25 January 2017

Called Out of Darkness into the Light of Christ

One could hardly over-emphasize the significance of St. Paul’s conversion for the history of the Church on earth, and really for the history of the world.  Indeed, U. S. News and World Report once identified the conversion of St. Paul as the single most significant event in western history — and that was not even considering his theological contributions, but simply his impact on the life and culture of western society.  More important, by the grace and mercies of God, by His Word and Holy Spirit, St. Paul built upon the rock foundation that his Savior, Christ Jesus, established.

Incredibly, there are no less than four complementary accounts of Paul’s conversion in the Holy Scriptures: three within the Acts of the Apostles (a surprising repetition in a carefully selective record of Church history), and the fourth from St. Paul’s own hand in his Epistle to the Galatians.

The significance of St. Paul’s conversion and call to Apostleship goes far beyond the fact that he preached to the Gentiles in his day.  As a thirteenth Apostle, he was in his office an indication of God’s good and gracious will to extend the Kingdom of His people and His Church beyond the twelve tribes of Israel.  As St. Peter and the others Apostles were the new Patriarchs of a new Israel, so was St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, the divinely-ordained link between the new Jerusalem and the rest of the world within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ.

So also, as the other Apostles were called to give up everything, to the point of losing their lives for the sake of Christ and His Gospel, so was St. Paul called to give up everything he knew, to suffer many things in the Name of Jesus, and finally to be martyred under Nero in Rome.

More to the point at hand, the same Lord Jesus calls you to forsake all that you have known and trusted — yourself and your life, your family, your home, and all of your possessions in this world.  That is to say, He calls you to repentance.  He calls you to be converted every day, as it were, from the darkness and death of your sin to forgiveness and life in the Light of His Gospel.

Now, you know what it’s like to come out of a dark room into the light — maybe first thing in the morning, or after a movie matinee.  The light hurts your eyes at first, and it takes a while to adjust.  That’s how it was for Saul of Tarsus, when he was suddenly surrounded by the blazing Light of God from heaven.  Except that Saul had thought he was already walking in the light of the Lord.

As the Lord Jesus had forewarned His Disciples, the day had come when men like Saul believed they were serving the Lord their God by persecuting the Church and Ministers of Christ.  So what a shock it was for Saul to be confronted by the true Light of God in Christ Jesus — far brighter than any he had known — and to learn that he was living and walking in the darkness as a chief of sinners.  The devastating impact of that realization brought Saul to his knees and brought him to nothing.  For he, Saul, a pharisee of pharisees, was the blind and ignorant one.  All of his efforts on behalf of the Law and the Temple were wrong and counterproductive.  He was running in vain.

To make note of all of this is fine and good.  And it might be easy enough to sit back and point fingers at poor Saul.  We don’t even have to feel too badly for him, since we already know how his story will continue, and how he will become a great Apostle and a Champion of Christ.  What is not so comfortable and easy, however, is that you, like Saul, are also kicking against the goads and persecuting Jesus by your sins.  Which means that you must also be confronted by the Lord and painfully converted, and not only once upon a time, but day after day throughout your life.

Apart from the Epiphany and Self-revelation of Christ, you are the one who is walking in darkness — no matter how zealous and pious you might be, and no matter if you serve as an officer of the congregation, or even as a pastor!  Your credentials and your zeal will surely never be greater than Saul’s.  If the Lord Jesus Christ does not surround you with His Light and speak His Voice to you, then you remain nothing but a poor, miserable sinner, breathing threats and murder against your neighbor, and running in vain on the road that is wide and smooth on its way to destruction.

And if Jesus does not send His Ananias to you — to lay his hand on you in Holy Absolution, to open your eyes and ears to the preaching of the Gospel, to return you to the life-giving waters of Holy Baptism, and to nourish you with the Food of Christ in the Holy Communion — then you remain in your blind ignorance, and you will starve to death in utter despair.

Thus, you cannot (you dare not) hear the story of St. Paul’s conversion as a casual listener with detached objectivity; because it must become your story, your conversion from darkness to Light.

In the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace is turned into a dragon on account of his greed and selfishness.  He is converted back into a boy by the great lion, Aslan, only by the painful stripping away of layer-upon-layer of scales — right down to the core of his being — and by a “baptismal” cleansing in the waters of repentance.  C. S. Lewis thus provides a powerful, dramatic picture of Christian conversion, including your own.  For it is a painful removal of all that you have been, the drowning and death of your old Adam, before you are raised up to newness of life in Christ.

Yet, as brilliant as C. S. Lewis was, his poetic description of conversion does not surpass the poignancy of St. Paul’s conversion as described by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles.

