I was talking to a friend of mine about this sermon. In the past he has jokingly suggested words I should try to fit into my sermons or pieces I have written. Nothing naughty, just a challenge. The last one was “outrageous grace”. Easy on that occasion. When I explained what my subject for this evening is - The Conversion of Paul - he made the following suggestions:
Hypocrite. Mysoginist. Destructive. Misleading.
How serious he was is anyone’s guess, but these words represent sentiments which many hold about Paul, his life and his words. Indeed I may have had sympathy with some of those ideas before I had actually studied Paul and the texts attributed to him and his followers. Like most things, I believe interpretation and context to be the major players here. They can change opinions.
This evening we mark the Conversion of Paul. A quite remarkable moment when someone who was so absolutely sure of their opinions, faith and utter righteousness, did a complete about turn and became a key individual in the way Christianity was spread and understood. Before his conversion, the very people he was to go on and minister to would have kept a very wide berth, while Paul would have felt himself so removed from the gentiles that any thought of what was to come would have horrified him.
The people he worked and associated with would have found Paul’s conversion thoroughly offensive. Paul switched sides and showed that change within a person is possible….that an individual is not set in stone, with one particular belief system and a single way of life.
I think it might be fair to say that if Richard Dawkins turned up at church and started evangelising or telling us how to run church, we would be surprised. It would be absolutely fascinating - don’t get me wrong - but I think we would be sceptical, uncomfortable and perhaps reluctant about his words?
We make our minds up about people and often it is hard for them or us to change that opinion or view of them. We do exactly the same thing to ourselves.
Now before I continue I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not suggesting that anybody - myself, rock stars, or Anglican Primates are equivalent to Paul…..but I am going to use them as examples for us to think about how significant Paul’s conversion was, and what it means for us today, as an individual event.
Let’s talk about me first. Three months ago I was a confirmed couch potato. A happy sitter downer who might exercise occasionally, usually when summer is looming large. If you heard or read my last sermon you might know where this is going. Three months ago, after a chance conversation with someone in August at Greenbelt, I took up running, having surprisingly committed to running the Palestine Marathon - albeit the half - on April 1st - this year, in Bethlehem. I hadn’t ever run before (apart from at school), but the fact I didn’t run was the only (quite major) thing stopping me from doing it.
So I did. I changed. I started running.
I know that part of my motivation is crucial here. Without it I would still be on the sofa. My hope is to support the amazing work the Amos Trust does in the Holy Land with people from all areas to try to bring about peace and reconciliation in and around the Bethlehem area. The hope is that one day people of all faiths will live peaceably alongside each other, sharing the land. To many of those people right now, that seems about as impossible to love their neighbour, as for Saul to be converted and transform into Paul. But then, Paul wouldn’t have expected it, anymore than I would think I could run 21k. Well actually it’s only 9.7k right now but I’ve 60 something days to go.
I’m sure for all those who hold strong opinions about Paul - many of you, or your parents, will have held strong opinions - one way or the other - about David Bowie and his life, music and art. I was a fan. I am a fan. An enormous fan. I do not doubt that some of you in this congregation would have disapproved of him. I think he would understand that, but in the weeks which have followed his death I have read and listened to many of his interviews and have often been struck about the responses he got from people, and what he had to say about change.
David Bowie is often described as being something of a chameleon. Someone who had the ability to change and adapt to their surroundings and environment. Someone who was open to new forms of art, music and culture. Someone who was always searching for new ways of doing things, to expand his experience of music and the arts, as well as our own. Sometimes his ways of trying new things didn’t sit well with many in society…..in later years he too may have questioned some of what he did. But he had this amazing ability to try things, push boundaries while at the same time being what Jarvis Cocker described as “like an umbrella for people who felt a bit different“
Just think about that. An Umbrella for people who felt a bit different. That is quite a tribute to someone who at times will have polarised opinion on his way of doing things.
