Passion and Compassion - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Passion and Compassion

Acts 9:1-22

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And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest,

And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.

And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:

And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?

And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.

And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.

And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus.

And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.

10 And there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and to him said the Lord in a vision, Ananias. And he said, Behold, I am here, Lord.

11 And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth,

12 And hath seen in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and putting his hand on him, that he might receive his sight.

13 Then Ananias answered, Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem:

14 And here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name.

15 But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel:

16 For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name's sake.

17 And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost.

18 And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized.

19 And when he had received meat, he was strengthened. Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus.

20 And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God.

21 But all that heard him were amazed, and said; Is not this he that destroyed them which called on this name in Jerusalem, and came hither for that intent, that he might bring them bound unto the chief priests?

22 But Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is very Christ.

St Paul, whose conversion to Christ we are commemorating today, was not exactly the most 'politically correct' of individuals.  He condones slavery; he has very firm views on the natural subservience of women: wives are to obey their husbands - after all, he tells us, 'man was not created for the sake of woman, but woman was created for the sake of man.'  Women are not to be permitted to speak in church, but (he adds, very considerately), 'if there is anything that they desire to know they are to ask their husbands at home.'  (He would not have approved of me at all!)  And judging by his furious letter to the Galatians, he could also be a cantankerous so-and-so when he chose to be.

And yet, despite all of this, I remain an immense enthusiast for St Paul.  I think he is wonderful - it's just that one needs to know something about the man, his times, and the extraordinary challenge that he had set himself, to get a proper sense of what an utterly remarkable man he was.

The letters of St Paul, contained within the New Testament, are among the earliest Christian documents in existence.  Of the epistles that bear his name, seven of them are without doubt written by Paul himself.  (In case you are interested, these are:  Romans; 1 and 2 Corinthians; Galatians; Philippians; 1 Thessalonians and Philemon.   The others were probably penned by his followers, but had his name attached to them at a later date.)  And Paul's letters are fascinating precisely because they are not highly-crafted literary texts that were intended for publication - on the contrary: they are genuine letters, written to specific Christian communities that really existed.  

In other words, when we read the epistles of Paul, we are listening to the living voice of one of the earliest followers of Christ, speaking to us from two thousand years ago.  Which I find a truly remarkable thought.

And precisely because they are real letters, they are sometimes a bit clumsily written; at times Paul seems to contradict himself, or get tangled up in his own argument; sometimes he gets sidetracked and ends up way off the point that he was initially trying to make.  But all of this serves to remind us that it is the living voice of an authentic human being that we are hearing.

The earliest of Paul's letters probably dates from around the year AD 50 - which means that the letters of Paul are considerably earlier than the four gospels.  And if you will forgive me for stating the glaringly obvious, this means that when Paul was writing his letters to the churches, in which he reflects on what it means to be a follower of Christ, and how Christians should live and conduct themselves, he did not have a New Testament there to help him.  Rather, he was having to think through the implications of his own conversion, and the meaning and significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus, completely unaided.  He was having to think the unthinkable - to make sense of the unimaginable, simply because it had never been done before.  And so, despite the fact that he undoubtedly has his failings and his limitations, the scale of his achievement is quite simply breathtaking.

The Book of Acts first introduces us to Paul as a Jewish man from Tarsus who was originally named Saul.  As Paul himself tells us himself in his Letter to the Galatians, he had surpassed all others in his passionate observance of the Jewish Law.  That was also why he savagely persecuted the followers of Christ, seeing them as a dangerous and subversive sect.  But then, completely out of the blue, something truly extraordinary happened to him: the event that we heard described in our first reading this morning.  Paul had a personal encounter with the Risen Lord; and with it came an overwhelming sense that God was calling him to a very special ministry.  He was called to proclaim Jesus as Messiah to the Gentiles - to take the Gospel of Christ to the world.  And as a result, his own world was suddenly and dramatically turned completely upside down, and he had to try and make sense of everything from a completely different starting point.  And in his letters we see him grappling with a whole range of really fundamental questions:

If salvation was through Christ alone - then what was the point of the Jewish law that God had given to his people?  What sort of behavior and practice was appropriate for Christians - particularly if they were no longer bound by the constraints of the Jewish law?  How should the Church deal with Christians who fall out with each another?  Fortunately we are a pretty civilized lot here at St Bride's, but the church in Corinth was an absolute snake pit of dissention and disagreement, as you can tell from Paul's letters.  The churches that Paul founded all looked to him for guidance and policy decisions on just about everything - and he was left to try and make sense of it all pretty well unaided.

But there are two things that I particularly value and appreciate about St Paul, which are also of direct relevance to us today, on this Guild Sunday.  The first of these is his passion.  There is a wonderful irony in the fact that the Church's most savage persecutor was to become its greatest ever ambassador - but one suspects that God knew precisely what he was doing when he called Saul of Tarsus, of all people, to be the apostle to the Gentiles - because the man who was so passionate and single minded in persecuting Christians was to prove equally passionate and single minded in taking the good news of Christ to the world.  One consequence of which is that, two thousand years later, we are all gathered here at St Bride's this morning, in a building situated in what would then have been the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire.

Paul's calling was never an easy one.  He had great difficulty gaining acceptance from the other apostles, who, unlike him, had been followers of the man Jesus during his lifetime.  Paul endured beatings and imprisonment as a result of his faith, and he almost certainly met his end under the Emperor Nero in one of the waves of persecution during the AD 60s.  But it was his passion that not only sustained him, but which also enabled him to encounter every hardship and difficulty in his life of discipleship with joy in his heart.

And alongside his passion, the other thing that I find most important about Paul and his message, is his compassion.  It is Paul, remember, who wrote that famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13 about faith, hope and love - or as it is sometimes translated, faith, hope and charity - the three things that for him mattered above all else, the greatest of them all being love.  And it seems to me that it is Paul's compassion, his love and charity, that tempers his passion, channeling it into the service of the God of love, and away from being a force of murderous destruction, which is what it had been in his former life.

And on this Guild Sunday, what are the qualities that seem to me to be important in a Guild member?  Firstly, passion: a passion for God, and for this church of St Bride, and for all that we stand for, and for all that we strive to achieve together here.  But secondly compassion: which is to do with the quality of the welcome that we offer to our visitors, and the ministry that we exercise here; and which should also be reflected in our dealings with one another, whether that is with our fellow Guild members; within the life of our church; or within the fabric of our daily lives.  

It is impossible to read Paul's letters without gaining a sense of the profound, life-changing, earth-shattering difference that his encounter with the Risen Christ made to his life.  It is often observed that new Christians tend to make the best evangelists, simply because the have the most acute sense of the difference that faith has made to their lives.  And those of us who have been Christians for a while, may need reminding of that sometimes.  We need passion.

But we are also called to live lovingly and compassionately; so we must learn to be gentle and forgiving of one another; we must learn to be alert to one another's needs, and to be mindful of the needs of those outside the community of faith.  The life of faith should be about both passion and compassion.

Paul was passionate about faith in Christ and why it matters.  And the reason why faith matters is precisely because faith changes lives.


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