What’s the Good Life?
This sermon is the third in our series: Faith is a Group Project. It was posted before the events at Charlottesville and was presented in church differently than it is here. It has been formatted for presentation and not for the prevention of errors. Enjoy!
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Damascus. I can’t help but read Romans in light of Damascus. In the first pulpit I preached in, with any regularity, there was a stained-glass window with a picture of Paul’s conversion on that road, that was just inside my peripheral vision. If I took my right hand, and I held it up, the apostle, with the light of God shining upon his face, knelt just inside that “V” my hand makes. It always acted as my reminder of God’s constant call. It remains a call that will continue no matter the ugliness and evil that humanity contributes to the world.
I bring up the ugliness and evil because Paul was not a good guy, not by any stretch of the imagination. We first learn about Paul, in Acts, when he, as a young man, is standing on the sidelines as Stephen is being pelted with giant stones until he is killed, and it is Paul who holds the coats of the attackers.
In response to accusations leveled against him for being a follower of Christ, Stephen had defended himself against his charges by preaching the gospel to the High Priest and his court. It was probably was not the best defense strategy, considering his indictment was based on his following Christ. His defense was actually a confession. Upon hearing Stephen’s message, the people in the court became enraged and killed him.
Then, as if this were a TV show, the Luke, as he writes the book of Acts, makes his literary camera pan just to the side of this malay, and we see a young man grinning in approval – the man who held their coats. That young man, with his Cheshire smile, was Paul. And, again, as if this were a TV show, we know that the camera had panned here because this young man was going to factor largely as the story progresses. He is going to be integral to the storyline.
Paul was not a good guy. Acts chapter 8 begins, “And Saul approved of their killing [Stephen].” Remember that Paul was once called Saul. Saul was a good Jewish name. It means “asked for” because we know that the first Saul, the first king of Israel, was ‘asked for’ by the people. If we go back to the Hebrew Bible, we find that the people wanted to have a king and no longer be ruled only by God. That king that they received was Saul.
But, this Saul, the one who would become Paul, was also a leader among the Israelite people. As an educated Pharisee, he was a prodigy, a young man that everyone looked up to. He was the leader that the people, the people of this era, had asked for. Living up to his name, he was the one they had asked for to come and squash this Christian movement.
Acts 9 tells the story this way: “But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison” (9:3). He was leading the charge. From our perspective, as Christians especially, Paul was not a good guy, but God was about to get ahold of him.
God is about to get ahold of us. It’s easy to forget that. We’re often really misguided in the way that we do things. We often lack in compassion and in kindness because we think we’re right. Or, we think that the life that we would choose for ourselves is the definition of the good life. We don’t let God in on our plans. We have them set and we move forward with our goals without ever considering that we might need to make room for God.
I have been having a lot of conversations lately about how misguided I am with my prayers and how I am so glad that God doesn’t always listen to them. I even went so far as to tell a couple of people this week, including the Bible study group, that my prayers are so stupid sometimes.
If God had listened to my prayers from when I was a little boy, I would probably still live with my parents and have them still taking care of me. If God listened when I prayed as a teenager, I wouldn’t be a pastor today for sure; I would be a professional skateboarder. I can’t even begin to imagine the broken arms and broken hips that would come from that prayer. If God had listened to my prayers as a very young man, I would probably be married to the wrong woman and everything would be different. Everything.
Thank you, God, that you didn’t answer so many of my stupid prayers.
A couple of weeks ago, we heard how the Holy Spirit prays for us when we don’t know what or how to pray and I find great personal comfort in that fact because my prayers are a mess. Every time I think that I know what my life should be, the perspective offered by time, and my growing relationship with Christ, tell me that I had no idea what I wanted. I may have thought I did. I may have even been convinced that I did, but I was not living for God, in that moment, and had I had even not begun to pray God’s will in my life. Especially that twenty-year-old version of me. His prayers were awful. But somewhere along the way, God got ahold of my heart, much like it happened to Paul on the road, and I was changed and my prayers were changed.
We think we know what the good life is, don’t we? I keep saying, in my sermons, that God is working with or without us and we have to keep looking for ways to seek to join in God’s will for our neighborhood. It would be possible to hear me wrong because I so overemphasize this point. I want us to look for what God is doing, and to lift up our neighbors, and all that we see of the prevenient grace within them (prevenient means to come before). That is, a grace that comes before we even know God or God’s presence in our lives. It’s the reason that we United Methodists offer communion so freely. We believe in that prevenient grace. But, in that emphasis, we could accidentally tell ourselves and others that everything is fine as it is right now.