I wonder if Paul was happy at polarising opinion? I’m sure St Paul didn’t want to be an umbrella for the gentiles before his conversion, and yet, that really is exactly what the church - what Christians are intended to create. A place where no matter who you are, what you wear, what you look like, where you came from, and who you want to spend you time with, you are welcome.
Under the umbrella.
But that involves us accepting everyone. Even those we really don’t understand or agree with. That might even mean we have to change to make this happen. Just like Paul. We know from the reading we heard that Paul was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord”. He planned to bring those in the synagogues following “the way” back to Jerusalem. If necessary bound up. He was so sure he already knew the right way that he was willing to condemn anyone who differs…..a concept still too grimly familiar today. But then he suddenly encounters God. Not only that, but he somehow finds it in himself to be open minded enough to change his mind entirely and start encouraging and preaching to Gentiles, rather than opposing them. That’s an enormous thing to do. To be so aware and honest, that you can forget any sense of pride, and change your mind to do what you think is right - even if it is the exact opposite of your previous point of view.
I was listening to a David Bowie interview where he was asked whether his own ability to change persona might influence others to do the same. He replied saying
“if I’ve been at all responsible for people finding more characters in themselves than they originally thought they had, then that’s something I feel very strongly about, that one isn’t totally what one is conditioned to think one is.”
David Bowie’s death was announced on the same day the Anglican Primates were beginning their meeting in Canterbury. Their plan was to discuss many things, but at the top of the media news agenda was how they would manage the tension surrounding lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual relationships, with particular reference to marriage. Ironically their big moment got knocked down the news running order, as much of the world stopped to mourn Bowie. David Bowie - a man who pushed boundaries, sought change, and who himself may have raised a number of problems for the Anglican Primates when it boiled down to sexual orientation. The Archbishop of Canterbury was one of the first on the news to pay tribute to Bowie.
Much has been said about whether he discovered faith in those final moments, including a report stating that the final account David Bowie followed on Twitter before he died…..was God. That is not for me to say, though people are often surprised to discover some of his music reflected his questions about faith. Station to Station turns out to be about the Stations of the Cross, and while many have speculated about some of the meaning in Loving the Alien…..as a concept it surely has a lot to say to us. “Believing the strangest things…..loving the Alien”
So while many mourned, the Primates met, prayed and talked. They needed to find a way to keep everyone under the umbrella. Or get separate ones. Their conclusion and treatment of the Episcopal Church has certainly not pleased everyone, but their Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry had this to say,
“Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: ‘All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for we are all one in Christ’”
So in conclusion, I think the conversion of Paul suggests we need an awareness of ourselves and an open minded attitude which might see us changing to be all that we can be, and into things we never dreamt we might be, and accepting ways of being which we just don’t understand.
In the passage we heard from Numbers (9:15-end) we learnt how the Israelites had to be aware of God’s command in order to stay safe on their journey as they travelled under the protection of the cloud. The description we are given of these movements is quite detailed and would have required the Israelites to remain sensitive to the signs and nudges God was giving them for guidance on their journey. Almost a constant awareness would have been required to respond to God’s call and move on at any time. Am I that aware of God’s presence telling me to change suddenly? Do I want to be? I doubt Paul was, or indeed that he wanted to change. But he did.
It would be easy to wonder why we should commemorate the conversion of Paul. Why not anyone else? But his conversion was so startling - he found that person inside him he was absolutely not conditioned to be. He went on to recognise that, and in all of his teachings the one I quoted from Galatians is the one which so often comes back. Paul was a man who knew the extremes of faith - how different the Jews and the Gentiles saw each other. But his revelation was such that he could see that they were the same in God’s eyes. As are we all. No matter how we differ. We all sit under God’s umbrella…..and perhaps it is up to us to recognise that and make room for everyone. Even if that means we have to examine ourselves and find something which helps this to happen. It might not mean changing your opinion or your faith, it might just mean allowing someone who has a different opinion, to sit alongside you and share the umbrella.
It might simply mean “Believing the strangest things…..Loving the Alien”.