July 12. 2009
Today we’re talking about “Radical Transformation.” Now, maybe you’re just a bit uncomfortable with that word “Radical.” Maybe it brings up some feelings from some of the more “radical” times you’ve may have lived through. Maybe you think of those radical years back in the 1960’s and ‘70’s.
I was sitting at my computer the other day, and up on my Facebook page came pictures of North Hills Elementary School from 1969. That wasn’t quite early enough for me to have been there. And I didn’t see myself in any of those pictures, but it sure made me think of those times! They didn’t seem so radical to me then, since I was still pretty young. But I know looking back that they were times when a lot was going on, and there were great changes happening. And some of those changes were difficult for many people.
Well, I actually chose the word “radical” here on purpose. I wanted to bring out, at least a little bit of that uncomfortable feelings which the word “radical” elicits. Because the transformation we’re talking about today is truly a radical transformation. And it may be that this story is a bit uncomfortable for us.
Over the years, we Presbyterians have been characterized as people who don’t take change very well. It has been jokingly suggested that the seven last words of Christ on the cross were, “That’s the way we’ve always done it!” Or “Always do everything exactly the same way!” (or some version of that!) Maybe you’ve heard the Presbyterian version of the old light bulb joke. “How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer? “Nine. One to change the bulb, and eight to form a committee to talk about how great the old bulb was!” Actually, I’ve also heard a different answer to that. “How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer. “Change? Waddaya mean change?! We don’t change anything!!”
Well, it’s fun to poke fun at ourselves. But there is something to it. Change can be hard for us. And my guess is that this man Saul was a good Presbyterian! Yes, he was a Pharisee, and a solid member of the Jewish community, but this stuff about Jesus of Nazareth and the great change it represented, was tough for him! It was too much change from the old ways. But there was more to it than that. I have to believe that Saul believed that what was happening was not of God’s doing. In fact, in persecuting the early church, I think he truly believed he was doing God’s will! He saw himself as a guardian of the faith. And this Jesus and the movement surrounding him was a threat to that faith. So he acted. But still his actions seem harsh to us.
We know from his later writings that Paul was a student of the great rabbi Gamaliel. And if we look back at the end of the fifth chapter of Acts, we find some of Gamaliel’s words. And that’s not surprising! Because this business of how the Jewish leadership responded to the early church was a huge subject! It takes up a great deal of the entire first half of the book of Acts. And here in chapter five we find some advice on this matter given by this well respected rabbi. Gamaliel said, “Men of Israel, take care what you do to these men… if this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. [In fact,] you might even be found to be fighting against God!”
Those are words of great wisdom. And they were also very prophetic. And I can’t help thinking about that when I read this story later in the ninth chapter. “Leave these men alone or you might find yourself fighting against God!” Here we find just that. Saul is fighting against God – and he loses! But you have to wonder why Saul wasn’t following his teacher’s advice. Was he still feeling the need to be guardian of the faith? Or does his feelings of anger against the message of Jesus simply overwhelm that wise advice?
Which ever it is, Saul becomes a major persecutor of the Church. And after all the times I’ve read this story, I think this time I got an even greater appreciation of Saul’s role in this! The way Luke tells this story, I think he wants us to understand that there’s an important connection between Saul and the persecution of the Church. As I read this, it became more clear that Saul didn’t just participate in that persecution, he was the leader! Or he was one of the leaders!
I think that’s huge! In this story, God doesn’t just “convert” one of the major persecutors of the Church. That’s the image I used to have. And it’s a great image. But more than that, he wins to his side the leader of the opposition! Just think about that! This might be tantamount to converting Hitler or one of his generals to the Allied cause in the early stages of the War! I think that makes this an amazing story!
Just before Pentecost, we read the account from the first chapter of Acts. That’s where the disciples thought it was important to find a replacement for Judas. Do you remember that? I said that day that their actions that day were clearly not what God had in mind for that “twelfth spot.” God had other plans. And what amazing plans they were! And no, he didn’t end the persecution of the Church before it got going. It would actually continue for the next three hundred years. But! Right at the beginning, he took one of the strongest leaders of that persecution and made him one of the greatest advocates of the faith! It was true radical transformation!!!
Now, with all that in mind, we need to ask, like we always do (I hope), what about us? Where do we fit into all of this? Well, I think our connection with this story begins in our second reading. It starts with this guy named Ananias. I think it’s very easy to see ourselves in him. He was the first to hear from God about the conversion of Saul. And I love the “human-ness” of his response. He doesn’t say, “Let your will be done, O Lord.” He says, “Wait a minute, God! I’ve heard of this guy! You can’t be serious!!” Ananias went through his own transformation, didn’t he? Despite his tremendous misgivings, he goes to Saul anyway, and he helps him to see again – or perhaps for the first time!
That’s the first step. Then think about the other believers. Imagine being one of them. Ananias goes to Saul, he sets him straight, and then he becomes the one to present Saul to the rest of the Christian community. And they all know him. too! They know he’s the leader of the opposition They know him as the biggest enemy of the faith. Now they are called to change their thinking as well. They are called to be transformed, too. And with the pain caused by this man, that wasn’t easy! And yet that story of Jesus changing lives has been part of the life of the church ever since!
Sometimes I wonder, though. Sometimes I wonder if we realize that we too have been called to a radical transformation. Probably the biggest criticism of Christians by people outside of the Church is that they are no different than anybody else. In other words, for too many believers, following this Jesus makes no difference at all in their lives. For too many, not only is there no radical transformation, there’s very little transformation of any kind. Yet we follow a savior who has called us to take up the cross. And we have as an example this man Saul, now called Paul, who said that “if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation! The past is finished and done. Behold the new has come.” No one knew that better than him!! But do we know it?
So I ask you today to search your heart. I believe you know where God wants you to change and be transformed. You may even have tried to change those things in the past, but you couldn’t do it. You may have given up trying! But I think that’s one thing believers should never do! Our lives should always be in a constant state of growth. As a great preacher once said, “If a plant isn’t growing, it’s dying!” We need to seek that growth, knowing that Christ is the vine, and we are the branches. We draw our life from him. Notice Paul didn’t say, “if any one knows about Christ, they are a new creation…” He said “if anyone is in Christ.”
Let us seek to be transformed, let us strive to be change from one degree of glory to the next. And as we do, may we remember today that we do so in connection with God. It doesn’t happen apart from him. Without God, we “die on the vine.” But with God, there is joyous and victorious life. In him we are radically transformed! Remember Saul. Remember how much changed in his life when he met the living Christ. Know that you too are called by God. You are his people. You are called in the same way.
Eternal and ever blessed God, you have made us, you have redeemed us, and you call us into bold and joyous service in your kingdom. Help us as we strive to be new creations, changed for your service, and for your glory. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.