February 23, 2020

Paul’s Transfiguration from Sinner to Saint

1st Timothy 1:12-17

 

This being Transfiguration Sunday, when we celebrate Christ’s transformation up on the mountain as he gathered with Peter, James, and John, is an opportunity to consider how Christ was transfigured on that day. How he changed and what he changed into is a bit confusing. After all, he was both human and divine both before and after he began to glow up on the mountain.  It is a bit more difficult to equate Christ’s transfiguration – a change from one thing into something else with us regular human beings. It is easier to consider change and transformation in our human existence. Consider me, for example. Over the decades, certain people have been strong Christian influences in my life that changed me. I would not be the person I am today if I had not encountered them at some point in my life, and I am ever thankful for their wisdom and example. My Grandfather Archie was a good Christian man who attended church every Sunday. He loved music and was a great singer back in his day. My mother taught me the basics of the Christian faith from the time I was 6 weeks old when I was first brought to church. Her church attendance, prayer life, reading of scripture and faithfulness were great examples for me. The Rev. Hugh Stewart was the pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Vallejo. Hugh saw in me the potential for ministry and gave me opportunities for leadership in the church. He and his wife, Suellen Stewart as Christian Education Director nurtured that potential and gave me the confidence to seek a call in the ministry. They were like second parents to me. My youth pastor, Rev. John Collister helped me through the angst-ridden teen years. Then there were my camp experiences at Westminster woods and those who led the camp, who molded and shaped my ministry and my calling to serve God. My time at San Francisco Theological Seminary was also an important place where my faith was shaped and my life influenced. In particular, the Rev. Howard Rice was an inspirational teacher and mentor to me at a particularly difficult time in my life. All of those I just listed, plus many others have helped shape and influence my Christian walk, and I wouldn’t be the same if I hadn’t encountered them.

 

The greatest influence on my life, however, was in coming to know Jesus, whom I first encountered in Sunday school, and who became real to me when I attended Christian summer camp at Westminster Woods. Christ has molded and shaped my life ever since.

 

In today’s passage, we get a small glimpse of the instructional letter Paul writes to Timothy, a young leader at a new church in the city of Ephesus. Paul was a great influence on Timothy, and helped mold and shape his call to ministry. He too had his greatest encounter with Jesus, who was his greatest influence as well, and who transfigured him into something brand new.

 

What do we know about this relationship between Paul and Timothy? Paul calls Timothy ‘my true son of faith” in chapter 1:2. Some scholars believe Paul converted Timothy to the faith during his first visit to Lystra. When Paul came back to Lystra, he invited Timothy to join him on a missionary journey. He even circumcised him so that his Greek heritage wouldn’t be a liability in his working with Jewish people. (Acts 16:3) That is some serious dedication! Timothy traveled with Paul to Macedonia, Achaia (acts 17:14-15), Asia Minor(Acts 20), and apparently even accompanied Paul to Jerusalem, and was with Paul during his first imprisonment(Philippians 1:1). Paul even credited Timothy with help in some of his letters, calling him a co-author in 2nd Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1st and 2nd Thessalonians and Philemon. So Paul was a huge influence on Timothy’s faith, and they had a close relationship.

 

The overall tone of the two letters written to Timothy concern how to be a leader in the church, how to deal with others, some basics on theology and Jesus, how to combat false teachers, and how to be courageous even though Timothy is young.

 

Today’s section, in particular, is a bit of a personal note to Timothy regarding his mentor – Paul wasn’t always a great Christian leader and example. Paul reminded Timothy of his past when he used his first name, Saul. Paul claims he blasphemed, that is he was a slanderer of God’s name. He persecuted and insulted Christ Jesus, and that he was the foremost of sinners. (v.13-15). It was Paul’s encounter with Jesus which influenced and shaped him into the leader he became.  Let’s look a bit more at Paul’s past when he was known as Saul.

 

Saul first appears in Acts in the posse that stoned Stephen (8:1) and then ravages the Christian church, dragging men and women from their houses and throwing them into prison (8:2‑4). While the Romans did not allow the Jewish people to administer capital punishment, the Romans did permit synagogues to take harsh measures to prompt their members to repent of sin and to return to faithful practice.

 

The book of Acts exposes the depth of Saul’s past by describing him as "breathing threats and murder" against the disciples. (Acts 9:1-19) Murder would violate both Jewish and Roman law. Yet Saul’s hatred of Christians was strong enough that he verbalized wanting to see their deaths.  In Acts 22:20, we hear of Saul imprisoning and beating Christians. In Galatians 1:13-17, Paul speaks of his past as one who persecuted the church violently and tried to destroy it – he was zealous in his persecution of Christians. These are the stories that are touched upon lightly in this section in first Timothy.  Paul wanted Timothy to know that his life was far from perfect, but that his encounter with Jesus made him the Christian leader he became, all thanks to Christ’s grace, turning a sinner into a saint.  The encounter Paul had with the Risen Christ is recounted in Acts 9 on the road to Damascus. What happened to Saul, the persecutor of the Christian church, which transfigured him into Paul, the greatest missionary of the Christian church in the first century?

