by Chris Ritter
Note: I have loved studying the Apostle Paul during the COVID-19 Lockdown. F.F. Bruce’s Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free has been a pleasure to read A series on Philippians has proved so relevant to those of us under “House Arrest.” The Wednesday night Bible Study group has been working through the life and ministry of Paul and have used “In Pursuit of Paul” with Dr. Constantine Campbell of Trinity Evangelical Theological Seminary. As graduate Sunday approached, I couldn’t help but consider what Paul would say to our Class of 2020. I have never done a first-person monologue sermon before… but here you go.
“Grace and peace to you in the matchless name of Jesus Christ. I am honored to address the Class of 2020.
“My name is Paul, a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ, chief of sinners, but called by God’s grace to be an apostle.
I hear it reported that your senior year and commencement ceremonies did not go quite like you planned. Let me tell you… I understand more than you might think. My life has taken such dramatic and unexpected twists and turns that I never would have believed it if I hadn’t experienced it for myself… fightings without and fears within… abandoning things I once held dear because I found something greater.
Now I am near the end of that journey and I still believe God has some surprises left for me in this life, and many more in the life to come. And God has some surprises for you, too. I imagine your unusual senior year has prepared you much better for your future than if things had gone exactly as expected. Jesus promised us, “In this world you will have troubles.” But he also adds this, “Do not be afraid. I have overcome the world.” We are more than conquerors through him who loves us.
A little about me…
I was born in Tarsus. You paid attention in Geography Class, no doubt, and are well aware of this important little city of the Roman Empire, up in the Province of Cilicia. (You might think of it as Southern Turkey, along the Mediterranean.) And you paid attention in history class and know we Tarsians have an impressive history… Antony met Cleopatra there. Tarsus was not really so very different from Geneseo… a relatively prosperous little city with its economy driven by agriculture. Instead of being surrounded by corn and soybeans, we were surrounded by fields of flax from which some very nice linen was made.
My family… we didn’t call ourselves rich, but we had a thriving business making tents and such. They made enough a generation or two before I was born to purchase our Roman Citizenship.
But don’t think for a moment my family were pagans, or (worse) compromisers. No, we were devout through and through. We were Hebrews of the Hebrews. We were Pharisees.
My adolescent years were spent in the Holy City of Jerusalem where I studied under Gamaliel, one of the most prominent rabbis of the day. Even the Sadducees had to respect him. And I developed a reputation as a capable student. Don’t take this as bragging, but I didn’t just make the honor roll… I was the honor roll. They knew me as an eager learner, passionate, and zealous for studying God’s Law and the various interpretations handed down by generations of rabbis. Instead of going back home after graduation, I worked there in Jerusalem and clerked for some of the top names in the city. I got all the right internships, knew all the right people, and I was going someplace.
This has been true of me my entire life… whatever I did I worked at it with all my heart. “Find what you are passionate about and do it!” That was my motto. But I would later learn that the real danger in life is not failure. It is succeeding at the wrong thing. I look out on you graduates today. You are bright. You are talented. I don’t worry about you failing in the eyes of the world. But be careful you don’t succeed in the eyes of the world and fail the purpose for which God put you on this earth.
If you had asked me in my twenties if I was headed the wrong direction, I would have laughed at you. I was endorsed by the religious community. My name was respected. I was appointed by the highest officials to important tasks. I was a mover and a shaker.
I never realized I was the one that needed to be moved… and would I ever be shaken!
When Jesus stopped me on the road to Damascus it up-ended my very foundations.
I caught sight of Jesus a time or two before… when he was visited Jerusalem. He drew big crowds, but I paid him no attention. He was a man about my age… a Galilean… one of these itinerant, self-styled prophets, or so I thought. We had seen a dozen of them come and go. Some caused a bigger stir than others. John the Baptist got a big following, but eventually people came back to us… the establishment. Jesus had a reputation for signs and wonders. But we ran the synagogues. We were the final arbiters of correct theology. If you got on the wrong side of us, we could make things very difficult for you.
