JANUARY 11, 2015

Rev. Dr. Richard Meyer


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           I came across a list of tough to answer questions the other day.  Questions like, What was the greatest thing prior to sliced bread? and Why would someone say they slept like a baby unless they cried all night and wet themselves?  and If you pamper a cow do you get spoiled milk?             

            Heres another though to answer question.  Its been around for 2700 years.  Im sure youve heard it.  Can a leopard change its spots?  Do you know who first posed that question?  It was the prophet Jeremiah.  You can look it up in the 13th chapter of his prophecy.

            This question about leopards and spots has been debated for centuries.  Can a person change his or her basic nature? Can the cruel become kind, the vulgar become virtuous, the coward become courageous?

            It is an important question. Few of us are all we want to be. Is there any hope for us? Albert Einstein said that it is easier to denature plutonium than it is to denature the evil spirit of humankind. Will Rogers said, "You cant say that civilization doesn't advance for in every war they kill you in a new way." In 1961, Bruce Catton, an authority on the Civil War, spoke on the theme, "What 1861 has to say to 1961." In his address he emphasized that while weaponry has changed over the past century, humankinds most explosive problem is the same - the nature of humankind.

            And then there is Jack Paars classic line. Before Jimmy Fallon there was Jay Leno and before Jay Leno there was Johnny Carson, and before Johnny Carson there was Jack Paar. and he said, Looking back, my life seems like one long obstacle course, with me as its chief obstacle."

            Many of us can identify with Paars words. Is it possible for us to change? The answer is, "Of course, we can change. Millions of people have experienced change in their lives. Consider for a moment the life of the Apostle Paul. 

            We continue our Wintering in Galatia sermon series this morning, which we kicked off last Sunday.  If you decided to stay home by the fire last Sunday, you missed the best sermon I ever preached at this church.  Actually, it wasnt, but what one thing you need to know from last Sunday was that some people in Galatia questioned Pauls authority.  Specifically, they questioned his apostleship, and he continues to defend his apostolic credentials today.  As he does, I want us to note three things. 

            First, note two major changes in Pauls life.  Change number one: he moved from being a fanatic about the law to being a fanatic about grace.  The law had been Pauls life. He had studied it. He knew it.  He kept it, and now the dominant center of his life was Gods grace.  This man, who with passionate intensity had tried to earn Gods favor and approval by doing everything right, by the book, according to the law, was now content to accept what God had freely offered him mercy, forgiveness, grace.  He had ceased to glory in what he could do for God and had begun to glory in what God had done for him.

            I think of the musical and recent movie Les Miserables.  If you havent yet seen Les Miserables, it is an insight into the difference between living according to the law and living according to grace.  Inspector Javert, played by Russell Crowe in the movie, represents the man living according to the law and Jean Valjean represents a man living in Gods grace. In a sense, Christ transformed Paul from Javert to Jean Valjean.  The change was so radical that his name changed from Saul the man of the law to Paul the man in Christ.

            Change number two: he moved from being the chief persecutor of the church to being the chief planter of the church.  Look at his words with me.  Verse 13


            You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism.  I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.


            The word he used for trying to destroy the church, is the same Greek word for utterly sacking a city.  The before Paul had adopted a scorched-earth policy concerning the church.  Destroy it.  Get rid of it.  After meeting Christ on the Damascus Road, the after Paul wanted to plant churches all over the world. 

            Now dont miss his logic.  Why would Paul go into an autobiographical account of his life?  He shared it, in order to further validate his claim to be an apostle, chosen not by humankind, but by God himself.  He says the radical change in my life cannot be explained in any other way than the intervention of God.  You see, every effect must have an adequate cause.  When a person is proceeding headlong in one direction and suddenly turns and proceeds headlong in the opposite direction, there must be some adequate explanation.  For Paul, the explanation was the direct intervention by God. Now, he didnt totally change his spots.  Paul continued his zealot ways.  He planted churches with the same zeal that he persecuted church.  God had simply redirected his zealousness.  God rearranged Pauls spots moved them in a different direction.

            Second, note where Paul travelled after his conversion.  Shortly after his conversion he travelled to Arabia.  We wish, we knew what Paul did in Arabia.  Some say he travelled to Arabia, out into the desert, to commune with God, to get to know Jesus better and to sort out this dramatic change in his life.  But thats pure speculation.  We dont know what he did in Arabia. 

