Sermon preached by Fr John Pritchard
on Saturday 25th January 2020 (The Conversion of Paul)
Jeremiah 1.4–10; Psalm 67; Acts 9.1–22; Matthew 19.27–end
The church is at any given point receiving some form of persecution. Yet ‘Let those who are without sin cast the first stone’, we are told in holy scripture, so perhaps we should go easy on Saul, for we too have a history of being the persecutors and disciples of Jesus.
We have given sometimes much worse than we have received. For in the beginning the way the church knew persecution was through the death of its members. In fact many who were persecuted to death for the sake of Christ rejoiced in their martyrdom because it led them closer to God.
Yet the trouble with how the church has persecuted individuals is that for much of our life, we have allowed those who we have persecuted, to live. Sadly those who have survived the persecution of the church live more distanced from God than those who simply died and rejoiced.
The threats against the disciples of Jesus remain in some parts of the world a very real thing, and we cannot forget our sisters and brothers who are persecuted by the successors of Saul (whoever they might be). But for some, when it suits, the ancient Rabbinical Law holds weight to our prejudice: for some in the Christian church the persecutions which were once commonplace linger in a modern church in a very outdated way.
When we speak of the letters of Paul, we often centre on his relationship amongst many things with women. He writes that women will be silent in church! Yet we can recall in the same letter to the church in Corinth, Paul’s suggestion that women prophesy, albeit with covered heads.
Silent and prophesying at the same time, the contradiction of all scripture and of all persecution comes home to roost in Paul as it does in the church today where acceptance and denial are found to be held in tension as it did for the one who came to proclaim Christ having once slaughtered his followers.
I suspect within each of us, there is some tension: how do we square the circle? How do we act in a way contrary to how we might have been brought up to think? Or how do we come to think how we should think and act as lovers of God? How do we allow the former influences of our lives to be challenged and re-thought? So that we too have a Damascus moment?
It isn’t at all an accident that on the road to Damascus, on a journey, things are revealed, as on the road to Emmaus. For the journey we are on, the Way we are on is where things should be revealed to us. Very rarely is the destination a place where we encounter something new, but it is the journeying there where things are not static, where the changes of the world and the experiences of life challenge and transform us.
Anthony Lathe, a priest from Norfolk who has spent more years on pilgrimage than in the parish, always used to say that the destination was never very satisfying. However, the journey, and especially the journey home, was the place of transformation for him, where something new was learned or revealed.
And indeed, it is Paul’s journey home to God, which reveals Jesus of Nazareth who he has been persecuting, which is the transformative place for him. And for ourselves! Yes of course we meet in some mysterious way with God in this place at this Mass, but it is the journey home that you will take, or even the journey on from this place which will speak into your soul, as you reflect on what you have seen, sung, heard or smelled in our offering of worship. Where you reflect on the prayers you have privately offered – for it is only in the journey home or onwards that you will be make some sense of all of this, in the world where you have choice and where God walks with you.
It is the journey which we are all on which provides us with the challenge of foolish and childish religious ideas, ideals and ideologies which perpetuate that God can only be seen in the places we choose, rather in the way he is revealed.
Let’s keep journeying on and on until we too see Christ.