Conversion of St Paul

The Conversion of St Paul: On the Road to Damascus (26/1/2020)

I don’t know about you, but I love a good conversion story! For a few years I attended and was very involved at Holy Trinity Brompton in London. It was my sending parish for ordination; I am deeply grateful for the time that I spent there and all that I learned.

One of my favourite things was when, after an Alpha Course had finished, Nicky Gumbel would interview people who’d just taken the course, during a church service. I heard some fantastic, some shocking stories about the lives of quite ordinary people. Nicky would inevitably ask each person, ‘What difference has Jesus made to your life?’

It was at this point that their voices would begin to shake, eyes would well up, the insides of the mouth would be sucked in. The most common answers were ‘I know that I am loved’, ‘I am a more peaceful person’, ‘My perspective on life has changed’. For many people, they had had an experience of Jesus and life was now different. Some of these stories were extreme: addictions being broken in an instant, physical healings were witnessed, relationships long thought broken were restored.
Some people prayed the ‘God if you are real, show me’ prayer and immediately received a confirmation that He is indeed real and very much present with them.

I have also heard very similar stories from the most violent of men and women. People in the prison system encountering Jesus and having very dramatic encounters with the Holy Spirit and being totally changed and turned around. Many of whom have gone on to do amazing things with their lives only by the grace and power of God.

It is so reassuring to know that Jesus is not only for the quite ordinary ‘good people’ but also the violent offenders. Many of whom are so broken and damaged. It should give us hope!

Paul, then-known-as-Saul would fall into the latter category – he was not a good man. His religiousness did not make him good. Saul and his other religious friends were attempting to eliminate the newly established church. Which they didn’t manage to do but they were successful in dispersing it. The dispersion meant that the gospel was spread far beyond Jerusalem and this is why he was travelling to Damascus that particular day. The Christian presence was growing in Damascus and Saul was going to make sure he stopped it.

Read from ‘On the Road to Damascus’ (p. 150)

Religion and faith are not the same thing! Sometimes it helps to clarify that in our thinking, certainly I need to. People can be very hostile to religion and in some cases, quite rightly so.

I recently spent some time with some young people and was asked to talk about Christianity. I really tried to focus on the relational aspect of the Christian faith. The love of God & Jesus, His creation of us – rather than the rules and facts. I sat down after and thought of all the things I could have or should have said.

A couple of the students also gave short talks about their faiths. What I noticed is that they spoke in a language of religion. ‘My religion believes this or that, these are the rules/expectations.’ Nothing about love or relationship or knowing God.

This is where I struggle with other religions if I’m honest. The lack of personal relationship. Worshipping something or someone that I don’t know or am not even encouraged to understand, doesn’t do much for me. Nor does following a set of rules or trying to live to some expectation without knowing who is behind it or what it leads to.

This is the kind of religion that Paul was living out. Following rules rather than relationship. Rules without relationship makes us hard, unloving, unkind and inconsiderate. In the extremes it leads to violence and murder as in the case of Saul. This might not have been the original intent – certainly not of the Jewish faith. But if left to human devices this is where is can end up. I think that God is horrified and deeply saddened by what has been done in his name. I know that I have contributed to that in my sin and shortcomings.

Saul didn’t like Jesus. Not at all. But he also didn’t know Jesus! He had never met him. But he soon would! The most amazing, unbelievably confounding thing is that God still wants to know us and wants for us to know him. He loves us. Loves me, you, the most violent of offenders, the most ordinary of people.

Read from ‘On the Road to Damascus’

‘Saul, why don’t you like me?’
What a haunting question! I have read the ‘Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?’ as read this morning many times. But ‘Saul, why don’t you like me?’ gives this a whole different feel doesn’t it? Maybe it comes from my desire to be liked? Anyone else like to be liked?

Think about a person that you don’t like for a moment. What is it about them that you don’t like? What if they came up to you and said ‘Hey, why don’t you like me?’

Could you answer them? Would you? This is definitely a situation I would want to avoid!

How can you avoid it? Love. If we can love people, it doesn’t matter if we like them or not because love is greater than like. Liking someone certainly makes loving easier. But Christian love is not always easy. Paul knew this and expressed it so beautifully in 1 Corinthians 13.

Do you always like Jesus? Sometimes it is hard when we don’t understand why things happen they way they do. Paul didn’t like Jesus; very actively didn’t like Jesus.

But Paul didn’t know Jesus.
That is about to be rectified!

Read – On the Road to Damascus (p. 151)

As God so often does, he uses other people to help fulfil his purposes. Ananias was that person for Saul. Ananias was one of the growing number of Christians in Damascus who receives a vision in which Saul is identified and located. Ananias is asked to take care of Saul.
What a difficult ask that must have been!
Have you ever been an Ananias to someone?

