The Madness of Saint Paul

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, November 13, 2016
Taken from Ephesians 3:14-21 

 Rooted in Love


If I called out to you sitting down here on the front pew, “Hey, you, beloved of God.”

If I called out to you sitting throughout the middle section of the sanctuary, “Hey, you, too, beloved of God.”

If I called out to you who are nicely tucked away up under the balcony, “Hey, welcome, beloved of God.”

If I called out to you sitting way up there in the balcony, “Hey, there, you beloved of God.”

And, even if I called out to you who are sitting with your radios sharing with us in worship, “Welcome, you beloved of God.”

You might think of it a little bit of an odd way to start, perhaps, a little bit over the top, but you’d wouldn’t worry about my sanity any more than you normally do.

But, what if I didn’t stop there?  What if I, standing here behind this pulpit, after calling out to you whom we might reasonably expect to hear my voice, what if I began calling out to the pedestrians walking out there on the sidewalks in front of our church building right now, whom we cannot see nor whom we might expect to hear what the preacher inside is saying?  Yet, I call out, “Hello, you much beloved of God!”

What if I began calling out to the folks sitting in their cars stopped at the red lights in the intersection, whom we cannot see nor expect to hear?  “Hi, there, you beloved of God!”

What if I shouted out to the patients in their hospital rooms two blocks over and to their families there by their sides, and I shouted out to the multitude of medical professionals and support staff there in the hospital with them right now.  “All of you!  Greetings, you beloved of the Lord!”

What if even then I didn’t stop.  But I kept on shouting out to students just now waking up in the dorms all the way over on the other side of the University grounds, and on and on and on.  “Wake up, you much beloved children of God!”

Calling out as though I really thought that all these strangers far away could hear me from where I am now standing on this spot behind this pulpit, well, then, you might think it a bit more than just odd.  You might think I had gone way around the bend, and that I’d gone a bit mad, wouldn’t you?  That I would think that people, strangers to us, strangers to our worship, strangers to the Lord Jesus Christ, could possibly hear what the preacher behind this pulpit might preach.

My excitement in calling out to all these others whom we cannot see and whom we are convinced could not possibly hear me, such excitement you would interpret as a frightening emotional agitation that had taken over me.

My apparently heartfelt belief that those others far outside of this fellowship of faith would somehow turn and wonder at the source of the voice they heard, you would call me delusional.

My actions would be so disruptive of what you would expect for your Sunday morning worship experience, so alien to the behavior by which you expect the preachers of this church to conduct themselves, it would offend you and perhaps you would turn angry, determined to banish me from ever standing here again to preach.

You would reach for your phones to dial 911; you might even rush the pulpit to constrain me for my own safety and to preclude any violence you’d fear might happen if my apparent derangement were allowed to go on unchecked.

And under any scenario of expected normal human behavior, you’d be right to do so.  Unless …

Unless this scenario which falls far outside the norm of what we might expect or believe possible had now become possible.  That the preacher is possessed not of madness, but that God had possessed the preacher with an insight and an understanding of a scenario that once was impossible but God has now made possible.

That what God has now made possible God intends not only the preacher to proclaim but God fully intends that all the people of God to believe, each and every woman, man, and child, so that they too will absorb that same insight into this most unexpected scenario God is now playing out among us.  A scenario which God fully intends to play out through us all, no longer passive observers but active participants.

That together, all God’s people will know for a certainty, that what once was unimaginable, they do dare to imagine, because God has done it, God is doing it, and God will have it done in total before God is finished.

What if, as we sat now in this sanctuary, on this morning, if after all that calling out to those folks far beyond these walls, even now, what if those people were making their way up the steps and we began hearing a knock, knock, knocking at our sanctuary doors because they in fact heard a voice speaking to them, speaking to their souls, “Come to my house, come to my table, come, my beloved, for you, too, are part of the family of God.”

What apparent madness I am describing would suddenly disappear, and in its place, a clarified focus would take hold of us, so that together we would affirm this sacred scenario of God, a sacred scenario so sane, and so sensible that no one of us would hesitate to offer our dedication and to offer our support to see that scenario be played out among us.

Beyond our reasonable expectations of what might happen, beyond any sensible plans we might devise that we see achievable in the service of God, beyond all we might dare ask or hope from God, God awaits on you and me.

God waits for us to see what God sees, to believe in what God knows as possible.  God seeks out our partnership to accomplish for God’s glory the salvation of these people I described:  people unclaimed and lost, yet people very much beloved, children of God.

Those people, who walk past us on the sidewalks just outside our doors and who drive by us on this corner:  the unclaimed and lost, yet beloved of God.

People, who travel from across the country and from across the world, to study at this great institution across the street or to find healing in this hospital two blocks from us:  the unclaimed and lost, yet beloved children of God.

People, whose travels take them no further than the bus lines run in this city and county, whose life experiences extend no further than the families into which they were born and raised:  the unclaimed and lost, yet beloved children of God.

“For this reason,” Paul writes, “I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles…For this reason I bow my knees before the Father…that according to the riches of God’s glory God may grant you all…to have [the] power to get it!”

 “For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles.”  – that’s us, by the way, we’re the Gentiles on whose behalf Paul now finds himself a prisoner.  Paul is a prisoner because he himself has been judged mad;  Paul, derided as a disrupter of the faith, a voice calling out to those whom his fellow Jews dismissed as impossible to be included, those whom Paul’s contemporaries believed to be beyond hearing and responding to the grace of God.

