Early in the first century a son was born to a Jewish family in the city of Tarsus of Cilicia. On the eighth day of his birth, he was circumcised and given the name Saul. He was born into a strong, upper-middle class family. Just to be born in Tarsus, with its strong emphasis on education, was a great advantage for this young man.
Saul also had a strong religious background. He tells us that both his father and mother were Jewish. No Gentile blood was in his family. He was of the tribe of Benjamin, one of the most prominent tribes of Israel. Saul was a Pharisee and trained under the teaching of Gamaliel, a well-known Jewish teacher of the Law.
All of this caused Saul to be zealous for the Jewish faith. It was his conviction that any person, movement, or government that threatened Judaism was an enemy of God and had to be dealt with by his people.
In the mist of Saul’s mission to destroy the Church, God intervened (Acts 9). This was the day Saul was on his way to Damascus to bring back to Jerusalem some Christians so that they might be persecuted or killed. On the way Saul was thrown to the ground, and a voice from heaven spoke saying, “Saul, Saul. Why do you persecute me?”
Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?”
“I am Jesus whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
“Saul got up from the ground. Yet, when he opened his eyes, he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus where they met a man named Ananias.”
Ananias had heard about Saul and questioned God when he was told to instruct Saul in the basic teachings of the faith. God revealed to Ananias that Saul was His chosen instrument to carry the Gospel to the Gentiles. Having led Saul to know Christ as the Savior, Ananias baptized him. His sight was restored, and he spent several days with the Christian disciples in Damascus.
Observing Saul, the disciples asked, “Is not he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem?” However, it was evident that Saul had been converted and was now one of God’s great witnesses to the Gospel. We are told that Saul grew ever more powerful and baffled the Jews. It was not long before the new convert to Christianity was the Jews’ hit list to be killed. However, the followers of Jesus helped him to escape from Damascus.
For the next three years, Saul lived in Arabia. This was a time of maturing in the faith. God was preparing this zealous young man for a long, difficult ministry that would climax in martyrdom. Throughout the rest of his life, Saul (changed to Paul) talked about the miraculous change in his life when Jesus became his Savior and Lord. He described the Gospel as the “power of God unto salvation to all who believed.” He told the Corinthians that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed, and the new has come.”
In our text today he writes, “By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached.” Saul writes that he is the least of the apostles, not worthy to be called an apostle because he persecuted the Church. But then he continues, “But by the grace of God I am what I am and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them Ð yet not I but the grace of God that was with me.” This is what the Gospel can do.
This leads to the question, which is the theme for this sermon, When do people begin to resist Christianity?
The answer is clear: When Christ begins to change people’s lives.
We know that Paul visited his hometown at least once during his ministry. How do you suppose the people reacted when they saw him? I can hear their comments: See what this Jesus has done to Saul, who once was a great young person with the possibility of being a strong leader in our religious group. Disgust and anger came from a fear in their souls about how Jesus would interrupt their lives and make them different people. This has been the same concern in every generation.
It was the same fear that Adolph Hitler had when he realized how the Church could throw a monkey wrench into his plans for Germany and the rest of Europe. When the dictator was told by Martin Niomoller that the future of the German people was in the hands of Almighty God, Hitler knew that the confessing church of Germany had to be quieted. He let the people know that the church could remain in Germany, but with limitations and that it was never to question the power of the state.
When Christianity becomes threatening to a society, people grow anxious. Society wants a church that will make us comfortable and does not challenge us. It is to be a nonthreatening church. It is our church on the corner filled with many memories. It is where we go on Christmas and Easter. It is the place where we have our weddings, funerals, baptisms, and confirmations. Since the membership is stable, we are satisfied. Let’s not get too excited about witnessing to this message of Christ in our community.
Another picture of the church, which seems to be acceptable, is the new, growing congregation. It has great programs, beautiful facilities, and is a pleasant addition to the community. The pastor is an entertaining speaker and sends you home with the thought that there is really nothing very wrong with your life.
However, let the message of Christ begin to change people and the question is asked, What do the people in this congregation believe? Are they radicals?
Some people lament that their children lost all interest in the church when they went to college and seldom attend a worship service. That is understandable to a father and mother who love the Lord. What is difficult to understand is the parent who says, “Our kid got mixed up with some evangelical church while attending the university and now he is a different person. He even begins to talk with us about our relationship with God and wants to know if it is a personal relationship. I have always believed in a higher power, but that is not enough for him. We have often prayed the Lord’s Prayer in our home, but now he wants to pray informal prayers daily. Wow! This is not our kind of religion. Praying is personal. He sure got mixed up. I hope he will find another church when he returns to the university next fall.”
One wife complained to me about her husband’s drinking. She had made other trips to see me about his alcoholism. The husband finally did something about it. He went into the hospital for treatment, and later he received Christ as his Savior and Lord. He was a different person. She appreciated his kindness and love for her, but she was not sure that she wanted to attend church every Sunday. He even wanted them to read the Bible and pray together. One evening she got so disgusted with his religious zeal that she said, “You know, sometimes I liked you better as a drunk than the way you are now. Isn’t there a happy medium to all of this?”
When a post-modern society is reminded of God’s absolutes and that everything is not relative, it begins to say that we are carrying this Christianity too far. We need to remember that this is the real world, and people are going to do what they please.
What kind of church do we want? Certainly our culture does not want one that has the potential of being use by God to work radical change in our lives. This could be disturbing not only to our religious life, but to our economic, political, family, and social life. So we serve notice on Jesus to remember His place in our midst Ð no radical change, Master. The problem is that Jesus cannot be reduced to a master. He is Lord, and this is not the way He operates.
No, instead you hear Him say, “This is my message for you. I do not force it on you. This message can change you; however, you cannot change it.”