There will be times in our Christian journeys when we will be asked to do difficult if not impossible things. Or seem impossible at the time. We have a choice to make – we can say yes or no. I think that if we know Jesus – then we are more likely to say yes. It is our obedience that is required – not our ability to predict the future and risk assess.

We can trust and take courage in that He will be with us. Right beside us, to lead and guide us. We can take courage that when Jesus asks something of us, he will be with us. What is asked might be difficult or beyond what we think we are capable of. That’s okay!

Paul went on the live an extraordinary life. The church was reminded of this in last week’s Week of Prayer for Christianity Unity which was written by the churches in Malta. We followed Acts 27 & 28 – the story of Paul’s shipwreck on Malta and the unusual kindness that was shown to Paul and his shipmates. Throughout the week we reflected on and prayed for: reconciliation, seeking and showing Christ’s light, keeping up our courage, trusting and not being afraid, keeping up our strength, hospitality, transformation and giving and receiving generosity. Paul demonstrated and experienced all of these things throughout his ministry. These are a few of the ways that Jesus made a difference in his life.

What difference has Jesus made in your life? That is the question for today. Whether your conversion was big (like Saul’s) or a more low-key affair (like many of us), Jesus meets with us in the way we need him to – he is very good at getting our attention! Whether we know it or not. Jesus should make a difference! He did for Saul now Paul.

Think again about why you might not like Jesus. Do I really know him? The Christian journey is very much about learning to know and love God. To recognize Him in the people we meet and the circumstances we find ourselves in. He is there!

Sometimes we will be asked to do difficult things by God. But he is with us. Jesus was with Ananias as he went to find Saul and restore his vision despite knowing the awful things he had done to Christians. Ananias probably had no idea of what was to come for Saul-now-Paul and yet demonstrates obedience despite unknowing.

As we celebrate the conversion of Paul today, let’s celebrate our conversions too and the difference that Jesus makes.
Read – On the Road to Damascus

Epiphany 2: What Are You Looking For?

Happy New Year one and all! It might feel like a long time ago – but I hope that you had a nice holiday.

We are on the tail end of the Christmas season depending on who you talk to. In the Epiphany season we have the opportunity to consider and study what happened after Jesus was born: the Wisemen coming to visit, the family fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod and their return.

The Gospel jumps around a bit as we have a few weeks of Jesus in the early days of his ministry featuring John the Baptist and the gathering and calling of the first disciples. The season ends with the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple when he was a baby.

Through these readings runs the theme of new beginnings and the changes and challenges that beginnings can present us with. Not every new beginning, as many of us know, is welcome or wanted.

It can take time to adjust to a ‘new normal’. I think that a lot of the difficulty stems from the changes that are forced upon us and we either lose or have no control over them. Change ultimately requires us to adjust our behaviours, attitudes and expectations; which – if we are honest – we don’t want to do unless we must because it is hard work!

Change can initially bring uncertainty, confusion and can take away our confidence until we learn new ways of living and being.

However, we are not alone in the changes of this life!

In all three of our readings today we see various changes and challenges faced by the people in them. The great comfort is that God is with them and with us!

It is well into the book of Isaiah before the prophet tells the story of his calling. Most of the other OT prophets usually start by giving their credentials: who they are, usually some family information and how they came to be called by God.

Isaiah seems to save his story until he needs to tell it. Isaiah needs to convince the Israelites that God is faithful and has chosen them; so he uses his story, his testimony.

It is not always easy to talk about our faith. We can get awkward about it, make excuses, feel embarrassed or under-prepared. Most people want to know our story though. Who doesn’t like talking about themselves?!
Sharing our stories is an effective way to talk about faith and what it means to us as people can’t argue with personal experience.

Isaiah knows that he has been called by God. This wasn’t easy, he had his challenges, doubts, frustrations and wanted to give up on the people more than once. But he knew, in that deep-down knowing way, that God was faithful and had chosen him before he was born. He wanted the people to know that too.

Corinth was one of the most important cities in Greece with a population estimated at 500,000 people. It was a leading seaport and centre of commerce. Paul had evangelized the city on his third missionary journey.

The church that Paul founded was growing and they needed guidance and reminding on the central themes of the gospel. Paul is writing to the Corinthians to correct and encourage the newly established church.

It wasn’t going to be easy as there were many outside influences – not always positive ones clamouring for attention. Again, God would be faithful and had called and would strengthen the Corinthians to follow him. Paul was speaking to patterns of behaviour in church and at home, dietary issues, sexual issues, how to handle arguments and issues around death.

Sometimes we need correction and guidance that lead to changes in lifestyle or habits. We can need correction and guidance as a church too. God will be with us in the trials and changes.

