Sorry for the delay in posting this sermon. I had an incredibly busy week with Vacation Bible School in addition to everything else. Sorry there’s no video component this week. 🙁 Technical difficulties… Battery died midway through! This sermon concludes our “Eyewitness News” series, but it paves the way nicely for our next series, “Roman Road,” which takes us through Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
Sermon Text: Acts 9:1-9; 1 Corinthians 15:3-11
Last year, my friend John and I met an old, mutual friend for dinner. His name is Charles. We hadn’t seen Charles in 15 years. Charles was always an interesting guy. In the mid-’80s he went to L.A. to appear on the game show Jeopardy. This was very exciting for us. To get ready for the show, I remember Charles constantly flipping through Trivial Pursuit cards. He didn’t win. In fact, he finished third, but that was cool because third-place prize included a CD player, which at the time was really something special! No one we knew had a CD player. Isn’t that funny? Anyway, when Charles’s father died unexpectedly, Charles inherited a lot of money. He went back to L.A., where he’s lived ever since. I’m not making this up: he later won a car on The Price Is Right.
Charles was interested in appearing on game shows, because game shows were a stepping stone toward doing that thing that Charles most wanted to do: which is, become an actor. Charles worked hard for years pursuing his dream of becoming an actor in Hollywood, which, as is so often the case, didn’t pan out. Since then Charles’s life has been characterized by flitting from one questionable business venture to another, never settling down, always trying to find that one thing that will make him rich and/or famous.
And if you detect a bit of an edge in my voice, well… it’s because Charles actually puts us down—John and me—for being a couple of boring sell-outs—what with our steady jobs, our marriages, our families! When we met him for dinner that night, he was excited to tell us about his latest boondoggle—sorry, I mean, serious business venture. It involves helping people get their funny home videos marketed to America’s Funniest Home Videos and other, similar cable shows. To which we asked, “You mean America’s Funniest Home Videos is still on TV?” He assured us that it was, and that there was money to be made in that particular part of the industry. And he would help his clients gehot heir videos on the air. And we’re like, “Whatever you say, Charles!”
Well, Charles launched his new business last week on Facebook and invited all of his friends to check it out. John and I were talking about it, kind of shaking our heads skeptically. John said of Charles, “People never change.” And I’m like, “Yeah. People never change.”
But wait! People never change? Of course they do! I hope they do! I am, after all, in the business of people’s lives changing. Notice I didn’t say I was in the business of changing people’s lives. I don’t have the power to do that! But people’s lives better change, or else what am I doing? In that regard, what I do isn’t so different from Oprah Winfrey—give or take a few billion dollars. A couple of weeks ago, millions of Americans mourned the end of her TV program, including a few people in here, I’m sure. And right now you’re thinking, “Don’t you dis Oprah, preacher!” No, I don’t want to dis her. I’m jealous. I would like just a tiny fraction of her audience! But Oprah’s show—her life, her ministry—was devoted to changing women’s lives, both in constructive ways, like encouraging them to read good books, for example, and in highly questionable ways—through New Age-y self-help gurus, psychics, and materialistic evangelists who pimped some version of the prosperity gospel. If you believe hard enough, you’ll get rich and be successful.
Oprah preached loudly that we could change our lives for the better, and I don’t really disagree with that. I disagree with her over who exactly is doing the changing, what that change often looks like, and to what end our lives are changing. But by all means, people’s lives change.
In today’s scripture, the life of Saul of Tarsus, otherwise known as Paul, changed dramatically. Perhaps more than anyone else’s life in history. Even in secular literature, you will sometimes hear of someone’s “Damascus Road experience.” That comes from this scripture, and it implies a 180-degree turnaround, that someone drastically changed their lives or their thinking about something. No one, I would argue, aside from Jesus himself, had a bigger impact on the history of the world than Paul. Because of this change in Paul’s life, among other things, you and I are here in church today.
Has Jesus changed your life? He’s changed mine. I even had something of a conversion experience.
If you heard my sermon last week, in which I described being teased in eighth grade for having the nickname “Mad Dog,” you probably got the idea that I felt pretty insecure when I entered high school in eighth grade. And I did! But I remember vividly as a young and impressionable 13 year old being afraid… You know what I was afraid of more than anything else? Nuclear war. Don’t laugh! This was the early ’80s. This was the last gasp of the Cold War. This was “Star Wars” missile defense. This was a time of video games like “Missile Command,” in which you tried to save American cities from nuclear attack—which, if you recall from the depressing game, was hopeless in the long run. Matthew Broderick starred in a movie in which he hacks into national defense computers and almost triggers World War III by accident. The worst thing for me was this controversial TV movie called The Day After, which referred to the day after a nuclear holocaust. I remember our high school teachers wanted to “rap with us kids”—have a debriefing with us—about how the movie made us feel. Well, I didn’t feel good about it! I was reasonably certain that I would die in a nuclear attack! And that scared me.
And in the midst of that fear—along with my general fear and insecurity regarding girls, fitting in, finding my way in the world—I found Jesus. Rather, Jesus found me. He met me in my room one night when I was 13. I was deeply into music even then, and I was listening to an early Genesis album called Foxtrot. And in the middle of a 23-minute spooky-sounding song about the end of the world called “Supper’s Ready,” Jesus came to me. I didn’t see a blinding light. I didn’t see anyone. I didn’t hear anything—Paul, after all, is the last eyewitness to the resurrected Lord. But I had a strong intuition that Jesus was there with me. And I strongly sensed that he loved me and accepted me and would take care of me. And my fears subsided. And I prayed my first real prayer, which wasn’t of the “Now I lay me down to sleep” variety. And, for the first time, I felt a sense of peace.
