What Paul Learned


A sermon preached on October 5, 2008 based upon Exodus 20:1 – 4, 7 – 9, 12 – 20 and Philippians 3:4b – 14, entitled “What Paul Learned.”

The apostle Paul is a fascinating figure who is often referred to as the person other than Jesus who had the most to do with shaping Christianity. You may be familiar with his story, some of which he refers to in this morning’s reading from his letter.

Paul grew up with the name of Saul, and, in the language of today, from early on he traveled the optimal career path. He came from the best family, went to the best schools, networked with only the most honored people — his reputation was impeccable.  He was, as they say, headed places.

He knew, and practiced, the Law of God inside and out. He made a point of rooting out what he considered to be corrupting influences on the moral and spiritual purity of his people — specifically the rif raff who were going about teaching the abomination that Jesus of Nazareth, a back water preacher who died a shameful death on the cross, was the messiah of God. Saul found these people particularly despicable.

And then one day as he traveled on a road to a place called Damascus where he intended to root out some more of these Christian troublemakers, something happened that he would never have anticipated in a thousand years. He encountered a blaze of light that brought him to his knees and left him totally blind. He heard a voice say, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

He had no clue what the blaze of light was talking about, that is, until the voice identified himself: “I am Jesus who you are persecuting.”  The voice told him to proceed to the city of Damascus, where he would be told what to do. For three days he remained blind until some Christians came and showed compassion upon him, restoring his sight, and baptizing him in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, whereupon he received a new name to denote his new life in Christ: He would now be called “Paul.”

For about two years afterwards Paul did very little at all. Apparently the experience he had been through gave him more than enough to ponder. He emerged from his time of silence and solitude a passionate Jesus preacher.

Out of his own experience of Christ, Paul introduced a radical new idea to the Church:

That Christians did not need to keep the Torah in all its many detailed laws. It was not necessary, he declared to follow the strict dietary laws, or for men to be circumcised.

Love alone was the thing that mattered — that righteousness came not from keeping the Law — which he now saw was impossible. He had done as good job as anybody at keeping the Law, but in the pivotal moment of his life when he came into the presence of God’s glorious light in Christ, he had discovered that he was still full of darkness and sin. Righteousness belonged to God — and was not something that could be earned by working hard to follow the Law. The amazing thing that Paul discovered was that God freely bestows righteousness as a gift of grace upon anyone who responds with faith in Jesus, this peculiar savior who turned everything on its head.

So single handedly, Paul opened up the church to the Gentile world. Before Paul, it had been assumed that in order to be a Christian, you had to first be a Jew, following the dietary laws, circumcision — the whole 612 laws of the Torah. Paul spent the next decades of his life traveling all around the Mediterranean Sea starting churches.

His letters to these congregations make up a good part of our New Testament. Along the way Paul experienced a great deal of persecution because of what was viewed as his defection to the dark side. He suffered quite a bit, physically and emotionally, as a result of his conversion to Christ. “For his sake,” wrote Paul, “I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…” 

His letters cover a lot — they are full of profound insights about faith and grace, as well as repeated encouragements to the early Christians to be all about love. But they also often have a slightly neurotic feel to them, because Paul was constantly finding himself in the uncomfortable position of having to defend himself from a distance against his critics who were intent on tearing down his work — specifically, instigating division in his churches. He alternates between lashing out in anger at these critics, and expressing embarrassment by the fact that he finds himself in the position of having to justify himself — which, in the end, he knows only God can do.

Listen, for instance, to these words Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthian Church, where goes in more detail about what he experienced on the road to Damascus. He speaks awkwardly, in the third person, because of the unease he feels in his apparent boasting:

It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven–whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person–whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows– was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

This is remarkable stuff, but the question that comes to me is, what are we to make of it, particularly in light of the fact that most of us never get a chance to see what Paul saw, that is, until the moment of our deaths?

At various times in the history of the church the experience of Paul on that road to Damascus has been lifted up as the model for Christian conversion. This is the experience often referred to as being “born again”, after which a person can give a definitive answer to the question, “When were you saved?” Paul could give a precise answer to this question, that moment when he went from darkness to light, from doubt to faith, indeed from death to life. It is the experience expressed in that most popular of hymns:

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me? I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

But there are other models offered in the New Testament for what “conversion” looks like. Take, for instance, the model presented by the disciples themselves, who spend two or three years in the company of Jesus himself, often appearing more confused than not about what Jesus was all about. For them conversion appeared to be a more gradual process.

Nonetheless, it must have been just incredible to see what Paul describes having seen, when he “was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.” I must admit I suffer from some “vision envy,” a longing to see what he saw with the idea that it would put to rest forever all my doubts. But before the vision gave Paul faith, it first wreaked havoc on everything he previously believed he knew to be true and real, and that must have been a very hard thing indeed.

You can’t manufacture an extraordinary experience like that of Paul‘s, and it would be foolish to try and do so. And so the rest of us are left with no choice but to accept the rather ordinary experiences we do have of God‘s presence in our lives, and to ponder them for all their worth, not missing the glory that is to be revealed in our rather mundane lives, and to listen, at the same time, to what others such as Paul who have had such extraordinary experiences have to teach us.

The people who have undergone what is called Near Death Experiences often impress me in a similar way. Take, for instance, the description of a man’s experience who momentarily “died”, only to be revived, recorded in Dr. Raymond Moody’s book, The Light Beyond. This man had attended a rather conservative seminary. Before his Near Death Experience he had held rather strong opinions about who God was and who would, and wouldn’t be saved. This is what he said:

“My doctor told me I “died” during the surgery. But I told him that I came to life. I saw in that vision how stuck up I was with all that theory, looking down on everyone who wasn’t a member of my denomination or didn’t subscribe to the theological beliefs I did.   A lot of people I know are going to be surprised when they find out that the Lord isn’t interested in theology. He seems to find some of it amusing, as a matter of fact, because he wasn’t interested at all in anything about my denomination. He wanted to know what was in my heart, not my head.”

Real encounters with God, whether extraordinary or merely “ordinary” render a certain humility within us. We really don’t know everything. As Paul says at the end of his words today, despite what he was privileged to witness, he knows that he has not yet arrived. He doesn’t really possess anything. He presses on in hope.

It is also striking to realize that when people have been privileged to get up close and personal with God, pretty consistently what they discover is that much of what has consumed their energy and attention in the course of their lives wasn’t really all that important after all. Paul calls this stuff just so much “rubbish.” Again, a pretty humbling notion.

In the end, all that matters is love. Ours is to love, not to judge. In the end, life is simpler than we make it out to be.

We heard this morning the Ten Commandments, which, in the proper spirit, can be part of that simple wisdom we so easily overlook. I am reminded of well known essay by Robert Fulghum:

“All I Really Need to Know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the sandpile at Sunday School. These are the things I learned:

“Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. Live a balanced life-learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some. Take a nap every afternoon. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that. Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup–they all die. So do we. And then remember the Dick and Jane books and the first word you learned–the biggest word of all–LOOK. Everything you need to know is in there somewhere.”

Shortly after entering the wilderness, in the kindergarten of their spiritual journey, the Israelites — the children of God — received the basic rules for life in those ten commandments.

This morning as we gather once more to receive our manna from heaven, we do so humbly, finding ourselves on even ground with every other human being. We come as those who have not yet arrived, and know that we live by grace. We return like children to the home we had forsaken, that home to which we are always finally welcomed, and where there is always room in the circle.



(2 Corinthians 12)