The Conversion of St. Paul

conversion-of-st-paul

The Third Sunday after Epiphany:
The Conversion of Paul
January 24, 2016
The Rev. Marcus Walker
St. Paul’s Within the Walls


I have a confession to make.

I am fraud.

The man whom you may know as the Reverend Marcus Walker, preacher of sermons, Associate Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome, friend, perhaps a sharer of many dinners and much drink, has presented himself to you falsely – for years.

It was when I was ten that I decided that my name should Romanise – should upgrade (or downgrade, I suppose, depending on your perspective) from the Anglo-Saxon Mark to the Latinate Marcus.

This decision was taken, if I’m honest, because there were two other Marks in my class and I was the unforgivably mediocre Mark 2; neither Mark 1 (the original) nor Mark 3 (the latest model). I also had developed a deep love for all things Roman (of the ancient variety, don’t worry) and thought Marcus a much more suitable name for a child of my distinction. The decision was final after I read a biography of CS Lewis and discovered that the great author had come down-stairs when he was four and declared “I shall now be called Jack”. I decided to do something similar and announced, “I shall now be called Marcus. And if you don’t, I shall excommunicate you.”

I had just watched the film Beckett and was much taken with the excommunication scene.

This change of name, it is fair to say, was never fully embraced by those who had chosen the original variant and I have tended to find Marcus used by them only when I’m really in trouble.

What they may not be aware of is that they nearly had to go through this whole rigmarole again, about five years ago.

Having been born on the feast of the Conversion of St Paul (this is not intended even to be a subtle hint), ordained deacon in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, served my first parish in St Paul’s church in North London, and been ordained priest in that St Paul’s church on the feast of St Peter and St Paul, I returned from my pre-ordination retreat with the firm intention of taking a new name on ordination: Paul. Mercifully my Vicar, on hearing the proposal, without pausing for a second, and without any attempt at gentle persuasion, just said, “Don’t be so [blank] stupid” and moved the conversation on.

There died my plans to honour that saint of this church and that saint of this day.

But what better way to honour St Paul than to change a name – for is there any change in history more famous than that which turned Saul into Paul, persecutor into missionary, Pharisee into Christian – and, by doing that, a religion for the Jews into a religion for the whole world.

Upside-down and inside-out, that is what happened to Saul with his fall – that’s what happened to the Church and the world too.

Because the one thing that didn’t change when Saul became Paul was his personality. The man who went the extra mile – and the rest – when persecuting the Christians went the extra mile – and the rest – when spreading the word.

And he didn’t do it calmly or gracefully. The letter we heard quoted from today, the letter to the Galatians, is one of the most import letters of the New Testament with some of the most beautiful theology of the New Testament; there are few passages to match that glorious climax of his argument, later in the letter: ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek nor male nor female nor slave nor free but all are one in Christ Jesus’.

But it isn’t a calm letter. And it isn’t a graceful letter. Paul giving the Galatians a short biography before he addresses an academic conference or something – no, he is arguing his socks off that he, who had never met Jesus in his life, was right, and that those who had followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, who had heard him preach and seen him heal, who had heard the cry of agony on the cross and seen the Risen Lord appear in their midst, that they were wrong. And chief among those who were wrong was James, the brother of the Lord himself, leader of the church in Jerusalem.

This is what you’d call a hard sell.

And Paul takes no prisoners. The issue goes to the heart of everything: was Jesus only for the Jews? Was this Jesus movement something that would be contained within the Jewish religion and be satisfied with transforming the lives of Jewish people, or was the transformation promised with the resurrection something for the whole world? Could non-Jews be a part of that movement? Could they too be transformed? Could they be saved?

And if they answer was yes, was there the sting in the tail (no pun intended) that these Gentiles would need to become Jews first?

This wasn’t just a question about circumcision – although it’s never the most popular precondition when trying to sell a religion.

This was a question about what the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus meant all together.

For Paul the life-changing thing that happened on the road to Damascus wasn’t the fall, it wasn’t the bright light or the going blind or the being healed: it was seeing Jesus – whom thou persecutest – sitting at the right hand of God. Jesus, a criminal, condemned to death, who had died on a tree – about which the law says “a man who is hanged on a tree is accursed” – he is reigning in glory.

