Feast of the conversion of St. Paul – Annual Meeting , January 29, 2012
Before I get into the meat of this sermon, I need to offer this definition – the definition of the word Midrash – some of you may know it all ready:
Midrash – Stories elaborating on incidents in the Bible, to derive a principle of Jewish law, or provide a moral lesson.
What follows here is a my own midrash – my own elaborating on the incidents of the life of our Patron Saint, Paul, born as Saul of Tarsus, whose feast day we observe on this our annual meeting Sunday.
His life was steeped in the traditions of the patriarchs. He had been praying the prayers and listening to the Torah from before he could remember. He had more zeal for the fire of God contained in Judaism than most of his peers. So when he heard that the followers of Jesus had not been dispersed by the bloody Roman execution, he felt he must act. This radical new group had to be stopped. They threatened the purity of the Jewish tradition and could bring the wrath of Rome down on all of them.
He was absolutely convinced he was right. His fervor for this position let him slip past any restraint he would usually have felt. Soon he was in hot pursuit of the apostates, breathing threats of violence as he went. He would stop at nothing to deal a fatal blow to those who claimed Jesus to be the Messiah.
On the Damascus Road it was as if an invisible hand knocked him off his horse. The light was blinding, and the energy he felt around him was at the same time gentle and fierce.
The voice that spoke was, larger than life: ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’
He asked: `Who are you, Lord?’
The voice answered: `I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you.
Blind and awestruck, in that moment Saul knew that by all rights he should be dead. The way of the world was to pursue enemies, overtake them and put an end to them by whatever means necessary. So this was a wonder, that he should be commended to stand up and join in the very movement he detested and was looking to destroy. Relief was overtaken by confusion as he was taken into the home of one of the followers of Jesus.
For several days he suffered great disorientation along with the blindness. He was being cared for by people he did not really trust, and who clearly were not very trustful of him. He was aware that they stood a ways off and whispered among themselves about him. Once in a while he would catch a word or two: “chief persecutor… bloodthirsty…dangerous to our fellowship.” He couldn’t blame them. In fact as he sat in darkness, and reflected on what he had been doing recently he began to see himself through their eyes, and began to be shocked at the vitriol and violence that had possessed him.
After a few days miraculous things began to unfold. Someone prayed over him and the blindness fell from his eyes like scaled. As he began to relax into the cautious but life giving care of these strangers he began to realize there would be no going back. If he had been violently attacked on the Damascus road, he would have fought to find escape, to return to the mission he had set his whole being on. But he had not been attacked – he had been embraced. Though the community was still uneasy at his presence they seemed to sense, as he himself did too, that he was part of some larger plan going forward. As his fear and their unease began to fade a new unspoken solidarity, which was bigger than any of them, began to emerge.
Years later he would look back and recognize the grace at work in those crucible days – the grace of how the living God wastes nothing in bringing all things to unity in mystical community. He would try to express it in metaphors such as the body having many members, all needing each other, all joined in a single unity. He would tutor many a church leader in the importance of not seeing anyone as expendable. If Jesus could make use of him, he would tell them, there was hope for anyone, if approached with grace rather than violence.
As he taught among the Gentiles he realized that the fire of God, alive in the Judaic tradition, which he once believed he had to fight to preserve, was taking on new form and strength as it found new and fresh expressions among Gentile believers in Christ. And to think, he had once regarded these Gentiles as nothing but heathens. This was the miracle that led him to write to the leaders in the Galatian Church, that in Christ Jesus “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female.” A new wholeness – which embraced the tradition he so loved – was being born before his eyes and he wanted nothing more than to give his whole self to its flowering.
My friends, this Midrash of mine is offered in the Spirit of Paul. May we remember his story as we set out together into a new year of ministry. May we hope to see the fire of God each one of us has encountered in whatever tradition we were raised in, being taken in by a larger plan which is giving birth to new and fresh expressions of faith and ministry here in this place. And may we give our very selves to its flowering, for the benefit and life of all who enter in among us and for all we are called to go out and serve.
In the name of Christ. Amen+