Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
October 3 and 4, 2020
Rev. John R. Larson
Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
“Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me; patient and loving, He’s waiting and watching, watching for you and for me. Come home, come home, Ye who are weary, come home. Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling – calling, ‘O sinner, come home!’”
Maybe you know that hymn. Sometimes the words of that hymn are true. Jesus is tender and patient and He puts up with our foolishness and rebellion for a long time. But sometimes those words miss, completely, how Jesus is going to deal with us. Jesus is not always tender and soft. He can be direct and forceful. He can get to the heart of the matter quickly. Today I want to introduce you to that Jesus. That is the Jesus that Paul encountered. That Jesus changed the life of St. Paul forever. That Jesus will change your life forever.
Paul, when he was called Saul, was an amazingly religious man. He had the compulsion to be the best and holiest that he could be. He memorized large portions of the Scriptures of the Old Testament. He knew all the laws of the Jews – some 613 of them. He stood up for God against a society that was idolatrous and blasphemous. So to speak, he didn’t show up to the Temple for Passover and Yom Kippur only. (The Christian equivalent to that is what we call Christian CEO’s – Christmas, Easter, Only.) His identity and his purpose was found in his strict Jewish faith. That is, until God, who isn’t always soft and tender, battled him.
Chapter 9 in Acts begins with a focused Saul (Paul’s Jewish name), “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” (Acts 9:1) He loved God but he hated followers of “The Way.” (That is the first name given to Christians.) Can you imagine that this new religion said that they worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and they worshiped a man – Jesus. What was he to do? Let such idolatry continue? Should he just turn his eye to think that a new religion coupling true faith to God with a false addition of obedience to some man continue without his attempt to destroy it before it really began? This was Saul, the guy who would describe himself like this, “In regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” (Philippians 3:5b-6) He had to destroy these Christians. He knew it was God’s will.
Then came the worst moment in his life. He is heading from Jerusalem, north to Syria, and just outside of Damascus with papers in hand to arrest and bring to their death the names of the followers of “The Way”, Jesus met him. A God who wasn’t soft and gentle grabbed Paul. “Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.” (Acts 9:3b) And he heard a voice. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) The answer he got was not the answer he wanted. “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” (Acts 9:5)
Have you ever had your whole life interrupted? Not in a peaceful, gracious, kind way, but in a way that is harsh and hard? That is what Paul got. At that moment he lost his identity. He lost his purpose. Jesus grabbed him and, initially, this was not welcomed. Jesus stripped him of everything that he held precious only to give him something far better. Has that happened to you? If you want to be a Christian, a disciple of Jesus, it has to.
In Philippians 3 Paul talks about the flesh. Usually when we talk about flesh, in Biblical terms, we talk about all the evil things, our flesh, our human nature – the sinful rebellion against God and His ways, can do. Romans 8:13 (KJV) – “If you live after the flesh, you shall die.” In Galatians 5 Paul contrasts those who live according to the flesh – the sinful nature – with those who live according to the Spirit, “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious…I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit and kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19a,21) The flesh – getting plastered, getting high, going to Las Vegas and living up to the motto – “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” takes over life.
That type of “flesh” is a false life. God will strip you of such filth. But that is not the flesh He is talking about here. He is talking about a false hope. Paul, spouts off, “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more.” (Philippians 3:4b). Look at me!! But God took all that self- righteousness, self-confidence and while Paul is trying to stand on that ladder, knocks it over. Softly and gently? Baloney. He stripped Paul of his identity and purpose and gave him something better. He did it so he “could take hold of life that is truly life.” (I Timothy 6:19b) Will He do that in you? Will He do that in me? He better.
Here is the word that tells us how God takes hold of us and how we take hold of Him. Here is the word about how we can forget what is behind and strain toward what is ahead. Here is the word that tells us who we are and what our purpose in life is. “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness that is my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:7-11)
It was painful for Paul to lose his identity. At that moment he thought he had life all figured out. He knew exactly what he was supposed to do, and then Christ came and interrupted it. What a blessed interruption. What a wonderful change of purpose and identity. Paul, knowing what he once had in his attempts of being righteous and now, having a gift of Christ’s death and resurrection making him righteous, would say, “I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of mine own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God is by faith.” The translation “rubbish” is so “PG”. The word is dung, poop, the brown stuff you step in every so often, or clean up from your kids diapers. That is the rubbish of self-salvation, self-forgiveness. Jesus takes hold of him and you and me and in so doing we smell a little better!!
Take hold of Christ. He gives you a new identity. In faith He makes you whole. Paul says, “Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God.” (II Corinthians 3:5) In our reading, Paul says, “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” (Philippians 3:12b) Grab His death and know that by that death your life is new and clean and restored. Lay hold of His resurrection. Just as Jesus lives forever so you too will live forever. You have a new identity. You are His.
Take hold of Jesus. He has taken hold of you. “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” Sometimes our faith is so weak. Sometimes we have such a weak grip on Jesus. Sometimes we don’t know if we are going to make it. Feel His hold on you. See His strong hands and firm embrace. How many times did Paul have to learn that Jesus would be his only strength and hope? What did God teach him when he was in prison those many times and for such long episodes? What did God teach him when he battled his thorn in the flesh over and over again? What did God teach him when he was in danger and couldn’t see what was ahead? He wasn’t ever again going to put confidence in his own flesh but in the work of Jesus.
God took hold of him and wasn’t going to let him go. God takes hold of you and He won’t let go. Do you remember what Jesus said? “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28)
God did not treat Paul softly and tenderly in order to bring him to a living faith. God will not treat us so softly and tenderly to strip us of a false life or a false hope. But He gave Paul life that is life and He does the same with you. Take hold of Jesus. Jesus has taken hold of you. Amen!!