The Last Five Percent

The Last Five Percent

(Part 1: Saul)

May 05, 2019*

By Pastor John Partridge

 

Acts 9:1-20                            

 

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 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. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 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. 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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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

Motives and Goals

Motives and Goals


April 07, 2019*

By Pastor John Partridge

 

Isaiah 43:16-21                      John 12:1-8                Philippians 3:4b-14

 

What are your goals?

We have all kinds of goals.  We have life goals, we have career goals, every year at charge conference time we set aside time to talk about church goals – and we’ve set some fairly ambitious one this year – and sometimes our only goal is to make it through the week until Friday or just to make it through the day that we’re having.

When we were kids, our goals were to be movie stars, or fire fighters, or to be like Evel Knievel, or Clint Eastwood.  As we got older, we started to think about what major field of study we wanted to pursue in college, or what trade school or other training that we wanted to have.  Still later, we thought about getting married and starting a family, buying a house, relocating because of a job, and all sorts of other things.  Some of our goals change as we grow, mature, and develop and others stay the same.  Without thinking about it, many of us have set goals to stay in love with our spouses and families, to stay in touch with the people that we care about, to save for retirement, to leave the planet a better place for our grandchildren, and maybe even leave a little something behind for our family members, and for the causes, that we care about when we die.

But goals are not always noble.  Sometimes people’s goals are simply to get rich, to be more powerful, to be like the prodigal son and spend themselves in the pleasures of the world and “wild living.”  Those goals and motives can be dangerous for the people that have them as well as for the people around them.  It’s easy to be hurt by someone whose motivation has nothing to do with compassion and everything to do with getting ahead, climbing the ladder of success, and “looking out for number one.”  And we’ve all probably lost count of the number of Hollywood stars and starlets, politicians, rock stars, and others who overdosed, or otherwise flamed out because of the excesses that they pursued.

So, what goals should we set?  Is there such a thing as a spiritual goal?  Sure, there is. 

And so, we begin this morning in Isaiah 43:16-21, where God begins by reminding the people of his resume so that they will remember his character, his heart, compassion, and love for his people.

16 This is what the Lord says—
    he who made a way through the sea,
    a path through the mighty waters,
17 who drew out the chariots and horses,
    the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
    extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:
18 “Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
19 See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.
20 The wild animals honor me,
    the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
21     the people I formed for myself
    that they may proclaim my praise.

These first few verses are simply God reminding the people of Israel who he is and what he has done for them, but once he reminds them of where they once were, God tells them that they need to lay aside the past so that they can be prepared to accept the future.  God declares that even though the people were familiar with thirst after living in the desert wilderness for forty years, God is the god who creates streams in the desert and provides water for his people to drink.  God makes it clear that his motives are simply the love and compassion that he has for his people.

And then in John 12:1-8, we hear a story that is familiar, but if we pay attention, we can see that everything in it revolves around the motives of the characters in it:

12:1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

There is a stark contrast between the motives of Mary and the motives of Judas in this story.  I spoke more extensively about their motives this past Monday at the Lenten luncheon at Vine Street United Methodist Church, in my message “Extravagant Motives,” but for today I just want to point out that although Judas was the one to protest, Mary probably shocked everyone in the room when she poured out what, in the twenty-first century United States, would be about $55,000 worth of perfume onto Jesus’ feet.  Judas, of course, only wanted his piece of the pie.  He complained about how many poor people they could feed with that kind of money, but what he really wanted was to dip his hand into the money bag and get some of that for himself.  Judas’ motivation was “looking out for number one.”  But Mary is held up as a role model for all of us who would follow Jesus because her only motivation was her love for Jesus and her desire to honor him.

And then in his letter to the church in Philippi (Philippians 3:4b-14), the Apostle Paul writes in a way that is similar to what we heard in Isaiah.  Paul begins by discussing his credentials or his resume, and then proceeds to throw it all away and start over.

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Paul says that he has every reason to be proud of who he is.  He was born into the right family, knew all the right people, followed all the right religious and doctrinal requirements, rigorously followed all the laws of God as dictated by the strict rules of the Pharisees, and, as far as anyone can testify, he lived, in every way, in compliance with God’s law.

But that wasn’t enough.

Paul declares that his motives and his goals are at the core of what he is doing.  From the very beginning, even as a Pharisee, Paul has always been motivated by a desire to honor God and do what was right and that motivation didn’t change after he met Jesus.  While his goals changed because of his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus, his motives remained the same. 

But, once Paul met Jesus, everything on his resume, and all of the things that he once thought to be important, he now considers to be a loss to him, these things that were once important are now useless, in fact, the Greek word that Paul uses for “garbage” (sku-ba-lon) was rarely used in the ancient world and seems only to be used for effect and shock value much as we might use the profane word for poop, but this was the word that was used for the vilest of stinking, excrement filled, cast-off garbage in the downhill garbage pit of the city where the sewers emptied out which was also the place where the remains of sacrificial animals and butcher store leftovers were thrown.  Compared to the immense value of Jesus Christ, Paul says that everything that he once held to be valuable was now left behind as something that was utterly disgusting and despicable.

