A Sermon preached by Rachel Murray, Ordinand, on 25th January 2017 for the feast of The Conversion of St Paul.
If you had told me…. 4 months ago…on 25th September, the first day of the Michaelmas term that today I would voluntarily be preaching to you on the Conversion of St Paul…..I would have been in the words of the epistle, trembling and astonished.
Actually today – I feel privileged and not just because it’s the feast day on which Brother Malcolm made his Life Profession – in 1975.
As a cradle Christian I am fascinated by conversion stories. Possibly even slightly envious. I have a friend who was an atheist for most of his life until fairly recently. I wanted to know – what was the moment when it all changed, what happened – was it highly dramatic, were you surprised by joy – what did you experience? I know God had been doing some work on him for a while and my friend said he was just sitting on the sofa watching television when in a moment – unexpectedly – the universe shifted, it tilted, it changed, all was the same, yet all was profoundly different. The scales had dropped from his eyes. He was looking at life through a God lens. Nothing would ever be the same again.
And so to St Paul – born as Saul of a Pharisee household…grounded and steeped in the Jewish faith. Destined to be a Pharisee. All he wanted to do was serve God. The law of God was his life.
When he heard the teaching of Peter – he was appalled – he knew if this message continued it would overturn the laws of the Pharisees. And so he began his fight against the Gospel with threatenings and slaughter– at its height – not only did he approve of the slaying of St Stephen – but he held the coats of the men who did the stoning.
What happened on that road to Damascus has been described as the genetic moment for our Christian faith, it was the moment that caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world – it’s impact is never over and has become universally relevant for Christianity today.
I have identified 4 basic Pauline beliefs. You may know more – I’m sure you’ll tell me later! Firstly – we are justified by faith – Pharisees were justified by keeping the law. Faith depended on what you did. Paul radically subverted this by preaching that the gift of faith is not something to be achieved – it is something received in Grace. Salvation is found in the life of Jesus, demonstrated by the action of the Cross, witnessed by resurrection and empowered by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Secondly, Grace was a keyword for Paul. God does not love us because we are good but to fashion and fill us with his love. This was a huge source of Paul’s exhilaration and joy. The Grace of God given not by reward but by his nature of neverending love.
Thirdly Paul wrote time and time again of the crucifixion of Jesus and it’s meaning for the world. He did not witness it but the event was writ deep in his soul. This is incredibly significant as to a Jew, crucifixion was unspeakably shaming and damning. You were not just cursed in the eyes of humankind – but also God. So it is remarkable that Paul came to see and write of the crucifixion of Jesus – not as God’s curse but a saving act of liberation and forgiveness. At the foot of the Cross, Paul found himself to be a helpless sinner – but not a sinner forsaken. It was there he was a sinner forgiven. The Cross and forgiveness are inextricably linked.
And fourthly, The Church and the Body of Christ. Jesus on the Damascus Road asked Paul – ‘Why are you persecuting me?’ Gradually Paul came to see and know that the body of Christ was made up of Christian believers and saw that Jesus and his followers made up a single body which we now call the Church. All Paul’s morality was based on the foundation given through baptism – in which a Christian puts on Christ and Christ dwells in them.
Paul was changed on that Damascus Road – but it took time for his theology to mature. He has to be befriended and instructed. Baptised, we are told – so that the eyes which were blinded in that conversion were opened.
That Damascus Road experience is not confined to Paul, nor to a definite time or place. Our coming together at this college, to this service has the Damascus Road written deep within it. We travel that road countless times in our lives and the Spirit of the Living God is here to work His purpose of change and renewal within us. We are here to be converted and re-converted. To be converted to a greater truth. To be converted ever more deeply into our true selves – the selves God wants us to be.
And with that conversion comes challenge – can we as priests prepare people to be open to the transformation, to the conversion that God holds for them?
Our conversion is never complete in this world, rarely dramatic, maybe long and slow – but simply by the fact that we are here today, the conversion of St Paul tells us that by the cross of Jesus, we receive the grace of God and it is through grace and faith…forgiveness and love that we are justified before God.
And so today we say:
Thanks be to God for Paul
For his conversion on the Damascus Road
For his teaching, preaching, travelling and writing
For his work which founded the Christian Church
And that each one of us
By the Grace of God
May be able to say
Now I see
Now I understand
Now I know
Now I believe