But, just because we believe that God is working doesn’t mean that we can stop working. It doesn’t mean that we believe that everyone is already connected to God in the fullest sense. Of course, God is everywhere, but God wants a relationship with us, to be connected to us. Not just God pouring out blessing upon blessing upon us all, all the time, but for us to reach out in praise and thanksgiving – or even reach out in fear and disappointment – to pray, “Lord, help me!” So we, as a church, fully admit that God is at work, but we are forced to claim that to live a complete and true life in God, there is more to it than naming what God is doing for us without our paying attention. If we stop with naming God’s grace, then we have not done justice to the gospel, and have not recognized that God is trying to get ahold of us, to show us the good life. I’ve heard it said by pastors smarter than I am, “God loves you just as you are, but loves you way too much to let you stay the same.”
And that’s how we find ourselves back on that road to Damascus. Paul had the same trouble. If you look at his life from our perspective, he was a monster. In his persecuting Christians and causing all kinds of turmoil and strife, we judge him harshly, but he was living the dream. He was respected. He was providing a necessary service for his religious community. If you believed as they believed, that the Law was God’s word for their lives, and if you believed that it was the only pattern of living that led to a life well-lived, and if you believed that everyone had to live that way in order for your religious society to work, then what Paul was doing was God’s work. He was acting as a police officer of sorts, keeping the peace and laying down the law with violence and prison sentences. If you believed, as Paul’s people believed, then you thought Paul was a hero.
That’s why I read chapter 10 like a testimony of what God did for Paul on that road. He readily admits that his way, when he lived zealously for the Law, seemed right. At verse 5, Paul says that Moses wrote that the righteousness that comes from the Law is found in a life well-lived. But, immediately, in verse 6, Paul points to the limitations of that Law. He says that it exists only for this life and not for the kind of life that Christ came offering. He admits that the Law feels distant and hard to grasp, maybe even impossible. It feels powered by self and not powered by God. It’s much like those prayers that I prayed as a young man; well-meaning, but limited. I thought I was living the good life, asking for the good life, but God had bigger plans for me than I could have ever known. And, Paul writes that God has bigger plans for us than we could ever know.
Paul had been living this good and respectable life, a life marked by a zeal for God, but also a life that was marked by a zeal for God that was so, so limited. For Paul, the Law was king. It was the end of every discussion. It allowed him to do awful things. Christians were desperately afraid of him when he arrived in Damascus because they had heard the very-true stories of the monster he had become. The Law allowed him to do those awful, awful things. And when we think we know exactly what God expects from our lives and don’t allow ourselves to be changed by the Holy Spirit, then our own faith can allow us to do miserable and awful things as well.
And Paul admits it. That’s why we have to hear the loudness of his next statement for us. He writes, “if you confess with your mouth and believe with your heart that Christ is Lord… then you will be saved” (v. 9). So, the word that is translated here as ‘confess’ is a fine translation, but, in looking at its root, we find that there is more to it than just saying something aloud. We sometimes hear this word, confess, and we think that once we have said “Christ is Lord,” our part in this is done. But this word is so much more. It means to agree or to say something, for sure, but it also conveys a sense of making a promise. It is the kind of confession that Stephen made in front of the High Priest. It is a confession, a promise, that costs us the life we wanted and allows us to let go and let God’s will enter in prayers and into our lives.
That promise that we make is a promise that says, “Because I believe that Christ is king of the universe, and because I believe that his reign began long ago, and continues from today and on into eternity – because I believe it, I promise to be different and to live like Christ is my king above all other idols or rulers of my life.” It is not just a message to be spread. It is a life to be lived with Christ living inside of us and living through us. It is not a list of rules or a book to be fought over until everyone thinks the way I do. It is a king who lives, a king who lives in a heart that believes. It is a promise that my life will be different because Christ is king.
Paul’s life was different after Damascus. He gave it over completely to Christ. He gave away all of his plans and all of his privilege. He gave away his very life. He became like Stephen or, more to the point, he became like Christ. He made a promise and he kept it. That promise was to let Christ be king.
And so, may we go out into the world, imitating Paul, as he imitated Stephen, as he imitated Christ.
The grace of God, live through us, your people.
You Are What You Love by James K. A. Smith