Sermon on St Paul. 15.
In the light of what happened 2 weeks ago in France we have all had, or heard, conversations about how people who once appeared to be ordinary and harmless can change so profoundly that they can become murderers. Theories and bafflement abound.
Were they born like that? Were they corrupted by ideology or led astray by people?
Perhaps they were lost souls searching for a noble purpose who ended in committing atrocities instead?
I have never forgotten the experience, of when In Berlin, staring at length at a photograph of a German doctor who in the 1930’s risked his own health to work with children suffering from contagious disease.
I simply could not get the measure of his soul however intently I looked. He looked professional but ordinary.
Next to him were some of the shoes left behind by some of the children he had experimented on in a Concentration camp a few years later.
St Paul is an interesting figure in his own right, who arouses strong opinions in the church and outside , such as being acclaimed by some as the true pioneer of Christianity and Jesus’ best interpreter, or by others as the fount of all bias against gay people and women.
His impact on history is well known. It was his reflections on justification by faith which led Martin Luther to launch the Reformation.
And he still provides the words of choice at most weddings and funerals, when people turn to 1 Corinthians 13 to express love or grief.
This man who was an eager participant in a crowd which stoned a man to death for blasphemy!
His moral trajectory was the reverse of the young terrorists we rightly agonise about.
He rejected murderous violence and went from being complicit in murder to an apostle of forgiveness and charity.
Someone who could write, as he did to the Christians in Rome:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
He was not someone who abandoned controversy either, as is made clear by the account we have of him in Acts, and by what we can readily read of his own words.
But there was a crucial difference, in that from the time he changed- the word conversion is not used at all in the biblical account- from someone who thought that those who preached Jesus as Messiah or Son of God should forfeit their lives for blasphemy to someone who proclaimed Jesus as Lord he took all the dangers upon himself.
Whether he was risking the wrath of the authorities for being a rabble rouser, or endangering his life in epic journeys by sea to found or support tiny Christian communities, he was no longer a threat to others, but only to himself.
Something shifted in him which re-oriented his life.
What has traditionally been called the Conversion of St Paul was something much more profound and radical than is often supposed.
He didn’t simply swap one religion for another one, neither did he just stop being a bad guy and start being a good guy, and neither did he, as has commonly been suggested in our sceptical and reductionist age, merely have a psychological crisis due to a bang on the head after falling off a horse.
He became a Visionary. A word which we might be a bit wary of. But by which I mean someone who saw the world so differently and lived so courageously that he enriched the world, and changed it forever. Who had insights which inspired and niggled then and which continue to do so now.
The story of his vision of Christ on the road to Damascus might be a dramatized version of a process which took years- the crucial point of a dawning realisation rather than a blinding flash out of the blue. But whatever it was it did mark a fundamental shift.
Christ was no more the enemy, but the foundation of his whole life. Christ’s self-giving love and his reconciling work;- between God and humanity and between people- was now for St Paul the centre of everything.
The self righteous anger, the hatred of the other, the strenuous attempt to follow the correct rules and stick to the conventions, just collapsed inside him.
One way of seeing his letters- which make up a quarter of the New Testament- is as evidence of the process of re-building his sense of self and the world, in the light of this crisis.
Those same letters reveal him doing so in dialogue with other early Christians asking many of the same kind of questions, but not being able to go as far as he did in the grandeur and range of his answers.
His fundamental question was what difference does Christ make to my life and the world?
Which, if one considers it for a moment is a big question.
It embraces the categories we now label theology, philosophy, ethics, society, history, politics and psychology.
Which is why I think that St Paul has had so much attention in the past and deserves it still.
Because his context was very different from our own we might find it challenging to always see the connections, but there are many which still resonate with what we experience.
His writings and his biography not only have the instant relevance of being about a man who turned aside from murderous violence. To become one who could insist that:
Faith, hope and love abide, these three and the greatest of these is love.
But they also keep nudging away at all the other implications of what Christ means for the world.
St Paul’s world was stratified in ways and directions far in excess of what we see today. Religion, social class and gender had fixed boundaries. St Paul began to say things such as there is no male or female, Jew or Gentile.
The Greco- Roman world was much attached to the notions of fate and determinism. One could nobly endure or find the flow and go with it. Christ for Paul put a stop to that.
Paul talked about liberty and freedom as alternatives and the Holy Spirit leading to transformation and eternal life. The future opens up as a place of possibility for all humanity. How often do we succumb to the idea that the world is just so?
And the suggestion that it was St Paul who paved the way for such ideas as conscience and the person, which we now take for granted, by insisting that everyone, irrespective of their social position, had worth, and moral freedom being children of God, is no exaggeration. Which isn’t just an interesting historical detail but surely speaks to our attitudes to who matters to us, and what power we have for good.
The accusation is sometimes made that Christians go wrong when they substitute St Paul’s teachings for those of Jesus. Dogmatic types do sometimes make such a mistake, but maybe the philosopher Wittgenstein got the relationship between the correct when he wrote.
The spring which flows gently and limpidly in the Gospels seems to have froth in St Paul’s epistles.