Paul knew that everything that he once held dear, was totally unable to save him and only through faith in Jesus Christ, and the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ, was able to offer him anything of value.  With that in mind, Paul’s new goal was to become more and more like Jesus.  He freely admitted that he wasn’t there yet, he was still far from perfect, but his goal was to press on, straining toward what was ahead and leaving behind everything that was past so that he could reach the prize that was only to be found in Jesus Christ.

Paul was like most of the people in the twenty first century world around us.  He had tried getting ahead, climbing the ladder of success, and “looking out for number one.”  Paul had been born in to the right family, knew all the right people, followed all the laws, played by the strict rules of the Pharisees, and lived, in every way, in compliance with God’s law.  But none of that was enough. 

None of that was enough.

Once he met Jesus, he considered all of his accomplishments to be of no more value than the piles of crap and rotting carcasses in the garbage dump.

Once Paul met him on the road to Damascus, the only thing that made any sense was the goal of becoming like Jesus.  And that one goal drove absolutely everything that Paul did for the rest of his entire life. 

What did you say were your goals again?

Let us, together, press on toward the goal of Jesus Christ.  Let us forget what is behind us, and strain toward what is ahead.  Let us press on toward the goal, to win the prize, for which God has called us heavenward in Jesus Christ.

 

 

 

 


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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

Called to Be More

swan-and-ducksBeing a “follower” of Jesus isn’t enough.

Sunday, we begin another new year.  It is the season of making resolutions, where people promise themselves that they’ll do something different than what they’ve usually done.  Resolutions are built on hope.  We hope that we’ll do better than we usually do, but in reality, by the end of January most resolutions are already dead and buried.

People who are regulars at the gym know that the parking lots will be jammed in January but by February things are back to normal.  Running seems to be even worse.  There is a core group of dedicated walkers in our neighborhood but not a lot of runners.  Since I was often out running at the same time of day I knew which people were regulars.  There were a handful of folks who were always out, rain, shine, snow, ice, or brutal heat.  It didn’t matter, they were there.  But in the spring, there was a surge of folks just enjoying the nice weather, and then a similar jump in the fall, but once it was too hot, or too cold, these folks all disappeared.

But blogger Michael Hyatt has noted that there is big difference between a resolution and a goal.  While a resolution is built on hope, something that we hope to do better, a goal is built on an intended destination, a target that we intend to reach.  And so, when things get difficult, some vague desire to “do better” just isn’t enough to carry us through.  But a sincere goal of running a race, losing five pounds in time for beach weather, or other reasonable and attainable targets are enough of an emotional and psychological motivation to push us a little harder.

But how does any of this make a difference in our spiritual lives?

It makes a difference in the language that we use and in the language that Jesus intended for us to use.  You see, we have gotten into the habit of calling ourselves followers of Jesus and, while that’s not wrong, it doesn’t go far enough.  Jesus called Peter, James, John, and all of us, to follow him, but he also called us to become more than that.

Jesus called people to follow him so that they could become his disciples.

While some dictionaries use these two words as synonyms, scripturally, as well as in practice, they are quite different.  A follower is a person who likes what the leader does and follows them from place to place to watch them and see what happens next.  But a disciple is a learner who follows so that they can become more like the person that they re following.   A disciple’s goal is to learn so much from the teacher that they begin to live and act like the teacher in everything they do.  The ultimate goal is for the learner to become so much like the teacher, that they themselves are sent out to teach and to make more disciples.

Here’s an example: for years the rock band, The Grateful Dead, had a loyal following of people called “dead heads” who knew everything the band played and who followed them from place to place all over the country.  But even though they were dedicated, and had all the songs committed to memory, they were still just followers.  In contrast, many of you have heard Buddy Rich, the drummer who played for Frank Sinatra and who led his own band.  Buddy Rich was one of the most talented drummers in history.  I am certain that he had a great many followers, but he also had a handful of disciples.  As busy as he was, Buddy Rich taught drum lessons, but as skilled as he was, he only taught the best of the best.  Buddy Rich taught just a few people who were both highly skilled and professionally driven to become the best drummers in the world.  Although most of them aren’t household names, nearly every one of them played in bands that you’ve heard of or led bands of their own.  Likewise, there’s a big difference between being a fan of a famous sports team, and working hard to become good enough to try out and play for that team.

That’s the difference between following and becoming a disciple.

We often call ourselves followers, but we can’t stop there.

We are called to something bigger, something more demanding, and much more important.

Our language makes a difference.

It makes a difference if we make resolutions or set goals.

We sell ourselves short when we think of ourselves as followers.

We are called to be more.

 

 

 

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