            After Arabia he went to Damascus, and that must have been a fun experience.  He had been on his way to Damascus to root out Christians when Jesus intercepted him and now he was going to Damascus for another reason, but we dont know the exact reason.  We are dying to know how the people in Damascus received the new, improved version of Paul, but he doesnt tell us. 

            Then three years after his conversion, he went to see Peter.  He stayed with him fifteen days.  James, the brother of Jesus, popped in while Paul was there, but the main purpose of his trip was not to meet and get to know James.  No the purpose of his trip was to get to know Peter.  I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall for those fifteen days.  Since a housefly lives fifteen to thirty days depending on the weather as a fly I would have lived to hear all their interactions. 

            Then Paul went back home.  He said after leaving Peter he went into Syria and Cilicia, where his hometown of Tarsus happened to be.  We wonder what it was like for him to go back home, to the city where he had been born and gone to school.  No doubt, friends of his growing up years were still around.  I wonder what they thought of the changes in Pauls life?  Later, according to the Book of Acts, Barnabas travelled to Tarsus, picked him up and took him Antioch in Syria to get ready for their missionary travels.

            So note where Paul travelled after his conversion. From what we can tell he didnt immediately start church planting.  That came years later.

            Then, thirdly, note Gods dynamic duo.  Im speaking of Peter and Paul, one the Apostle to the Jews and the other the Apostle to the Gentiles.  After their first meeting in Jerusalem Paul and Peter would move in and out of each others lives for the next twenty-seven years. Tradition says that both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome in 64 AD. There is even one theory that Peter and Paul may have been buried together in the same grave at Rome.

            Its amazing that the two most influential persons in the early church could be so different.  It began with the looks. Tradition says Peter was tall, stout and bushy-haired and Paul was small in stature, thin and balding.

            Peter was blue collar all the way. He was a small town fisherman with no friends in high places, and no education to speak of. Slow to comprehend at times, he was impetuous and emotional. Yet Peter was also one of those natural born leaders. In every list of the disciples we have, Peter is always named first. From the outset he is their spokesman. Peter followed Jesus with his whole heart, but not always with his whole brain.

            Paul, on the other hand, was what we today would call a suit. Yes, he had a trade, a marketable skill as an artisan leather worker who made tents, but that was not his identity. Paul was a part of three traditions: born a Roman citizen of Greek culture and Jewish faith. He was a scholar.  One of the most renowned Jewish teachers of the first century, Gamaliel, was Pauls mentor. Paul made a name for himself among those obedient and orthodox Jews known as the Pharisees. At the heart of Pharisaism was the love of the Torah, weaving the minutia of Gods law into every facet of Jewish life. Paul followed the Law with his whole being until that unexpected experience with the risen Christ on the Damascus Road. Then his zeal for the Law was immediately transformed into an unshakeable zeal for Jesus the Christ.

            It is one of the great ironies of church history that Peter, the unschooled, semi-observant fisherman became the apostle who blended Torah-obedient Jews into a new life of faith in Jesus, while the former Torah-fanatic Saul became the apostle who let the Law go in order to make the Lord Jesus Christ available to the Gentiles.

            Two very different men.  Peter, whom Jesus nicknamed the rock and Paul, whom we might call the rock thrower, for his being a former persecutor of the church,  but it worked because despite their different backgrounds and different audiences, both had their eyes on one person the person of Jesus.           

            Who would have thought at the time, that this Galilean fisherman and this suit from Tarsus would have such an impact on the world? 

            Im reminded of the scene in a movie about a rock and roll group called Eddie and the Cruisers. One night Eddie took his girlfriend to a certain junkyard. He hadn't been back to the junkyard since he was a child. While sitting on the steps of the entrance, Eddie told his girlfriend about how he used to watch its elderly owner gradually transform the junkyard into a festival of lights and creative structures. "That old man actually thought he could make a castle out of junk," Eddie reminisced.

            At one time people thought Peter and Paul were junk.  Paul persecuted the church and Peter, was a country bumpkin, yet God made a castle out of them. 

            Whether or not we feel like junk today, we can make Gods day. Let's invite God to turn our junk into something beautiful and majestic. Amen.