This changes everything. The law – the ancient law of the Jews – is overthrown in that same instant Saul was overthrown. Those ancient demands of the law – the diet and the circumcision – those have, by their very nature, been overthrown too.

And the other disciples don’t get it. James, the brother of the Lord, doesn’t get it; even Peter doesn’t get it and has a stand-up row in Antioch with Paul about it; and now someone has come to Paul’s recent converts in Galatia – all of them Gentiles – all of them uncircumcised – and said “No. You can’t follow Jesus – not unless you become Jews – circumcision, pork, the lot.” (I’m paraphrasing slightly).

And Paul goes apoplectic. He goes into orbit. This letter is no polite “agree to disagree”. This is no first century Primates statement promising to walk together. No. He says in chapter five that he wishes for those who argue for circumcision, that their knife would slip; that they would castrate themselves.

Paul is a man of fiery temperament. When he gets something wrong, boy does he get it wrong (don’t Stephen and the other earliest martyrs know that!); but when he gets something right, he is dead right.

And if he hadn’t won this fight – against those disciples, of course, who kept getting it wrong when Jesus was alive. In fact, it’s worth taking a moment to think about this – these were the people who panicked on the boat, who begged Jesus not to go to Jerusalem, who thought he was going to be a great military leader, who got their mum to ask Jesus if her sons could sit at his right side and left side in glory, who denied him by the fire, who fled from the guards, who couldn’t face going to the crucifixion, who disbelieved the women when they came back from the empty tomb – who disbelieved Peter and John when they came back from the empty tomb – who were fishermen and are never recorded, not once, catching a single fish unless Jesus was there to tell them how to do it.

And Paul was right. And if he hadn’t been right you and I would not be sitting here today – not as Christians in a Christian Rome.

His vision was so much bigger and so much better and, in so many ways it can be summed up in that glorious passage which, I hope, you will forgive me for quoting again:, ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek nor slave nor free nor male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus’.

Glorious words…, written in one of the most angry and aggressive letters of all history. Written because the church did not agree about even the most basic of things since the very beginning of our history.

Did not agree then and do not agree now. Two thousand years of trying to work out what the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was all about. Two thousand years of getting so frustrated that other people are not getting the clear message of the Gospel that we wish they would cut their … Well, you know the rest – and, in our worse moments, we happily help our fellow Christians on their way to their maker.

But in the midst of that sound and fury a glorious light has shone through – it shone through Paul – and Peter and James; it has shone through Popes and Archbishops of Canterbury and Presiding Bishops and pastors and ministers and general secretaries and (God bless them) televangelists too.

And it shines through in that climax of this letter – not the build-up (there is neither Jew nor Greek and so on) important though that be, but in that last clause, “all are one in Christ Jesus”.

This short phrase sums up so much that Paul thought it worth fighting over. First, that regardless of the old barriers between human beings – three have been chosen here, but you can happily add your own – we are all invited to be one with Christ.

Not in a tacky way, like in that Christmas carol ‘Christian children all must be, mild obedient good as he’ but by being transformed, step by step, day by day, mistake by mistake, into the nature and likeness of Christ – into the nature and likeness of God – into the nature and likeness of love.

Being one in Christ Jesus.

But there’s also a second meaning there: that regardless of the old barriers between human beings, we are all invited to be one with each other as well. He, a Jew of the most respectable family with the Gentiles of Galatia; he, who shocked the church by his inclusion of the Gentiles with James who would zealously defend the position which had been established by the faithful from the very beginning: all are one in Christ Jesus.

This double relationship: with Christ and with each other; with love and in love, reflecting love, is the message that shines through his letters and is the message which transformed a world and took him, like everyone here today, to the Caput Mundi, the head of the world, that whore of Babylon: to Rome.

“I honour Rome for this reason (says that golden-tongued John Chrysostom); for though I could celebrate her praises on many other accounts—for her greatness, for her beauty, for her power, for her wealth, and for her warlike exploits,—yet, passing over all these things, I glorify her on this account, that Paul in his lifetime wrote to the Romans, and loved them, and was present with and conversed with them, and ended his life amongst them. Wherefore the city is on this account renowned more than on all others—on this account I admire her, not on account of her gold, her columns, or her other splendid decorations.”

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