Sermon 06-14-2020: “The B.C. and A.D. of Our Lives”

July 14, 2020

Scripture: Galatians 1:11-24

Do you know any millennials—I’m talking about that generation of people aged 25 to 40? Some of you are millennials, of course—but for the moment I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to the rest of us about you. If we know and love millennials in your life, they could probably use a hug about right now. Not that I can recommend that you literally hug anyone in this time of coronavirus! But listen to this: according to a new survey of 2,000 millennials, fully 80 percent of them feel as if they’re not “good enough” in virtually all areas of their lives. 

Seventy-five percent admit that they constantly feel “overwhelmed” by pressure to succeed in their careers, to find a meaningful romantic relationship, to meet others’ expectations, and to maintain a presence on social media. In all, 80 percent of respondents even say these worries have negatively impacted their sleep and admit that their overall mental health has suffered.

So… millennials could use a hug. They could use some encouragement. In general, they’re not feeling good about themselves!

To say the least, the apostle Paul was not a millennial. Prior to his conversion, when he was a Pharisee among Pharisees, he didn’t suffer from a lack of self-confidence or self-esteem; he did not feel overwhelmed; he did not feel like a failure; he did not feel as if he weren’t “good enough.” On the contrary, in his former life before Christ, he could look at his fellow Pharisees—those who were striving hardest to please God through their obedience to the Law—and say, in verse 14, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my nation, and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” 

Unlike the millennials, Saul of Tarsus—as he was known back then—felt like he measured up quite well. When it came to striving to be righteous by keeping the 613 laws in the Old Testament, not to mention all the extra little laws that the Pharisees created in order to be extra righteous, no one did it better than Paul. Everyone knew this. Paul was famous for his “righteousness under the Law.” This is why, for instance, he was given the legal authority by the high priest to have Jewish Christians arrested, persecuted, and even executed for committing what Paul believed at the time to be blasphemy and heresy. As he says in verse 13, “I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.”

I’ve been a fan of Star Trek since I was 7-years-old. I’m talking about the original series. And when I say this, some of you are like, “Of course you’re a fan of Star Trek! That explains a lot!” Imagine my surprise and delight to learn that DeForrest Kelly is from Toccoa! But some of you may remember that great movie Star Trek VI, when the Federation—the good guys—make peace with the evil Klingon Empire. No one hates Klingons more than Captain Kirk. He’s spent his career fighting against them; Klingons even killed his son. But Kirk has been sent on a mission to broker a peace treaty between the two empires. And Kirk hates the idea of peace with the Klingons. So he asks his friend Spock, “Why are they sending me to do this? I hate Klingons!” And Spock said, “It reminds me of that ancient Vulcan proverb.” “What’s that?” Kirk asks. Spock says, “Only Nixon could go to China.”

I hope you see the point… In order for a peace deal with your most hated enemy to be perceived as credible in the eyes of people on your side—in order for it to be accepted by people on your side—who better to endorse it than the one who’s most famous for hating the enemy and fighting against them?

And this is Paul’s point in mentioning his past as a gospel-hating Pharisee: Is there a less likely advocate for the gospel of Jesus Christ than the former Saul of Tarsus? Because remember, the reason why Paul hated the gospel so much is that it said to people like him, “You’ve been trying to make yourself righteous—to make yourself acceptable to God, to inherit eternal life—by obeying the Law. You’ve spent your career teaching others to do the same. But Saul, you can’t be righteous that way. No matter how hard you try, you’re going to fall short. The only possible way you can be righteous in God’s eyes is to let Jesus Christ be righteous for you. And that happens not because of what you do, Saul, but what Christ has done for you—through his atoning death on the cross. The only way to receive the benefits of Christ’s atoning work is to place your faith in him.” 

So if Jesus was right, and the apostles were right, then that meant that Saul was wrong. Everything he had been taught was wrong. Everything he had taught others was wrong. Everything he had worked for was wrong. Can you imagine being told that your whole life was a lie? That’s how Jesus’ message made him feel… that’s how the apostles’ message made him feel…

So it’s perfectly understandable why Saul of Tarsus so violently opposed this new Christian movment. 

What’s harder to explain is why Saul… of all people… changed?

Recall from last week that the reason Paul is writing this letter is because false teachers are teaching the Galatians that while, yes, they need to have faith in Christ to be saved, they also need to obey a few laws—that being saved is a combination of faith plus works! But as Paul said in last week’s scripture, if you believe that human effort plays any role whatsoever in salvation, then you’ve abandoned the gospel entirely—and if you continue in this belief, you risk being eternally separated from God. That’s how high the stakes are for Paul.

In today’s scripture, Paul is setting the record straight about something that the false teachers were saying about Paul. They were saying, “Paul received his gospel message second-hand. He went to Jerusalem and studied at the feet of Peter, James, and John, and the other apostles. They taught him our gospel—the gospel of faith-plus-good-works—but Paul misunderstood their teaching. So we’re here to teach you the true of gospel of faith plus works.”

