As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, From Extremist to Evangelist: Paul’s Conversion and Ours, was given at The Salvation Army Rochester on Trinity Sunday 5 June, 2016. The Reading was Galatians 1:11-24.
I’m doing a lot of reading at the moment. For my 30th birthday, I set myself a challenge to read 30 books in my 30th year – books that I had been meaning to read, or I really should have read, by my 30th. So I’ve already read books like Frankenstein, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and a the moment, I’m Reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, titled Long Walk to Freedom. And I was thinking this week about the titles of Autobiographies. And there are some fantastic titles out there. Such as the lead singer of the band KISS, Gene Simmons, who titled his autobiography, Kiss and Make Up. Or Davy Jones’ autobiography – They made a Monkee out of me. One of my favourites that I’ve read – Never have your Dog Stuffed: and other things I’ve learned by Alan Alda. There’s a wonderful spoonerism in Tori Spelling’s book, sTORI Telling. And David Hasselhoff plays on his name with his book, Don’t Hassel the Hoff.
Picking the title of your Autobiography can be quite tough. Trying to sum up your life in a short, eye catching phrase, or in just a few words. I wonder what your autobiography might be called. I’ve got a few thoughts for mine: This is my story, this is my song. Or maybe What’s a Violinist doing in the Salvation Army? Could be an interesting read.
Our reading today is Paul telling the Galatians a little bit of his own story. And I read through it, and I think I’ve got the perfect title for Paul’s Autobiography: Paul: From Extremist to Evangelist. What do you think? Would you read it?
We know a bit of Paul’s story, through what we read both in Paul’s letters, and in Acts. Paul never shies away from his story. He was – with every modern understanding of this word, he was a religious extremist. Were he a muslim, he might side with ISIS. Were he an American Christian, he might side with the KKK. See, Paul grew up studying the scriptures. He was very strict in his understanding of the law, and wanted to stamp out this new sect that was going against everything he valued. And the way that he did that was through killing the followers of that sect. We read that he was there at the stoning of the first Martyr, Stephen. And in our reading today, Paul says that he was “violently persecuting the church… and trying to destroy it.” But, when he had his encounter with God on the road to Damascus, he was transformed. And why was he transformed? “so that I might proclaim him” – that is, Jesus Christ – “among the Gentiles.” Transformed from violently persecuting, to actively promoting the church. From Extremist to Evangelist. I think it’s got a good ring to it.
We can doubt our own potential
We can hear Paul’s story, and hear about what he’s done, and sometimes it can be of great encouragement. But other times, we can be a bit hard on ourselves. Paul is arguably one of the most influential followers of Christ who never laid eyes on Jesus. And when we compare our story with his, we just don’t compare. And sometimes, when we think about our own story, we can doubt about whether God can really use us.
I struggled with this for a bit. See, I grew up in the church. My parents were ministers. And you know they say that ministers kids are like police kids – they either stay on the rails completely, or they’re completely off the rails. Well, for me, I was more the on the rails. I loved going to church, and at one point when my parents moved to be ministers at a different church, I would continue to ride to church – the only time I was allowed to cross the major road by myself. At the end of year 11, after only being at the school for one year, I was elected by my peers as a prefect – the Chapel Prefect. For my year 12 leavers, I didn’t go to Rottsnest, or Dunsborough, or any of the usual leavers hangouts. I went to Katanning – a small country town that is known for sheep farming, and held an annual Christian Music Festival called Saltbush. For me, I’ve always believed in Christ, and I’ve always tried to follow his teaching. So I can’t tell of a time when I wasn’t a Christian. So when I hear of stories of transformation, when I hear of people who were addicted and then found Christ, those who had miraculous healings, incredible transformations, because of Christ’s intervention… I get a bit jealous. It’s not an experience I’ve had – and not an experience I will have.
The problem is that when we start to doubt our own story, our own experience, we tend not to share it. We tend not to tell people about the incredible things that God has done in our lives. When we down play our own story, and when we don’t share our story, we remove any possibility of God using it.
God can make huge changes, and can use what little we have
We know that God is able to make huge transformations. We know that he can take extremists and turn them into evangelists. We know that he can turn the roughest of people into the cleanest. That he can perform amazing miracles and transformations. We know that this is true. And we know that God also uses these stories and experiences to help transform the lives of many more. But we also know that God takes what we have, and transforms it. Just as Jesus transformed the loaves and the fishes, even though Andrew commented “but what are they among so many people?” (John 6:9), God takes what little we have, and can transform it to feed many.
God will take whatever we have, and use that for the purposes of his kingdom, if only we are willing to let him use it. We need to be willing to listen to the spirit, to hear God’s guidance, and be willing to follow and to share, trusting that God’s will and God’s kingdom and God’s mission is far more than we understand.
We can be transformed in Christ to take part in God’s mission
The awesome thing is that in opening ourselves up to allowing God to use us, to use our story, we are – in doing that – transformed. Paul had this incredible experience on the road to Damascus. What good would it have been had he just continued what he was doing, or stayed quiet about it and stopped persecuting Christians? Instead, he had faith, and followed through with what God had told him. He stayed in Damascus for a few years, and then met with Paul and James in Jerusalem. He had to share his conversion story for them to hear about the good work he had done. And through doing that – though he and Peter would have disagreements, he was able to share in the mission – Peter’s mission to the Jews, and Paul’s mission to the Gentiles.
If we open up ourselves to being used, we will be transformed into more and more of what Christ calls us to be. We will be called to take part in God’s mission and to share his love with everyone we meet. And when we share our story – no matter how big or how small, we will speak with the confidence that comes from our full trust and full faith in what Christ has done in us.
Be confident in your own conversion, and share God’s good news with everyone
So recall your story, remember that no matter what your story is, it is your story, and God has worked it through you. And remember that God can use anything that we are willing to give him. So be willing to share whatever you have, and trust that God can use your story. Be confident that God has put you exactly where you are, with the story that you have lived, and he just asks you to be faithful in sharing your story, and letting God use it.
It is your story. It is your song. As we sing this wonderful song, you’re invited to come forward and pray. You might like to come and thank God for everything he has done bringing you to this place. You might like to come and ask for confidence to share your story – be it big or small – and offer it to God to use it as he needs. You might like to come and ask to be transformed in Christ. Or anything else you like – this place of prayer if open to all.
As we sing this wonderful song, let’s commit to asking God to use our story, whatever it may be, to help share his love with all people.