Sermon 24 January 2016

Conversion of St. Paul 2016 Jer 1:4-10 Acts 9:1-22  Matt 19:27-end

St. Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road is as much a study in vocation as it is in seeing the light.  A man is hijacked on the road but not robbed.  He is offered something to pass on, his digging in his heritage and upbringing had brought up surprising treasurer. We begin our readings with the prophet Jeremiah.  Jeremiah is an unwilling prophet, not wanting to be called by God to this rather onerous task. God knows who God is dealing with and Jeremiah knows that God knows and he tries to wriggle. “I am only a boy.” Too bad, chum, it’s you. It makes one realise how little we listen to children or value their observations and comments.  Would we be ready to acknowledge a child’s comment as a prophecy from God?

Paul did not fit.  A Jew by race and faith and by birth a citizen of the Roman empire. Almost not quite a Jew and not quite a Gentile, bound by the Law of the Jews to a life lived in the context of the lord God of the Jews and by the law of the empire to acknowledge the emperor as a god, amongst others. His hostility to this new showing of the God he thought he knew took some sinking in.  It is what he and all the Jews were waiting for but not quite how they thought it would be.

These days if you suffer from a bad infection of the lower gut like IBS or Crohn’s disease you may be offered a faecal implant.  Something someone else’s body had expelled may put you right, re-introducing the beneficial bacterial your bowel has lost.  It sounds horrible and takes a minute or two to get the head round.  When we go to see the doctor we don’t expect that sort of thing and cold well reject it because it demands a new way of thinking, simple though it is.

If a child makes some comment about the nature of our worship, we will begin to try to move heaven and earth to make the child understand the nature and benefit of the worship rather than look at adjusting the nature of the worship.  The foot has to fit the shoe not the shoe the foot.

When Paul, or Saul at that stage, reaches Ananias who is experiencing the conversion? Ananias needs some convincing.  Even when Paul is won over it’s not right.  It’s not him, it’s somebody who looks like him. If someone is ‘troublesome’ in a church community, do we think of that person as called by God to stir us up?

Matthew (writing for a Jewish readership) puts this incident with Peter two sharp lessons for the disciples, the moment when Jesus ticks off the disciples for turning children away and the camel and the eye-of-the-needle moment.  Afterwards he records the telling of the parable about the labourers in the vineyard all being paid the same regardless of how long they have been working. That one looks like linking pay to the costs of living, a good thought but we won’t go down that way just now.

Most of us would probably say that we are still on the Damascus Road, waiting for someone to switch the lights on, and could relate a long journey of faith, not yet over and with a destination not yet revealed, plodding along sometimes happy and sometimes weary.  One or two might relate a tale of a sudden realisation that the Jesus written of in the gospels became real and lovable on a specific occasion. Some will be at worship almost unwillingly but bound by some strange, compelling urge to  march on.

One of the great 20th century Christian writers, C.S. Lewis wrote this of his being grasped by God,

"You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England" (Surprised By Joy, ch. 14, p. 266).
He was a Professor of English Literature at Oxford until 1954 having been born in 1898 into an Anglo-Irish family at Belfast. After what he calls a blandly Christian childhood he threw himself heart and soul into a rationalist and idealist atheism that he professed and lived, but it didn’t last! Like Jeremiah he was an unwilling prophet and like Paul an unwilling recipient of the gift of faith, yet became an object of study for the seeker of faith.

If anyone can speak to our human condition St. Paul can. Fiercely against this Jesus he even minded the coats while the first Christian martyr was stoned to death for daring to suggest that God loved enough to give a son to murderous hands.  For a while he could not see what had hit him. The light was blinding. We read him almost every week in church and turn to him when we try to answer the most difficult of human question. 

© 2016 Frank Wright

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