Paul, in this letter to the Corinthians, wanted them to know that too. God is faithful and that he (God) had called them into fellowship with Jesus.

I was able to get to Canada for 2 weeks of vacation which was great. While I was there, I was able to do some shopping. Compared to shop assistants in the UK, the Canadians are a bit more polite. I was asked numerous times (sometimes in the same shop) ‘can I help you?’ ‘did you find what you are looking for?’ ‘is there anything else I can help you with?’. This is all very normal of course.

I didn’t think much of it, until I read the Gospel reading for this morning. What caught me was Jesus’ asking the disciples of John the Baptist (who happened to follow him), ‘What are you looking for?’ This is the first ever question Jesus ever asks. I think it is a good one – especially at the start of this new year.

It made me think of being in the Canadian shops and being asked that question. ‘What are you looking for?’ Sometimes I had no idea what I was looking for. Other times, I thought I knew but then couldn’t find it or if I did find whatever it was, I thought I was looking for – it wasn’t right.
On rare occasions I did find what I was looking for. Happy day! A rare event indeed!

Here is the third challenge we might be facing this morning and my first question to you this year – what are you looking for? This year, in life, in a situation – whatever it might be.

In order to finding something that we are looking for – as in a shop – we need to look and see what is going on around us. John the Baptist saw Jesus coming and knew immediately who it was and tells his disciples the story of how John knows this.

John had experienced Jesus, they were cousins, born within a few months of each other. I don’t want to speculate how much time they spent together growing up; that information is not known to us. John’s life had a purpose and there was a calling which he fulfilled – ‘to come baptizing with water, that Jesus might be revealed to Israel.’

With the appearance of Jesus, John’s ministry begins to shrink. His calling had been fulfilled. John’s disciples (including Andrew – brother of Peter) are pointed in the direction of Jesus and they follow him. It is at this point when Jesus asks them the question ‘what are you looking for?’

Andrew and the other unnamed disciple obviously found what they were looking for in Jesus. I am not sure they even knew that they were looking for anything. After a few hours with Jesus, they knew they had found something. And a new beginning was begun.

We will find everything we need in Jesus. I am saying that to you as much as I say it to myself. Everything we need will be found in him. I can’t say that enough. Even when it doesn’t feel like it or we can’t see it. Jesus is enough.

I know that many of us are facing change and challenges at the start of this new year. Know that God is faithful and has called you – even if you don’t know to what yet. He was faithful in the Old Testament, in the New Testament and to us today. There is a calling on your life; we are never too or too young to be called. We might have to go looking for it – rest assured it is never that far away. So whatever it is that you are looking for this year – let’s start looking for it and let’s start with the Lord.

Christmas 1: Holy Innocents

St Peter’s Lutheran


Christmas 1 – Year A
Isaiah 63:7-14
Psalm 111
Galatians 4:4-7
Matthew 2:13-23

It is still Christmas! Don’t put away the tree just yet. As a religious professional, I am grateful that there is a season to Christmas past the one day. I get a chance to enjoy and celebrate too – once the work is done. Many of my clergy friends, when asked, claim that for them Christmas starts on Boxing Day. Some people will keep Christmas going until Epiphany – celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas. Some may even go all the way to Candlemas on February 2nd.

I think that we think: once the wisemen have come and gone then it’s over. Back to business – normal life can resume. Not according to Matthew though. Matthew gives us a bigger vision of the reality into which Jesus was born. A world that was dangerous, violent, people were oppressed by a tyrannical government and an unstable leader. Little wonder we stop telling the Christmas story at the nativity!

Fleecy lambs, singing angels and the tiny baby Jesus in the manger are far more preferable Christmas card scenes than dead babies. The account that we read this morning is shocking, it is gross, and it still happens today in some corners of the world where war still ravages. Against all odds, the Christ child like many babies today, was born into fear and prejudice; deprivation and injustice.

The story of the Holy Innocents is not an easy piece of the Bible to read and reflect on. Nor should it be. Christmas might not be over – but the sentimentality is!

There is very little information in the Gospels about Jesus’ baby/childhood. There is only this passage in Matthew and Luke’s account of Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem around 12 years of age. After this there is no other recorded information until Jesus is about 30. We might not know much about Jesus as a child – but we can learn something from the adults that are around him.
Once again, Joseph is the unsung hero, the whole of the Christmas story hangs on Joseph’s attitude to Mary and her baby. Without him the whole story could have faltered.

I came across an amusing story while I was writing on of my Advent sermons.

A little boy had once been cast as the innkeeper in the school nativity play, but he’d desperately wanted to be Joseph. He brooded about it for weeks. Came the day of the performance. Joseph and Mary came in and knocked at the door of the inn. The innkeeper opened the door a fraction. ‘Can we come in?’ said Joseph, ‘My wife’s pregnant.’ The innkeeper hadn’t brooded for weeks for nothing.

