St Bride's: Sermons

St Paul

Galatians 1: 11-24

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11 But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man.

12 For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.

13 For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it:

14 And profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers.

15 But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by his grace,

16 To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood:

17 Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus.

18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days.

19 But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother.

20 Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not.

21 Afterwards I came into the regions of Syria and Cilicia;

22 And was unknown by face unto the churches of Judaea which were in Christ:

23 But they had heard only, That he which persecuted us in times past now preacheth the faith which once he destroyed.

24 And they glorified God in me.

St Paul
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Those of you of a certain age may remember the sketch by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in their TV series, which went something like this:-

DUD

I think St Paul's got a bloody lot to answer for.

PETE

He started it, didn't he?

DUD

All those letters he wrote.

PETE

To the Ephiscans.

DUD

You know, 'Ah, dear Ephiscans, ah, stop enjoying yourself, God's about the place'.

PETE

 'Signed Paul.' You can just imagine it, can't you? There's a nice Ephiscan family, settling down to a good breakfast of fried mussels and hot coffee, and they're just sitting there, and it's a lovely day outside, they're thinking of taking the children out, ye know, for a picnic, by the sea, by the lake and have a picnic there, and everything's happy, the sun coming through the trees, birds are chirping away.

DUD

Boats bobbing on the ocean.

PETE

The distant cry of happy children.

DUD

Clouds scudding across the sky.

PETE

Naturally, Dud - in fact an idyllic scene is what you call it, when suddenly into the midst of it all - tap, tap, tap, on the bloody door.

DUD

What's that?

PETE

You know what it is?

DUD

No

PETE

It's a messenger bearing a letter from Paul. They rush to the door to open it, thinking it may be good news - perhaps grandfather's died and left them a vineyard. They open it up and what do they discover? 'Dear George and Deidre and family, stop having a good time, resign yourself not to have a picnic, cover yourself with ashes and start flailing yourselves.'

DUD

 'Till further notice.'

PETE

Signed Paul.'

 

The humour of that sketch comes from the fact that it sums up the popular view of St Paul as a stern moraliser and rather over-zealous Christian convert: combative, negative, probably quite a difficult person. It's a caricature of course, but with elements of truth about it.

Some of us went in search of St Paul last week on our parish pilgrimage to Turkey, travelling down the Aegean coast of Turkey, following in the footsteps of his third missionary journey. We stopped at Pergamum with its spectacular acropolis reached by cable-car, we looked at Ephesus, capital city of Asia Minor and St Paul's missionary base, where his preaching stirred up the silversmiths of the city to riot in the theatre, and we stood in the theatre at Miletus, where Paul summoned the elders of the Church of Ephesus to meet him and to share in his emotional farewell as he left by boat for Jerusalem, never to see them again.

It may have been on that journey that he wrote his letter to the Galatians  from which we heard this morning, in which Paul boldly states his credentials as an apostle to the Gentiles. I think it is fair to say that we struggled, as pilgrims, to feel a sense of St Paul on his travels, to capture a feeling of following in his footseps, except at Miletus where we read his words of farewell and could imagine him setting sail in his little boat from the harbour. But the sheer distances we travelled, and the rugged countryside did bring home what a tough, determined and intrepid traveller and apostle he must have been, with only primitive roads, a donkey to ride on or more likely striding out on foot.

Paul, as he reminds us in our reading today, having been a persecutor of the Christian Church, was converted by God and called to preach among the Gentiles. Meanwhile the church in Jerusalem remained conservative and unwilling to stray too far from the synagogue, with Paul the Good News of Jesus Christ went global. It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that without Paul, Christianity would be a very different animal, might not have its global reach and would certainly have spread much more slowly that it did.

Perhaps without him we would not be here today, and little Clara might not be being baptised, who knows? Paul took the Christian story and the Christian experience and made them available to everyone, and that's why, however difficult a character he may have been, however wrong in some of his views from our modern perspective, we can admire him, and give thanks for him. As we travelled in his footsteps down the lovely Aegean coast, walked in the places where he had been, we remembered that it was Paul who shared the love of God with our forebears, and who still speaks to us today. As Paul Tillich wrote:-

To the person who longs for God and cannot find him; to the person who wants to be acknowledged by God and cannot believe that she is; to the person striving for new meaning in life and finding it hard to discover; to this person Paul speaks.'

To the historian there must always be something astounding in the magnitude of the task Paul set himself, and in his enormous success. The future history of the civilised world for two thousand years, perhaps for all time, was determined by his missionary journeys and his hurried writings.

Amen


 


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