Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul (transferred) – January 27, 2013
It’s not a pretty sight—being knocked off one’s horse. I’ve never gone horseback riding, never had the slightest interest, but I’ll bet it’s no fun to be thrown off and land hard on the ground. I’m pretty sure it hurts more than one’s pride. That’s the image we get of our esteemed patron, Paul, whose patronage of our church we celebrate today.
Let’s go a bit deeper and take a closer look at our patron and this life-changing event. The accounts of the experience according to the Acts of the Apostles, and the details offered by Paul himself in his epistles, are varying and give us much information about the ‘conversion’ we celebrate, as well as raising many questions about the event and what it meant for Paul. What was it that Saul objected to about Jesus and his followers? What were the circumstances that led Saul to persecute the Church?
Saul was a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee. It was the scandal of the cross that compelled him to act against Jesus’s followers: he could not imagine that an acclaimed Jewish Messiah should have been put to death by crucifixion on a Roman cross. Paul’s persecution of Christians was occasioned by his Jewish understanding of the Messiah: he was waiting for the Anointed One – the Messiah – and he could not tolerate the fragmented loyalties that were taking place within the nation with the rise of a new sect that looked to Jesus as this Messiah. Paul had a firm commitment to the Jewish religion and his wholehearted acceptance of the Pharisaic interpretation of that religion.
Paul’s own letters can help us understand what he became after his conversion experience. One thing is clear: Paul tells us little about himself. He is not self-preoccupied, self-reflective, introspective, or narcissistic. He refers to his experience only in contexts where he is addressing other issues. Paul never refers to his own experience as a ‘conversion’. In fact, in his letters, there is no clear mention of a trip to Damascus and no narrative detailing what took place, as there is in Acts.
Paul’s experience was certainly not that of the spiritually destitute. It was not the conversion of someone who had nothing and came upon unexpected riches. Paul was proud of his Hebrew heritage and his zeal for the Jewish law.
So what did Paul’s conversion involve? Paul had to transcend his narrow constructs, his pre-conditionings and stubborn beliefs by changing his conviction about the ethnic superiority of the Jewish people, with whom alone God made a covenant. For Paul to accept that God offers his gift of salvation to all peoples, regardless of race, it was necessary to go beyond his thinking that the Jews were ethnically superior to all nations. The Greek word metanoia (translated as ‘going beyond the mind’) seems to capture the essence of Paul’s conversion experience.
And he had to change his idea of the Jewish Messiah. His mental picture of the Messiah was that of a mighty leader who would triumph against Israel’s enemies and restore the nation to prosperity and bliss. A crucified Messiah was absurd and inconceivable. Paul had believed that Jesus was an impostor with false claims to be a Messiah, but the vision on the Damascus Road overturned his notions and expectations about the Messiah. He had to overcome his misconceptions about Jesus of Nazareth and accept him as truly God’s instrument of salvation, not only for Israel but for the rest of the world.
We don’t need to go horseback riding to get the kind of jolt Paul received on the road to Damascus. God works in some unexpected ways to knock us off our high horse and open our eyes. I had one of those experiences on Thursday. A few of us were just finishing up our lunch in the ArtWorks gallery in the Chittim-Howell House when we noticed a rather weather-beaten person walking up the driveway and looking for what might be a place to find some help.
We see enough of those who need assistance—often asking for cash—that our radar is good at detecting those who will need our attention. This young man was very different. He politely stepped into the house, removed his hat, and asked if there were a shelter in town. He had been walking for five days and was en route to Jacksonville, Florida. He did not ask for anything more—never mentioned money— but we offered him bus tokens and directions about getting tansport, Stew’s cards to help him with a meal, hot coffee and a piece of cake. His gratitude was palpable. Then he told us that he had served in Iraq and we just about melted. We thanked him for that and, as unassumingly he appeared, he departed down the driveway.
All I could think of as he drifted away—besides I wish we had done more—was the admonition of our patron, Paul:“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
I don’t share this story to boast about what we do (of which you may not be aware) for it did and still seems so little—though I know we don’t have the resources to help every soul who appears, especially when the need is hard cash. I don’t share this story as a rally for doing more outreach—though I know there are more ways in which we can and should engage in that life-saving ministry.
I share it as a “knocked off one’s horse” moment for it made us who were part of it recognize how much we have, how great God’s abundance is evident in our lives, how rich we are in comparison to so many. And I believe that is true for all of us here today. And a large part of that abundance and grace is rooted in this community which we have grown in so many ways, this worship space we have inherited from those who have come before us, and all that we have discovered here from our very first time coming through those open doors.
God’s dearly beloved, Paul has given us much, much more than just our name. He has given us a legacy. Just as he went beyond his thinking and was transformed by the awesome light of God’s presence and revelation, so has this community 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; even if they are bored Christians or curious pagans—and, perhaps, especially if they are either of those things.
We have been so very clear in all that we say and do that we are a church that honors every individual who walks through our doors and guarantees their right to be the glorious creation of God who made them who they are and loves them unconditionally. In the words of the former rector of St. Bart’s in New York City: “We are a people with ideas. Our notion of being a faithful church is that we don’t just sit here. We are not defined by maintenance. We’re not passive guardians of an obvious and elegant legacy. We’re here to listen to God, to make it possible to bring people into a place where they, too, can listen. We’re here to extend ourselves to others, not to sit on what we’ve got.”
So in this spirit and in the spirit of seeking God’s direction as we continue to walk the road to Damascus and to transformation, I appeal to all of you to give 90 minutes of your day next Saturday, February 2, at 4 pm for a very important parish meeting. Come to listen, to learn, to inwardly digest, to ask questions, to offer wisdom, to be a part of this community in its struggles, it challenges, its vision, and its future.
Joan Chittister, a progressive Benedictine Nun whom I admire greatly, says “Some consider faithfulness to the gospel to mean doing what we have always done. Others find faithfulness only in being what we have always been. The distinction is crucial to our understanding of tradition. The distinction is also crucial to our understanding of discipleship in the modern church.
When “the tradition” becomes synonymous with ‘the system,’ and maintaining the system becomes more important than maintaining the spirit of the tradition, discipleship shrivels. It becomes at best ‘obedience’ or ‘fidelity’ to the past but not deep-down commitment to the presence of the living Christ.”
Paul has given us more than just a name. He has given us a legacy. Can we emulate his conversion experience by thinking differently about the church and our life in this community? What it means to us? How we support it? What we can bring to it as well as get from it? I pray so. And I pray you will be here to contemplate those questions next Saturday afternoon.