Today, the 25 January, we celebrate the conversion of St Paul. Caravaggio painted the scene and caught its sound and fury. Paul is spread eagled on the ground, as if toppled by a seismic cataclysm, staring upwards out of his blinded eyes. Above him rears a vast horse, rider-less, the one he has just fallen from. Somehow that enormous horse overshadowing the man symbolises the immensity of what has trampled on his world, like the stage play Equus for the 1st century: it’s as if only heaven itself can tame Saul’s huge animal energies. Caravaggio’s biographer Helen Langdon says of this painting, ‘with its jagged shapes and irrational light which licks out details for their dramatic impact, it creates a sense of crisis and dislocation [in which] Christ disrupts the mundane world’. Such a man, if he ever recovered from this epiphany, would not be a comfortable conversation-partner or bed-fellow. ‘Great men are meteors that consume themselves to light the earth’ said Thomas Hardy. Struck by a thunderbolt from Jesus, Saul of Tarsus had no choice but to become one himself.
Perhaps I was over-exposed to Paul in adolescence. The Christianity that retrieved me from my lazy teenage agnosticism was thoroughly Pauline – or thought it was. Paul was regarded as the early church’s theological organiser who laid down the definitive systematic template over the New Testament. If you wanted to know what Christianity taught about sin, grace, atonement, faith, money, sex or power, you went first to Paul. There is a logic to this, though not the one I was taught. It is that the earliest documents of the New Testament are not the four gospels but Paul’s letters. There is a case for reading the New Testament in the order in which it was written, overhearing how the early church evolved over the first two generations. But this was not how I learned Paul. To us students the Bible was more like a jigsaw puzzle whose disparate texts in the Old Testament, gospels and Acts had to be sorted and fitted into their allotted places so that a coherent picture emerged. The bits you began with, the ones with straight edges that framed the image and determined where the others would go were the Pauline pieces.
If I came fresh to St Paul now, what would I make of him? Here are three aspects of his career that would strike me as reasons to celebrate Paul’s conversion today.
First, there is St Paul the evangelist. He was one of the great travellers of the ancient world bringing the Christian gospel to the known world. You know the roll-call of places from Sunday School when you learned to trace Paul’s missionary journeys: Asia Minor, Cyprus, Crete, Greece, Malta, Rome. He would have gone to Gaul and Spain if he could, and who knows, even to this cold, rainy far-flung corner of the Roman Empire. It required energy and courage, for he endured all kinds of hardship and opposition. But his real achievement lay in the sense of purpose with which he set about his travels. He preached in the towns and cities where influence mattered, along the great trade routes that were the communication lines of his age. He stayed long enough in each place both to make sure that people were able to absorb the message and also to ‘grow’ local indigenous Christian leaders who would settle his young churches securely. We should learn from this. A book written a century ago by Roland Allen, Missionary Methods – St Paul’s or Ours? would help purge us of some of the nonsense that goes by the name of evangelism. Paul can help us establish sound principles of faith-sharing and the nurture of Christian communities even in an era so different from his. Our church plants and ‘fresh expressions’ need to pay attention to the sound mission principles St Paul worked to. They have never been bettered.
Then there is Paul the theologian. One of greatest minds in antiquity, for him risk-taking was not only a matter of persecution or physical danger but also of the intellect. Conversion was not just a matter of heart and soul and strength, but also of the mind. In the ancient world of mystery religion, pagan cults and moralism, Christianity came like those shafts of sunshine in the painting, as enlightenment, an invitation to intellectual freedom, to think in wholly new ways about God, the world and our human lives. I mean proclaiming the gospel in a way that could be heard by the cultured Greek and Roman world beyond Judea, promoting ‘intelligent’ and ‘intelligible’ Christianity, we could say. This meant, courageously, doing away with the age-old divisions of the human race and stating unequivocally that Christ was for all humanity and all creation. The idea that the gospel embraced gentiles was deeply subversive and large parts of the New Testament show how fiercely it was contested. Paul’s greatness lies in that he understood how Christianity is truly universal. The grace of God through faith in Christ is offered without condition to all people, whatever their race, gender, status or culture. This lies at the heart of his truly radical vision of the church – and Paul is the New Testament’s great theologian of the church. Our unity in Christ underlies this Week of Prayer for Christian unity.