And that’s what happened to Jesus. He got on the wrong side of the Sanhedrin and they put pressure on Pontius Pilate… and a cross meant for the criminal Barabbas was used for Jesus instead. I thought that was the end of the story for Jesus and his following.
I laughed when I first heard the story that Jesus was resurrected. We Pharisees believe in resurrection, but not one at a time. The resurrection will happen for everyone on the Great Day of the Lord when God judges everyone according to their deeds. The idea of one person being raised to life seemed like nonsense. But the number of people claiming Jesus was alive and the Messiah of Israel went from a few dozen to a few thousand in the twinkling of a eye. My teacher Gamaliel said, “Leave them alone. If this is of man, it will fall apart. If it of God, nothing can stop it anyway.” But I sided with those who favored a hard-line crackdown on this new sect. After all, they were leading people astray, even some priests and scribes who should have known better.
We beat and warned the leaders of the movement (they called themselves THE WAY) but they kept right on. Finally, we rounded up one of their deacons named Stephen. When I heard his fearless speech, I knew this movement was not going to die out without some real pressure. When they stoned him, I held the coats of those who carried out his sentence. I watched him die, and I was 100% certain we were doing the right thing.
The death of Stephen was just the start of a huge wave of arrests, beatings, and executions of Jesus’ followers. We went house to house to root them out and finally had them on the run. We got some intelligence that many of them were running to Damascus up in Syria and I was chosen to go round them up and bring them back for trial. They gave me men, horses, and arrest papers to show to synagogue officials there. Little did I know that I would not see Jerusalem again for a full three years. And when I came back, I would be one of them.
I love sharing my testimony. If Jesus has changed your life, you should tell your story over and over again to all who will listen. Some people don’t like sharing their story because it is not as dramatic as mine. They weren’t blinded by a great light. They didn’t hear the audible voice of Jesus calling to them. They didn’t lay in dark torment for three days before receiving grace. But your story is every bit as powerful as mine. The power of a testimony is not in the drama of the transformation but what you do with that transformation afterwards.
Some people think that I was an overnight sensation as a Christian. That is not true. I did preach in Damascus, but my old friends now hated me and the believers didn’t yet trust me. They thought I was a spy sent to infiltrate their network. I spent the next three years in the dry lands of Arabia outside Damascus. I shared Jesus wherever I could, but mostly this was a time of soul-searching, scripture study, and prayer for me. I had been so wrong for so long. It was in those times of solitude with the Lord that I came to understand the Gospel and what it meant for me and the world. Don’t resent times of isolation. That is when God does his deepest work in us. Sometimes our lives have to fall apart so that God can put them back together again. We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for the good work he prepared in advance for us to do. There is no rushing that process.
I did just enough preaching to get on the wrong side of the King of the Nabateans there in Arabia and he got his people in Damascus after me. I had to be smuggled out of town in a basket let down from the city wall to get away. This would be the first of many narrow escapes, but God has been with me.
Jesus was teaching me to let others help me, something I had never been very good at doing. The friendships you form in life will define so much about you. Solomon said it way: “If you walk with the wise you will become wise, but the companion of fools suffers harm.”
One friend that God gave me at this time was named Joe. Well.. Joseph. Well… he earned the nickname Barnabas… “Son of Encouragement”… because he had a knack for building others up. After three years, Barnabas decided it was high time I return to Jerusalem and meet the apostles that I once worked to destroy. At first, they didn’t want to see me. They still didn’t believe the story of my conversion was true. But Barnabas vouched for me, and I met Peter, James, and some others. But as my former enemies became my new friends, my former friends had become my new enemies and I couldn’t stay in the city long. I had to sneak out of Jerusalem before I was killed and some friends put me on a ship back to Tarsus.
This was my season of day to day faithfulness. For about a decade I lived a fairly normal Christian life, serving in the church, preaching to those who would listen. I managed my tent-making business. I kept studying the Scriptures and kept seeing Jesus in them. I began to understand more and more the height and depth, and length of the love of God. It was during this time, I had an amazing spiritual experience that I find difficult to talk about even to this day. But as my spirit grew stronger, I was also humbled by my physical ailment. I asked Jesus to take it away… Three times…, but he said that his grace was sufficient for me and that his strength would be perfected in my weakness.
