Preached on 29 January 2012
by David Kennedy
May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts
be now and always acceptable to you, O Lord our strength
and our redeemer. Amen.
Last Wednesday we celebrated the conversion of St Paul. At the early morning communion, I read the account of his conversion from Acts chapter 9. It is a passage that never fails to move me, and set as it is in Damascus, well, images from that city have filled our TV screens this week in the popular rising there. So, as all this has been on my mind these past few days, I decided it would be appropriate to preach on Paul’s conversion this morning. After all, for Paul it was an epiphany of the risen Christ.
The early chapters of Acts of the Apostles set out St Luke’s account of the origins of the Christian church. Despite the fact that Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified and buried, a vocal group of his disciples were making quite a stir in Jerusalem by preaching that he had risen from the dead. What is more, they were gaining converts. For Saul of Tarsus this was a dangerous and heretical new movement operating in the very heart of Jerusalem and as such it was potentially a threat to Judaism. As a strict and zealous Pharisee, Saul was foremost in his opposition to this Jesus cult; we might say he opposed it to the point of fanaticism. We first encounter him guarding the clothes of those who were stoning the first Christian martyr St Stephen, thereby agreeing with his execution, and beginning a severe persecution of Christians in Jerusalem. Many of them fled the city, but Saul was not content. He would hound them down, and so he petitioned the Jewish authorities in Damascus, over 130 miles to the north, to arrest any there who bore allegiance to Christ.
It was while he was approaching Damascus that he had his conversion experience. The significance of this event was such that Luke includes three separate accounts of it in Acts of the Apostles; the narrative account in Acts 9, a speech by Paul in Hebrew to the Jews in Acts 22 and then in a speech in Greek to a Gentile Governor and a King in Acts 26. This story is for the whole world. One version states that it was at noon that Paul saw his vision – but the implication is that the light he saw far outshone the sun at its full strength, throwing him off his horse to the ground and blinding his eyes. Light and falling to the ground are common characteristics of theophanies. While Luke speaks of light from heaven, Paul’s own testimony is that he saw the risen Christ and thereby was an eye-witness of the resurrection, the primary test of authentic apostleship. The experience of a light, of falling, an involuntary act of submission doubtless sending him into great fear and shock, was further heightened by a voice, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ Saul’s reply uses the divine title ‘Lord’, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ He recognises that this is something from heaven, while being unsure of exactly who it is that is speaking. The response was, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’. Of course, those words are moving words; Jesus makes no distinction between himself and his disciples; in persecuting them, Saul was persecuting him. It is a narrative illustration of the kind of mystical theology that Paul was later to develop in his letters; through faith and baptism we are mystically joined to Christ, incorporated in him – we become his body; he indwells us and we indwell him.
Saul is told to get up and go into the city, his fellow persecutors leading him by the hand. For three days he was sightless, refusing food. The three days may be important. In the letter to the Galatians, Paul says this
I want you to know that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
He then alludes to his conversion, but states that he did not confer with any human being. The suggestion is that Paul not only saw the risen Christ on the road to Damascus but that, in the context of that encounter and its aftermath, he received his apostolic commission and the gospel itself, the good news that he then proclaimed; a gospel of God’s grace to all people, Jew and Gentile, through faith in Jesus Christ in his coming among us, in his death and in his resurrection..
This idea that Paul received the gospel directly is an extraordinary claim to make. It means that the gospel is a given, in other words, it has its own authority irrespective of the one proclaiming it. And hence, as he argues in Galatians, there can be no other gospel. Of course, Paul must have met and talked with other Christians from the beginning, but it seems that even before that he knew that something distinctive had been revealed to him; that the gospel could not be confined to its Jewish origins.
But to return to the story of his conversion, enter Ananias. He had received a vision from Christ that he should go to meet Saul of Tarsus. It’s a beautifully written narrative – Ananias quite reasonably protests, having heard of Saul’s reputation and of the reason why he was coming to Damascus. But the response is instructive – Saul is described as the Lord’s chosen instrument – to bring the name of Christ before Gentiles and kings – and this will be costly – ‘I myself’, the Lord said, ‘will show him how much he must suffer for my sake’. And that, of course, is what happens – Paul the persecutor becomes Paul the persecuted – and Luke’s account in Acts of his missionary journeys accords with his own testimony to his sufferings in 2 Corinthians.
But I love the verse where Ananias, obeying the divine prompting and going to the house, enters and lays his hands on Saul with the words, ‘Brother Saul’. In itself this is an illustration of Paul’s gospel; the gift of salvation that turns sinners into saints. And in a profound way Paul is healed – he regains his sight, he is washed and cleansed in the waters of baptism; he is made new, and so he breaks his fast and becomes strong – we can only speculate how this conversion experience must have drained him to the limits. ‘Brother Saul’ – just as later on, to dubious apostles, it took good old Barnabas to take Paul by the arm and introduce him – again as a brother.
Luke then tells us that immediately Paul began to preach Christ in Damascus to the amazement of the crowds to the point where a plot was hatched to kill him. It’s the irony that one who came to Damascus making murderous threats is now himself a hunted man.
We cannot over emphasise how important Paul’s conversion and his understanding of the gospel was for the development of the Christian faith. Paul was given the vision of a new humanity under the Lordship of Christ embracing both Jew and Gentile. The theology of his epistles has given shape to Christian doctrine and ethics. His foundational theology is that we are justified, put right with God, by grace and through faith. Here salvation is understood as pure gift, not as a reward for some kind of earned merit, right or claim on our own part. This has liberated Christianity from a view of salvation as keeping rules and regulations as if we could save ourselves, to that of a dynamic relationship with God in Christ in which the Holy Spirit, the life of God within us, brings forth in us the fruits of holiness. This understanding not only motivated the theology of St Augustine, but also the Reformation of the 16th century, the theology of Karl Barth in the light of the ruinous wars of the 20th century and indeed the ecumenical movement itself, where Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and Reformed theologians have been able to overcome historic divides about the meaning of justification, and so agree that God’s free grace stands at the very heart of our faith.
Of course, there are aspects of Paul’s theology that raise questions. Paul lived in the first century, not the twenty-first; his world was a very different world to ours, as our reading over recent days of 1 Corinthians at Evensong readily illustrates. We see aspects of development in his thinking in the Epistles that have come down to us. And for all his extraordinary, almost super-human, commitment to the gospel, there is a humanity about Paul. He struggles with his own sinfulness, he needs the support of his friends and companions, and he never forgot that he once had persecuted the Church, making him in his own words, ‘least of all the apostles’. Like us, he struggled to understand God’s purposes, not least for his own people the Jews as he longed for the salvation of all. And in the Epistle to the Romans, he tantalisingly gives us the sense that when Christ is revealed, the sheer glorious extent of God’s salvific purposes will be fully known and realized.
But fundamentally in St Paul’s teaching is the great conviction that God in Christ sets us free; free from our past, free from the consequences of our sinfulness, free from the corruption of death, free from having to pretend that we are somehow righteous by our own efforts, free from having to submit to countless rules and regulations, free to follow and serve Christ, the One whose coming among us, whose death and resurrection have purchased salvation for both Jew and Greek. And it is that vision of freedom that must still motivate our prayers for the human family that somehow all people might find that freedom which Paul’s gospel proclaims. And so we pray for the peace of Damascus, of Syria, and all God’s children in every part of the world.