In the story of St. Paul you are presented with the paradigm and pattern of Christian conversion.  And though, of course, the details and specifics of the experience and its outcome are different in each particular case, by the eyes and ears of faith you are able to recognize your own story, as well, in the calling and conversion of St. Paul.  For you have also been on your own road to Damascus, self-confident and self-righteous in your own ambitious choices, decisions, ideas, and ideals.

So it goes, until the Lord stops you dead in your tracks.  Maybe not with a brilliant light flashing all around you from heaven, but perhaps with the exposure of some secret sin, or with evidence that you actually don’t know it all, and you don’t understand even what you do know.  Perhaps it is not a voice from the heavens, but the voice of a parent laying down the law, or a doctor saying “cancer,” or a phone call in the middle of the night that someone you love has been killed.

Whatever it may be, whatever it takes, you find yourself blind and groping in the darkness of your sinful ignorance and unbelief.  You cannot help yourself; you have to be taken by hand and led around by others.  All your proud plans and grand ambitions have to be given up and set aside.  It is a time of repentance, of fasting and prayer, and of watching and waiting on the Lord.

Three days in the tomb, in the dust of the ground — in the dark with Saul of Tarsus, in the belly of the great fish with Jonah — before you are resurrected from the dead by the Word of the Gospel.  The Lord has not forgotten you.  But He must kill the sinner before He raises the saint.

And then the Lord who loves you sends His Ananias, a servant of His Word, to lay a tender hand upon your head; to speak the grace, mercy, and peace of His forgiveness; to baptize you in the Name of Jesus, or to return you to His Baptism; and to feed you with His Body and His Blood.

Thus, by the Ministry of His Gospel, the Lord opens up your eyes, in such a way that His Light is no longer blinding but a Lamp unto your feet and a Light upon your path.  No longer are you on the road to Damascus, but on the Road to Emmaus with the crucified and risen Lord Jesus.  And as you have died with Him by your Baptism into His death, so do you now live with Him, as well.

And just as St. Paul’s conversion from the darkness to the Light included God’s call to a particular office and station in life, so are you called to a particular place and purpose as a child of God and a Christian disciple of Christ Jesus.  But your place and purpose, your office and station in life are different than St. Paul’s, and different than your neighbor’s.  Your vocation, your relationships, and your responsibilities are uniquely yours.  But you need not go hunting and searching to find them or figure them out, because they are set before you plainly in your neighbors, beginning with your own parents, siblings, spouse, and children, if you have them; so, too, in your classmates, your colleagues, and coworkers; in your teachers or students; in your boss or your employees; in the orphans and widows the Lord has placed beside you; and in your brothers and sisters in Christ.

As a child, you are called to love, honor, serve, and obey your parents and other authorities.  As a parent, you are called to rear your children in the fear and admonition of the Lord; to bring them to the washing of the water with His Word in Holy Baptism, and then to continue bringing them to His Church; to care for them in body and soul; to catechize them in God’s Word and prayer; and to teach them by your words and by your example to live and walk in the Light of Christ.

As husband or wife, you are called to love and serve your spouse in the faith and love of Christ and His Bride, the Church.  As a Christian, you are called to drown and destroy the old Adam in you through daily contrition and repentance, to confess your sins and to receive the forgiveness and eternal life of Christ Himself in His Gospel and Sacrament.  That is your most important calling.

As a member of the congregation, you are called to serve and support the Church and Ministry of the Gospel in this place, for your own sake and for your neighbors, to the Glory of God in Christ.  Pray for me as your pastor, as I pray for you.  And within your community and neighborhood, and in your job if you have one, serve and support those around you in the confession of Christ Jesus.

Though none of us will be another St. Paul, and perhaps only a few of you might ever be called to the pastoral office, each and every one of you has been called out of the darkness of your sins into the marvelous Light of Christ.  You are called to be a child of the Father in heaven; called to live and walk in the Way of Christ and, whatever your particular place and station are, to be His Light in the midst of the deep darkness all around you.  You are called to receive the gracious gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Christ, and to learn from Him what it is to be truly alive.

At the heart of the story at hand — what St. Paul was called to do, according to the Word of Jesus — what was necessary, according to the Word and Will of God, in much the same way that the Cross and Resurrection of Christ were necessary — was that St. Paul would suffer many things for the Name of Christ Jesus.  He was called to bear the Cross in this life on earth, even unto death.  Not as those who suffer and die without hope, but in the hope and promise of the Resurrection.

And to this same life, death, and resurrection, you also are called.  For you received the Cross of Christ upon your forehead and your heart in Holy Baptism.  You are marked as one redeemed by this crucified God, who calls you to bear His Cross and follow Him, to confess His Name and suffer for it, to die and rise with Him to the praise and glory of His God and Father.  For as you are crucified, dead, and buried with the Lord Jesus Christ, so also do you live with Him, as well, in body and soul, both here in time and hereafter in eternity forever.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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