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Conversion of St Paul, 25.1.03 (St Mark's)
Jer 1.4-10: Before you were born I knew you in the womb
Ps 67: Let all the peoples praise you, O God
Gal 1.11-16a: God set me apart before I was born...to reveal his Son to me
Matt 19.27-30: what shall we have! Many who are first will be last & the last first
COLLECT: Grant that we may follow him in bearing witness to your truth
Post-Com: Strengthen us to witness to your truth and to draw everyone to the fire of your love (961-93=868)
Summary: Paul's vision of God's overwhelming love in Jesus turned him from being exclusive of others to being inclusive of all.
Today, at the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we are celebrating the conversion of St Paul, a man of vision, a man of vision in more ways than one.
Yes, Paul had a vision. Lots of people have had visions. Usually they interpret their vision in terms of their own cultural background and expectations
For example, Hugh Montefiore, our former bishop, was born into a liberal Jewish family. As many of you probably know, as a young man he had what he took to be a vision of Christ, and that led him to becoming a Christian, a Christian I for one greatly admire.
But Paul did not start out as a liberal Jew. As we have heard in our reading from Galatians, Paul started out as a very studious and zealous Jew of his day, In 2 Cor 11 he defines himself as a Hebrew, an Israelite and a descendant of Abraham. In the letter to the Romans Paul also says that he belonged to the tribe of Benjamin. And according to the Book of Acts he came from Tarsus, he was a Roman citizen, and he studied the Torah in Jerusalem under the great rabbi, Gamaliel. And Luke even specifies that Paul approved of the stoning of Stephen.
So Paul was a zealous seeker of God's will, and he was convinced that he had found it. Hence, his conviction that the Nazarenes were wrong. His way was right; all others were wrong. This is why he was fired with the intention of helping to stamp out the sect of the Nazarenes, those who were acknowledging Jesus of Nazareth to be the Messiah of Israel.
And then something happened to him. It included a vision, but what was the content of that vision as Paul experienced it?
Paul gives his own account in the letter to the Galatians in the verses that follow our reading this morning. We have Luke's account of this experience in the book of Acts, in fact Luke repeats the story with some variations a further two times.
In Luke's account, Paul had not yet reached Damascus when he had his encounter with the risen Lord. In Paul's own account, he speaks of subsequently returning to Damascus, so it would seem that actually he was leaving Damascus at the time. In Luke's account in Acts, it was as Paul was approaching Damascus that he encountered a blinding light that left Paul sightless for three days. To Paul's question of who are you the voice said "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." For Luke is identifying the church as the ongoing presence of the risen Lord. Paul, however, speaks of God revealing his Son to him, and he insists in 1 Corinthians that he has seen the risen Lord, as one born out of due time, for this seeing of the Lord is, for Paul central to his assertion that he is indeed an apostle.
Thus Paul had his vision, a vision of the risen Christ. As a result of this visionary experience Paul was turned around in his understanding of God. It turned him around from being one who wanted to exclude people, by force if necessary, to being a person who wanted to include everyone by the power of love. That led him to embrace all people, as he expresses it in Gal 3.28 when he says: "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." It is this conviction that led him to become known as the apostle to the Gentiles.
Now, a mere empty vision would not do that. The visionary experience had to have some very deep content to have done that. I believe the clue to that content lies in what Paul says at the end of Romans, chapter 8, when he spells out his total conviction that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. For that vision held Paul in a sense of overwhelming love, a love so profound and so all-encompassing that it could know no bounds. And it is this love that not only empowers the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, but also the imperative for Christians that they reach out to all humanity.
Vanessa asked me last Sunday which Post-Communion prayer I had chosen. I had already chosen, but I had forgotten why. But when I checked, I remembered why I had chosen the one we have.* Quite simply, the alternative was all too cosy, too inward looking, for if we have caught Paul's vision, then we know that the gospel sends us outward to others, not just inward to ourselves. Fired with God's love in Christ we have to share, we are impelled to share, and we have to share without bounds, to the uttermost ends of the earth. And what we have to share, to express, and to embody in deed and witness is the unbreakable love of God in Christ Jesus that Paul first met on the Damascus road in his vision of the Lord Jesus Christ.
[*POST COMMUNION: Almighty God, who on the day of Pentecost sent your Holy Spirit to the apostles with the wind from heaven and in tongues of flame, filling them with joy and boldness to preach the gospel: by the power of the same Spirit strengthen us to witness to your truth and to draw everyone to the fire of your love; through Jesus Christ our Lord.]