Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.
If you were a good and faithful Jew, you might recite the words of the Shema every morning and every evening. Do you know the Shema? It is a short, simple prayer from the Book of Deuteronomy that has been used for centuries by God’s people. It says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one, and as for you, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” The Apostle Paul was a good and faithful Jew. He would have recited that prayer when he woke up in the morning and before he went to bed at night. He must have tasted those words on his lips a million times: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One.” How then, did he come to the place where he could say that a poor carpenter named Jesus, from Nazareth, was also Lord?
There must be a story there.
In the third chapter of Philippians, Paul shares the beginning of that story. He writes, “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews.” In other words he was a good and faithful Jew. He was born into that tradition. And he embraced his Jewishness wholeheartedly. As to the law, he was “a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” And that’s where the story gets interesting, because if you have read the Book of Acts you know that it was Paul, formerly named Saul, who was an accomplice in the stoning of Stephen.
Do you know that story? Stephen was a deacon of the church in Jerusalem, and he distinguished himself by doing great signs and wonders among the people. But eventually he began to meet some opposition from the Jewish community, who said he was trying to replace Judaism with some new religion. They brought him before the council and asked him to make his defense, which he did by giving one of the longest speeches in the Bible, full of nothing but praise for the God of Moses, but in the end he gazed into heaven and had a vision of Jesus. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”[i] And that’s when they dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death, and laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul, who “approved of their killing him.”[ii]
This is the first we’ve heard of Saul, but in Acts, chapter 8, we learn that, “[he] was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, [and committing] them to prison.”[iii] And in Acts, chapter 9, we hear that while he was “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, he went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”[iv] Why? Because these followers of Jesus were committing blasphemy. They were making Jesus equal to God. They were calling him Lord, saying that he was the long-awaited Messiah.
Paul knew that couldn’t be true. Faithful Jews are taught from an early age that in every generation someone might be born who has the potential to be the Messiah, but if that person dies, then that person is not the Messiah.[v] Jesus had died. He had died painfully and publicly. His crucifixion was well-attested. What was not so well-attested were the rumors spread by some of his followers that he had risen from the dead. Those rumors had to be dispelled; that’s why Paul was persecuting the church. It was 135 miles from Jerusalem to Damascus, but with a full posse of his fellow Pharisees and enough trained soldiers to get the job done Paul made the long journey north. Here’s the way one writer describes it:
It was late afternoon when they rounded a bend in the road and saw Damascus in the valley below. If they hurried they could make it before nightfall. A light breeze was blowing up there on the heights. Dark clouds were gathering overhead. The air smelled like electricity. Suddenly a blinding light flashed all around them, and Saul was knocked to the ground. For a second or two he lost consciousness, and when he came to he could feel the pounding in his skull, taste the blood in his mouth. He tried to lift his head to see what had happened but he couldn’t see anything, just the afterimage of the flash burned onto his retinas, fading from orange, to blue, to black. And then he heard the voice. “Saul? Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” “Who are you, Sir?” he asked. And the voice replied: “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting.” [vi]
And then imagine what must have gone through Saul’s head: If this Jesus really had risen from the dead, if he really was alive and well, then everything his followers had been saying about him could be true. He really could be the Messiah, God’s anointed one, because it would have been God, of course, who raised him from the dead. It would have been his way of validating Jesus’ life and vindicating Jesus’ death. And all of this would mean that Saul had been persecuting people who were not only followers of “the Way,” but followers of God’s way, and that Saul—who thought he was doing God’s will by persecuting them—was, in fact, doing just the opposite. The truth would have struck him like a clap of thunder, and if it had been up to him he might have just lain there in the dust of the road forever, but Jesus told him to get up and go into the city, and that’s what he did. He still couldn’t see anything. The men who had come with him had to lead him by the hand—a much different entry than the one he had imagined.
For three days he sat in the house of a man named Judas on Straight Street, unable to see anything and refusing any kind of food or drink. Truth is, he didn’t have any appetite. All he could think about was that he had been wrong about this whole thing—dead wrong. The irony of it was that nobody had ever tried harder to be right. Following the letter of the law, scrupulously obeying the Scriptures, passionately committed to his cause, ready to die for his beliefs, Saul had been struck down by the revelation that he was wrong, wrong, wrong about all of it. So when Ananias, one of the believers there in Damascus, came to him and called him “Brother Saul,” Saul gladly received him; and when Ananias laid trembling hands on him and prayed for him so that he was able to see again, Saul praised the Lord; and when he offered to baptize him and Saul said yes, Ananias did it and (in the words of Jesus) Saul was “born again.” It is possible that no one has ever entered the waters of baptism with more humility and that no one has ever emerged more eager to make things right. Paul ate some food to get his strength back, and for several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, where they must have taught him everything they had come to believe about Jesus, because as soon as he was able “he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’”[vii]
Welcome back to this series called, “Building It as We Fly,” where we’ve been talking about building a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of and looking to the “inventors” of the early church for inspiration. Last week we looked at Peter, the “rock” on which Jesus said he would build his church. This week we turn our attention to Paul, the one-time persecutor of the church who became its greatest missionary. How did it happen? He had an encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, and when he did he asked the question, “Who are you, Sir?” I believe that if we are going to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of, then each one of us, in our own way, will have to answer that question: “Who is Jesus?” (and that includes you, graduates; of all the test questions you have ever answered, none is more important than this one). Within days of his encounter with the risen Lord Paul was preaching in the synagogues, telling people that Jesus was not only the long-awaited Messiah, but somehow, also, the beloved Son of God. Maybe that’s what happens when you have an encounter with Jesus:
You become a believer.