And Paul is saying, “No way! First, I didn’t even go to Jerusalem and meet any of the apostles until three years after my conversion—and in those intervening three years I was preaching the gospel. But even more… You know that I changed my life 180 degrees! What else accounts for that kind of change other than my personal encounter with the resurrected Lord Jesus—from whom I received my gospel directly.”

Brothers and sisters, please don’t miss this point: to make his argument in verses 11 to 24, Paul is presenting as Exhibit A—his most important piece of evidence—a fact that is irrefutable even to his enemies, the Judaizers—Paul’s life had changed dramatically. No one could deny the change. It was obvious to everyone… Because of his encounter with Christ, Paul’s life had a clear B.C.—before Christ. And a clear A.D.

So here’s my question: “Does your life have a B.C. and an A.D.?”

Don’t misunderstand: Paul’s conversion is unique—unlike Paul, none of us will ever meet the resurrected Jesus in person, on this side of heaven. But in many other ways we present-day Christians in our conversions have so much in common with Paul in his conversion! 

For example, if we’re Christians, we have met Christ—not physically the way Paul did, but we have met him through the Holy Spirit. 

So Christ is no less real to us than he was to Paul!

Also, like Paul, we should be able to perceive and articulate to others the difference that Jesus makes in our lives right now. We should have a personal testimony. 

Just as importantly, as with Paul, even people who aren’t Christians should be able to see the difference Jesus makes in our lives! 

Do they?

Twenty-five years ago, I had a professor I had at Georgia Tech, Dr. Whit Smith. He was young when I had him, but he’s still there to this day. He taught my introductory class in electrical engineering. He was brilliant, of course, but he was also an unusually kind man—a patient man, compassionate, humble; he genuinely seemed to care about the students in his class. There was just something different about him. And it was noticeable. Ten years ago, I was talking to a fellow pastor who, upon learning that I was a Georgia Tech alum, said, “Oh, I have a parishioner at my church who teaches at Georgia Tech. Maybe you know him?” And I’m thinking, “There are a lot of professors at Georgia Tech.” He said, “His name is Whit Smith. He teaches electrical engineering.” And suddenly it all fell into place. Of course he’s a Christian! And my colleague went on to say, “Yeah, he considers his work a part of his ministry—every bit as much as going on a mission trip or doing anything else for Christ. He feels called by God to do this work and bear witness for Christ in this way.”

Jesus made a difference in Dr. Smith’s life, and people noticed. That’s what I’m talking about!

I want to challenge you to consider this possibility: There is at least one person in your life right now who is watching you… not in a creepy sort of way. But they’re watching you to see what kind of difference, if any, Christ makes in your life. Perhaps God has put you in that person’s life to show them the difference that Christ makes in your life. And unless or until they see this difference, why should they bother with Christianity?  

Do other people see the difference that Christ makes in your life, or do you just… blend in? We’re not supposed to blend in.

Look at verse 16: Paul says that God was pleased to “reveal his Son to me,” but that doesn’t just mean that this revelation was for Paul alone. The New English Bible communicates this nicely when it says that God revealed Jesus “to me and through me.” Through me, in other words, other people can see and experience at least a little bit of Jesus. There was a song back in the ’80s that we used to sing in church: “You’re the only Jesus that some will ever see.” Well, that’s true—in the sense that God is calling you to show others who Jesus is through you! 

Paul was called to do that in a specific way—in his mission to the Gentiles—but you and I are no less called. 1 Peter 1:2: “God the Father knew you and chose you long ago.” In fact, we can all say, along with the apostle Paul, that we were set apart before we were born and called by his grace.

I keep reading online these anxious, fretful posts from pastors who warn that, in the wake of the coronavirus, church will never be the same—churches won’t be able to go back to “business as usual”; that we’ll all have to get used to the new normal. Of course they’re only talking about the changes we’ll have to make to keep everyone safer from catching the virus. And that’s fine. We as a church will do whatever’s necessary to keep our church as safe as we practically can. By all means. We have a task force right now that’s working on that.

But let’s not for a moment lose sight of the big picture: Our church’s mission is to keep people safe from something that poses a far greater danger than the coronavirus. I mean, we are rightly concerned when we hear about people who get sick and die from COVID-19, but there is always a far bigger, more urgent crisis that our world faces, whether or not there’s a pandemic: people are going to die today, or next month, or next year, or 50 years from now without having a saving relationship with God through Christ! Our church’s mission, thereafter, is to keep people safe from the eternal consequences of their sin—which is eternal separation from God, which is hell! We already possess the vaccine for that deadly sickness! And that vaccine is the gospel of Jesus Christ! How much do we love our friends and neighbors and coworkers and family members if we are unwilling to share this vaccine of the gospel with them?

So by all means, let’s resolve that church—this church, Toccoa First Methodist—will never be the same. That we won’t go back to business as usual. That we will get used to a new normal: and that “new normal” will be a people who are set on fire by the Holy Spirit with a burning passion to share this gospel with people and show them the difference that Christ has made and is making in our lives!

And why will we do this? 

[Joy… Paul in Philippians 3… Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets… I’m asking you to treasure Jesus so highly that of course you’ll want to tell others about him, and show others who he is, and invite others to experience him for themselves…

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