Choral Evensong & Benediction, Epiphany 2 Sunday 24 January 2016 | All Saints Margaret Street

Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction, Epiphany 2 Sunday 24 January 2016

THE CONVERSION OF ST. PAUL   First Evensong, 24th January, 2016

Readings:  Isaiah 49.1-13; Acts 22.3-16

We have grown used to seeing reports on television of riot, destruction and death when some zealous religious group, usually but not always Muslim, takes offence at something said or done – a novel or a cartoon published –  which is seen as insulting or threatening their faith.

Such an incident is the background to the speech we heard from St. Paul in our reading from Acts.  After the long years of his missionary travels, Paul has returned to Jerusalem. He has told the church there all that he had done.  Paul had gone to the Temple but was seen and recognized there by some Jews from Asia. 

“Men of Israel, help!  This is the man who is teaching men everywhere against the people and the law and this place; moreover, he also brought Greeks into the temple and he has defiled this holy place.”

A mob forms, Paul is seized and dragged from the temple. He is on the point of being lynched when the Roman tribune and his troops intervene to rescue him. As Paul is being taken into the barracks, he persuades the tribune to allow him to speak to the crowd, which he does in Hebrew, actually in Aramaic.

He then gives one of three accounts of his conversion, what happened to him on the road to Damascus and its consequences, which Luke gives us in Acts. Luke anticipates the advice given to generations of preachers: “Tell them what you are going to say; tell them it; and then tell them what you have just said so that they won’t forget.”  If something is really important, like the conversion of Cornelius or of Paul, he tells it three times.

Paul’s speech follows the pattern in the ancient world of an apologia, a speech in one’s defence against an accusation. An important part of such a speech was to establish a link with the audience, to elicit their sympathy. So, here, Paul begins by emphasizing his Jewishness.

“I am a Jew, born at Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as you all are this day.”

He goes on to speak of his persecution of those who followed the Way – the followers of Christ.

While there are many parallels between the account we have just heard and the one which will be read at Mass tomorrow (9: 3-9), there are significant differences.  There is more emphasis on light. The vision is said to have occurred ‘about noon’, when the sun would be most intense; so if Paul was blinded by a greater light, it must have been a great light indeed. 

In the first account Paul’s companions heard a voice but saw nothing.  Now Paul tells us that his companions ‘saw the light but did not hear the voice’ (22: 9).  The drama of the encounter is heightened by emphasizing that though many saw the light only Paul heard what was said; in particular, the words which told him what he was to do. 

Paul is a more active participant in this recollection of the Damascus Road experience.  In the earlier account, Paul was struck down and had little to say but, “Who are you?”  Now, Paul says that he asked, “What should I do?  Before, Paul was led by the hand. Now, Paul says that he waited for the fulfillment of Jesus’ words concerning what he is appointed to do (22: 10).

The visit to Ananias (12-16) helps Paul to see what his commission is to be.  In the first account, Ananias functions mainly to underscore that the Christians’ enemy has been transformed into a friend.  Here, that emphasis is dropped. We are told that Ananias is pious and respects the law – he is someone Paul’s Jewish audience should respect as a witness on his behalf.

Ananias’ role is also to deliver the call: ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Just One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to all men of what you have seen and heard’ (14-15).  ‘God of our fathers’ is the traditional way of referring to the God of Israel. The God of Israel’s past has chosen Paul to be a ‘witness’ to what is happening in the present.  The primary emphasis as Paul addresses his fellow-Jews is on this calling.

Luke’s account of Paul’s speech speaks not just to that crowd of Jews who heard in Jerusalem, but to us today.  It reminds us that our ‘vocation’ as Christians is not something that religious professionals like me , ‘do for a living’, or people like you take up as a leisure activity or aesthetic pursuit: joining  ‘The Choral Evensong Appreciation Society’ or becoming Friends of the Royal Academy, or supporting West Ham.  It is our response to the call of God, what God has asked us to do as part of his work in the world; it is a call which demands our whole lives.

The story also reminds is that we should not expect out attempts to be faithful to that call to be untroubled or pain-free.  Not everyone will ‘see’ the call that same way as we see it. The light we see, which shines upon us and helps to make sense out of our journey, may baffle or blind others. We may be misunderstood, even hated, by those who have not heard as we have heard or seen as we have seen. 

Paul is someone who excites strong opinions, positive and negative, just as much now as then. Even among Christians, he can generate heated argument and controversy.   He continues to fascinate and inspire and madden. Books about him continue to pour from the presses.  Among recent ones are Bishop Tom Wright’s massive 2 volumes and 1700 pages which most of us, even preachers, will probably never read from cover to cover.  

On a more accessible and certainly more affordable scale for most of us, SPCK has published some lectures which Rowan Williams gave in Holy Week at Canterbury Cathedral when he was Archbishop.  He has read, marked, learned and inwardly digested, both St. Paul and Bishop Wright for us and incorporated some of his insights into these talks.

In his introduction, he says:  ‘The only excuse for a brief study like this is that Paul’s world remains a closed book for so many regular churchgoers – never mind the numerous others who hear Paul’s name and are distantly aware that he was important at the beginnings of Christianity.  Both believers and non-believers are quite likely to have picked up a set of assumptions about Paul – that he had a problem about women’s role in the Church, that he was against sex in general and homosexuality in particular, that he supported slavery, that he changed the simple teaching of Jesus into a complicated philosophy or mythology…There are plenty of good twenty-first century reasons, it seems, to write him off.’

‘But in fact these half-understood assumptions obscure nearly everything of what makes Paul really interesting and exciting.’  Bishop Rowan believes that we need to read Paul with a sense of his own intense conviction that he was exploring a new country. He took the traditions and practices which grew out of the mysterious events around and after Jesus’ death and struggled with all his intellectual and imaginative skill to see the patterns that held them together. He is striving to do justice to that which confronts him in these stories and practice. He is not improvising a new religious system.  Paul has not left us a textbook of systematic theology, but letters addressed to various communities with differing problems.  Sometimes he leaves loose ends as he tries to bring it all together in a consistent pattern.  Often he uncovers a set of interconnections so profound that they have set the agenda for centuries of further discussion and elaboration.  He is never looking for religious theories for their own sake; he is always asking what must be true about God, about Jesus, about the human condition, about the non-human world, if the prayer and practice of the early Christians he knew is to make some kind of sense, to them as well as to their neighbours.

The simple fact is that you and I are here this evening, listening to Paul defending his calling by Jesus Christ to his own people, as the consequence of that vocation –  announced on the Damascus road, repeated in that vision in the Temple when Jesus speaks to him again,  responded to faithfully over years of hardship and opposition. That calling has brought him into conflict with his own people; something which will cause him huge anguish (Romans 9-11). It will take him from Jerusalem to Rome and to death.  But God sending Paul to the Gentiles, to witness to that universal love, which breaks out of the confines of Judaism, is why we are here tonight. It is why we must go on wrestling with him.