I think about that a lot. It is not about what I accomplish. It is about what God accomplishes in me and through me. My life is not for my glory. It is for His glory. This is true of you, as well. The point of your life is not you. That would be a very small life, indeed. The purpose of your life is to show forth the glory of God as only you can.
The Christian life is cruciform, in the shape of the cross. We are always dying to our will, our pleasures, but God is revealing his resurrection power through us. It is Christ in you that is the hope of glory.
It would be this truth that I would take with me all around the Roman Empire. This is MY GOSPEL: All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God… Jews and Gentiles alike… but If you confess with your mouth Jesus Christ is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead… you will be saved. You will be delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred into the Kingdom of His dear Son, in whom we have redemption, and the forgiveness of sins.” It has been the biggest blessing of my life to see so many transformed by this Good News. It is foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews, but I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God unto salvation. If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. Old things have passed away and all things have become new.
When a big movement of the Holy Spirit began happening among the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, Barnabas came and got me and asked me to help him teach that growing group of new Gentile believers. And I spent a full year doing just that. It was this church that prayed, and fasted, and heard the Holy Spirit say that Barnabas and I should travel out and proclaim the Gospel throughout the wider region, starting on the Island of Cyprus.
God had revealed his calling to me through a time of suffering. Now, God revealed his purpose to me through the Church. If you don’t yet know your purpose, don’t be discouraged. Stay in fellowship with other believers. Stay in prayer. Stay in the Scriptures. Ask the Holy Spirit for help. God will unfold his plan in your life as you stay in the fellowship of The Body of Christ, the Church.
I hear some people are afraid they will lose their faith once they venture out into the world to work or study. After all, they will be among a lot of unbelievers who may challenge what you believe and try to lead you astray. That is a big pile of Sku-BA-la. Just make sure your faith is more dangerous to their unbelief than their unbelief is to your faith. Study has never been dangerous to belief. It is essential. True study promotes the Truth and Truth is of God.
We demolish arguments that set themselves up against the knowledge of God. We take captive every thought to the obedience of Christ. If you are a Christian, filled with the Holy Spirit and armed with God’s truth, you are the most dangerous force this world has ever known! People accused me of turning the world upside down. Little me? No, it was God working through me.
My life may not look successful to everyone. And it certainly has not been easy. I have been imprisoned more times than I care to count. I was beaten five times with 39 lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. I went from overseeing the Stoning of Stephen to being stoned and left for dead myself in Philippi. I have been robbed on the highways and shipwrecked multiple times. I suffered many sleepless nights, times without proper food and water, times being exposed to the cold. But God sustained me. I learned I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. And you will learn that, too.
I used to be certain that I would live to see the second coming of Our Lord Jesus, but now I realize what I am called to do is pass along a torch to the next generation.
Don’t give in to the delusion that God will use you later. God wants to use you now. This is your time, your moment.
That is what I told my young friend, Timothy: Don’t let anyone look down on you because of your youth, but set an example for others in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need some better gift to be useful or that you should leave it to those who are more gifted. Gifts are great, but love is where the action is. If you have the most spectacular spiritual gifts the world as ever seen, but don’t have love you are nothing. What is love? Love is patient, and kind. It doesn’t boast or brag. It considers another person more important than self. Love always hopes, always trust, always believes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
Just as Jesus came in the form of a servant, we are simply called to serve humbly as God gives us the opportunity.
Graduates, there is a whole big world out there waiting for your servant leadership. When you are my age, I want you to be able to say, “I have fought a good fight. I have finished my race. I have kept the faith. And now there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness that the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that great and glorious day of his coming.”
You have a call… discover it!
You have a purpose… pursue it!
You have a cross… bear it with joy!
You have a commission… fulfill it!
And, if you do, one day you will have a crown.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or imagine, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”