A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral for the feast of the Conversion of Paul, 25 January 2017.
As Sunday’s sermon said, last week featured some remarkable political discourse. Much of it came from Washington, some from the voluble mouth of the Foreign Secretary, and some from Belfast, as Martin McGuinness announced his retirement from leadership of Sinn Féin.
Ian Paisley Jr assured us he was ‘diametrically opposed’ to McGuinness, then praised him for the ‘remarkable journey’ he had made from IRA chief to democratic politician, which had ‘saved lives and made lives better’. Commentator Eamon Malley recalled the ‘consummate street fighter’ - ‘officer class’, according to the security services - who brought to the peace process the same ‘zip and zest’ that he had to the armed struggle; and the extraordinary relationship he established with Ian Paisley Sr - the ‘Chuckle Brothers’. It wasn’t easy. To some, McGuinness was - and remains - a traitor; to others, a fraud, and his new politics just the continuation of war by other means.
Some saw Paul in a similar light. As we hear tonight, he ‘breathed murder’ towards those who would soon be called Christians; the book of Acts implicates him in several killings (Acts 7.58-8.1, 22.10); and he was definite ‘officer class’. Paul brought his own zip and zest to hunting the renegade Jews who followed Jesus the false - and failed - Messiah. But now, in a vision on the road, he encounters the false, failed Messiah. He eventually arrives in Damascus, his planned destination, but his purpose as the hammer of the Christians is shattered, thanks to this strange meeting. And when sight returns, when Paul sees that he must take a diametrically opposite course, join the very group he hunted and devote his zip and zest to their cause, not their destruction, he meets the troubles that attend radical changes of direction: hostility from former comrades, suspicion from new ones.
I’m not sure what happened to Martin McGuinness during the 25 years between Bloody Sunday and the Good Friday Agreement, whether something deep or just pragmatic, but Paul is more forthcoming. He writes to the church in Galatia:
I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But…God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles. (Galatians 1.14-16)
The New Testament testifies to the two sides of the God who called Paul: one sharp, one gentle. I am more at home with the gentler side, when God influences us in ways that go with the grain of our lives. For example.
This Sunday, some of us will beat our neighbouring church - St Paul’s (fittingly), a flourishing Evangelical Anglican church - having welcomed guests from there last Sunday. Now I may say, I'm never going worship like they do, arms raised, perhaps speaking in tongues. OK, says God; and gently nudges me to be just a little more unbuttoned when I worship, perhaps daringly opening my hands when praying the Lord’s Prayer, as many do here. Or you may say - Look, the boundaries of my life to are pretty set - the rent, the mortgage, the job, perhaps age or health issues (and other stuff, things we persuade ourselves we can’t do without). And God works with all that, encouraging you to be a little more generous with yourself, a little more open to the unexpected, a little more willing to take the odd risk with settled routines. God follows the grain of the wood, smoothing a bit, planing a bit, sculpting - not smashing - the shape of your life. It is all rather gentle, and a sign of how God cares for you.
But sometimes - as with Paul - that care must be felt in a sharper way. Perhaps the grain of life is just too twisted and knotty, perhaps the settled routines are so unhealthy, even deadly, that gentle sculpting is not going to sort the problem. Or perhaps your life is OK in itself, but there is such need around you that there is no chance of you being able to help if God is merely gentle. Then you may feel the presence of God in the shock, in breaking and disjunction.
Such moments are rare: Paul needed only one Damascus road experience (though the book of Acts describes it three times). We must pray that, if that moment ever comes, we each have the wisdom to see and embrace what is happening.
It wasn't easy for Paul. He was marked all his life by that devastating about-turn. But he cherished it (as you might cherish a scar that reminds you of an accident you survived) and saw in it the whole purpose of his life. Hear his gratitude as he writes to his church in Corinth. He tells how Christ died for our sins, was raised, then appeared to all the apostles. Then this:
Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain. (1 Corinthians 15.3-10)