The conversion of Saul – a sermon by Margaret Offerman

Acts ch 9 vv 1 – 9

Philippians ch 3 vv 5 – 9

Yesterday was the feast day of the apostle Paul.  In the short  passage  from Acts that we’ve just heard,  Saul became Paul.The man who had been a ruthless persecutor of the early followers of Jesus was struck down on his way into Damascus where he was authorised to carry out arrests, indeed he was threatening to kill any members of the Jesus movement he could find.  He was halted in his tracks by a voice from heaven and he collapsed.  When he got to his feet he was blind.

You can find the  story in Acts chapter 9.  It comes to its climax when Saul, now known as Paul, converted to the Jesus way, but as an object of intense hatred by the Jewish hierarchy, had to flee for his life, escaping  from Damascus in a basket let down over the city walls by his new allies.  He travelled  to Jerusalem where he was regarded with suspicion by the Christians there and it was only when he was befriended by Barnabas that he became finally accepted.

After this colourful start to his ministry, he established himself as a missionary to the Greek speaking Jews who had fled the Roman occupation of their country and settled in cosmopolitan cities like Corinth and Ephesus.

Paul was a great debater, winning converts in the market places or the synagogues of the cities he visited by the persuasiveness of his oratory.   He travelled extensively collecting money for the church in Jerusalem and performing miracles, signs of the power which came to him after his conversion. 

He was a tent maker.  This was a craft rather than a trade in ancient times.  Wealthy merchants commissioned their own tents when they travelled about as it was much safer as well as more comfortable to accommodate oneself and one’s servants in this way than in an inn.     Paul had a secretary and at least one assistant.  Throughout his ministry he supported himself by continuing to work at his craft.

Being a tent maker gave Paul a perfect opportunity for meeting middle class, educated people who were well travelled and interested in ideas.  Paul no doubt used these encounters to talk about his intellectual struggles with the Christianity which he was evolving and developing after his experience on the road to Damascus and it’s this Christianity which, through his letters,  is his legacy to us.  It had an enormous impact on the early church and it survives today, filtered through the writings of theologians like Augustine in the 5th Century, Martin Luther in the 16th and Karl Barth in the 20th

The Paul I’ve just described is the Paul of the Acts of the Apostles, the man of immense physical energy and self sacrifice, the Pharisee who spent himself in preaching and teaching the Good News he’d received.

But there ‘s another Paul in the NT and that’s the Paul of the letters he wrote to the communities he’d visited and for whom he felt very responsible.

It’s impossible to know whether Paul’s Phariseeism gave him his neurotic preoccupation with sin or whether his  neurotic  preoccupation with sin drew him to Phariseeism.   But it’s a fact that much of his writing reveals a man constantly aware of  his own sinfulness and trying to relate it to the Jewish law.  ‘I do not do the good I want to do but the evil I do not want to do is what I do’ – this is his cry.

Paul’s problem lies in the Jewish faith  he was brought up in and its basis  on two central ideas: God had chosen the Jews and he had given them the law.  The law is contained in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers.  It’s extremely detailed and totally prescriptive.  You must and you must not.  Those long passages when Paul argues with  himself about whether or not gentile Christians should be circumsized , his concerns about eating meat which had been offered to idols, (and much meat in the market places of the Roman world had been slaughtered as a sacrifice to their gods),  his anxiety about observation of the sabbath and Jewish feast days and his firm views about  sexual behaviour, all these passages spring from his inherited interpretation  of the Jewish law.  Paul’s Jewishness had not liberated him.  On the contrary it had loaded him with anguish and guilt.  And when he became a follower of Jesus he found no total  liberation there either.  He developed another set of anxieties based on his need to reconcile his commitment to the law with his view that there’s the possibility of salvation through belief in Jesus, whom he almost invariably refers to as Christ.  The life and ministry of Jesus don’t preoccupy Paul.  He’s interested in Jesus as Christ, as the fulfilment of the divine plan to send a Messiah to the chosen people to save them from their sins.  So Paul concludes that the law given by God condemns humanity so that the same God could subsequently save humanity through the atoning and redeeming power of Christ.  

After reading Paul it’s a great relief to turn to the person of Jesus.  Paul reminds me of a character in one of Samuel Becket’s novels ‘who had never smiled but thought he knew how it was done’  Read the tolerant humorous way that Jesus describes his Jewish contemporaries and their inconsistent attitude to what they wanted;  it’s like a breath of fresh air.  You’re like discontented fractious children, he said, constantly demanding a reaction and never satisfied when you get one.   You don’t know what you want.  All you know is what you don’t want.    You can imagine Jesus saying to Paul, Oh, just get on with it.  Jesus relished life.  He had no patience with endless discussions of abstract hypotheses.  He loved human encounters.  He enjoyed physical pleasures like eating and drinking.  He wasn’t  inhibited by the Jewish purity laws from mixing with people on their merits.  Jesus respected the law but he said that he came to fulfil the law, not to allow it to become a strait jacket.

Paul’s letters reveal a man who thought it was important to wrestle with the intellectual difficulties of faith, many of which would have come as a surprise to Jesus and  are even more peripheral to our lives 2 millenia after Paul lived and died. 

It’s easy to read the epistles and become disengaged from Paul, impatient with him.

BUT.

Paul came to recognise that although he had been brought up in the classical tradition,  believing that reason is the highest human faculty and we should rely on it, in life’s most difficult moments we can’t and we  don’t.  So he has left us sublime passages of writing like the 12th chapter of the letter to the Romans:  ‘Let love show itself in mutual affection.  Esteem others more highly than yourself.  With unflagging zeal, aglow with the spirit, serve the lord.  Let hope keep you joyful.  In adversity, stand firm.  …Rejoice with those who rejoice.  Weep with those who weep.  If possible, so far as it lies within you, be at peace with all.’  And we’re  familiar with the hymn to love in the 13th chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians, where he elevates love above every other gift of God.  And again in Romans chapter 8:  ‘I am convinced that there is nothing in either life or death, in the realms of spirits or of superhuman power, in the world as it is or in the world as it shall be, in the forces of the universe, in heights or depths, nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.’ 

There’s a note of great pathos near the end of the epistle to the Romans where he asks his readers to pray for him –‘ that I may be saved from unbelievers in Judea and that my errand in Jerusalem may find acceptance with God’s people, in order that by his will I may come to you in a happy frame of mind and experience a period of rest with you.’ 

This tormented, complex  man drove himself to extremes of endurance in the service of the church he helped to create.  We pray that  he found the lasting peace he yearned for when he wrote:  ‘the time has come for me to be gone.  I have fought the good fight to the end.  I have kept the faith.  All there is to come now is the crown of righteousness that the  Lord, the righteous judge,  will give to me on that day.’ Image

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