First United Methodist Church
May 1, 2022
Rev. Dr. Byron Kaiser
“Paul - Called to Follow”
Who do you follow?
Knowing about Jesus is one thing, experiencing Jesus and following him is another. Jesus calls us to many tasks, yet there is one compelling vision. Jesus calls us to a world of peace with all people being at one with God through Jesus’ grace and mercy.
The Apostle Paul, whose Hebrew name was Saul, knew about Jesus, he knew just enough to know that Jesus disrupted his world view. Paul needed to rid the world of Jesus’ followers; then, he experienced Jesus. That moment changed his life and changed the world.
That moment changed everything. We know Paul as the great theologian and church planter. We know him as authoring half of the New Testament. However, before Paul could write, before he could preach, before he could teach, before he could lead the church, Paul had to learn. Paul had to reflect. He had to follow. Paul’s first calling was to follow Jesus.
It’s one thing to follow. It’s another thing to follow. I follow people on Facebook, and I follow news outlets emails. I follow the box scores of the Chicago White Sox and the Cubs. I follow the Indianapolis Colts by watching their games and reading their statistics. I follow the local news through the reading the papers and getting updates emailed to me from the state police. I follow to be informed, to satisfy my curiosity.
I rarely allow my following turn into action. I sometimes will hit “like.” Occasionally, I will re-post something I like or agree with. Rarely do I write or act because I have read something from someone I follow.
However, there is another kind of following that I have given my life to.
I follow Jesus. I have made following Jesus my life’s work. I read about Jesus and think about Jesus just about every moment that I am awake. I went to school to learn more about Jesus. I teach about him; I encourage people to live by him and like him. When I die, if someone came to Jesus because of my witness, I shall have lived a good life.
Why, because the only way to peace is through Jesus. In a world of increasing violence, Jesus is my hope and my refuge. You see, to follow in such a way to make a difference in the world, takes vision. I follow Jesus because of Jesus’ vision of what a person can be, what the world can be, through him.
Without vision you can’t drive.
Paul was driven by his vision of Jesus Christ. Without the vision of a driver a car sits in the driveway going nowhere.
I am sure you know that the Bureau of Motor Vehicles will not let you get a driver’s license if you have no vision. Without vision you can sit in the driver’s seat of a car, but you are not going to go anywhere. Without vision if you attempt to go somewhere by driving the car, you will crash. You will cause havoc.
A vision of what the world may become may drive us to connect us to other people. Sometimes, who you follow determines the vision that drives you. And, sometimes, the vision that drives you determines the people you follow. In Paul’s case, both were true.
Paul: Driven by Vision and Called to Follow
Before meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus in a vision, Paul was blind. Spiritually, blind. Before Jesus entered Paul’s life, his compelling vision came from teachers in Jerusalem.
From his writings and from accounts of Paul in the book of Acts, we know he came from wealth and position in the Roman world. Saul, Paul’s Hebrew name, grew up as a Roman citizen in Tarsus. In his day, only ten percent of the people in the city of Rome much less the rest of Roman empire were Roman citizens. To be a Roman citizen meant that his father was important to the Roman government. They lived in Tarsus which was a free city. People would pay two and a half years’ wages to be a citizen of Tarsus. Though an important trade, education and cultural center, Rome collected less taxes from the citizens of Tarsus. Hence, it was called a free city.
Higher privilege was given to Roman citizens of Tarsus. Which meant that, Paul’s parents though Jewish could give him the finest education available in his day. He was a brilliant student, by the age of 12 he was sent from Tarsus to Jerusalem to study under the great Rabi Gamaliel I. By the age 20, Paul advanced in position to be under the supervision of the ruling council in Jerusalem.
Perhaps he wanted to make a name for himself. Perhaps he wanted to be the youngest member of the ruling council. Perhaps he wanted to be the first native born citizen of Rome and of Tarsus to sit on the ruling council. Whatever his motives, he took upon himself the task of ridding the Jewish community of a new sect known as the Way.
The Way was made up of people who believed Jesus Christ was God’s Messiah. One of his first assignments was to observe the stoning of a Way member named Steven. Paul was the Sanhedrin’s appointed official to see that all procedures were carried out properly. As Steven was stoned to death for having faith in Jesus, Paul gazed on approvingly.
His next task was to travel from Jerusalem to Damascus. There, he was to root out members of the Way and bring the men and women bound back to Jerusalem to face trial for blasphemy and be stoned to death as Steven was. Closing in on Damascus, Jesus caught up with Paul.
Jesus knocked Paul’s socks off.
The Gospel of John records Jesus saying, [John 9:39 CEB] "I have come into the world to exercise judgment so that those who don't see can see and those who see will become blind." Jesus confronted Paul on the road in blinding light, saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why to persecute me?” Paul experienced Jesus firsthand. He arrived in Damascus blinded by the light of the revelation. Dazed and confused Paul was at mercy of the Way.
Jesus was not finished giving revelations. Paul sat physically blind for three days. Jesus sought Ananias and instructed him to go to Paul and minister to him. Ananias was to open Paul’s eyes to the vision he had. Ananias was the first to visit Paul. Can you imagine the courage that it took to follow Jesus to Paul? Paul held orders to discover believers like Ananias, bind them and return them to Jerusalem for trial and execution. Ananias was faithful to the leading of Jesus to minister to Paul. Through him, Paul’s blindness was healed, physically and spiritually. He saw with new eyes who Jesus is.
The vision drove Paul to share the revelation of Jesus Christ with all who would listen. His radical change of heart caused members of the Way to be suspicious of him and caused those who were against the Way to plot his death. Ananias kept Paul safe. He lived to escape and travel south into the region of modern-day Jordan and the city of Petra. In Galatians he reports that he spent a total of three years in Arabia. We can speculate that he spent his time in the wilderness reflecting on what had happened to him, just as Moses and Elijah spent time in the wilderness reflecting upon their calling of God. St. Anselm (1033-1109) said the task of reflection is “faith seeking understanding.”
Ananias was not the only one to risk all to minister to Paul. Barnabas sharpened Paul’s vision. Barnabas takes Paul as a disciple when no one else would come near to him. Can you imagine the courage it took for Barnabas to invite Paul into his home?
Barnabas and others put Paul on a boat to return to Tarsus. Paul stayed in Tarsus for ten years. He lived in his parents’ home, perhaps working for his father as tent maker. He may have used Tarsus as his home base preaching, teaching at synagogues and fledgling churches in the regions of Cilicia and Syria, what is now modern Turkey. However, the historical record is silent for 13 years.
Can you image, Jesus had told Paul that he had a great purpose for him. Surely, Paul wondered what had happened to the dramatic call he had heard from Ananias: “you will be [God’s] witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard.” (Acts 22:15)
We know that Paul shall do tremendous ministry for Jesus. However, I will stop here to reflect on what we can learn from his experience.
Following Jesus, the Vision Grew
Think of Paul’s testimony as a circle or better as a spiral moving closer and closer to Christ.
Paul experienced Jesus in the radical vision on the road to Damascus. He experienced Jesus through the ministry of Ananias. He experienced Jesus through Barnabas. He experienced Jesus through the years of contemplation, teaching, and preaching.
Paul was led on a discipleship pathway by Ananias and later Barnabas. They taught him how to understand his vision and affirmed in Paul what Jesus had told him.
Paul spent years in reflection, allowing his faith to find understanding.
From his Experience, Discipling and Reflecting, the vision that Jesus had given to Paul grew, so that he became even more committed to Jesus’ call to follow him.
A simpler way to say this, Paul followed Jesus to his vision, then he followed Jesus.
Follow with Vision
Today, the three steps in Paul’s discipleship pathway are:
Discipling in Jesus
Reflecting upon Jesus.
Simply, follow Jesus to vision, then follow Jesus.
I want you to be like Paul, driven by vision and called to follow Jesus. If you have not had an experience of Jesus Christ, I invite you to pray and ask that Jesus meet you on your road.
If you have never had a mentor to disciple, you in the way of Jesus, tell me. I will assign a mentor to you.
Don’t be afraid to seek understanding of your faith. A faith unexamined is not worth sharing. You have a lot of questions. Be persistent in your asking until you have answers that satisfy you. God is not afraid of your questions. I have never met a question too complicated for God to answer. The only bad question is the one never asked.
We are going spend the next three weeks learning about Paul’s journeys and about the vision that compelled him. He went on three mission journeys and was planning a fourth when he died. Paul was driven by vision but called to follow.