Transformation, St Paul
26 November 2017
Preacher | Penny Bird
Transformation, St Paul
Sermon 26 November 2017
8.30 Communion & 10 am Morning Worship
Psalm 95:1-7; Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Acts 9:1-19 ; Matthew 25:31-end
Speak to our hearts O God as we ponder your word and give us grace to hear you and respond. Amen
This is the very last in our series of sermons about transformation and people who were transformed. Today we focus on Saul who became St Paul. But before we do so, I think it will be helpful to spend a few minutes with the Gospel reading we have just heard.
When I hear it I think of those terrible Last Judgement scenes painted in mediaeval churches. The one in Albi cathedral is particularly horrible. Or you may know the one in Chaldon church. They show God on his throne separating people into good and bad, welcoming the good to paradise and condemning the bad to hell. They were used by the mediaeval church to control people’s behaviour. They perpetuate an ‘either/or’ mind-set which seems to me at odds with the God we meet in the Bible, in the New Testament in particular, and especially at odds with the God we meet in Jesus. The fact that Jesus so often demonstrates a ‘both/and’ approach is one of the key observations of Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr. So what is going on in this story? Is it prophecy or is it parable? What difference does that make? And what is it really about.
On one level, it is prophecy. Jesus seems to be talking about the end times, as he does in several parables and remarks in this part of Matthew’s gospel when opposition to him is gathering force and people are having to decide whether they will oppose him as the Scribes and Pharisees who are plotting to kill him do, or whether they will support him, as his disciples do. Their choice and ours is, of course very real. If we habitually turn away from those who need our compassion and help, we shall become hard and critical people. If we habitually react with compassion and generosity we shall become gentle and generous. But perhaps there is another point to this story.
On another level it is parable – a story intended to make us think deeply. So let’s do just that. Can you recall a time when you did something to help a homeless person, or gave food to a hungry person, or clothing, or shelter to those in need? I am guessing we can all say yes. Hurray, we are all sheep! Now, can you recall a time when, for whatever reason, you neglected to help someone similarly in need, when you walked past someone begging in the street for example? I am guessing we can all say yes. Oh dear, we are all goats! What do we make of that?
These questions were asked by the theologian Matthew Linn of a group of Religious sisters who were very perplexed to discover first that they were all sheep and then that they were all goats. Finally one of them raised her hand and said, ‘I get it, we’re all good goats!’
Time and again Jesus makes the point that he came to save the ‘lost’. He is accused of eating with tax collectors and sinners because he makes such an effort to do that. In John chapter 8 we have the story of the woman taken in the act of adultery. Jesus does not condemn her. He asks those who want to stone her to examine their own consciences, saying ‘let the one who is without sin throw the first stone.’ (John 8) They all melt away realising they too are goats! And that, I believe is the real point of today’s gospel reading. We all need to be rescued. We all need Jesus.
This is the Jesus who meets Saul on the road to Damascus when Saul, as we just read, was ‘still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord’. Saul has held the clothes of those who stoned Stephen to death, approving of their actions. He has tried to crush the followers of Jesus. He was probably in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost and he was horrified by their new boldness. He wants to follow those who have fled into Syria and make sure that the news that Jesus is alive, although he was crucified, cannot spread.
Saul has had a really interesting history up to this point. We are told in Acts that he was ‘3 a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in Jerusalem(this city) at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law.’ (Acts 22:3)
Now we know of Gamaliel as a learned man and also a wise one. In the weeks after Pentecost, when Peter and the apostles were attracting many followers, he spoke up in the Jewish ruling council. He warned them, saying; ‘ keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!’ (Acts 5:39)
Saul had learned zeal for the Lord from Gamaliel and strict rule keeping, but perhaps he had not learned judgement because he regarded them as pernicious rebels.
Later writing to his friends in Philippi, Lydia’s church, he describes himself like this; ‘5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.’ But that encounter with the risen Christ on the road, transformed him. He goes on; ‘7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.’
The powerful, self-confident, self-righteous, man was brought to his knees. But he was not condemned. He was blinded, but only temporarily. He was provided with a way to use his talents in a much more productive way. His whole thinking became not either/or, Jews or gentiles, loved by God or not, but inclusive. Writing to the Galatians he said; ‘ 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
This message that God desires our unity is explained in detail in John’s gospel in the discourses of Jesus at the last supper. Saul was baptised with the Holy Spirit and took the name Paul to show that he was a different person. He came to realise that he had been transformed by the sheer grace of God – not by any good things he had done. This became the core of his teaching. We are saved by faith in Christ. If we are ‘in Christ’, a phrase Paul uses repeatedly, we are utterly transformed. He speaks from experience.
But we sometimes forget that Saul’s transformation was not an overnight miracle. We sometimes say that people have come to Christ because of a Damascus Road conversion, by which we mean that they accepted Christianity in a sudden and dramatic way. Perhaps we forget that Saul was three days sightless and stunned, eating and drinking nothing after he met Jesus. Perhaps we minimise the role of Ananias who dared to go to meet him, in obedience to the Lord, although he knew how dangerous Saul
was. Perhaps we minimise the role of his hosts who took care of him. Certainly we often forget what Paul says in the first chapter of his letter to the Galatians; ‘When God, … was pleased 16 to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas - that’s Peter - and stayed with him for fifteen days; 19 but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother.’(Galatians 1:15-19)
We have no evidence of how Paul used those three years except the intriguing phrase, ‘I did not confer with any human being’. It seems to me that he needed that time to go over all the Hebrew Scriptures he knew so well and read them with fresh eyes. He was guided by the Holy Spirit to come to an understanding of what God had done through Jesus. Then he went to Jerusalem to meet the key people, Peter, and James the brother of Jesus, probably to check his facts, and his understanding, with them.
Only then did he begin his missionary journeys and start to teach people about Jesus.
One important strand runs through all Paul’s teachings. We are not saved by works but by faith. There is nothing we can do to save ourselves. Jesus Christ has come to our rescue. The Living Bible translation makes Paul’s understanding very clear, if we look at Romans chapter 3;
‘20 Now do you see it? No one can ever be made right in God’s sight by doing what the law commands. For the more we know of God’s laws, the clearer it becomes that we aren’t obeying them; his laws serve only to make us see that we are sinners.
21-22 But now God has shown us a different way to heaven—not by “being good enough” and trying to keep his laws, but by a new way (though not new, really, for the Scriptures told about it long ago). Now God says he will accept and acquit us—declare us “not guilty”—if we trust Jesus Christ to take away our sins. And we all can be saved in this same way, by coming to Christ, no matter who we are or what we have been like. 23 Yes, all have sinned; all fall short of God’s glorious ideal; 24 yet now God declares us “not guilty” of offending him if we trust in Jesus Christ, who in his kindness freely takes away our sins.’
So, we are goats, in that we see that we don’t do as God wishes, but we are good goats in that we have faith in Christ. It is not our own goodness, but his that makes us sheep. It is because we have been rescued by the Good Shepherd that we are welcomed with great rejoicing.
The deeper thesis of the wonderful book called ‘Good Goats’ that I have been talking about, is that we become like the God we worship. If we think of the distortion of the gospel which pictures a harsh and vengeful God who delights in condemning to hell those who do not love and serve him, we are in danger of becoming, judgemental, harsh people. If, on the other hand, we worship a compassionate God who rescues at great personal cost and refuses to condemn, then we become gentle, compassionate and forgiving people, who recognise that we are all good goats and who trust in God’s love to transform us, day by day, into the likeness of the Christ we contemplate.
Let us pray; Father, our hope is in Jesus. Transform us day by day we pray that we may grow to be more like him in all we do. Amen.