Of all the apostles,
Saul of Tarsus,
has been the most influential in
shaping Lutheran thinking about the Gospel.
We Lutherans refer to him as Paul
with the familiarity reserved for a member of the family.
It was Paul's writings that jolted Martin Luther
out of a morbid preoccupation with sin and led him toward
a joyful celebration of life under God's grace.
Because of the writings of Paul,
Luther was able to distinguish
the proper relationship of Law and Gospel in
Christian theology and in the life of believers.
But it wasn't an easy road for Paul to take.
His story begins this way:
Others may brag about themselves,
but I have more reason to brag than anyone else.
I was circumcised when I was eight days old,
and I am from the nation of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin.
I am a true Hebrew.
As a Pharisee, I strictly obeyed the Law of Moses.
And I was so eager that I even made trouble for the church.
I did everything that the Law demands in order to please God.
Philippians 3:4b-6 CEV
How could Paul possibly have thought that persecuting Christians
could be seen as fulfilling the requirements of the Law of God?!
Well, one of the things I do when I pray the scriptures
is to ask myself who I am in the story.
Of course, I always want to be on the side of Jesus.
If I can't be Jesus, I at least want to be that narrator
who always knows everything Jesus is thinking,
but if I am honest with myself,
I find that I am not Jesus' best friend
or the one who even understands him.
In my own opinionated certainty,
I end up persecuting the one
who is trying to break out of the anxious vortex
in which my insecurity tries to trap him.
So, today, as I listen to Saul, the Pharisee.
I have to come to terms with my own religious traditionalism,
my own religious culture.
There I discover that it is possible to be so loyal to the church,
that even the Holy Spirit cannot escape my dreadful attachment.
Saul of Tarsus and Jesus were both devout Israelites.
But Saul operated out of loyalty to a historical tradition,
and was willing to destroy anyone whose freedom under God
in any way allowed him to differ with the Pharisaic way.
Pharisees were not bad people.
Pharisees produced the kind of lay people
who took the practice of the faith
out of the synagogue and
into their family life and work.
Jesus and the Pharisees agreed on most things.
However, the Pharisees were a fairly new occurrence
in the grand total of Israel's history prior to Jesus.
About 165 years before Christ
Israel launched a successful revolt against
the Greeks who occupied Israel at that time.
Some Israelites saw the success of that revolt
as God's reward for their constant loyalty.
So the Pharisees came into being
because they had a system of interpreting the Torah
that they believed would keep them safe from
the corrupting influence of the Greeks
and would keep God on their side.
In other words, be holy and God will bless you.
So, to a fervent Pharisee like Saul,
Jesus became an enemy because
Jesus had a different way of approaching the scriptures.
Even though Jesus was Spirit-led,
Saul's certainty about his Pharisaic view of scripture
kept him from seeing that.
Saul told the story on himself over and over again.
Why do you think he did that?
So that his congregations would learn not to let religious certainty
sidetrack them from following Jesus
even when it went against their better instincts.
After following Jesus, Saul had begun to see that the Spirit was at work,
not only among observant Jews,
but among pagans too.
The piety of his religious practice
was no longer what shaped his relationship with God.
What was important was to know only Christ crucified;
to know only Christ who emptied himself
of every claim he might have made
to the right to control the outcome of his life.
Peter also was a man of certainty.
He was sure he would never betray Christ.
He also was the boss of his own fishing crew.
Yet Peter did betray Christ
and he didn't catch any fish in today's gospel reading.
Was the right side of the boat any different from the left?
It had nothing to do with that.
It had everything to do with who did the leading.
It was not Peter and Saul's religion that saved people:
it was Jesus Christ.
Jesus was not faithful because his religion required it,
but because he lived only to follow the Father.
And the Father is free to pursue the Father's ends.
And the Father's ends are
that all the world should be restored to relationship with God,
no matter what it costs.
My wife and I have two granddaughters living with us.
One is eight, the other is two and a half.
The first-born had a hard time accepting the new baby;
she had had her parents all to herself for over five years.
The first-born had figured out ways to stay out of trouble,
ways to get along.
Then along came little sister and started uncovering big sister's devices
and finding her own cute little ways to manipulate the parents.
She got in the way of big sister's monopoly.
Sometimes it takes decades for sisters like that to love each other.
Some never get past the competitiveness.
The church in our society is finding itself in a place similar to our granddaughter and to Saul's Israel.
Our religious practices arose out of a time
when we had a monopoly over the pagans.
Soon we began to think that those practices
were the reason God was blessing us.
But God blesses others too.
Jesus went out of his way to include them.
Some Greeks had gone to Jerusalem to worship during Passover. Philip from Bethsaida in Galilee was there too. So they went to him and said, "Sir, we would like to meet Jesus." Philip told Andrew. Then the two of them went to Jesus and told him. Jesus said: The time has come for the Son of Man to be given his glory.
(John 12:20-23 CEV)
When the gospel can reach out beyond our need to preserve ourselves
then we know that God's will, not ours,
is truly being done on earth.
Jesus tells Peter to tend his sheep.
Does he mean the people of the church?
There was no church yet.
In fact, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, says:
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
I must bring them also,
and they will listen to my voice.
So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
John 10:16 (NRSV)
When Peter learned to know Jesus as the Son of God,
then he also would tend who Jesus tends.
In the weeks to come, we will hear of his conversion.
Jesus saw his glory approaching when outsiders sought him out.
The dream of Jesus is
that the emergent church will strive to be
a community of inclusive diversity,
even when that means risk and unpredictability.
Even when it means the cross for ourselves;
even when it means that we lose the right to be self-determining anymore.
What does Jesus want of us?
That changes from era to era.
It depends on who is in the dark and
whose sins are being retained when they could be forgiven.
As we seek to be a church in mission for others,
we can find direction in Saul's story and
Jesus' challenge to Peter in John's gospel.
Nothing is required of us but that we not be ashamed of Jesus,
who is always more ready to receive than we are to allow;
that we not be ashamed of Jesus,
who leads us away from certainty at the very time
when we want predictability.
Everyone who thirsts is invited to the fountain.
On the last day of the festival…Jesus…cried out, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink."
John 7:37-38a (NRSV)
Our task is to hand them pitchers so that they may draw the water.
The Spirit will do the rest.
This is the gospel of the Lord.
Raymond L. Schultz, National Bishop
This sermon was prepared for the BC Synod Convention, April 25, 2004, Nanaimo BC
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