For an intellectual like myself who has been accused at times of living inside of my head, this is about as touchy-feely as it gets for me! And as a naturally skeptical, scientifically-minded person myself who empathizes with people who struggle to believe the truth claims of Christianity, I know it may sound hard to believe. But I’m telling you it was real!
The very gifted physicist Stephen Hawking occasionally goes far afield of his expertise in physics and talks about theology and religion. A few weeks ago, he did it again. The money-quote was the following: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” Well… My first response whenever a prominent scientist says stuff like this in the media is that you may as well ask Pope Benedict what he thinks about quantum mechanics. What on earth would qualify him to say anything about something he knows nothing about? Seriously! I read an article many years ago about the modern paragon of genius, Albert Einstein. The article pointed out that outside of the realm of physics, Albert Einstein demonstrated that he was exactly as dumb as the rest of us. I found that oddly comforting. So I’ll allow that Hawking is a genius physicist, but he seems pretty dumb when it comes to religion. So the media ought to stop asking him questions about it.
As much as I want to just ignore Hawking’s nonsense, I share the opinion of a blogger friend who says that when Hawking says something, “it is echoed by ten thousand Regular Joes who seem to think that anyone as smart as Hawking must be right about everything.”
Be that as it may, here I am, talking about how Jesus took away my fears… I was afraid of the dark, figuratively speaking, and, thanks to Jesus, my fears, while they haven’t gone away completely, have greatly diminished. Does that make me a weak, irrational person who can’t deal with the cold, hard facts of reality? No. Being afraid makes me like every other normal person! As my blogger friend said, “Christians are often mocked for being afraid of reality. Of course we’re afraid of reality,” he writes. “Who isn’t? All the reasonable people like Hawking? I can’t buy that,” he said.
And neither can I. Just look at the news, and tell me we don’t live in a world in which people are desperately afraid! These fears are expressed in a million different ways. But I’m telling you that when Jesus found me, he calmed my fears—among many other things that he did for me!
Because here’s the thing: I wasn’t converted to a new set of ideas—I was a churchgoer, after all, and I wasn’t aware of disbelieving in Christianity when I was 13. No, I wasn’t converted so much as I fell in love with a person—Jesus. Being a Christian isn’t mostly about believing certain things about God or the world or the Bible. It’s much more personal than that. It’s about being in relationship with a living person—who, as it turns out, is also God, and who lives with us today through the Holy Spirit. And being in a relationship with Jesus gives us the motivation, the energy, and the courage to do all kinds of things which make no sense to the health-and-wealth evangelists of Oprah Winfrey’s cult or to “reasonable” people like Stephen Hawking.
If Christianity is some kind of crutch for fearful people who can’t cope with reality, how do we explain Paul’s life after his conversion? Far from being afraid of the dark, Paul practically leapt into the lion’s den—and kept defiantly doing things that put him in harm’s way. He lists some of these things in 2 Corinthians chapter 11: he was beaten on many occasions; stoned and left for dead; imprisoned many times under harsh conditions; shipwrecked; lost at sea; left hungry and thirsty; left cold and naked; in constant physical danger from many different people. Ultimately, we know he was beheaded in Rome. All for the sake of the gospel.
Jesus changed Paul’s life so drastically that we may be intimidated and feel inadequate by comparison. After all, how do we rate next to Paul? But not so fast… People change, thank God, but—I’m with my friend John in a way, people don’t change all that much. Even Paul, when you think about it. Paul’s conversion, as dramatic as it seems, didn’t change him all that much. Don’t you think that God chose Paul because he had all this great raw material to be the perfect choice to bring the gospel to the Gentiles? He already had the personality, the passion, the brains, the enthusiasm, the stubbornness. Paul was able to quickly grasp the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection because he already understood so much of the Old Testament and God’s plan of salvation. Once he realized that Jesus was the one, he was able to quickly put it all together and make sense of it—and explain it to the world. God had been preparing Paul for this mission since he was born!
And the same is true with us—whatever we’re called to do and wherever we’re called to go! You’ve already got the raw materials inside of you to accomplish something important for God’s kingdom. You’re not called to do what Paul did, but you’re called to do something, using your unique personality and gifts.
And it all starts now… Or at least it can. Whether you began this journey of Christian faith decades ago, and you’ve been a Christian for a long time, or you haven’t even taken that first step. But it can begin today.
One of my favorite moments on my trip to the Holy Land recently was going to this place called the Garden Tomb. It’s a possible site of Jesus crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. There’s a tomb there, which might be the tomb. We don’t know for sure. The tour guide, this wonderful Englishman, made a strong case that this might be the place, but he didn’t push it too hard. He said, “So… Is this the place? We don’t know. But when you think about it, does it really matter? Because Jesus only spent two nights here, and that was 2,000 years ago! The point is that the tomb is empty. Jesus rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, and has come back to live in you lots as well, as you believe in him.” Jesus has come “to live in you lots as well.” I love that!
But Jesus has come to live in you and me, as we place our faith in him. And in one way, Jesus doesn’t change our lives all that much. But in another, more important way, he changes nearly everything in our lives. And if that doesn’t make sense to you, talk to me, or talk to some of the people around here who would be happy to tell you more about it.