One of the things I love about Jesus is that when he called those first disciples he didn’t ask them if they believed he was the Son of God, he didn’t ask them if they believed he was born of a virgin or that he would rise from the dead. He simply invited them to follow and as they did they became convinced that he was no ordinary man. On the road near Caesarea Philippi he asked them, “What are people saying about me?” And they answered, “Some say you are John the Baptist come back from the dead, and others that you are Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the other great prophets.” “But what about you,” Jesus asked. “Who do you say that I am?” Because in the end that’s the only thing that will matter. We can listen to all the things other people say about him but until we have our own encounter with Jesus, until we can say who he is to us, it won’t have much meaning. On that day Peter said, “You are the Messiah! You are the Son of the Living God!” And Jesus said, “Yes! I can make something of a faith like that. I can build a church on a foundation like that!” If we are going to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of we will have to build it on the foundation of personal faith. Each one of us will have to answer the question, “Who is Jesus to me?”
Paul had an answer to that question. For him Jesus was the Son of God. He began to make that argument in the synagogue, trying to prove to the Jews that the Messiah they had always been waiting for had finally arrived. Yes, he had died on the cross, but God had raised him up again. What further proof did they need? A lot, actually. Paul preached in every synagogue he could find, but very few Jews became convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. And so Paul turned his attention to the Gentiles, proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Savior, but even then he encountered opposition. Truth be told, it took the early church several centuries to reach consensus on who Jesus was and there were several controversies along the way.
The best-known among those may be Arianism. Named after a Christian elder from Alexandria who did most of his teaching in the early decades of the fourth century, Arianism acknowledged Jesus as the Son of God but claimed that he was made by God in the way all other things were made: thus he was no more equal to God than a clay pot is equal to the potter. Real Christians couldn’t stand that kind of talk. They denounced Arius as a heretic. Eventually the Roman Emperor Constantine (who had himself recently become a Christian) convened a council of bishops in the city of Nicaea to settle the matter once and for all. Three months later they had produced the Nicene Creed, which is still recited in many Christian churches and makes it as clear as an ancient creed can make it who Jesus is and who he isn’t. Listen: “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father; God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; begotten not made, one in being with the Father.” It’s that last part that really clinches it. The Greek word is homoousios, meaning “same substance.” At that council the early church agreed that Jesus is made of the same stuff as the Father, and within a century they would begin to profess their belief in the Trinity: in the one God who exists as Father, Son, and Spirit.
I don’t know that Paul had come that far in his thinking, but in Romans 5, our text for today, he mentions Father, Son, and Spirit in the same paragraph. They may not have been unified in his theology, not yet, but they were central to his faith, which was rooted in his understanding of God the Father, rocked by his encounter with Jesus the Son, and replete with the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul wouldn’t have been Paul without the Trinity, and the church that he planted wouldn’t have been the church.
But back to our original question: is Jesus God? If you had asked Paul that question point-blank I think he would have said yes. Who else could he be? But that wasn’t Paul’s favorite name for Jesus. His favorite name for Jesus was “Lord.” He uses it over 230 times in his letters, far more than any other title, and that’s significant. Because to call Jesus “God” is to make a doctrinal statement, it’s to talk about what you believe; but to call him “Lord” is to make a relational statement, it’s to talk about whom you love. It not only answers the question of who Jesus is, but also who he is to you. So, is Jesus God? That’s a good question. Is he your Lord? That’s a better one, and if we are ever going to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of each one of us will have to answer that question. So, students—and all of us—pick up your pencils.
You may begin.
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] All of this is from Acts 7.
[ii] Acts 8:1
[iii] Acts 8:3
[iv] Acts 9:1-2
[v] From the Judaism 101 website: “Mashiach” ( https://www.jewfaq.org/mashiach.htm).
[vi] Jim Somerville, “Getting in the Way,” a sermon preached at First Baptist Church, Washington, DC, April 25, 2004.
[vii] Acts 9:20