The Third Sunday of Easter
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
May 5, 2019
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
Have you ever been asked this question: “Are you saved?” This question usually is posed by an evangelical Christian who is trying to ascertain if you’ve invited Jesus to come into your heart and save your soul. Because in their way of thinking, that’s the prayer that seals-the-deal. It’s called The Sinner’s Prayer. Once you pray that prayer, heaven is guaranteed. All is well and there is no further reason to fear damnation to the fiery pains of hell.
If you haven’t been asked this question, just come down to 14th and Main downtown sometime over the lunch hour and you’ll hear one of those street preachers with a megaphone. He not only asks this question, he denounces every group of people he doesn’t like. If you come to try to hear him, you might just see me in street clothes scurrying to lunch with noise-cancelling headphones on.
Many evangelical Christians describe with genuine emotion what they felt when they prayed the Sinner’s Prayer. And no, I’m not lumping them in with the annoying street preacher – most evangelicals tell their story sincerely and without demonstrating hate toward others. They remember the time they invited Jesus to come into their hearts and be their Lord – they remember truly feeling different.
It’s almost as if they think the dramatic story of St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus that we heard this morning is the norm.
I say St. Paul because that’s how we refer to him now, but Paul was no saint. [By the way, Saul was his name in Hebrew, and Paul was simply the transliteration of this name in Latin]. Whether it’s Saul or Paul, he was no saint. He had just taken an active part in the stoning of Stephen, the first deacon in the church. He was a religious leader who had just actively participated in a ritualistic and barbaric execution of someone for his religious beliefs, and then continued to persecute others who believed like Stephen did. We hear Jesus say to him on the road to Damascus, ““Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
At this point, Saul hadn’t made a choice to stop persecuting Christians. He hadn’t decided to confess his sins and repent. God chose him while he was still actively living an evil life. God met him where he was. We see this approach all throughout Scripture. God called Matthew while he was still a corrupt tax collector. He called Peter – the future leader of the disciples and arguably the most prominent leader in the early church – when he was a simple fisherman. And he called Paul, a notorious murderer who hated Christianity and all that it stood for. Our Lord meets people where they are. He doesn’t wait until they’ve cleaned themselves up, he meets them where they are when they least expect it.
When Paul gets up off the ground after this encounter, he’s suddenly blind. Jesus then comes to Ananias in a vision and asks him to lay his hands on Paul so that he might regain his sight. Ananias’s response is understandable: he’s hesitant as he’s heard of the evil Saul had done to the saints in Jerusalem. But Jesus responds to his hesitation, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before the Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel. I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” After being blind for three days, his sight is restored, and he is baptized. Saul, a notorious sinner, dies with Christ and is then reborn with him in the waters of baptism. We know from the rest of the biblical record that Paul’s future will indeed be filled with both joy and suffering for the sake of Christ.
How would Paul have answered the question, “Are you saved?” According to New Testament scholar Bishop N.T. Wright, the only explicit account we have of Paul referring to what happened to him on the Road to Damascus is this from his letter to the Galatians:
“But [when] God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles…
Paul says nothing about repentance and faith, and certainly nothing about praying a specific prayer and finding his heart being strangely warmed. Paul’s re-telling of his initial conversion story is this: through God’s grace, he stopped persecuting the church and began announcing the Good News of Jesus Christ to the nations.
When this Southern Baptist boy began rubbing shoulders with Christians from the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches, I quickly learned that most Christians don’t have a dramatic, heart-warming conversion experience. In fact, many folks in the church are hesitant to tell others how they came to faith in Christ because they feel ashamed that their story isn’t as flashy and exciting and emotional as the person next to them in the pew.
Thanks be to God, St. Paul’s experience shows us that God meets us where we are, and usually, when we least expect it. Sometimes that’s in the midst of notorious evil living; sometimes it’s in the doldrums of a seemingly boring life filled with work, eat, TV, repeat; and sometimes, it’s in the midst of loneliness and despair. No matter where Christ meets us, it is through God’s grace given to us in baptism that we are called to follow Him and proclaim the Good News of his salvation to the world.
When someone asks me today, “Are you saved?”, my short response is, “"I have been saved; I am being saved; and I will be saved." For despite having received God’s grace at baptism, I am desperately in need of the same grace each and every day in order to follow Christ and share his love with the other people I encounter. It is through the Christian disciplines of prayer and contemplation and service and the like…it is through sinning, repenting, and receiving God’s unconditional forgiveness that we are continually being saved. It is by receiving the Sacraments of the Church day-in-and-day-out that, in St. Paul’s words, “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”
Friends, it isn’t enough to invite Jesus into your heart and be done with it. A simple prayer, no matter how sincere you are when you pray it, won’t make you spiritually invincible to the forces of evil and death. From a technical standpoint, Christian salvation begins with baptism and is fulfilled at death. But God has revealed his son Jesus Christ to each of you in different ways in your lives, and your story – your spiritual journey is no less valid than mine.
Let us pray that God will open our eyes, as he opened St. Paul’s, to the saving power of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When Jesus meets us where we are, let us respond as Paul did by choosing to follow him wherever he may lead, even into suffering for his sake. And empowered by God’s grace, let us tell our story of how we came to faith in Jesus Christ to those around us in love – boldly and without shame. Amen.
 Galatians 1:15-17, NRSV.
 N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 1421.
 2 Corinthians 3:17, NRSV.
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St. Mary's is a parish of the Diocese of West Missouri, The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion.