The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

ST. PAUL

Delivered 4/26/98
Text: Acts 9:1-20
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St. Paul. SAINT Paul. Ha! That is the LAST thing I would ever have expected to be called! I was born SAUL, a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin - the name PAUL is simply the Roman version of my Hebrew name. I was a child of the dispersion...Tarsus, that bustling city a few miles inland from the Mediterranean on Turkey's southern shore, a major center of communication and trade, of learning and philosophy and culture, where my parents had migrated from a village in Galilee.(1)

I was also a child of the synagogue. My parents took the faith of our forebears seriously and I raised as a Son of the Law - Bar-Mitzvah. In our home we observed the high holy days. I learned to read and write under the tutelage of the rabbis by copying select passages of scripture. Even though Aramaic was the language of the home, I learned the ancient Hebrew tongue from the scripture. My training in Greek would come in the wider community as I learned the trade of my father, tent-making. As a teenager, the Tarsus rabbis recognized a particular love of the law in me and saw to it that I had the opportunity to travel to Jerusalem to study under Gamaliel, grandson of the famous Hillel, a man whose piety and wisdom and grasp of the scriptures distinguished him as perhaps the finest teacher in all Judea. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, that body of 70 highly regarded men making up the Supreme Court of the land. I was a diligent student, and a devout one as well..."a Hebrew of the Hebrews, a Pharisee."(2)

I cannot express to you in strong enough terms just how serious I was about all this. God's law was my life. God's law was the life of our people. The Law was more than rules to live by. It had long formed the very heart and soul of the Jewish community and stood as a symbolic reminder that the Jews were the sacred remnant of God's covenant people set apart from the pagan world. We had survived with identity intact through Babylonian, Greek and now Roman dominion because we had the Law to remind us of our sacred origins and special standing before God, a united people under the Law. To advocate or encourage disobedience to or disregard of that Law was national suicide, and any such attempts had to be squelched. On behalf of my people, I was more than ready for the task.

The group that quickly attracted my concern, of course, were those who were known as followers of "The Way" - CHRISTIANS, as they came to be called, because they followed Jesus of Nazareth; the Christ, the Greek-speakers called him, the Messiah, so-called by those of the Hebrew nation. This Jesus had been crucified by the Romans as a threat to good order, always held by a slender thread in this part of the empire. He died on that cross and would have been hauled down and left as rotting meat for the wild dogs but for the generosity of Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of our community who offered to bury the body.

However, within days, Jesus' followers were claiming that he had come back to life, raised from the dead. They linked it to scripture. "David said to God," they would preach, "You will not leave your servant in the grave, you will not allow him to see corruption. Now listen," they would ask, "of whom was David speaking? His body is in the grave still today. We all know that; we can visit his tomb. Of whom then did David speak when he said all this? Whose body would not see corruption?" Then they would invite their listeners to visit the tomb where Jesus' body had been laid. "If David did not speak of Jesus, then of whom did he speak?" they would ask. Then they would press the matter. If this Jesus is the one of whom David spoke, then he is the Messiah.(3) Their preaching was courageous, and it was convincing. Thousands believed them. Even some from among us Pharisees, and some from the priests also.

Yes, their preaching was convincing to so many, but I knew it was wrong. It had to be. How in the name of reason could a crucified criminal be the Messiah? The very idea is preposterous and impossible. In fact, it was a matter of plain Biblical LAW: Deuteronomy..."Cursed is every one who hangs on a tree," Moses said.(4) To be crucified as Jesus was, was sure and certain proof that he was cursed of God. Whatever other questions may remain, this much is clear. And this was the sword in my hand. I argued it everywhere I could get a hearing, "Jesus is accursed! The LAW plainly says so."

My revered teacher Gamaliel called for restraint and moderation in dealing with this heresy, but I saw things clearly. Zealous Pharisee that I was, I set out with a holy determination in the name of God to stamp out this ridiculous and blasphemous heresy.

I would speak in the synagogues, and have read aloud in everyone's hearing the Biblical account of Phinehas ben Eleazar from the days of the Exodus.(5) It is recorded in the book of Numbers(6) how the people of Israel played the harlot and went after the women of Moab and began to offer sacrifices to their gods. God's anger was aroused against our nation because of it, and God commanded Moses that this awful blight be stamped out; the leaders of this wickedness must all be put to death to avert God's anger against the nation. And it was done. And when one of the leaders had the audacity to take his Midianite girlfriend into his tent, faithful Phinehas went in with a javelin and with one blow ran it through them both, so that they both died. God commended Phinehas as an example of zeal for the law. Israel was again blessed. Then I would ask my hearers, "Who today is committing this spiritual adultery? This so-called "Way" is the way of wickedness. This Jesus of Nazareth died for his apostasy. Did heaven abandon him to the Gentiles? Yes. Was he hanged on a tree? Yes. Do the Scriptures say, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree?" YES!!!

I would continue. "These are dangerous days. It is not enough to be personally pious. As Phinehas of old, we must follow the path of zeal. God will not intervene to save us from Rome when we refuse to lift a finger in the cause of righteousness. Phinehas did not hold back. How can we do less? We MUST purge the land and nation of this corruption."

