Gloria Dei is a congregation of mercy of Jesus Christ. Our name means "Glory of God."
We have had the joy of serving the South Knoxville and Seymour communities to the glory of God for over sixty years.
God has a plan for Gloria Dei! We will grow in our caring, sharing, giving, and loving; with hope and joy. To become part of this plan, each of us will reach out and use our spiritual gifts in active total ministry. Gloria Dei Offers: Friendly, welcoming and laid-back atmosphere, Blended Worship with live music 3rd and 5th Sundays, Children’s Sunday School during worship, Women’s Bible Study & Women of the ELCA, Tacky Ladies’ Quilting Group, Adult Sunday School.
Contact us to inquire about joining the Gloria Dei Family of Faith
Gloria Dei collects food for Vestal Food Pantry. This is a local charity of South Knoxville and we are always accepting non perishable food and diapers to donate to this cause.
FEEL FREE TO DROP OFF DONATIONS DURING OFFICE HOURS
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For more information about Vestal Food Pantry please visit
At Gloria Dei we practice open communion. As always, all persons – and all means all –
are invited to come to the table of grace every time we gather. As we share this sacred meal, we are reminded that God’s love will one day bring into harmony the entire world, wipe away all tears, end suffering and death, and bring eternal joy to all. We know that we do not dare to come into the presence of God or feed at God’s table by our own merits or because we are good. We come because God is great beyond our understanding. We must remind ourselves of this every time we prepare to receive by declaring together that the gifts of God are free!
There was once a very devout and exceptionally brilliant, but very angry man who was in need either of a psychiatrist or a miracle. Since there was no such thing as a psychiatrist 2000 years ago, his best bet would be to hope for a miracle. The problem was that he did not believe he was in a need of any such thing.
He believed he had all the answers to all the questions about God, and how dare anyone presume to question him! He had the very best teacher of all things pertaining to the God of Israel that one could find – the Pharisee Gamaliel, himself the grandson of the greatest rabbi Israel ever had. In terms of today’s educational scene, this recently ordained Pharisee had an Ivy League education and had graduated at the top of his class.
Saul’s academic credentials were impressive, at least in the Jewish world. He could go very far, indeed. But for reasons we may never understand, Saul carried a lot of anger about with him, he wore his religion on his sleeve, and he was arrogant about it. He called himself a “Hebrew of the Hebrews,” and felt a great need to prove his ethnic identity and his loyalty to the God of Israel, even if it meant other people must suffer for it.
And Saul had no sympathy for those other people, especially the ones branded as “heretics” in the Jewish writing of the period (the “minim” who defiled themselves because they “held minot”), people who belonged to the Way. Rather than having empathy and understanding for those people, Saul “breathed threats and murder” against them. Some very early documents from the Christian tradition bear witness to this, and if what they have to say is any indication, then “breathing threats and murder” is an understatement. A better description might be that Saul was possessed by a satanic drive to inflict death and destruction on the first generation of the new Church and even to exterminate it if possible. Eventually he actively sought out and received written permission to go to Damascus, a hotbed of heresy, to root out all the people who belonged to the Way, and bring them to Jerusalem for proper punishment.
So, there we are, at the beginning of the Acts reading for today. Depending on when we choose to date the crucifixion and the birth of Paul, and these dates are always a matter of guesswork, then the year is going to be in the early to mid-40’s AD. Regardless of the date, Saul is at least 30 years old, maybe a little older, 31 or 32. We can figure this out because Saul is a Pharisee, and we know from the Jewish witness of the Mishna that one did not become a Pharisee until one had gone through many years of formal education and attained the age of thirty, the age at which one was considered old enough to teach with authority, or with “full strength.” (Pirkei Avot 5. According to Rabbi Yehuda ben Teima, 30 is the age for “full strength”; i.e., the ability to teach with authority.)
At some point during his lengthy education, when Saul was still a “young man,” meaning he was still just a student in Jerusalem, probably in his twenties, he stood by and watched as others stoned the Christian deacon Stephen to death. Being just a student, he himself was not authorized to take part in that execution at the hands of his teachers, members of the Sanhedrin, people he respected as authorities, but he saw it first hand, and it must have greatly impressed him, because now, as an adult and a bonifide Pharisee himself with all the authority his office carries, and with documentation from the high priest, he is determined to do to others what his teachers had done to Stephen. And he is proud of it.