He flung open the door, beamed at Joseph and Mary and said, ‘Of course you can come in; we’ve plenty of space; you can have the best room in the hotel.’

There was a pause.

The Joseph showed his true quality. He said to Mary, ‘Hold on Mary, I’ll have a look around first.’ He peered past the innkeeper, shook his head and said firmly, ‘I couldn’t take my wife into a place like that. Come on, Mary, we’ll sleep in the stable round the back.’ The story was back on course! (John Pritchard, Living the Gospel Stories Today)

God would surely be ready with a plan B, but plan A was that he’d chosen Joseph and Mary. Joseph accepted the child, and this would not have been easy.

What we learn from Joseph is the risk of acceptance. He could have so easily rejected Mary and the child for the shame they brought on him. But he didn’t. Part of the risk of acceptance includes having to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt to protect them from Herod and his murderous rampage on small children. Joseph acted immediately; we could assume this dream came to him at night. This little family was evidently poor so not a lot of packing time was needed. They were quickly on the road!

Joseph, Mary and Jesus now became refugees. If you know your Old Testament, Egypt was a place of asylum (for good and bad) for the Jewish people for thousands of years. Joseph fled from his home, his safety, his convenience (he was a carpenter) for the sake of his family. I know that many of you as parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts & uncles, godparents would go to great lengths to protect the children that you love.

We are fortunate to live in parts of the world where having to flee for the safety of your children is far removed. We must protect our children from the dangers of the First World – excessive screen time, allergies, bullies, creeps on the internet and becoming over-entitled, indulged little monsters. We need to protect their innocence for as long as we can. We may not have to flee the country – but we may have to live beyond our own convenience, put our screens down and pay more attention to them.

We also need to protect the innocence of children who do not belong to us. There are still families all over the world who are fleeing war and persecution. Parents taking their children and seeking a better life. Whatever we might think about ‘these people’ (thinking of the posts and memes I see on Facebook – both by Canadian and British friends). As Christians, God is pretty clear on how we are to treat actual refugees. We take his word seriously or we don’t.

God is not going to accept hair splitting on jurisdiction and borders as an acceptable excuse for ignoring the plight of the modern-day innocents.

Now the second adult in this story who we know about. The baddie in this story is King Herod the Great. He wasn’t a great Father, he had three of his own sons killed. The sons and grandsons that succeeded him were just as evil as he was: Herod the Tetrarch ordered the beheading of John the Baptist and was present at Jesus’ trial. Herod King Agrippa murdered James (Jesus’ brother) and tried to murder Peter. The other King Agrippa bantered with Paul while he was in prison.

Herod the Great had been declared ‘King of the Jews’ decades before Jesus was born. He believed that he was the one true king. It was the magi, the wisemen who alerted Herod to the birth of the new king of the Jews when they came to him to find the baby. He was suspicious and insecure enough as it was before the news that the new king had been born. In attempt to shore up his own power, he ordered the killing of the babies and toddlers of Bethlehem. It is estimated, as Bethlehem was a small town, that around 20 children were killed. Herod sensed a threat to his power and took brutal action against it.

We too can take brutal action when our power or security is threatened. Are you seriously threatened by people walking over the border into Manitoba in the dead of winter with their kids? Are we realistic in what we fear? Who we are against?

Maybe we need to remember who is in charge? Not us, not even the government. God is in charge.

How many of our ancestors came to this country from other parts of the world seeking a better life? Unless you know that level of desperation it is not fair to comment or pass judgment. Love your neighbour as yourself! ‘The poor you will always have with you’ says Jesus.

How about this gem from Psalm 146: ‘The Lord watches over the stranger in the land; he upholds the orphan and the widow; but the way of the wicked he turns upside down.’

On this day of Holy Innocents, there are two positions to take. That of Joseph – risking life, limb and convenience for the sake and protection of his child. Or that of Herod; maintaining power and control at any cost with the sacrificing of children. We either take seriously the word of God and his commandments or we don’t.

A priest friend Alison ended her Holy Innocents sermon with this:

Christmas time is when Christians celebrate the birth of the Christ child, as Emmanuel, that translates as God with Us; there would have been no point in Christ arriving in comfort when the whole world is in misery; no point in having an easy life when the world suffers violence and injustice, where right from the very beginning of his earthly life, Jesus shares in our sorrows as well as our joys.

The birth of Christ signals the very moment of heaven coming to earth; that moment when God becomes a human being, sharing flesh and blood and suffering with his people;
And it presents us with a pivotal moment to reflect on where pain and suffering maybe in our own and other people’s lives. This same scarred and wounded world is the world into which Jesus was born, the world he came to save.