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My Chosen Instrument
Acts 9:1-22


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Third Sunday of Easter—April 18, 2010

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

In today’s Reading from the Book of Acts, the Lord tells Ananias, regarding the man who would become the Apostle St. Paul, “This man is my chosen instrument to bear my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.”

It seems there couldn’t have been anyone less likely to be chosen by the Lord for this assignment.  “But Lord,” Ananias exclaims, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.  And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”

The last time in the Book of Acts we meet Paul, also known as Saul, is when Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is being stoned to death.  “And Saul was there,” Acts says, “giving approval to his death.”  As Paul himself later writes in 1st Corinthians and Galatians, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. . .  For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it.”

Later in Acts, Paul again recounts his conversion from a persecutor to a preacher of Christianity: “I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison. . .  I even . . . went to Damascus to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.  About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me.  I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’  ‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked. ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth,’ he replied, ‘whom you are persecuting.’”

It seems there couldn’t have been anyone less likely to be chosen by the Lord to be the greatest Apostle of the faith.  And yet the Lord declares, “This man is my chosen instrument to bear my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.”

It may seem crazy to us for the Lord to take the greatest enemy of the faith and make him, other than Christ himself, its greatest proponent, but there was method to God’s madness.  As Paul later wrote in 1st Corinthians, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom.”

Winston Churchill said that when he was made Prime Minister during the darkest days of World War II, “I felt as if . . . all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”  In the same way, God in his wisdom had carefully prepared the persecutor Paul to become the great Apostle, who except for Christ himself would do more than any other to spread the Christian faith.

“I am a Jew,” Paul says in Acts, “born in Tarsus of Cilicia.”  From the time he was born, Paul really lived in two worlds, Jewish and Gentile.  For, he was born to a Jewish family, but in the Roman colony of Tarsus.  This unique dual citizenship that he had is reflected in his two names, Saul and Paul.  People often think that his name was changed by the Lord from Saul to Paul after his conversion experience recounted in today’s reading.  The Lord did often change his followers’ names at such a turning point in their lives: Abram becomes Abraham; Sarai becomes Sarah; Jacob becomes Israel, and the disciple Simon becomes the Apostle Peter.

But, that actually is the not case with Saul, whom we know as the Apostle Paul.  He actually would have had both those names throughout his life.  Saul was his Hebrew name, after the great King Saul of the Hebrew Old Testament.  But, that name caused a problem for his Gentile neighbors in his boyhood hometown of Tarsus.  They actually had trouble pronouncing the Hebrew name Saul, so they just nicknamed him with a similar sounding name that was common in their Latin language, Paul.  In the same way, many Americans had ancestors from Germany named Johann, or from France named Jean, or from Spain or Mexico named Juan, or from Norway named “Yon,” but in America they all became just plain John.

In the case of Saul, when he became the Apostle to the Gentiles, the Lord did not have to give him a new, Gentile name.  He’d already had a Gentile name his whole life, in addition to his Jewish name.  On the playground as a child, the Hebrew children called him Saul, and the Gentile children called him Paul.

“This man is my chosen instrument to bear my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.”  It is amazing how from his childhood, God had planned it out perfectly for this man with his unique dual citizenship to be the one more than any other who would “bear [his] name before the Gentiles . . . and before the people of Israel.”  As Winston Churchill said, all of Paul’s past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.  Apparently, Paul could see God’s hand at work in his life, for in Galatians he says, “God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles.”

When missionaries are assigned to a foreign country, before they actually do any mission work they usually spend years just learning the language, the customs, the culture of the people among whom they will serve.  Jesus told his followers, “Go and make disciples of all nations. . . You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  There was a great urgency to spread the faith as fast and as far as possible.  The church didn’t have time for a new missionary to the Gentiles to spend years just learning the language, the customs, the culture of the Gentiles.  But, you see, God already had that all taken care of.  He’d started that project years before, with the birth of a Jewish boy named Saul, who would become the Apostle Paul.

“This man is my chosen instrument to bear my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.”  As a Jew born among Gentiles in the Roman colony of Tarsus, Paul was uniquely able to relate to both of these groups.  From childhood he was a fluent, native speaker of both groups’ languages.  And he was intimately familiar with their customs and culture, because they were in fact his own. 

And it wasn’t just his unique dual citizenship that prepared Paul for this calling.  He is described in Acts as having “great learning,” and he says, “Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers.”  Paul had attended the most elite Hebrew seminary, studied under the most famous Bible scholar.  And, following his conversion, Paul surely became the greatest Scripture scholar among Christ’s disciples, which is why about half the books of the New Testament were written by him. 

Paul used his great learning in service to Christ, as today’s reading concludes: “At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.  All those who heard him were astonished . . . Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled [them] . . . by proving that Jesus is the Christ.”

Finally, Paul’s personal experience striving for years in vain to earn God’s favor and his own way into heaven gave him great insight into the futility of works righteousness, and profound appreciation for the Good News of God’s grace and forgiveness in Christ.  As he says in Philippians, “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.”

He beautifully expresses the Good News of God’s grace and forgiveness in Christ in his epistles: “We know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. . .  God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. . .  So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified. . .  For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”

That is God’s Good News for you. The life, death, and resurrection of God’s own Son was a “sacrifice of atonement” for you.  He earned for you forgiveness for all your sins.  Trust in him, for in him you are “justified,” made right in God’s sight.  Paul says in Ephesians, “This grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ.”  The boundless riches of God’s grace and forgiveness in Christ is God’s gift to you.

Well, Paul’s life history is very interesting, but how does it all relate to you, and your life?  Just as with Paul in his life, you also are God’s chosen instrument, God has specifically chosen you to serve him, in many unique ways in your life.  As Peter says, “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” 

If you are married, you are God’s chosen instrument to be a faithful, loving husband or wife to the spouse God has given you.  As the wedding vows say, “To have and to hold from this day forward . . . to love and to cherish till death do us part.”

In the next two months we will again be celebrating Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.  As a child, you are God’s chosen instrument, as the Commandment says, to “Honor your father and your mother.”  If you are a parent, you are God’s chosen instrument to be a devoted father or mother to your children.

Paul says in Romans, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.”  You are God’s chosen instrument to use your unique gifts in your early occupation, to serve God by serving your fellow man.  As Paul says in Colossians, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men . . .  It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

In 1st Corinthians, Paul compares the diverse members of the church to the diverse parts of a human body, and concludes, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. . .  God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.”  That means you are God’s chosen instrument to serve him in as a member of his church, with your unique gifts, talents, and abilities.

“This man is my chosen instrument to bear my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.”  God could have given this great task to someone else, but Paul was God’s uniquely equipped, chosen instrument.  God could have given the great tasks of your life to someone else, but, like Paul, you too are God’s uniquely equipped, chosen instrument.

Amen.

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