And thirdly, there is Paul the writer. The letters of Paul are among the most cherished pieces of writing from the first days of the Church: 1 Thessalonians is probably the earliest New Testament document of all. The Letters to the Romans and Galatians, setting out the meaning of faith in Christ; the Letters to the Corinthians cajoling a wayward church into living together as a community, the Letter to the Philippians with Paul’s acknowledgment of what the Christian journey has meant to him personally – what would the New Testament be without them? These are remarkable documents with their skilful blend of theology, spiritual insight, pastoral sensitivity, honesty, humour (yes! or at least heavy irony), passion and well-grounded common sense. They give us an unrivalled picture of the life of the early church and, as I have said, suggest principles by which we may order our own lives and that of our churches. How impoverished we would be without these beautiful letters. In them, we hear the early church celebrating the joys and wrestling with the struggles of living together in these small fragile human communities that the gospel had given birth to. They are like a mirror held up to us as we try to live authentic Christian lives today. What we see is our own selves, in the complexity and mess of our unredeemed state, but also in the beauty of lives that Jesus Christ has touched and re-fashioned through his grace. We hear Paul challenging us to look at how we understand what it means to be human, inviting us to judge ourselves against the virtues that are his touchstone of authentic Christianity as he lists them in one of his letters: faith, hope and love.
What do we do with St Paul today? We need to recognise that he lived in his own times and spoke to his own contemporaries in the places he wrote to. But that voice from a distant past speaks eloquently into the present, our present. We should learn from the way he set about the vocation to Christian life that without warning confronted him on the Damascus Road, knocked him off that horse, pinned him to the ground, shut his eyes to the pain and persecution he had instigated and opened them to the gospel life that would shape his life from that day onward and launch him his extraordinary career as an apostle. If only we could be as courageous and hope-filled!
And our vision of the church should not be less universal than his, embracing people of all races, cultures and backgrounds. Today marks the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I do not myself think that trying to achieve a structural convergence between the historic denominations is at the heart of this nowadays, though we should welcome it when it happens. I think we are far better at recognising the heritage each of our Christian traditions brings to the whole church as gifts to enrich it. What is harder is to create churches that are genuinely united communities of faith and hope and love. When St Paul writes in the Letter to the Galatians, that passionate, powerful statement of the non-negotiable values that lie at the heart of his gospel, he says: that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor gentile, slave nor free, but we are all one in Christ Jesus. My own community of Anglicans in this country has only just got round to opening up an equal space for women alongside men in the senior leadership of the Church of England, though it has been on this journey for the entire 40 years of my ministry. You were there decades before us; others are not even close to it.
And that is only one of his criteria for a genuinely inclusive community of faith. We can add to his some of our own which are surely in the spirit of his letter: young and old, gay and straight, wealthy and disadvantaged, indigenous and incomer, conservative and liberal…. You see what a mountain we still have to climb. But it matters. It matters hugely. The human family is as bitterly divided in our day as it has ever been. We are in despair about the cruelties and hatreds inflicted by one group of human beings on another, and it is always the weak, the voiceless, those with no power or influence who are the victims. Radicalised Islamists behind massacres in Pakistan, Nigeria and Paris are in all our minds; yet they are only the latest symptoms of the cancers that eat away at the human soul. On Holocaust Memorial Day this week, we shall keep the memory of genocide alive and hold its victims in our prayers. In the light of man’s inhumanity to men, it is vital that we create communities of openness and trust, of friendship and care, communities that work away at the patient task of healing us of these fatal diseases. This is the vision that lies behind the way St Paul speaks about the church. For him it’s a new creation, a new humanity in Christ, his cherished body, a place of reconciliation and wholeness and peace. Because of this, the church is something beautiful, good and even glorious.
It will be costly to bear witness to the gospel as he did, having the courage to do away with discrimination and division; being communities of graciousness and generosity that show the love of God poured into our hearts. But this is how we shall become churches of whom Paul would say, as he does in his letters, that he gives thanks constantly for us, rejoices in our faithfulness and bears us on his heart. And in that, flawed yet always mighty, his heart will have spoken to ours.
Waddington Street United Reformed Church, Durham
25 January 2015
For the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul