Sermon preached by Anne M. Watkins
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.
Have you ever been so convinced of a position you’ve taken or a belief you hold? Convinced without reservation; with the utmost assurance; with no doubt in your mind; morally right; absolutely justified; so beyond the shadow of a doubt that the question of doubt never appears in your consciousness? Here stands Saul of Tarsus.
And when something or someone comes along who challenge that conviction; who might introduce change into your traditions; your way of thinking; your understanding, your way of life — what is your response? Is it to circle the wagons; bar the outsider(s); eliminate the danger? Here stands Saul of Tarsus.
Or, have you ever experienced something so extraordinary; so beyond the pale of expectation; so moving or profound that it redefines your very being and turns you 180-degrees around? Here, too, stands Saul of Tarsus.
This morning we hear of an extraordinary conversion – a conversion so immense that a person’s very identity and purpose of life turns completely around; a conversion so complete that Jesus’ foretelling in Matthew’s gospel of the costs of discipleship begin to play themselves out in front of our very eyes.
The portion of Acts we hear 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 the 22nd chapter of Acts, 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. This appearance before King Agrippa is certainly not the first time he has come before those in power to defend his words and life – or to invite someone else into his own conversion. It won’t be the last.
In each of these accounts – and in the introduction we heard from Paul’s letter to the community of believers in Galatia – lies the heart of Paul’s conversion and the heart of what we might learn about the nature of conversion through this, our Patron Saint.
Paul’s story is one whereby he has not simply an attitudinal change of heart, but rather a complete turning around – heart, belief and behaviour –from being one of the fiercest persecuters of Jesus and his newly established Church into one of Jesus’ and the Church’s most fervent orators and missionaries.
This pivotal event is one about which Paul cannot refrain from talking and sharing. It is filled with supernatural images: blinding light, an invisible voice out of the heavens, sudden blindness, intervention from one whom he may well have been seeking to persecute, recovery of sight, baptism and commissioning. It is a commission that turns his former life upside down and directs him to repent of intolerance and to reorder his convictions that faith in God can only be expressed and lived according to Jewish tradition, laws and ritual. It is a commission the directs Paul to recognize Jesus not only as the Messiah the Jews awaited, but to understand and embrace the idea that God’s purpose would have this Messiah shared with Gentiles; shared well beyond faithful Israelites; shared with and offered to the world.
We hear in Paul’s extensive account of his conversion both in his testimony before Agrippa and in his Letter to the Galatians, that it proceeds from two main elements. First, that he has seen the risen Christ – God’s own son has been revealed to him. With that revelation is the sudden understanding that God works out God’s purposes not through a triumphant, conquering, warrior Messiah, but through the crucified Jesus – power coming out of seeming weakness. And the second element: that God, through Jesus, has commissioned Paul to bring the Good News of Christ to the Gentiles so that they might “turn from darkness to light … receive forgiveness of sins…[and find] a place among those who are sanctified by faith…”
You and I are – generation upon generations later –the recipients of Paul’s commission. You and I – generations upon generations later – experience our own conversions; not in an instant, blinding light but through a lifetime of smaller epiphanies or revelations. You and I – generations upon generations later – receive our own commissions, just as Paul did – from God, through Christ, in baptism.
Well, perhaps not “just as Paul did” for I suspect that few of us have had a conversion experience that comes close to mirroring Paul’s. Yet, we too, have been commissioned by God – in our baptisms – that direct us into converted lives. Lives that can be turned upside down and can respond in, perhaps, surprising ways. Lives which, according to our baptismal promises, engage us in disciplined study, in tolerance, compassion and respect for others, in truth-telling and justice – all lived in community – that finds its strength at Jesus’ table and the regular ingestion of Jesus’ body and blood in Holy Eucharist.
So, then – if we, too, have received a commission from God, then we, like Paul, are missionaries. But I suspect that most of us don’t use that word in either thinking of or describing ourselves.
Retired priest and first Evangelism Officer for the Episcopal Church, A. Wayne Schwab, speaks of this truth in his book “When the Members are the Missionaries”. Connecticut’s bishop-elect, Ian Douglas, Professor of Missiology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts writes, teaches and speaks prolifically in similar fashion. Both suggest that the Church does not have a mission; rather, that the Church (for Douglas) and the members of the Church (for Schwab) join in the missio Dei – God’s mission – to restore and reconcile the world to God through Jesus – living as agents of God’s love and justice.
God sent Paul on journeys around Asia Minor to share the Good News of the Gospels, to baptize, and to call people together in communities of faith to support one another as they fashioned their own lives of conversion. Similarly, there are varieties of places God sends us each day to live as God’s missionaries. Bishop-elect Douglas, in written materials prepared for our diocesan bishop’s search process, invites us to ask the question “What is it that God is up to, right here, right now? How are we called, in the realities of our various vocations and daily lives, to join in God’s restorative, reconciling activity in the world?” Schwab would ask a similar question, with similar words and invites us to look at the whole of our lives – in seven broad areas — in order to explore the answers: our homes, our work, our local communities, the wider world, even our leisure time, and in two important aspects of the Church as it gathers: a healthy spirituality and the basics of Church life and outreach.
Next Sunday marks the date of St. Paul’s Annual Parish Meeting. It also marks the date of our Ministry Expo – a time during coffee after the 10:15am service to explore, in particular, four of those seven areas of our lives: outreach to and in our local communities and wider world, and the two aspects of the Church as it gathers together: a healthy spirituality and basic parish life. All are arenas in which to explore the ongoing conversion of our life’s activity. All are arenas in which to ask ourselves, “What is God doing in me, right here and right now. How am I being called to join God’s mission of restorative, reconciling activity in the world? Is it in offering my gifts of oversight or leadership for some facet of our local and global mission activities – looking at their themes and helping to identify the hand’s-on activities into which God is beckoning St. Paul’s at this time? Is it in moving from pews in the nave to pews or chairs in the chancel; participating in hand’s on ways by serving at the altar or leading worship through music in our choir – fostering a sense of our spirit? Is it in the hand’s on activity of the Christian formation of children, youth and adults by teaching about God’s love and God’s call to justice? Is it in an invitation you’ll see next week to join with Mother Cindy in crafting a vision and plan of oversight – the big picture look – that provides for intentional dreaming about and implementation of greater consistency in Christian Formation programs for all ages? Is it by joining in the pastoral care of this parish – writing notes, making phone calls, engaging with newcomers so that they consistently receive our characteristic radical welcome? Is it by participating – hand’s on — in the existing opportunities to delve more deeply into prayer and study – to strengthen our own understanding and practice of living as converted humans? We might do this through worship and study already afforded to us in the daily rhythms of weekday services and small study groups or in opportunities being offered at Sunday forums during Lent – stay tuned for more about this!
All of these are places in which we might gain experience and practice in understanding ourselves as God’s missionaries – following Paul’s example in our own day and in our own time. It is in the safety of this community – the Church as it gathers — where we can explore, investigate, practice and hone our skills as God’s agents of love and reconciliation – and then take them out into the world. As our leaflet tagline says: the worship is over; the service begins.
The mission that God called Paul into was to create, nourish, support, chastise and challenge such communities of gathered believers. Here we are – generations after generations – still gathered, still nourished, still challenged, still invited through our baptisms into conversion and to join Paul and each other as fellow missionaries; prepared to be sent out as sheep among wolves; prepared to be wise as serpents without losing our innocence, our openness, our trust in and compassion for all of God’s people; better able to recognize what – at home, and at work, and in our leisure, and in the world and right here in the gathered community of faith – God is doing right here and right now and where and to what God is inviting us to be joined in God’s mission of love and justice.
For Paul, conversion came in an instant and was lived over a lifetime joined with God’s mission. May this be the instant our eyes are reopened to lifetimes of conversion and lifetimes of seeking and joining God’s mission more intently, more faithfully, more willingly, more completely. Amen.