By now, hopefully, you understand that Saul was a real person, living a real life, set in a real place on the map where real time passed with real years. This real person had real aspirations, real hopes and joys, a real sense of deep insecurity, real fear, and real anger. He was someone you could have had a conversation with in the market at Jerusalem, if he could English or you could speak Aramaic. You might be amazed at his intellect, his encyclopedic knowledge, his extreme devotion to the God of Israel. But he’s not someone you would want as your buddy. You wouldn’t want to invite him to dinner, and he probably wouldn’t accept the invitation anyway; you’re an unclean Gentile, and he is a Hebrew of the Hebrews. And if you had mentioned this crucified lord named Jesus, then all bets are off. His anger would surface and you would not want to deal with his murderous rage. Like I said, he needed a psychiatrist. Failing that, he needed a miracle, and he didn’t know it.
Perhaps we all know someone like that today.
The road before Damascus was all stone, Roman-built, and well-built, a highway for the Roman legion based at Damascus. Saul approached the city gate feeling like a one-man legion, ready and determined to do battle with the enemies of God, not knowing that he himself was the enemy. Step by step he goes, completely in control, with determination, purpose, absolute certainty, in the lead, ahead of the detachment of temple guards that travel with him. Their swords will come him handy for arresting the people who follow this crucified and dead Jesus.
The gate is in sight. Closer and closer…one can hear the sounds of the city now, see the various travelers passing in both directions through the gate. One can even smell the city. Just a few more yards, and then-
Suddenly Saul is down on the pavement. Flat-out face down on the paving stones.
The temple guards, a branch of Levites called Sho’arim, are totally bewildered. They can see Saul flat on the road, but they can’t see his face. They can hear a voice, certainty Saul’s voice, and maybe more than one voice. They can hear Saul raving like a lunatic, his voice thin, shrill, wailing. They are not trained to deal with this, and it spooks them. Has the Pharisee been possessed by an unclean spirit!? Not knowing what’s happening, or what to do about it, they don’t go near him. Nobody on the road before the gate goes near him.
And then, suddenly, it’s over with. Saul has heard a voice directly speaking to him, seemingly out of a light that flashed about him, but no one else could see. And, lying on the road, he heard this voice say, clearly and distinctly, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4, NRSV.)
Saul’s response was to ask who it was that was speaking to him, but this was probably not something he said calmly or casually. He was probably terrified and probably sounded like it.
The answer that Saul heard was, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” (Acts 9:6, NRSV.)
It’s interesting that there’s a variation on the Greek text of verse 5, (a variation which we did not read this morning,) where Jesus also says something to the effect that it’s hard for Saul to kick against the sting of death, isn’t it?, seemingly taunting Saul, or maybe bringing Saul’s attention to the obvious: that he is up against a power he cannot control, and Saul then is trembling and totally freaked out and responds by asking what Jesus wants him to do.
Jesus tells him to rise up and enter the city, and he will be told what to do. (Acts 9:6.)
The temple guards watch as Saul stands, wide-eyed, and unseeing. He is momentarily blind. The guards, one gets the sense that they were in shock, timidly took Saul by the hand and led him into the city.
The city of Damascus 2000 years ago had a simple street plan. The city was laid out in the shape of a football, with a main gate at one end of the football, and another gate at the other end. Connecting the gates was a long, straight, wide street called…you guessed it, the Straight Street. Saul was there, in the house of one Judas, probably a man of importance in the Judean community of Damascus. He is too shook up to eat, and is spending all his waking time praying frantically to the God of Israel in an attempt to make sense of what is happening to him and discern what God’s will for him is in all this.
As this story plays out, it is Jesus who speaks to the local Christian leader, Ananias, and has him go against his better judgement, go to the house of Judas, and there pronounce a blessing for healing on Saul, whose sight is then restored.
