Sunday 25 January 2015 – Morning Prayer, 11.00 am
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Being wrong is something which we can find quite hard to accept. When a belief which we hold with certainty is questioned and we are shown a completely different view of the same issue, we can find it difficult to accept our view may not be the right one. Our confidence may be shaken. Our uncertainty and doubt, even wounded pride, can goad us into defensiveness and even anger. And our anger may be compounded by the fact that in our hearts we know we are in the wrong. We kick against the pricks, as the proverb has it.
So let us put ourselves into the position of the High Priest and members of the Council in Jerusalem interviewing Stephen, who was to be the first person to die because of his belief in Jesus. It is not long since we interviewed Jesus, the cause of all the trouble, and secured his execution. Now Stephen is telling us that we got it wrong. According to St Luke in Acts, “All who were in the Council fixed their eyes on Stephen, and his face seemed to them like the face of an angel” (Acts. 6:15) and when he accuses them of betraying and murdering the Righteous One of God, of receiving but not keeping God’s laws, they can bear it no longer, they are enraged. “They gave a great shout and stopped their ears and made a great rush at him”. (Acts 7:57). They threw him out of the city and stoned him to death. The young Paul, known then as Saul, looked after their coats during the execution, and, as St Luke tells us, “he was among those who approved of the execution” (Acts 8:1) “That day”, continues St Luke “was the beginning of a time of violent persecution for the church in Jerusalem”.
The chief priests saw in Saul, as we must at this point still call him, a promising candidate to lead the task of getting rid of the followers of Jesus, starting in Jerusalem. As he tells us “By authority gained from the Chief Priests, I sent many of God’s people to prison and when they were condemned to death, my vote was cast against them” (Acts 26: 10). So we find him at the beginning of our reading this morning “Still breathing murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (Acts 9:1) and now authorised to carry on his work in Damascus. The same anger, the same rage against those who followed the Way, as the first Christians were called, burned in Saul – the anger which burned in those who executed not only Stephen, but Jesus himself. Why were they so angry? Did they have doubts?
So Saul set off for Damascus, his mind no doubt busy with his plans for searching out the arresting the Christians and sending them back to Jerusalem for execution, feeding his anger as he made his plans. But then something happened to him, as he travelled to Damascus, which changed his life for ever. The same event also changed the course of history.
Today, 25 January, is the day on which the Church traditionally marks what is called “The Conversion of St Paul”, his change from being a persecutor of those who followed the Way of Jesus, to being not only a traveller himself but a missionary to draw others to that Way.
What does “conversion” really mean? What is it? How does it come about? If we are to be the visible and generous people of Jesus Christ, we need to know. We are familiar with the dramatic conversion which happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. A light suddenly flashed from the sky and he fell to the ground. Then he heard a voice speaking to him and recognised it as the voice of Jesus. He obeyed it. In that moment Paul is changed. All his anger and rage against the Christians disappears. He is transformed into a follower of Jesus.
But transformation, conversion, is often the result of quite a long process. The process may have begun in Paul when, as a young man, he witnessed the stoning of Stephen. His conscience may well have been stirred at the time by Stephen’s words and appearance – his face like an angel. On his week-long journey towards Damascus, Paul was thinking about the Christians. Could his anger against them be a response to his own nagging doubts that they just might be right, and that Jesus was, after all, the Messiah? Then came Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus. His life was turned on its head and what he had resisted and rejected for so long was in fact at the heart of his conversion: Jesus the Messiah.
But even if the seeds of change or conversion are sown in the past, is conversion a one off occurrence? Does it stop there? For Paul it certainly did not. The history of the world was changed when Paul changed to belief in Jesus. He spent his life preaching and teaching the Gospel of Jesus at home and in distant countries. His writings make up nearly half the New Testament. His thought and his belief have a world-wide reach today. That incident on the lonely road to Damascus was in fact God at work, fulfilling his promise of bringing salvation to his people. And God worked through Paul, on the face of it a most unpromising candidate.
Just as God spoke to Paul, so he speaks to us all now – though perhaps not with the shock and suddenness of Paul’s encounter. If we think back, we can probably remember a moment when we first knew ourselves called to faith. There may have been times when we rebelled, and resisted because we were afraid of its power to transform and change. Any number of influences or experiences in our lives may have contributed to that moment when the process of conversion came to completion and the reality of our faith shone through.
After his conversion, Paul spent the rest of his life calling people to the Christian way, and himself drawing closer to God, knowing him more and loving him more. If we have been called to faith, like Paul, and have obeyed, our journey to God continues for the rest of our lives. Like Paul, are we called to look for opportunities to sow the seed of faith in others wherever we can and to pray that it will grow, as ours did? If we are, like Paul, we too can help to change the world.