“Oneness in Christ,” January 26, 2020, The Rev. Louise Kalemkerian
Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Conversion of Saint Paul
In the name of our loving God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, AMEN.
Having grown up in the Church and heard the Scriptures regularly, especially Paul’s epistles,
I had an ambiguous relationship with St. Paul, bordering on love/hate. For a long time, it was more “hate” than “love”, but I have come to appreciate him.
For most of the history of the Church, Paul’s letters have been used to discount and marginalize women and gay persons. Scholars say some of those texts sidelining women weren’t actually Paul’s writings, but ascribed to him by later authors. Texts such as 1 Timothy 2, about women keeping silent in church, or Ephesians 5 and Titus 2 and Colossians 3, about wives being submissive to their husbands are not Pauline, but continue to be used to affirm patriarchy. So I’ve cut Paul some slack on these texts.
I wish I could say the words in Romans about homosexual acts were also not Pauline. What I can say is that Paul was unaware that homosexuality is not a choice.
Still and all, I recognize St. Paul as one who grew into an understanding of the Gospel message of unconditional love and equality. And embraced it wholeheartedly, proclaiming it to communities around the Mediterranean, all the way to Rome. Two texts in particular convince me of this. The first is his words in Galatians 3:28 “There is no longer Jew or Greek… slave or free… male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” That is, distinctions of religion, nationality, class or gender do not matter. That Christ Jesus embraces all. And the second, his words in Romans 8:38-9, that nothing in all creation will ever separate us from God’s love in Christ.
Today we celebrate his conversion from zealous opponent of the Gospel to ardent champion, and ultimately martyr for the faith. Paul started out life as a religious extremist and bigot, trying to put an end to the “Jesus problem,” which he saw as corrupting his traditional Jewish faith. Then God intervened and he encountered Jesus, who turned his life around.
Our lesson from Acts today is the third telling of Saul’s incredible encounter on the way to Damascus. The first, in the 9th chapter of the Book of Acts, recounts the actual event, and Saul’s change of name to Paul. The second, in chapter 22, finds Paul in front of the local tribunal, having been arrested in the Temple. The third, what we just heard, shows Paul, arrested yet again, standing before King Agrippa in a series of appearances before he is taken, still under arrest, to Rome. He makes clear his commission is directly from Jesus.
This appearance before King Agrippa is certainly not the first time he had come before those in power to defend his words and life – or to invite someone else into his own conversion. And it wouldn’t be the last. His conversion experience was life-altering, and he couldn’t not talk about it, to whomever would listen. Similarly, in his letter to the Galatians; he owned up to his former life and tried to convince the first disciples that he was now one of them. Hence his trip to Jerusalem, which he describes in the Epistle, to show himself to Peter and the others, and prove his genuineness. The early disciples accepted him, and then commissioned him to go and preach to the Gentiles (Acts 15).
Conversion, for most of us, is an ongoing process. The change of heart and mind that conversion implies seldom happens overnight. It often takes a lifetime. True, in Paul’s case, he had this life-altering experience on the way to Damascus, but I believe it still took him awhile to live into his new way of thinking and being in the world. It took him awhile to come to the realization that the Good News was for all people – that “all are one in Christ Jesus.” And in I Corinthians 12, he gradually came to his great doctrine of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12ff.), that all are members of it. For him, there was a complete, living, union between Christ and those who are loved by him, which Paul eventually realized was everyone.
What do we need to be converted from/to? No doubt each of us has a list of petty sins we know we need to give up, but beyond those?
It’s easy to talk of our “oneness” in Christ, that all persons are unconditionally loved by God, but it’s a lot harder to live it. I was struck by the Gospel we just read. Jesus tells us that if we’re serious about being disciples, we’re in for some tough times. Jesus is telling us to expect persecution, poverty, family discord, even martyrdom, if we practice what we preach.
And that’s what Paul did, when he embraced his mission. I don’t think the majority of us are called to leave everything behind, like Paul, but rather to let our daily life go through the gradual transformations that can turn every act, every job, and all our relationships into experiences of God’s unconditional love.
Certainly, our baptisms are the beginning of our conversions/transformations. Our baptisms are our commissioning for living the Gospel of unconditional love as we love our neighbors as ourselves, whoever our neighbors are. And we recommit to those promises every time we renew our baptismal covenant.
Loving our neighbors means caring for all of God’s creatures and God’s creation. Loving our neighbors means taking Paul’s words seriously that we are all one in Christ. Loving our neighbors means recognizing our footprint in God’s world, our use of resources, our consumption, our self-focus.
Here are some significant statistics: that 20% of the world’s population lives in countries with the highest income and accounts for 86% of total private consumption expenditures. The poorest 20% of the world’s population, a mere 1.3% of monies spent. That the wealthy 20% consume 58% of all total energy, have 74% of all telephones, use 84% of all paper, etc.
Such figures which indicate to me that we need to re-think our priorities, our consumption, our ways of being in the world, our ways of loving our neighbors. That we need to be converted to using cleaner fuels and less of them, to eating less meat, to making less garbage, to recognizing the urgency of climate change, to consuming less. What each of us does in our lives impacts the environment, God’s creation. Please know that I am preaching to myself as well.
The oneness of which Paul writes includes caring for the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters. It means being converted to thinking about the world from Jesus’ perspective, not our own or the culture’s. It means understanding that the whole world is connected, and that what we do here in this country affects everyone else. It means recognizing that our faith in Christ Jesus has everything to do with how we live our lives day in and day out. It means understanding that we are our brothers’/sisters’ keepers. In Paul’s words, “…we must support the weak…” (Acts 20:35)
None of this is easy. But it is at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus – living with a concern for God’s mission in the world.
So here we are, 280+ years after the founding of this parish, named for St. Paul. We are a very different parish than in 1737, or 1837, or 1937, or even last year. We have been blessed with abundance and growth and new life and radical welcome under Fr. Lang. And now we are ready to begin a new page in our life with the coming of Fr. Simons.
As Fr. Lang said several years ago “St. Paul has given us much more than our name. He has given us a legacy. Just as he was transformed by the awesome light of God’s presence and revelation, so has this community been transformed over its many years of service, opened its arms and hearts wide to everyone—no matter who they are or where they may be on their journey; no matter how much faith or how many doubts they may bring when they come through the doors. Now we need to sustain that mission and that wonderful heritage.”
We will, with God’s help. St. Paul, pray for us.
 Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, March 7, 2016.
 Sermon, January 29, 2017.