Malachi 3:1-4; Canticle 16; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
The Rev. James M.L. Grace
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
I am currently reading through the book of Acts in the New Testament. This book, Acts, or “Acts of the Apostles” as it is also known, is the fifth book that you find in the New Testament. It follows right after the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The book of Acts is itself a sequel, actually. It was written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke. In its original form, the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts were originally one book.
Luke and Acts were divided because Luke tells the story of Jesus while Acts tells the story of what follows after Jesus. Luke becomes a Gospel once it is divided from what we call the book of Acts.
There are many key players in the book of Acts, but arguably one of the most influential was a man named Saul. Saul was Jewish, and was member of a group called the Pharisees. The Pharisees were a group of devout and faithful followers of Judaism, the primary religion in Israel during the time of Jesus.
The pharisees believed in the Law as documented in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and upheld those commandments given by God in those scriptures. Central to the identity of a pharisee was the temple in Jerusalem. This temple, rebuilt following the destruction of Israel five hundred years before the birth of Christ, was the heart of Jewish religion.
Readers of the Gospels know that Jesus often critiqued the temple, and did not hesitate to call out the hypocrisy of its clergy. This put him in opposition against the pharisees, a tension that is especially obvious in reading Matthew’s Gospel. Saul is a pharisee. And a very good one at that. So good that Saul sought out to persecute people – Jews and non Jews alike – who stated that they believed that Jesus was the messiah God had promised Israel, a belief the pharisees disagreed with.
Saul persecuted and hurt many people. He was present, and gave his consent, to the public stoning of a man named Stephen, the first deacon chosen for the church. Yet Saul had a change of heart, which resulted from an epiphany. Saul was traveling to Damascus, on his way to persecute and arrest people there who proclaimed that Jesus was the messiah, and on his journey Saul encountered this bright light which blinded him, and he heard Jesus say to him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Saul’s life changed dramatically because of this event, and the story of Saul’s conversion is told in Acts chapter 9. He got a new name for starters – now he was called “Paul.” Paul came to believe that Jesus was the messiah whom God had promised Israel. He no longer persecuted people who believed this. And Paul, formerly Saul, travelled around the known world at that time, to do what Carissa is about to do – he began to start new communities of people who believed, as Paul now did, that Jesus was God’s messiah.
He started these communities all around the Mediterranean world. In one instance Paul sailed to a city called Philippi in Macedonia. Philippi was named for the Phillip II, the father of Alexander the Great. You can read about Paul’s journey to Philippi in chapter 16 of Acts. In Philippi, Paul began a Christian community that he grew very close to. And in the New Testament book entitled “The Letter of Paul to the Philippians” or “Philippians” for short, we have a copy of a letter written by Paul to this community.
An excerpt of the letter to the Philippians is one of our readings today. It’s helpful to know that in this letter, Paul mentions that he is in prison. We hear that in v. 7 of today’ reading. Imprisonment was pretty common for Paul in this new life, an ironic turn of events for a person whose former career was arresting people. Paul’s pattern was fairly predictable: he would arrive into a city, start a church, get into conflict with Roman authority because of the new church, get arrested, and put in jail. Nowadays, when new churches are started, people like Carissa tend to follow Paul’s model of starting churches, with the exception of the getting thrown in jail part.
From prison, Paul writes these words to this community in Philippi whom he loves: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” I am convinced that Paul could not write those words as a prisoner on his strength alone. I believe it is God’s strength, not Paul’s, that enables him to say those words.
We would be wise to learn from Paul’s example. Because Paul was open, he allowed God to transform his heart, so that he was no longer a person defined by hate, but of love and of hope. If Paul could be transformed, allowing God to heal his anger and resentment, than we can too. Paul was not perfect. No one is. But in prison, at least he was free. AMEN.