 

Luke, the writer of Acts uses themes familiar to the Gospel story and to the stories in the Old Testament as well. A light from heaven blinds Saul, recollecting the heavenly light at Jesus’ birth, the brightness of the figures at the transfiguration, and the dazzling messengers in the empty tomb. Saul falls on the ground. Falling prostrate is a response to an epiphany from God, as in when Ezekiel and Daniel encounter God (e.g., Ezek 1:28; Dan 1:10). Jesus then asks, “Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?” The double address ("Saul, Saul") derives from passages such as Genesis 22:11(Abraham! Abraham!), Exodus 3:4(Moses! Moses!), and 1 Samuel 3:4 (Samuel! Samuel!). The scene is full of echoes of God’s divine activity and heroes of the faith.

 

 

Saul is so bewildered, he does not know what is happening, and he asks, "Who are you, Lord?" Jesus tells him it is He, whom he has been persecuting. Jesus then tells Saul to go to the city where further instructions await. As he arises from the ground, Saul realizes he is now blind.

Blindness from a faith perspective refers not only to physical blindness but also spiritual blindness. Saul has been spiritually blinded by his hatred for Christians. So, for three days, Saul fasts, thus following a time-honored Jewish method of preparing to receive instruction.

 

The risen Jesus then directs Ananias, a disciple, to go to Saul and lay healing hands on the apostle. These two visions show that Christ is in control and has plans for the future. Ananias is hesitant to go to Saul, however, because he knows of Saul’s reputation, and fears that Saul would seek to harm him. Jesus tells Ananias that Saul is his chosen instrument to spread the gospel, and so he goes and lays hands upon him. Saul regains his sight. He chooses to still use his Hebrew name, Saul, until sometime after he begins to believe in and preach Christ. After that time, as “the apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13), he uses his Roman name, Paul. It would make sense for Paul to use his Roman name as he traveled farther and farther into the Gentile world. Paul carried the message of the gospel to the synagogues, and then to the non-Jewish inhabitants of the Holy land. He certainly was Jesus’ instrument, planting churches and faith communities all throughout the Holy Land and beyond. He is credited with writing thirteen of the books in the New Testament, although most biblical scholars believe he only fully wrote eight of them. Still, what an incredible example of faith Paul was!

 

This story is important to us because it tells us some important things about Jesus, about his grace and mercy, and about us. In regards to Jesus, he will at times break into our lives, directing us where we should be and how we should be. Sometimes the leading is gentle, and sometimes it is not. Sometimes we understand an important nuance about Jesus as we look at the ocean or glimpse a majestic Redwood tree; Sometimes we understand an important foundational fact about life, death, struggle, and suffering when a loved one dies when we lose a portion of our health-finding ourselves in some crisis on our own Damascus Road experience.

 

 

Just like Paul, we too can have a difficult encounter with Jesus on our own road, so that we can, in turn, see the world and our lives in a different way. Had I not experienced the loss of our first child while at seminary, I would not have the compassion or understanding of another’s tragedy, or know what to say as their loved one slipped away. Had I not seen my mother in law ravaged by cancer, I would not know how to be a pastor in the midst of such things. Had I not seen my father in law lose his mind to a version of Alzheimer’s, I wouldn’t have the right words to say to a spouse who sees the same thing happening to their life partner. Had I not lost my father, and more recently my mother, I would not have understood the profound loss when a parent is no longer with you. I have had many Damascus road experiences in my own life and in my ministry – each one has been a conversion experience for me. Each one has transfigured me and shaped me into the instrument I was called to be so that Jesus could get me to the right place and use me. Theologian Frederick J. Parrella wrote, “Conversion, ‘Ametanoia’ in Greek means to see everything differently, to pass through the blindness inside of us with humility and hope, to trust that in time we too will change so that we will be able to see through the eyes of Jesus himself: so much so that, as Paul could say, ‘yet it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’” (Gal 2:20).

 

And so today we affirm that Christ comes to us, just as he came to Saul, and is molding and shaping our lives. Because of Christ’s lively presence with us, there are always fresh insights to be found in our life experiences. Stay open and expectant. When you are in the midst of a Damascus road experience, whether you are being gently guided or are suffering or struggling, have hope, because, like Saul who became Paul, like you, like me, like others, Jesus Christ is molding and shaping you to new understandings and new ways of being. He is preparing you to be in just the right place so that he can also use you to spread the good news of love, mercy, and hope.

 

In regards to the grace and mercy Jesus gave Paul, turning him from sinner to saint, I think Paul recounted this story for Timothy to remind him of that same grace and mercy, which turned him into something new, transfigured into someone that Jesus also used to spread the gospel. Paul wanted to remind Timothy that both of them were sinners, saved by Christ’s grace. Therefore, Timothy was called to extend that grace and mercy to his flock in Ephesus. It is that same grace and mercy Christ has extended to us and had molded and shaped us into who we are today. The former slave ship captain John Newton, who penned the words to the hymn Amazing Grace, wrote, “I am not what I might be, I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I wish to be, I am not what I hope to be; but thank God I am not what I once was, and I can say with the great apostle Paul, ‘by the grace of God I am what I am’.” That grace which has transformed Saul, Timothy, John Newton, and everyone in this sanctuary to make us into the followers of Christ we are today is meant to be celebrated. We are not what we once were. We are not yet what we shall become. Thanks be to God!

 

So may we give thanks for Christ’s transformative grace and mercy, which has allowed us to pass through the blindness inside of us with humility and hope. Let us trust that in time we too will change so that we will be able to see through the eyes of Jesus himself: so much so that, as Paul could say, "yet it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." (Gal 2:20). Alleluia! Amen.

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