St Paul’s Cathedral Dundee - Feast of The Conversion of St Paul
Getting to know Paul
When I was a young boy chorister in west London I loathed St Paul because my vicar was endlessly banging on in sermons (so it seemed) about sin and righteousness in Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians and the Romans.
If only he had pictured what a fascinating place Corinth was in the first century: a Greek crossroads between Asia and the western Mediterranean, economically self-sufficient, prosperous and cosmopolitan, rich with competing beliefs and ideas, a hub of patronage, business and tourism, proud of its special success – and, complacent.
The First Letter to the Corinthians has plenty of relevant things to say about the post-crash, global terrorising, Brexiting and Trumpian world we currently find ourselves in. St Paul was spot on.
From religion to faith
However (as Joanna Collicutt writes) ‘it would be a mistake to simply think of Paul as a convert from one religion to another. He was a convert from religion to faith. He remained a Jew until the day he died, but a Jew who followed ‘the Way’, the Christian way.
Saul the Pharisee is re-named and transformed into Paul the Christian apostle. He moved from a desire to belong to an in-group, whose boundaries must be zealously policed, into a love relationship with the Lord who breaks all such barriers down’.
The human desire to be in with the in-crowd is an aspect of what the New Testament writers call ‘the flesh’. This desire has a way of infiltrating all religions, including Christianity, and feeds on marks of identity and status such as clothing, title and position. Paul enjoys being among the Pharisees, indeed he seems to fit in very well. But then he met Jesus.
Paul suddenly came to see, in an epiphany moment, that there was another way, the way of an outsider group whose members were not defined by the usual markers of identity. These folk were not a prestigious social club but a living organic body, reflecting the love of Christ and made alive through the Spirit.
They were identifiable only in so far as they resembled their master, Jesus. Just as his physical body was pierced in crucifixion, so their boundaries were too were permeable. They offered a welcome to all who trusted Christ, including the very person who had been persecuting them, Paul himself.
Once Paul found this, or more accurately, realised that he himself had been found, there was no going back. St Paul writes to the Galatian Christians of his personal experience of being called by nothing less than the sheer grace of God. The Way of discipleship was onwards and upwards (Reflections for Daily Prayer adapted, 2017).
But the way is not without danger and distress. Matthew’s Jesus accurately predicts the fate of Paul and many early Christians, being harassed, persecuted and killed for their faith.
Indeed, as we have heard again, the story of Paul’s dramatic conversion to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is told as part of Paul’s defence in the secular courts against the jealous accusations of religious leaders, a dispute that goes all the way on appeal to the Roman Emperor.
Paul, faith and culture
Beyond his personal journey of faith, the outstanding quality of Paul was his ability to engage his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ with very different cultures and contexts. He famously wrote: ‘In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3.28)
Paul was (and is) an effective Apostle and missionary, transcending difference amongst Greek, Roman and Asian people and places. Paul travels extensively, proclaims the good news of Jesus, debating with powerful leaders, sceptical philosophers and followers of other spirituality.
As the writer Charles Williams once remarked: Christendom was borne of Jewish nationality, Greek culture, Roman order and human sin (Descent of the Dove 1939).
Paul supports fledgling churches around the Mediterranean – reading his nuanced letters we sense these new Christians living within their particular circumstances: for example of paganism or immorality, of political infighting or personal danger, of complacency or low morale.
His letters develop and teach his theological ideas, correcting heresy and error, dealing with mission strategy and matters of church life and leadership. Paul makes the unknown God real: all are justified, not merely by good works but in a complete change of heart, transformed by faith in God alone.
Faith and culture today
Appropriately the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul is associated with the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an annual celebration of ecumenical relationships and reminder of Christ’s call that we should be as one.
Ecumenism has travelled far since in the last seventy years. Shared theological understanding, Church leaders publicly joining together on public issues, local ministers and congregations serving local needs are now commonplace. Regrettably the bureaucratic baggage that has come with some joint church initiatives, has in my view, contributed to church decline.
However in Scotland the Protestant – Catholic cultural divide is certainly more muted than of yore. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and it will be interesting to see how this is celebrated ecumenically.
In October 1517 Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 complaints about the ills and excesses of the Pope and the Catholic Church to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, a small town in Eastern Germany. Luther’s boss the Archbishop of Mainz was not best pleased. And so began a furious dispute across Christendom, fuelled by the preferred social media platform of the day - cheaply printed pamphlets.
Essentially a power struggle about who defines and owns faith within culture and context, unsurprisingly St Paul’s theology played a significant part in Luther’s appeal for an everyday, understandable faith for ordinary people: Paul the convert from religion to faith was the ideal role model for the reformers.
One might ponder what Paul would make of the postmodern challenges of inter-faith dialogue and the secular advance of No Religion. I suspect he would relish the challenge. Interestingly a Yale professor likens what is happening in the Islamic world today to the Reformation, which for a long time was also very bloody, ‘eventually the violence stopped, but what didn’t stop was the Reformation itself’.
We could certainly use some help in tackling religious illiteracy and intolerance. So it happens that this Tuesday the Clergy and Lay Readers of our diocese anticipate a fascinating study day with the Principal of Al-Maktoum College in Dundee, discussing how different faiths address common cultural issues.
For St Paul faith is always a personal matter, a matter of the heart. As Rowan Williams says in his recent book Being Disciples (2016) being a Christian is not just about turning up at church stuff periodically, but a living relationship with God which permeates all of our life with Christ-like behaviour. The mission of the Church is to nurture people on the Way from attendance to membership, which requires personal and material commitments, that is the Christian stewardship of our time and money. And then to nurture people from membership to discipleship, which is a personal transformation, taking us out of our comfort zone into new possibilities and new insights which change our outlook on life and our choices fundamentally.
At any moment in time in any church congregation there will be individuals at different stages on the journey into discipleship. We are all disciples: the challenge is to keep everyone moving in the right direction and not be deterred by setbacks or slow progress. The challenge of the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul is the conversion of us all.
Rt Rev Dr Nigel Peyton Bishop of Brechin