We know the rest of the story. Saul has a complete turnaround. He is baptized and begins the first day of his new and very different life. But there is going to be a cost for this new life of discipleship in service to the Risen Lord Jesus. The cost for Saul will be total dedication, beyond probably what most people can do, even if it leads to his death at the hands of someone who cannot and will not hear the good news of the risen Lord.
All of that is another story. I mean, this is one reason the whole Book of Acts was written, right?
One thing we learn from the story of Saul is not how we are supposed to be converted, not how we are to receive God’s grace, and not how we are to become Christians, but how much life-transforming power and how much life-giving grace God has for each and every one of us, including the worst of all sinners, including Saul, who murderously persecuted the body of Christ.
Saul was chosen by the Risen Lord. That is what his new name means in Hebrew, Pa-ul, Paul, the One Who is Chosen. The one whom Saul persecuted found a way to come directly to him. This is super important, because Saul was not trying to come to the Risen Lord. There is no pretense about that as Paul later told his story about how he was converted.
He did not invite Jesus into his heart.
He did not ask Jesus to come into his life.
He did not find Jesus.
He did not recite a prayer written out like a prescription for salvation.
He absolutely did not believe in Jesus; quite the opposite.
He did not repent because he did not believe he needed to.
He did not in any sense come to the Lord.
In fact, the only thing he was intentionally coming to, step by step, was the fulfillment of his own desire to harm those who belonged to the Risen Lord. But this is good news for us.
It is good news that tells us that we sinners do not have to jump through the hoops that other sinners tell us to jump through in order to secure our salvation.
We do not have to create the conditions for our own salvation. In fact, the one and only condition for our salvation automatically exists already, and that is they we are sinners.
We do not have to beg, borrow, or steal salvation for ourselves.
We do not need to compete with Saul or with anyone else for who has the better and more genuine conversion experience.
We do not need to go find Jesus because he is not lost. He is the one who finds us on our road just as he found Saul on the Damascus Road.
We do not need to invite Jesus into our life in order for him to work his compassion in us because he is rude enough, he has guts enough, and he has authority enough to barge into our lives without an invitation just like he barged into Saul's life without an invitation.
We do not need to first believe in anything, even God, because the risen Lord comes to us down in our deepest and darkest disbelief just as he came to Saul in his total disbelief.
We do not need to repent first, humble ourselves first, be open to him first, desire him first - because he comes to us first, we who are unrepentant, arrogant, closed to him, rejecting him, even as he came first to Saul who was unrepentant, arrogant, closed to him, rejecting him, and persecuting him.
Only then did the Risen Lord himself flood Saul's life with his light, calm Saul's anger, quiet his rage, humble his pride, and bring him down flat on his face, into the traditional posture of one who is repentant and seeking forgiveness from the God of Israel.
In his three days of darkness, Saul experienced the darkness of Jesus in the tomb, the despair, the emptiness. and the loss that came with the tomb, and yet the compassion of God was there for him in his darkness. People were there to care for him until his sight was restored and Saul came out of his darkness into the light of a new life.
In the rising light of God's new creation Saul is made anew, recreatedas one reborn. Recreated in a new light, Saul is granted a new life, but this is not so that he may escape this world into an other-worldly heaven far away from this world.
No, this is the cost of his discipleship. He is granted a new life so that he may continue to live in this world. Set on a new path in this world, his new life is given a new purpose and a new mission and he becomes the person we know as the Apostle Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, going forth on a mission to make Christ Jesus known to the world.
This is the Good News in the reading from Acts.
The same God who showed immeasurable forgiveness and compassion to the murderous Pharisee on the Damascus Road, the self-proclaimed worst sinner who ever lived, is the same God who shares infinite forgiveness and compassion with us.
This is grace that has no purpose for being other than God's good will for this fallen humanity.
This is the forgiveness and compassion of God's new creation that emerges from the open door of the tomb for us and all the world, to do for us what the risen Lord did for Saul-who-becomes-Paul:
To fill our lives with the light of Christ that we sinners, like a sinner named Saul, may be reborn as a new creation of God, granted a new life so that we may continue to live in this world where we are set on a new path, given a new mission, and become a new, resurrected and reborn faith community living the compassion of Christ in the midst of the world.
Peace be with you!