We live in a world where so many things seem to be dominated by fear, and it makes having any real conversation about difficult issues challenging. Even if you look at the national debates we cannot talk about gun control, immigration, budgets, treatment of detainees, or any other serious issue without the specter of fear being introduced to the conversation. Now don’t get me wrong, humanity has an undeniable dark side, we cannot go through a week where the lead story plastered over the news in the bombs that exploded at the Boston Marathon, and the explosion of the fertilizer plant in West, Texas without acknowledging that there is a dark side in people, in systems and even in the best of institutions. It could become so easy to give in to the darkness around us and yet we have the witness of so many of those throughout history who have continued to point to the light in the midst of the darkness. As I talk about Paul the apostle I am going to begin by going to another letter writer in the church’s history, you see quietly in the midst of all the other news this week there was a significant anniversary this month. 50 years ago, on April 16, 1963 from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote the Letter from the Birmingham jail in response to eight white clergymen who had written “A Call to Unity” asking him to tone done his rhetoric and his actions and allow time to change things. I’m going to read a brief excerpt from this letter, because it points to what I want us to hear about Paul today.
…Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love you enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice:”Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln, “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
Paul was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, even though previously he had been an extremist for hate. His encounter with the risen Christ had changed him to the core of his being. From one who had sought to wipe out the early Christian church to its most vociferous advocate he was ready to go to the ends of the earth as a creative extremist, sharing the gospel of God’s light, love, forgiveness, reconciliation and peace. He endured rejection by his own people. In Paul’s own words:
2 Corinthians 11: 23-27
23 Are they servants of Christ? I know I sound like a madman, but I have served him far more! I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. 24 Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. 26 I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. 27 I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm.
Yet Paul was so captured by what God had done in Jesus Christ, he never backed away from his convictions even when he knew what it would cost him, like his Lord Jesus never did. He saw God’s story and his story intertwined. We encounter Paul in Acts today preparing to go to Jerusalem, now many of his comrades have either through visions or through being able to see what was ahead have tried to talk him out of going, but Paul responds to them:
Acts 20: 18b-24
“You know that from the day I set foot in the province of Asia until now 19 I have done the Lord’s work humbly and with many tears. I have endured the trials that came to me from the plots of the Jews. 20 I never shrank back from telling you what you needed to hear, either publicly or in your homes. 21 I have had one message for Jews and Greeks alike– the necessity of repenting from sin and turning to God, and of having faith in our Lord Jesus. 22 “And now I am bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. I don’t know what awaits me, 23 except that the Holy Spirit tells me in city after city that jail and suffering lie ahead. 24 But my life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus– the work of telling others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God.
He had tasted God’s dream for the world, he was literally held captive by God’s Spirit, his life was so consumed with God’s love and grace, God’s dream for the reconciliation of all the earth and his vision of the light that he willing endured the times when the darkness seemed so strong. He loved his people, even when they seemed unable to see or hear the message of peace and reconciliation that God had opened up to them in the gospel. He loved the world that God had sent him out into, he loved these early churches he had founded with all their struggles, with all their issues, with their own ways in which they embodied the best and worst of the world around them. He viewed him story as caught up with God’s upper story so that :
Romans 8: 17-19
17 And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering. 18 Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. 19 For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are.
That somehow who we are matters to the rest of the world, that God so loved the world that God set aside a people for the reconciliation and renewal of the world. That God doesn’t want to be separate from the world, but rather God wants to dwell with us. We who are wrapped up in God’s love will often find ourselves coming face to face with the suffering in the world. You see Paul was as an extremist of love was swept away in God’s vision of the way the world was going to be, the kingdom of God was such a palpable reality to him that he saw his and our stories intertwined in bringing about God’s vision and so in hope he was able to take up the hard word Jesus had for those who would follow him:
Matthew 16: 24-26
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. 25 If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. 26 And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?
Unfortunately the NLT change the translation midstream, for the same word is they use for life they translate soul in vs. 26, and Jesus isn’t talking about merely what happens after we die, Jesus wants us to pour ourselves into being people who can be extremists for love in a world that God loves. We are to be like Paul and like Jesus, agents of the light. When the world encounters fear, we are to bring peace and hope. When darkness seems powerful we point to the light. We are called into a journey with God and God’s story comes down to be a part of our story. We are called to be a part of what God is doing the world, to be agents of peace and love and reconciliation in the midst of the world. Yes, Paul was an extremist, but he was an extremist for love. Even when harm was caused to him he did not respond in kind. And we are those who are the recipients of this message of peace and love and reconciliation passed on from generation to generation to where we too now have the calling to be the creative extremists the world so desperately needs.