222 25.1.15 Conversion Crosby Ravensworth Epiphany 3/St Paul
May the words of my lips ..
As I said at the beginning, we have a wealth of possible subjects to focus on today, and picking from the several possible Bible readings was not easy.
Today is the 3rd Sunday of the Epiphany Season: a vital part of our Christian understanding of God, where we recognise how our faith and understanding grew out of Judaism's faith and understanding.
Today is also the day when we remember the conversion of Paul, when the fire-breathing Saul became the evangelist Paul, preaching to the Gentiles.
Today is also the last day of this year's Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, when we pray that all Christians, of whatever denominational persuasion, will learn to present a united face to the world, not seeking uniformity, but sharing our faith, and living as if it really matters to us.
As if those 3 topics weren't enough, we also have Lent coming up, and this is my opportunity to commend to you this year's Lent Course, starting on Monday, February 23rd at 7.30 at King's Meaburn Village Hall. I have a book by a noted theologian, Alister McGrath, called 'Christianity's Dangerous Idea'. This is a history of the Reformation, and the point of the title is that once people got the idea of thinking for themselves, the genie was out of the bottle, and the church became divided and sub-divided and sub-sub-divided. Actually, this sort of division has always existed, right back to the earliest days, and certain ideas came to be declared 'heresies', while others were seen as acceptable and 'orthodox'. It was because of such divisions that the Emperor Constantine called the Council at Nicaea, with a view to writing down a Creed, a statement of belief. This is the Creed which we will be reciting shortly.
The Lent Group sessions will be based on a book called 'Heresies and how to avoid them', and with the subtitle 'Why it matters what Christians believe'. This is a huge and fascinating subject, and I do look forward to seeing you all there and hearing your thoughts. Of special interest to me is 'why it matters'.
So have I a text for you today? In a way, I have, but it is 4 ½ pages long and is called the Epistle to the Galatians. Seriously, go home and read it. It contains a great deal of Paul's theology and his personal history, and it is not as dense as some of his writing.
If we look particularly at the passage we heard read out, we hear him first referring to his own conversion on the road to Damascus. In last Sunday's service Stewart referred to the various ways in which the Holy Spirit might speak to us, and mentioned also the danger that the things we hear might be just 'voices in our head'. We need a spirit of discernment and a spirit of prayer, so that we can tell which of the ideas that spring into our minds unbidden really is from the Holy Spirit.
I added a couple of verses to what the Lectionary prescribes, because in those verses Paul says that it took him 3 years after his conversion to go to Jerusalem and meet Peter. Before he went there, he went, he says, to Arabia and then back to Damascus.
We might reasonably read into this that he was preaching and sharing his new faith in Arabia, but why did he not go to Jerusalem first? Why did he delay in meeting Peter and James? I would suggest that, despite the stunning event on the Damascus Road, he still felt the need to have time to think and pray and to develop his faith.
Which brings me to the heart of what I want to say today. There are times when we meet people who seem to have a faith so much stronger and more certain than our own. These people can sometimes make you feel quite inferior. There are churches and congregations where there appears to be an inner 'Holy Club'. I have no problem with that. I do have a problem with a 'Holier-than-Thou' club. It is not the business of any of us to judge another's faith or another's understanding of God. When you come up to receive Communion, I will not be asking you questions as to whether or not you 'deserve' it or have 'earned' it. And I hope that you won't be asking me, either. Each of us comes in faith, as each of us understands that term, and Jesus, we believe, welcomes us.
We are all on a spiritual journey. There's nothing original in saying that. But it needs to be repeated. We are all at different places on that journey. I have heard only this week of 2 people who come to church because they enjoy the music. One of them, not in our group of parishes, was encouraged to attend his particular parish church because they needed his flute-playing in the band. For that reason he went to an open-air service, quite different from the usual church goings-on, and there he found himself being drawn in, to more than just the music. He has just started on his spiritual journey: only God knows where it will end.
Meanwhile, it is the business of all of us to support and encourage one another. We can read that sort of thing many times in the Epistles. And it can most certainly work in more directions than one. The man just starting his journey can offer insights to those who have been at it much longer.
I said earlier that I wanted to use the Epistle to the Galatians as my text. I've picked out some important bits from it. At the beginning, Paul expresses his amazement that 'you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel - not that there is another gospel'. Here we have the divisions (and heresies) that have existed from the earliest times. We must, I think, be allowed to think for ourselves, for that it how we are made, but we must respect each other's views and try to learn from the church's history.
Paul goes on to speak of his own conversion experience, which he is quite clear came from 'a revelation of Jesus Christ', not from any human origin, and says that he believes that God sent him this revelation so that 'I might proclaim him among the Gentiles'.
After a further 14 years, he goes to Jerusalem again with Barnabas and Titus, where the discussion is still rumbling on as to whether people had to become Jews before they could become Christians. Some - many - were still seeing Christianity as a sub-set of Judaism. Paul is quite clear that no such step is needed. Jesus is for all, Jew and Gentile alike. It would appear that Peter and Paul shook hands and agreed to differ: Peter, James and John would preach to the Jews; and Paul and Barnabas would preach to the Gentiles.
The heart of the matter is that Judaism is a religion of the Law. All rules must be strictly observed. Christianity, Paul says, is a religion primarily of faith. We are justified by faith. We are saved by faith. If we have faith, deeds will naturally follow. In that sense we don't need rules.
In chapter 3, Paul says to the Galatians, 'Did you receive the spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?' And he quotes God's words to Abram, Genesis chapter 12 v.3: ' and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed'.
But Paul does go on, later in chapter 3, to ask what is the purpose of the Law. Why do we have it at all? He says 'It was added because of transgressions'. In other words, it is in our human nature to need a framework. Is this not how we try to bring up our children - and our dogs! We all need boundaries. Then in verse 23 he says: 'Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the Law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the Law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.
In chapter 5, Paul says ' .if you let yourself be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you'. In other words, if you choose to accept the full Jewish Law and expect to be justified by it, you will be disappointed. You will have 'fallen away from grace'. 'The only thing that counts is faith working through love.' 'You were called to freedom', but that freedom is tempered by love. 'Through love become slaves to one another.'
And then we have that famous verse: 'The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. There is no law against such things.'
I hope I might have quoted enough to whet your appetite to read the whole Epistle. As I said, it's only 4 ½ pages!
I must attempt to sum up. We are in the season of the Epiphany: the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. That's most, if not all, of us. Jesus, His teaching, His way of life and His presence in eternity, is for all of us, and for all who we can influence and share our joy with.
We are celebrating St Paul, whose writings influence so very much of our understanding of God. These are the earliest theological writings, and the foundation of our faith.
We are praying for Christian unity, praying that we might all share our faith and our joy with all Christians of whatever persuasion. In this village, that means particularly with the Methodists. The more we can be seen to share each other's worship, the better. I was very glad to see so many 'church' people at the 'chapel' last Sunday. I will be doing my level best to encourage 'chapel' people to come here on 3rd Sundays in the summer. I and Stewart and the Methodist ministers and local preachers will be actively and visibly leading all our united services. That's not to say that these things haven't happened before: what I am aiming at is a much higher profile for them.
And finally I am urging you to come and join in the Lent Course, not as a duty or a penance, but in a desire to learn more of our faith, so that we can talk to anybody about it as the opportunity presents itself. And the intention is that the teaching parts of the Course, if not the subsequent discussions, will be on the website for all to hear.
Let us walk together on our journey, helping each other in love, and never judging!
And now .