Monday, April 15, 2013

Sermon - Easter 3 - Acts 9:1-22

The Third Sunday of Easter
Acts 9:1-22
Peace Lutheran Church, McMurray, PA

“The Chief of Sinners; The Greatest Missionary”

It is fitting, perhaps, to host a missionary visit on this Sunday in which our reading from Acts is the conversion of St. Paul. Paul, many would argue, was the greatest missionary ever. He traveled the world-as-they- knew-it, preached in synagogues and temples and marketplaces, to Jew and Gentile, boldly proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Not only did he establish numerous congregations in his travels, he also wrote letters of instruction and encouragement to them, many of which we regard as Holy Scripture. I've even heard some argue that Paul, because of his missionary efforts, is the most important person in history, apart from Jesus Christ himself.

Big shoes to fill for someone like myself, an aspiring foreign missionary and church planter. My scope won't be so broad, planting only one congregation, and not planning to write any Holy Scripture. But still there is much to learn from the great missionary, and not just for another missionary like me. Also for all of God's people.

In a way Paul isn't that different from you or I. Look at where he started – a pharisee's pharisee, an enemy of Christians, breathing out murderous threats, zelous for Judaism but quite zealous against the Lord. Paul (or Saul) was present at the stoning of Stephen, the very fist Christian martyr, he held the outer garments of those who threw the stones, you know, so they didn't get blood splattered on their nice clothes. And Saul gave his assent to this.

You came from just such a place. Oh yes, even life-long Christians, even cradle LCMS Lutherans, “you were once enemies of God” as Paul told the Colossians. Our understanding of original sin makes it clear – we are born, even conceived in sin – we inherit it from birth – and even cute little innocent babies are enemies of God, corrupted by sin, and destined for death.

Paul called himself the “cheif of sinners”, and marveled that Christ would call someone like him. You and I are also “cheif of sinners”, if we look honestly and deeply into the mirror of God's law. We will see our lives stacked up against the commandments, and be horrified at the image. I don't just break his law, I shatter it and stomp on it daily. Cheif of sinners, though I be, Jesus shed his blood for me...

Like Paul, we are converted. Like Paul, Jesus knocks us off our high horse, calls us to repentance and meets us at the font. Like Paul, we are baptized into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And like Paul, we are re-born.

Oh there's still a little pharisee in all of us. There's still the daily struggle with our zeal for sin. And so the catechism reminds us that the Old Adam in us is daily drowned by repentance and faith. We return to those baptismal waters, and splash around in God's grace anew.

Paul wasn't the only one called by God in this account, however. There's also old Annanias. He wasn't to sure he wanted anything to do with Paul, whose reputation preceded him. But Jesus assured him that he would use Paul for his own purposes, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name."

You see both Annanias and Paul, and you and I for that matter, not to mention all of God's people, are Christ's own instruments for getting his job done in this world. While he could do it all quite without us, in His grace, he calls us all to a part in his kingdom. To be his body in this world. To be his masks, according to our vocation.

Some are called to be pastors and missionaries. Preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments near to home or in a far away land – the Good news of Jesus Christ is the same. The washing of sins in Holy Baptism is the same. The feast of forgiveness in Christ at his altar is the same. The absolution pronounced in the stead and by the command of Christ... the same.

But others are called to serve as parents, teaching our children the faith and raising them in the fear of the Lord. Some are called to be spouses, daily dying for our other half as Christ died for his body the church. Some are called to be bosses or employees, citizens or government officials, or soldiers. Some are called to be friends and neighbors, and to simply give a cold cup of water to one in need. We are baptized people of God in Christ, new creations, called not to struggle against God, but to be his instruments, and yes, even to suffer for the name of Christ.

Christ, who really is the chief of sinners. What? You say? But Jesus never sinned? True enough – but listen to what Dr. Luther says concerning Christ taking our sin: (From Luther's commentary on Galatians)

“All the prophets of old said that Christ should be the greatest transgressor, murderer, adulterer, thief, blasphemer that ever was or ever could be on earth. When He took the sins of the whole world upon Himself, Christ was no longer an innocent person. He was a sinner burdened with the sins of a Paul who was a blasphemer; burdened with the sins of a Peter who denied Christ; burdened with the sins of a David who committed adultery and murder, and gave the heathen occasion to laugh at the Lord. In short, Christ was charged with all the sins of all, that He should pay with them with His own blood. The curse struck Him.”

Jesus Christ, the true chief of sinners. And the true chief of sinners is also the greatest missionary. That title belongs, not to Paul, but to our Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus was sent, by the Father, on a mission: To take on human flesh; to live up to every expectation of the law; to submit to His Father's will in all things; to fulfill all righteousness; to be baptized as a sinner, though he had no sin, and take all sins onto himself; and to drink the cup of God's wrath over sin; to bear the chastisement that we deserved; to be forsaken by the Father; to shed his blood; to hang on a cross; to die. To destroy death by death. To finish it all, for you. Mission accomplished. The greatest missionary ever.

And to rise again to pave the way out of the grave for you. And to return to his throne to rule all things for our good. And to come again in glory to bring this age to a close and bring us, resurrected in our bodies, to a restored creation and eternal glory.

In the meantime, though his mission was accomplished, his mission continues on. We live in the now and the not yet of Christ's salvation – enjoying the blessings won at the cross in a foretaste of the feast to come. We join with the heavenly hosts that sing, “worthy is Christ, the lamb who was slain” because by our baptism we are already part of that heavenly company. And we want others to share in these blessings, to know the forgiveness and life and peace that we receive in Christ, to be reborn and renewed and reconciled. It may entail suffering, and even death... but life by faith is life that trusts the Lord of life no matter what comes our way.

We pray that the greatest missionary will use us all, according to our callings, as his instruments. For we are baptized and belong to him. We daily die and rise in him, and look forward to a resurrection like his. 

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