Rev. Judith Walker-Hutchinson - Conversion of St. Paul

The conversion of St Paul - St Mary’s BC 25th January 2015

Readings  Jeremiah 1:4-10 and Matthew 19:27-30

Today we celebrate the coming to faith of St Paul, Saul’s conversion – Paul the ‘model’ Christian missionary.

Paul travelled an estimated 10,000 miles spreading the word of God; his letters to the churches he founded are the oldest documents gathered in the New Testament and form the foundation of the whole of Christian theology.

The story of his mission is contained in the second half of the Acts of the Apostles and had we heard in our Scripture readings the familiar story of  Saul’s conversion from Acts 9, we would of course have heard that on the road to Damascus Saul was blinded by the light of God, he heard God speak directly to him, calling him to do his work.

Caravaggio in his famous painting in Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, shows Paul knocked to the ground from his horse by the force of God’s presence. No wonder then, that after such a dramatic encounter Saul, now Paul, fearlessly dedicated the rest of his life to Christ, no matter the risk or the hardship.

Now what I have said about this in the past is that Saul/Paul of course was not always the model Christian, he is on the road to Damascus not to find God but to continue his persecution of God’s people, as Luke tells us in the Acts he was

“...still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”

This ‘model’ Christian was, at that point according to his own words in his letter to the Philippians -

         a Pharisee,

         a law-abiding and duly circumcised member of the tribe of Benjamin,

         a Greek speaking Roman citizen and

         a Hebrew born of Hebrews. 

In other words a zealously committed, fire-breathing, extremist Jew, who as we also know, held the coats of the mob when Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death for alleged blasphemy. 

My point in past sermons has always been that if God can work through an extremist, hateful unbeliever like Saul, there is hope for us all.

 

 But my ruminations on Paul have this year gone in a different direction, because as much as I admire what Paul achieved, it is often said that without him the Christian faith would never have spread around the world, in many ways I think today’s reflections on Paul’s conversion can actually do the reverse of what he spent the rest of his life doing, and instead of empowering us as Christians,  his story can in fact disempower us.

Perhaps it is because of what has happened to me in the last four years that I am looking for answers to my questions about, and examples of exactly what it is I am now called to do. If you remember when I preached  on the last Sunday before Christmas on the Blessed Virgin Mary, I said I had difficulty relating to her, the image of her being so far removed from anything I am or could ever be, and today my thoughts are that in many ways I feel the same about Paul.

Verses 3 and 4 from Acts 9 tell us

“… Suddenly 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?’”

Saul heard God speaking directly and clearly to him, as later in that same chapter did Ananias whom God tells to go to the man  named Saul from Tarsus.  In spite of being understandably terrified by Saul’s reputation, Ananias does go, and in an under-acknowledged but quite remarkable and incredibly brave response to God’s call, Ananias baptises Saul who immediately regains his sight and begins his remarkable mission as God’s servant Paul.

 

I do not doubt that God could and can intervene in that way in life’s events if He chooses – the Bible is littered with accounts of him doing just that. But I do often doubt and sometimes fear, those who today say “God told me to”. At the mild end of the spectrum in the Church Times recently there was a story about a priest who heard God tell him to give up his role as Area Dean - being the best Area Dean I have ever known I hoped that Alec didn’t read it and act likewise!

Perhaps in some ways I am envious of those like that priest, like Paul, like Ananias, like Jeremiah who as we heard in our reading ‘heard the word of the Lord’, perhaps I envy their certainty, but for me even at the times when I have felt closest to God, what he wants from me has never been that clear, that specific, and therefore I am wary -

maybe that priest did hear God, but those who claim to have a direct line to God do present a knockdown, irrefutable argument, perhaps for God, but also maybe for their own beliefs and desires, and doubtless sometimes, their own prejudices. So how do we discern what is authentic and what is delusion or worse, manipulation. Maybe we should look to scripture. Scripture shows us that most prophets doubt and resist. As we heard in our reading Jeremiah, just like Moses, doubted his capability to perform God’s work, he begs God

“Lord God, truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”  Jonah  took to the high seas as he tried to flee from the Lord in an attempt to avoid what he was being called to do, in Caravaggio’s first painting of Paul’s conversion he showed him fearful,  attempting to shield himself  from the light of Christ. That painting was rejected by the church that commissioned it and he had to do it again but perhaps Caravaggio was not really stretching Scripture by showing Paul with understandable fear and awe. But in spite of their doubts and fears these people of God went on to risk life and limb to speak out against the mores and actions of society around them - prophets go against the grain.