Paul was a prisoner of the Roman governor, for no other reason than that he finally saw and gave over his life in service to the very thing which he formerly persecuted and sought to wipe out as heresy, as an utter defilement of his faith.

Saul, on his way to Damascus to persecute followers of the Way of Jesus of Nazareth was struck down in the blinding light of the Risen Christ.  Christ then raised him up as Paul, the Apostle of Christ.

Paul becomes the Apostle proclaiming the sacred scenario God had now set in motion in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.  Paul is sold on the sacred scenario that God had now made possible through the outpouring of God’s own Holy Spirit among all the followers of the Risen Christ beginning on the Day of Pentecost.

On that Pentecost Sunday, people laughed at those 120 followers of Christ anointed of the Holy Spirit.  They didn’t call them mad, they simply dismissed them as a bunch of drunks.  The Apostle Peter protests, “what you call drunken stupor, is in reality the sacred scenario of which the ancient prophet foresaw,

“And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh ….And it shall be that whoever—whoever—shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”  (Acts 2:17-21)

It was that last little bit there, that “whoever”, that one day got the Apostle Paul nearly beat to death out on a street in Jerusalem.  Roman soldiers rushed in to rescue Paul.  Then they put Paul under arrest until they could sort out the mess.

Paul, now a prisoner, all because the Lord Jesus showed Paul that “whoever” meant exactly that: Gentile as well as Jew, homegrown Hebrew as well as far-off pagan, educated or illiterate, women as well as men, those who were enslaved as well as those who enslaved them.

Paul saw clearly what the other original Twelve Apostles were so reluctant to recognize.  As Paul writes in Ephesians, chapter 2, verse 15:  “[Christ] has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity….”

Now, let that sink in for a moment.  You go stand up in front of a group of committed religionists and their leaders and tell them that.  Tell them that the God whom they worship, the God whom they know through these same sacred Scriptures, yes, God is now done with all of that.

Now, through the one man whom they themselves had conspired with the governing authorities to have killed, that man God had resurrected, to become the template and the leader, of a new humanity.  A new humanity whom God is now creating out of all the old and broken and warring families of this existing world.  As Paul writes in verse 14 of our reading this morning:  “the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named”, that Father was now gathering in all God’s children in this household of faith.

It was what I am calling “The Madness of Saint Paul”.  That’s what the Roman Governor, said to Paul.  In Acts, chapter 26, Paul stand before the Jewish King, Agrippa, and the Roman Governor, Festus.  Paul attempts to explain God’s new thing, this sacred scenario Paul says God is now accomplishing through the Risen Christ.

Verses 24 and 25 of Acts chapter 26 record that as Paul tries to explain, the Roman Governor “interrupted Paul’s defense.  ‘You are out of your mind, Paul!’ he shouted.  ‘Your great learning is driving you insane.’

‘I am not insane, most excellent Festus,’ Paul replied.  ‘What I am saying is true and reasonable’.” (NIV)

If only we here at University Baptist Church might be accused of such madness!  If only we were in the position of having to defend ourselves, to protest that we are not driven by insanity, but we are driven by the infinitely sane, the entirely true, the Divine outworking of God’s sacred scenario through us here in Charlottesville.

But, that’s unlikely to happen if the greatest vision we can conjure up for ourselves is just trying to get new church members.  Not a lot of new church members, mind you.  Just enough to hang on, to survive, to keep the building open and the lights on and employees paid.  What a frivolous and, quite frankly, what a boring thing in which to invest ourselves.

But, if we’re here trying to do what the Apostle Paul himself was trying to do, well then, that’s a whole different ball game.  We might just stir up a little trouble.  If we’re here trying to do what Paul was praying these early believers might do, then we too might get told that we’re out of our minds.

We’re here to serve God who is not out to make new church members.  God is out to make a brand-new humanity.  We’re here to hold before our community the glorious template of the Risen Christ.

We’re here today at University Baptist Church praying and hoping right along with the Apostle Paul that God will grant us “the power to get our heads and hearts around the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love, to know that love that surpasses human wisdom.”

Why?  So that we, too, “may be filled with all the fullness of God”, so that God will “work within us [what God alone] is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.”

Isn’t that work of making a new humanity with God worth your commitment and my commitment?  Not making new church members, but making a new humanity.  Isn’t that worth you and I clearing a space in our week, saving a space in our bank accounts, investing some of our best thinking and imagining, to comprehend and to accomplish with God this great and sacred scenario of remaking humanity in the template of Jesus of Nazareth?

You and I don’t want this church to just survive on this corner.  You and I want this church to be known as God’s place on this corner where any may come and see what God has got going on now in Christ.

This church is about calling out, “Welcome, you beloved of God. Whoever you are today, whatever your life is today, whatever vaulted ambitions may drive you, whatever devastated dreams may defeat you, whatever has hold on your hearts, turn it loose, die and be resurrected a new woman, a new man, a new eternal child of God.”  Wouldn’t you agree, that is so much better than simply trying to get people to become a church member.

I’ll ask us again:

Isn’t the work of making a new humanity with God worth your commitment and my commitment?  Not making new church members, but making a new humanity.  Isn’t that worth you and I clearing a space in our week, saving a space in our bank accounts, investing some of our best thinking and imagining, to comprehend and to accomplish with God this great and sacred scenario of human reclamation and salvation?