forget, and the Devil wants you to remember were carried away by Jesus. Hear that pounding, that's your sins being nailed to the cross almost 2,000 years ago. Your sins are that distant to God; they're to be that far away to you too.
I know what's bothering you. Where's the blinding light? Where's Jesus standing before me? Where's the vision showing me God is in my life? If you ask these questions also ask, "Where's my life long eye problem? Where's the promise that Jesus will show me how much I must suffer in His name?" We don't want the conversion of St. Paul but one like St. Paul's, and that we have. As Jesus operated in Paul's life through means, so He operates in ours today.
Once Jesus had Paul's attention, He stopped operating directly. Jesus didn't go in person to the house on Straight Street; He sent Ananias. Rather then lay His nail pierced hand on Paul, He used Ananias' hand. Likewise, you come to me for private confession, and the Lord uses my mouth and my hand on your head when sending your sins away.
Jesus could've continued speaking to Paul directly as He did on the road, but He stopped. He used Ananias as His mouthpiece, and so it is with you. I speak in the stead of and by the command of Jesus. You don't have to wonder or worry if God might be trying to tell you something in dreams or visions, He has promised to speak His Word to you through this office.
And what seals the conversion of St. Paul? Baptism. When Paul tells his life story to those outside the Church, He speaks of the Damascus road experience, but when he speak to those inside the Church, he speaks of being in Christ, clothed with Christ, being washed and regenerated, i.e. being baptized! To Baptism not to a blinding light is where Paul goes for comfort and certainty of conversion, that's where you are to go.
Some of you are still disappointed. You want Jesus appearing to you as He did to Paul. He does. Paul writes to the Corinthians twice telling them that Jesus commanded him to celebrate communion, "to bring Me back to you." As only the Words of Jesus could inform Paul who it was in the light, so only the Words of Jesus can inform us what this Bread and Wine really is. Wherever Jesus appears whether on the Damascus Road or on this altar everything changes, not the least being we average, everyday Jane or Joe plumbers gathered around it. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Conversion of St. Paul (20090125); Acts 9: 1-22