All Saints' and St. Nicholas' Churches
Church of England
Poplar, Tower Hamlets, London E14
The Conversion of Paul
Sermon at All Saints (29th January 2012)
by Revd Alan Wynne
Commemoration of the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul
I remember being at a conference where some people disagreed violently with the speaker and got so worked up that they started to heckle and became rude and insensitive. Eventually, the audience turned against them because they were trying to stop someone with different views being heard. They were a tiny minority, but were typical of many zealots in all movements who are so convinced of their cause and their views that they develop tunnel vision: they see every issue through their eyes and appreciate only their own point of view.
Now, I know that zeal can have value: without it many charities would not have been founded, many humanitarian improvements in our laws and society would not have happened, and the Christian faith would not have spread. But, zeal can be dangerous: it can blind us to truth and make us bigoted, reactionary, intolerant and cruel.
Last week we remembered a man who was just like that – the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Paul – or Saul as he was then – seems to have had all the defects of the zealot: totally convinced of his own rightness, blind to the views of others, and prepared to use any methods to achieve his aims – even the imprisonment and death of his opponents. He presided at the stoning of Stephen (the first Christian martyr) and harried and arrested other followers of Jesus merely because they deviated from his religious beliefs; and yet this is the man who God chose to be one of the most effective Christian missionaries. God does indeed move in mysterious ways!
Paul, of course, never lost his Pharisaical training and background – had he lived in a later generation he could have been a successful lawyer: only Paul could turn an instruction from Moses not to muzzle oxen while they are being used to thresh corn so that they could eat some of the produce of their labours into a justification for missionaries (“clergy”) being paid/supported properly! There is no doubt that Paul had a brain; and while understandably there are Christians of later generations who will want to question or disagree with Paul’s logic and advice in some areas, nevertheless he contributed greatly to our understanding of Jesus. And this was largely because he was so anti-Jesus before his conversion. Paul could not understand how a man who had been crucified as a criminal could possibly be holy and our saviour. The Jewish Law stated clearly that an executed criminal was cursed by God, and yet here were some fellow Jews openly asserting that the crucified Jesus was with God in Heaven. To Paul it was blasphemy – until he met the risen Jesus himself.
You can read the story in Acts Chapter 9. Saul, armed with letters from the High Priest in Jerusalem is on his way to arrest followers of Jesus in Damascus when he has an encounter with the risen Jesus: a light from the sky flashed all around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus who you are persecuting,” the voice said. “But, get up and go into the city – you will be told what to do.” He had become blind, but was led into the city where a believer called Ananias had been told by Jesus to meet him. As Ananias was speaking to him Saul recovered his sight and was filled with the Holy Spirit. His eyes and mind had been opened – he had met Jesus. This risen Jesus cursed by the Law was now his Redeemer: the Lord and Saviour of the world.
I want to remind us of what Jesus said to Paul in his vision: “Get up – you will be told what you have to do.”
I still see in the Church today – and it is nothing new – many signs of the bigotry, zeal and tunnel vision that characterised Paul before his conversion. In varying degrees it may be present in each one of us:
our lack of openness to new ideas;
our total certainty that in all matters of faith, morality or ritual we are right and others
the ease with which we judge or condemn those who see things differently;
the way we cling uncritically to the traditions and practices of the past;
our failure to see God’s continuing presence and work in creation;
our desire to contain God in our pockets and limit Him to our shrines where He can be
controlled and we can be cosy and unchallenged;
the way we call Jesus “Lord” and ignore the most basic of his teachings about love and respect for
“Get up, Saul, you will be told what you have to do.”
The first Christians used to be called “followers of the Way” – the emphasis even then was on movement not on standing still. They knew, too – and sometimes at the cost of their liberty and lives – that following Christ meant letting go of things that in the past had been important to them. It meant having faith in God’s love and providence – trusting the present and the future to Him.
I believe firmly that Jesus is still speaking to his Church – to you and to me – and saying “Get up – you will be told what you have to do.”. But if we are not prepared to budge let alone obey, how is the Church going to grow and change? Paul, the former Jewish zealot, died a Christian martyr: his willingness to obey Christ made him a teacher, a missionary and an apostle. Because he did get up and obey he not only brought others to Christ, he learnt more about himself and in many areas of his life and understanding the blinkers came off. His racial prejudice went, for example, and he was the most energetic missionary to the gentiles; and in his writings you can see him beginning to comprehend that women and children are not created for male convenience, but are equally deserving of love, respect and dignity – teachings that were heretical and revolutionary in 1st century Judaism. Because of his faith in Jesus he came to see the world and its people differently – he even valued and prayed for those who opposed him. Quite simply, he changed – perhaps, not as much as we centuries later would have liked! – but he changed. He learnt that he – a human being, no matter how religious – could not claim to know all there is to know about God and His purpose for us. The cultural and religious blinkers were coming off, the tunnel vision and restrictions of prejudice were beginning to depart, and he learnt to see in a new way. And, just as importantly, he began to be aware of his own limitations and ignorance.
For me, one of the most poignant and revealing things Paul wrote is in his letter to the new Christian converts at Corinth. It is in 1 Corinthians 13 where he is reminding them how love is the greatest gift – a passage often used at weddings. Do you remember it? It ends –
“So faith, hope and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.”
Well, a few verses before that he writes this –
“Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then I shall see face to face and understand fully.”
Respected, revered apostle and evangelist that he was, he was still searching for the truth, the full picture. He knows he does not know it all – there is more to learn and more to understand. And that journey of discovery began for Paul when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus all those years before – the Jesus he was convinced was dead.
Do you know, there is an ever present danger for Christians of every generation since the 1st century when Paul lived? And the danger is that it is so easy to consign the living Jesus to the past and to history; but, as Paul discovered on the road to Damascus, Jesus is not a person of the past but a risen Saviour who continues into the present and the future. That means that in every generation -
The person Jesus and his story are now.
The forgiveness and hope he offers are now.
The invitation and the expectation for us to change and to grow through his love and presence are with us are now.
The renewal, vision and hope that transformed Paul from bigotry and narrow-mindedness are open to us now.
But, only if we have the faith and the courage to respond: to get up and follow Jesus.
This year we will all be celebrating one way or another the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. If you are of my generation or older you might remember seeing the coronation in black and white on an early television. After the Archbishop of Canterbury placed the crown on the Queen’s head the shout went up around the Abbey –“Vivat Regina” – “Long live the Queen!” And it was repeated – each time more emphatic and louder than the first. That acclamation was one of joy and hope.
Every time we meet for Communion, after the priest has said Jesus’ words over the bread and wine – “This is my body” – “This is my blood” – we hear the words :”Great is the mystery of faith”, and we all say, shout or sing -
Christ has died.
Christ is risen
Christ will come again
Those words remind us that Jesus is here with now – just as he was with Paul and the first disciples, and as he has been with his followers over the past 2000 years. And because he is here with us and is not just a holy person of the past, he can comfort, heal, inspire, guide, challenge, change, strengthen and unite us for the mission and tasks he has planned for us here in Poplar now. But, only if we take the risk and let him.
I hope and pray that like St. Paul, we will. It could even be exciting!