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Conversion of St Paul

A sermon by The Very Reverend June Osborne DL - Sunday, 25 January 2015

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Conversion of St Paul

Posted By : June Osborne Sunday 25th January 2015

A sermon by The Very Reverend June Osborne DL - Sunday, 25 January 2015

Acts 9 v 1-22; Matthew 19 v 27-30

We all know the story of St Paul on the Damascus Road – blinding light, encounter with God – but I want you to note that the conversion of Saul the Jewish Pharisee ‘zealous for the traditions of his ancestors’ (Galatians 1 v 14) into the Christian apostle St Paul began with inter-faith aggression.  Saul is on his way to Syria, one of the strongholds of early Christianity, hunting for Christians to ‘bring them bound to Jerusalem’ when Jesus Christ tells him that when he persecutes those of faith he is persecuting him.

Now it seems to me that the real hero of this moment is Ananias who’s given the task of welcoming Saul into the community of Christians.  He helps rehabilitate Saul’s image and he’s the reason others will trust this man, once their prosecutor.  But all this takes courage because Saul frightens him.

Interfaith relations have been under more scrutiny since the ghastly murders in Paris a few weeks ago and many people, like Ananias, are frightened.  We live in a world where Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities – all of whom share the same Abrahamic source to their religious life – are renegotiating how safe they feel with one another.  Many people have been asking, how does our responsibility to freedom of speech, one of the greatly revered liberties of Western liberal democracy, relate to the sensibilities of what is sacred to different religions, and within them to some zealous minority causes: the Sauls of our day.

Amidst that debate I want you to see how Ananias’ fearful voice expresses some issues very recognisable for us.

·       ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man’

Before Ananias had even met Saul he believed he knew the threat he posed.  Our attitudes and behaviour are so often formed by hearsay and the reputations we hear from others, which of course may be built on nothing more than prejudice or fear.  Now you may say that Ananias’ hearsay evidence was rather well founded and he did well to fear Saul, but even then it wasn’t complete information because we know Saul had changed.

The fact is that few of us engage directly with other religious beliefs. Few of us understand enough about what motivates those of another religious perspective and what others might hold to be sacred.  We might have once been able to use the excuse that a place like Salisbury makes that very difficult but even in this homogenous society we now have the whole world coming into our homes through the internet and the access to information it brings.

·       Then Ananias goes on to plead, Lord, ‘look how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem’.

There’s something of an echo for us here, especially in these days of global jihad.  For we know that one of the factors in producing a multifaceted movement of Islamic violence has been a Pan-Islamic sense of the suffering that Muslims have been enduring worldwide.  Propaganda feeds off a culture of grievance and exploits it by pointing to images which offend all of us from the likes of Bosnia, Chechnya and Gaza.

In coping with all that suffering of our world we still need to be very careful with the use of that word ‘evil’.  If we’re tempted to believe in hearsay and caricatures then surely another temptation is to divide the world in wholly good or wholly evil, a Manichaean worldview which is mightily dangerous because apart from anything else it allows all sides to renegotiate their social and military rules of engagement arbitrarily.

·       And then finally Ananias protested to Jesus, that Saul had ‘authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name’. 

Interfaith relations can be expressed oppressively.  For Saul it was in the form of legal authority to persecute minority or deviant groups, even to arrest them, possibly to annihilate them.  Our friends in our link church in Latvia tell us how, in past times, to be a Christian in that society often led to losing privileges or jobs. More normally we experience religious authority through codes, social norms, expectations of behaviour, how sacred texts are used, the political pressure applied by religious institutions.  All such things still exercise enormous force on our social relationships and the liberties of individuals.

Ananias represents for us all those minority faiths who are fearful of their place in a wider society which might treat them badly, choosing to ignore the essential unity of human life, or forgetting the primacy of compassion, or neglecting fairness.  Here the question becomes how religious conviction or an anti-religious culture exercises power. It’s the question Jesus wants to put into his dialogue with Peter when the disciples are asking about the rewards attached to faithful service.  Have no doubt, Jesus says, there are rewards for keeping the faith and bearing the costs of that conviction, but the first will be last and the last will be first.  Jesus knew that all religion like any human motivation is corrupted by power.

At the beginning of her book ‘Fields of Blood’, which is about religion and the history of violence, Karen Armstrong talks about how in the West the idea that religion is intrinsically violent is taken for granted and seems self-evident.  One of the great challenges of faith communities is to resist that indelible image of religion being at least belligerent and sometimes cruel.  It’s an excellent book and I commend it to you.  By the end she concludes that religion is like the weather, it does ‘lots of different things’.

“To claim that it has a single, unchanging and inherently violent essence is not accurate.”

We can turn around that fear that religion is untrustworthy but it relies on us transforming how we relate to one another, both within religious groups and between faith traditions.  As Ananias was given the job of rehabilitating Saul in the mind of his fellow Christians so we need to take some small responsibility for how we rehabilitate interfaith life.

Three things for you to ponder which I believe would make a real difference.

·       We could all recognise our need to attune ourselves better to what others hold to be sacred.  That’s not asking us to be uncritical nor to ignore that there are conflicts of values which are difficult to manage. But acknowledging and respecting what matters to others is the platform from which we build the difficult conversations and negotiations.  As several people have said about Charlie Hebdo, it wouldn’t have had to be seen as a restriction on their freedom of speech if they’d exercised a little more discipline on their urge to provoke.

·       Secondly, we could take greater responsibility for the pain of the world.  I’m very proud of this Cathedral’s record in opening itself up to some of that pain through the prayer we offer for Prisoners of Conscience.  Yet it makes me all the more aware of how hard it is to stay aware and alert to what happens.  Only by addressing atrocities and inequalities, some of it done in our name, will we prevent further violence in the guise of religious zeal.

·       And lastly, we need to build communities where all can feel safe and flourish.  Be that locally, nationally or globally, in the name of God we need to build civil space, a shared life in which difference is treated with dignity.  This too is hard work.  But there’s simply no substitute for relational habits.  For people of faith knowing one another and feeling known.  Here in Ananias we have an example of that.  Ananias who was terrified of Saul and the violence he represented and yet he too was converted to a new trust:

“So Ananias went and entered the house.  He laid his hands on Saul and said, - and what courage this took - ‘Brother Saul...’”