The Last Five Percent
(Part 1: Saul)
May 05, 2019*
By Pastor John Partridge
Have you ever set goals for yourself?
It could be anything from education, to building a house, to running a 5K (or a marathon), taking on a project (like selling hamburgers in the park, or raising money for a Habitat for Humanity house), or almost anything. But when it comes to accomplishing a goal, it is often said that the last five percent of the project takes 80 percent of the effort. Sometimes that is almost literally true, and sometimes it just feels that way because you’ve worked so hard all through the project and suddenly, as you near the goal, things just pile up and pushing through that last five percent seems harder than ever before.
Not surprisingly, we often find the same thing to be true in our spiritual lives and in the life of the church as well. When we set out to grow closer to Jesus, it seems easy at first, but as we grow, we suddenly discover that Jesus wants us to change some things that we don’t want to change. We are fond of, and often quite attached to, our habits and routines and taking those last steps that make us more like Jesus can be difficult.
Churches often find that growing is difficult, not only because it requires everyone to make changes in order to grow, but because growth itself is difficult. When churches are successful and start to grow, church members discover that growing means that they are suddenly faced with unfamiliar people sitting next to them in church, new faces across the table at committee meetings, new events that their church never had before, and doing new things, or doing familiar things in new ways. And suddenly the some of the very people who advocated for change and growth turn against that growth because the unfamiliar is uncomfortable and because “we’ve never done it that way before.”
And so, for the next couple of weeks, we’re going to look at two stories about two kinds of people, who had to make some significant changes in order to grow closer to Jesus and to become the people that God intended for them to be. We begin this week with the story about how Saul, became Paul, and a persecutor of Christians became one of Christianity’s greatest evangelists and next week we will remember how Peter, one of Jesus’ closest friends, had to leave one more thing behind to become the man that Jesus was calling him to be.
As we begin the story, we meet Saul, a Pharisee. He was born into the right family, went to the right schools, had the right teachers, and had done all the things that we see in the modern world among wealthy families that want their children to be successful. Paul was driven to succeed and had become a great defender of the Jewish faith. He was so focused on the purity of the church, that he made it his life’s mission to seek out Christians in the Jewish world and bring them back to the orthodox teachings of the Jewish rabbis and teachers in Jerusalem. His mission was to “correct” their misunderstanding of the nature of God by persuasion if possible and by arrest and torture if necessary.
We find that story in Acts 9:1-20.
9:1 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes, he could see nothing. So, they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind and did not eat or drink anything.
10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
“Yes, Lord,” he answered.
11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”
13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. 20 At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.
There is a lot going on in this story and a great many sermons and Sunday school lessons have been written about it. First, aside from Saul, we meet Ananias. After Saul meets Jesus on the road and is left blind from the experience, God call upon Ananias to explain to Paul what has happened, who Jesus really is, and to heal him of his blindness. But Ananias is not stupid. He has heard of Saul before and he is justifiably cautious, if not outright fearful. Saul is already well-known, and scary, as a man who is hunting down Christians, arresting them, and hauling them back to Jerusalem to be imprisoned, questioned by the chief priests, and… (ahem) “persuaded” to return to a more traditional way of thinking.
But, despite his fear, Ananias obeys God and goes to Saul anyway.
After being told that it is Jesus who met him on the road, and it is Jesus who has sent Ananias to him, Saul is healed, his sight is returned, he goes to the synagogues in that area, and rather than arresting Christians, he begins to preach that the Christians are right, that Jesus really is the messiah, the Son of God, the Savior of the world, and the rescuer of all humanity.
When this story is told, it is often portrayed as a story about an enemy that became a friend, or as a man who changed sides, or who completely reversed his life’s direction. But I don’t think that those ideas get close to the truth. Instead, I think that the story of Saul is a story about a man who had his life 95 percent right with God. Saul was a devout man of faith who was fervent in his desire to make sure that everyone honored God. But for all that desire, faith, fervor, and passion, Saul still fell five percent short. He had a lot of things right but missed one small piece.
He misunderstood who Jesus was.
Saul was right about his dedication to God, he was right about his passion for the truth (even if his methods were unnecessarily harsh), he was right in his missionary zeal to bring others to orthodoxy, or “right belief,” but he misunderstood who Jesus was. He missed the understanding that Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecies of the ancient prophets and was Israel’s promised rescuer, redeemer, and messiah. And once he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, and once Ananias explained it to him a second time, and once he witnessed his own healing in the name of, and through the power of, Jesus, Paul finally understands that last five percent.
But that last five percent would cost him more than anything else in his entire life.
That last five percent cost Saul his family, got him thrown out of the Pharisees, it turned him into a full-time missionary and wanderer, he was repeatedly arrested, beaten, and he was ultimately killed because of that last five percent.
But Saul was willing to pay the price because it was the truth.
So, let us consider this:
What will your last five percent cost you?
Are you willing to pay the price?
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