The Conversion of St Paul

Sermon preached by Fr Andrew Wilson
on Friday 25th January 2019 (The Conversion of Paul)
Jeremiah 1.4–10; Psalm 67; Acts 9.1–22; Matthew 19.27–end

 “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

The rebuke that Saul receives as he tumbles off his horse is deeply personal. We can hear in all his later writings the radical impact this experience had on him. Blinded by divine light on the Damascus road he can write with utter conviction on reflection that we can see ‘the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ It is a bizarre glory – radiating from a man despised and rejected by his own people, and subjected to abuse, ridicule and execution. Saul the zealot Pharisee is driven to eradicate any memory of this dangerous fraud they strung up; but literally out of the blue this same failed messiah confronts him –

“You are persecuting me!”

Jesus takes Saul’s murderous hatred for his disciples very personally. So again we hear the echoes of that Damascus road vision in the converted Paul’s image of the Body of Christ. “Who is weak, and I am not weak?” he remarks (2 Corinthians 11.29) Our connectedness as fellow Christians is inescapable – we only come to salvation and wholeness together.

The cover of the mass booklet this morning is one of two paintings of Paul’s conversion by Caravaggio, but both take up this intimate, personal challenge – partly this is a result of the movement for clearer and more relevant Gospel teaching and practice set in place by the Council of Trent, Rome’s answer to the division and hostility of the Reformation. Caravaggio, amongst other artists and musicians, took on this call for realism, clarity and legibility, and his two images of this event reflect the very personal and intimate confrontation which overwhelms Saul on the road.

We are greeted with a topsy-turvy world – a deliberately foreshortened perspective which almost drags us in. The main character, Saul lies upside down, fitted into an upturned triangle at the bottom of the canvas. A horse, presenting its rear end, commands the main space. The horse is distressed, lifting its hoof. The groom seems distracted and completely unaware on what is happening. A helmet has fallen off. We are confronted with the dirt and harsh realities of Saul’s journey, and ours. The lighting of the scene is all over the place, piercing a thick and deep darkness. We, with Saul are dazzled by the extremity of light, which alters his and our focus completely.

And perhaps the reality of our situation is even more gritty than we first imagine. Some people think that the thorn in the flesh Paul speaks about, and which looms like a recurring problem throughout his ministry, might be epilepsy, which would explain the flashing lights of the Damascus road, and the embarrassment Paul feels as his illness puts him to public shame.

Today’s feast then confronts us exactly where we are, and sets our fondly imagined order and resilience at sixes and sevens. Have we set ourselves blindly on a course of action and lifestyle that may be full of energy and conviction , but which, in reality, does harm to others, and dehumanises us? The converted Paul comes back to this day’s events again and again – it is the bedrock of his apostolate. Out of the chaos and distress of that roadside meeting with the risen and glorified Christ comes new strength and purpose; strength enough to face his own vulnerability and mess, and the rejection, dismissal, even loathing and contempt of others, even, at the end, the executioner’s blade.

Today am I, are you, on the right path? How does the direction of our life journey impact on our fellow women and men? Have we forgotten the divine glory that once we glimpsed in the face of Jesus the Christ?

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