Drive a-round Lodi, and you can't help but notice the number of Christian churches. There are at least 60. Some have begun within the last several years. I happen to pastor one that is nearing its 100th anniversary. While they are different, every one of them is rooted in the same story revealed in the Bible — the story of God's mission of love to redeem and restore a lost and broken world.
God's mission is succinctly described in John 3:16, perhaps the most familiar verse in scripture: "For God so loved the world that he gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life."
Recently, someone told me they'd seen a "John 3:16" sign lifted up in the end zone of an NFL game, but didn't have a clue what it meant. For all they knew, it could have been some coded text message.
It's a simple message, really, but it does require someone to explain it. That's where missionaries come in. Not long after his resurrection, Jesus sends out his followers to share the good news that he is alive and trains people to follow him into life. Peter leads the way, preaching his first sermon 50 days after the resurrection.
Peter was an unlikely choice. An uneducated, impulsive fisherman, he denied even knowing Jesus before he was crucified. If you have been tracking with "The Story," you will notice a pattern here. God has a way of picking the most unlikely people to do his work.
By all accounts, Saul of Tarsus was also a most unlikely candidate to become a missionary for Jesus. If there had been yearbooks at Tarsus High, he would easily have been named, "Most unlikely to follow Jesus and plant churches throughout the Roman world."
Saul rigorously followed the Law of Moses and viewed Jesus as a blasphemer who got what he deserved — death on a Roman cross. When Jesus' followers claimed their leader had risen from the dead and called people to repent, Saul's rage knew no bounds.
He heartily approved the stoning of Stephen, holding the coats of men stripping down to crush this early church leader to death. Then he went on a rampage, making house arrests, imprisoning and executing as many of Jesus followers as possible. To Saul, followers of Jesus were cockroaches who needed exterminating. He was happy to provide the pest control.
Then, on his way to root out believers in Damascus, Saul was literally knocked off his feet by the risen Jesus. Dazed, confused and blinded by the light, he sat in darkness to consider his life's direction. On the third day, Saul experienced his own resurrection moment. His eyes were opened, and he embraced God's mission to share the Good News of God's love with people outside the Jewish world. The change in his life was so profound that he eventually got a name change as well, from Saul to Paul.
Things didn't go well at first. His old friends considered him a traitor and tried to kill him. He showed up in Jerusalem, but Jesus' disciples wouldn't open the door, fearing Saul's "conversion" was just a trick to infiltrate their ranks.
Imagine Osama bin Laden showing up at the White House, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and volunteering to be a White House guide. Chances are the doors would not be thrown open by the Secret Service.
Saul showed through his words and willingness to suffer for Jesus that the change was for real. Over his lifetime, he took the message of Jesus to the far corners of the Roman Empire, planting churches and writing letters to teach and encourage believers. He led the way in helping people outside Jewish culture understand the message of Jesus, that God loved them and had made a way for them to live forever.
Thirteen of his letters were eventually collected into the New Testament. The words of this Jesus-hater-turned-Jesus-lover have strengthened and encouraged the church for centuries. His 10 church plants sprinkled across the Roman Empire paved the way for the message to be carried around the world.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the 60 churches in Lodi would probably not be here without the groundwork laid by this unlikely missionary.
God hasn't stopped picking unlikely people to share his message. I should know. I am one.
One day during my senior year of high school, my pastor took me out for a Coke and suggested that God might want to use me as a pastor. I laughed at him. Then, with the bravado of an 18-year-old who knows where his life is going, I made my declaration: "There are two things I will never be — a teacher or a preacher. Those are things you do when you can't figure out what else to do." Those who can, do; those who can't, teach.
As you may have guessed, I've done both. I taught high school boys in the Palau Islands and then became a preacher. Now I've landed back in Lodi. Right now, I am typing this article where the pastor who took me out for that Coke used to write his sermons.
God really does have a sense of humor. He picks the most unlikely people.
So come Sunday to hear "The Story." Who knows? The next unlikely missionary he calls may be you.
Chapter 29 of the series of "The Story" — which covers the Bible from Genesis to Revelation — will be offered on Sunday at five Lodi churches — Ham Lane Church of Christ, Vinewood Community, Temple Baptist, First Baptist and Emanuel Lutheran.
Rod Suess is pastor of Vinewood Community Church.