Some believe that God does not act and will not act in this way any more, that Jesus being the ultimate revelation, cannot be surpassed and that as we know of his life, death and resurrection here in the words on these pages, we no longer need the prophetic voice or imagination.

 Clearly that isn’t so, with memories of the holocaust, the murders in Paris, and persecution of Christians in Nigeria and elsewhere, society today seems more than ever in need of God’s guiding voice, and here in church with us today we have living evidence that that voice can still be heard to speak. 

If you haven’t recognised the prophet in our midst that is no surprise, because as Scripture tells us, a prophet is recognised everywhere except in his hometown.

In Britain today at least prophets do not risk life and limb, but this one did suffer relentless media persecution and misrepresentation, he was even labelled ‘the unbelieving Bishop’, but despite the cost to his person and his family, he continued to speak out his understanding of God’s will. He is remembered for being a turbulent priest, Thatcher’s “cuckoo”, for marching alongside starving miners in the 1980s and he is still remembered for that today in any account of the Miners Strike.

What is less well recalled  is that he spoke  with fearless impartiality against inequity and injustice on both sides of that struggle.

Right Rev Dr David Jenkins will be 90 tomorrow and for 80 of those 90 years he has had an unswerving belief in the existence of God. God who loves us and who is as he is in Jesus. Not bad for an alleged unbeliever!

There is a difference between ‘unbelief’ and the honesty and integrity of thoughtful enquiry, enquiry sometimes labelled ‘doubt’, but such enquiry is sound, authentic Anglicanism and I will take it over absolute certainty about details any day.

I have asked †David many times how he has kept faith, what kept him strong in the cruel times, in the times of grief and loss and now in what he and I describe as our ‘wilderness’ years.

Initially, before I knew him well, I thought that such an apparently fearless preacher and teacher must have some special knowledge of God, a privileged relationship like that of Jeremiah, Ananias or Paul –  something different from that experienced by ordinary folk - but not so – David is always consistent in his answer to such questions - his answer is always “I can’t explain how or why, but I know that I am known”

“I know that I am known.”

When Jeremiah doubted his own ability to do God’s work God’s response was “Do not be afraid of them for I am with you to deliver you.” Jeremiah did not know ‘how’ but he knew that he was known to God.

God may not knock you from your horse, you may feel he never speaks directly to you, we cannot all be as certain as some Area Deans, but if like David we are receptive, if we listen with our hearts as well as our ears, do we not also, like Jeremiah, feel “the burning fire of God’s will”? -  the nagging knowledge of the right thing to do, the right thing to say, when we see injustice or persecution, helplessness or hopelessness -the seeds of atrocity all around us.

Whether we have realised it or not we are all here today because God has spoken to us, through the words of Scripture or the words and actions of the people of God, of preachers and teachers like Bp David and Alec. Knowing that we, like Bishop David, can at least be certain that we are known, and that like Jeremiah and the Psalmist we have been known since before God knitted us together in the womb, all that is necessary for each and every one of us to be in right relationship with God is to trust in that knowledge and to act on that knowledge - whatever that may mean to each of us.

Trusting that we are known is all the strength we need to be Christian not just in here but out there too whatever questions we may still have about the details. And in that strength we too may ‘build and plant’ like Jeremiah. I don’t mean aggressive proselytising conversion of others, becoming a kind of ISIS without the guns, rather simply sharing the gift of that knowledge, with our friends, our family and yes maybe even with strangers.

In the words of an old, apparently recently revived, TV show, all we have to do is

“say what you see”.

When God asked Jeremiah what he saw, Jeremiah said

“I see the branch of an almond tree”.

He did not manipulate the truth of his senses, he spoke what was blindingly obvious to him, and spoke it in his own words, in his own way.

In here (the Bible) we have all the evidence we need of the love of God for all creation,

so when you are asked - what do you see? – just say what you have seen of God in this place, among these people, and in these pages -wherever you are and whomever you meet, be unafraid to say that you know you are known.

 

Happy birthday David and on behalf of everyone you have knowingly or unknowingly encouraged in the faith, thank you for your ministry and your love, and for your courage to always ‘say what you see’ in the name of God, and we pray God that we and many others to come will follow in your example.

Amen