Immodestly, I must say my preaching was effective. Many of my fellow countrymen were emboldened for God and rose up against the people of the Way with a renewed zeal. Christians came under greater and greater pressure. Indeed, to escape our efforts, they began to leave the holy city in droves. That was good for Jerusalem, but not for the regions around us. These Christians continued their witness - Jesus is Alive! - and their heresy was spreading all around us. We had to follow them, find them, and bring them to justice no matter where they went. So I went to the high priest with my plan. This disease is spreading, I said. If you will give me the papers, I will take them to Damascus, arrest the blasphemers, and bring them back for justice.

The journey took a week using donkeys or mules to ride and carry provisions. I and my party walked, while one man led our donkeys roped together a little way to the rear. There was not much to see - a few country people making for market, now and again a herd of sheep or goats guarded by a small boy swinging his sling, or a lad behind a rough plow, guiding his ox by a long goad or wand tipped with iron. We were safe from the occasional highwaymen because we journeyed in a group; single travelers were always in danger of attack.

The sky this day was clear blue. Suddenly about midday a great light flashed from the sky all around me...a light more brilliant than the sun, shining all around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground, terrified by this inexplicable flash. The light remained intense. I heard a voice, at once calm and authoritative, say, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" I looked up. Within the center of the blinding light, I faced a man. "Who are you, Lord?" I asked.

"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goad." Then I knew. In a second that seemed an eternity I saw the wounds in Jesus' hands and feet, saw the face and knew that I had seen the Lord, that he WAS alive, as all his followers had said.

I was trembling and in no state to weigh the pros and cons of changing sides. I only knew that I had heard a voice and had seen the Lord...alive! "What shall I do Lord?"

"Get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." When at last I made it to my feet, I was blind. I put out my hand and groped until my companions began to lead me. The riding and baggage animals had caught up and the little caravan walked toward Damascus in awed silence.

We passed the caravanserai, quiet still in the early afternoon, and went under the city gate into the broad, colonnaded Via Recta, the street called Straight, which bisected the city. This too was comparatively still, for the shops and booths had not opened after the midday sleep, and private homes were shuttered against the sun. They reached the house of a prosperous merchant named Judas, a suitable host for a representative of the Sanhedrin. I was taken to the guest chamber - refusing even a meal - and left alone. Time became meaningless. I heard the evening trumpet, the next morning's cockcrow, the rumble of carts on the paving, shopkeepers shouting their wares, the distant murmur of bargainers, and the occasional bray of an ass. Then the stillness of midday. I lay on my bed, wide awake except for an hour or two of sleep, or knelt long at the bedside in passionate prayer and then lay down again. I was being turned inside out as my encounter with Jesus was having its effect on the recesses of my soul.

"Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" I kept hearing that question over and over and over. I could only reply now in the words of the Psalm: "Hear, O LORD, and be gracious to me! O LORD, be my helper!"(7) I had imagined I served God. I had supposed myself climbing into God's favor. I was wrong.

Someone has suggested that anytime you see a tortoise on a tree stump, you will know he did not get there without help. By now, I Paul, am that tortoise. My most significant help in those early hours came from a faithful believer named Ananias. In response to a vision he received from the Lord, Ananias visited me three days after my Damascus road experience. The man must have had incredible courage, because he and all the other Christians in the city knew I had traveled there with their WORST interests at heart. Still, Ananias came. This dear man explained that the risen Lord had also appeared to him, answered his concerns, and then instructed him to tell me that I, Paul, zealous persecutor of the church, would be "an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel." Amazing. Ananias stood before me as I sat on the edge of my palette. I felt him place his hands gently on my head, and as he did so, what seemed to be "scales" fell from my eyes. My sight was restored as miraculously as it had been lost.

What an experience! What should I call it? Others have had similar encounters and have described them as starting life fresh, all over, as if they were born again. In my own writings I would describe it as like dying and receiving a new life,(8) or being a "new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!"(9) Another word for it is CONVERSION, a turning around, a change of direction. No question, I WAS turned around; I was heading in a new direction. From that moment on the Damascus Road, I was different. Everything I said or wrote or did from that day forward was an attempt to bowl over the human race as I had been bowled over myself.

Have you been bowled over yet? Is your life going in the direction it should? Do you need to be turned around? Jesus will...if you let him. I know.

Was everything perfect in my life from that moment on? I wish. As I wondered at the beginning of this, SAINT Paul??? Ha! As I would write to friends in Rome, "I don't do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate...I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want but the evil I do NOT want is what I do...Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?"(10) Yes, I would get discouraged. Don't you?

Then, I would reflect. "If God is for us, who can be against us!...Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?" (Those very often did seem to be the story of my life.) "NO! In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."(11)

SAINT Paul? Whatever. As long as I can introduce you to my friend, my Lord, my Savior. Jesus.

Amen!


1. "Paul," Holman Bible Dictionary, diskette, (Hiawatha, IA: Parsons, Technology, 1994)

2. Philippians 3:5

3. cf Acts 2:25-36

4. Deuteronomy 21:23

5. Fred G. Zaspel, via Internet, "Personal Reminiscences of the Apostle Paul," 1996

6. Chapter 25

7. Psalm 30:10

8. Galatians 2:20

9. 2 Corinthians 5:17

10. Romans 7:15-24

11. Romans 8:31-39

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