Homily for Epiphany 3/Conversion of Paul January 25 2009
Ezekiel 37: 15—28 The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, take a stick and write on it, ‘For Judah, and the Israelites associated with it’; then take another stick and write on it, ‘For Joseph (the stick of Ephraim) and all the house of Israel associated with it’; and join them together into one stick, so that they may become one in your hand. And when your people say to you, ‘Will you not show us what you mean by these?’ say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am about to take the stick of Joseph (which is in the hand of Ephraim) and the tribes of Israel associated with it; and I will put the stick of Judah upon it, and make them one stick, in order that they may be one in my hand. When the sticks on which you write are in your hand before their eyes, then say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from every quarter, and bring them to their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king over them all. Never again shall they be two nations, and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms. They shall never again defile themselves with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. I will save them from all the apostasies into which they have fallen, from all the settlements in which they have sinned and will cleanse them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God. My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall follow my ordinances and be careful to observe my statutes. They shall live in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, in which your ancestors lived; they and their children and their children’s children shall live there for ever; and my servant David shall be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them for evermore. My dwelling-place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations shall know that I the Lord sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary is among them for evermore.
Romans 8: 18—25 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
John 17: 8—11 . . . . for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
We come together today celebrating many things: the Festival of the Conversion of St. Paul; the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity; Robbie Burns’ Day; Chinese New Year; and of course, a brand new U.S. President.
This past Tuesday, as Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States, I was very thankful I wasn’t raised as a racist, because it would have been a real pity not to be able to celebrate such a great moment in history. The Inauguration speech given on Tuesday by Mr Obama was delivered to such an enthusiastic crowd of people, and it made such a powerful appeal to unity, community and mutual respect, it filled me with a desire to hug someone! To be watching it alone, not to be sharing the moment, seemed somehow to be sacrilegious. It was an uplifting and even spiritually inspiring moment, and we celebrate this sense of a new day dawning, but as Obama helped us all to remember, it didn’t come easily, it came at a great price, through the sacrifice and patience of countless people who nevertheless persisted in believing in a higher form of justice and a better way of life.
We celebrate today the Conversion of Paul, the most famous conversion in history, celebrating that moment when a zealous and single-minded man bent on the destruction of the rights and ways of others, encountered the presence of God – and in a moment surrendered his life to the one who is Lord of ALL – and went from the intention of destroying Christians to trying to spread the good news that Christ is ALL and in ALL (Col. 3:11)
Some would say that Paul needed to have further conversions – but then don’t we all! Nobody’s perfect! Like St Paul, each of us has inner conflicts, battles to fight with our own ego, that keep us from embracing the fullness of the truth we believe, as President Obama will discover in his quest for a UNITED States of America (and a more harmonious world community). But we need to keep inspiring that belief, fanning the flames of that passion and compassion that drives us toward each other and not away. So the religious tone of Mr Obama’s speeches seems to me to be very appropriate, a recognition of the need for a much bigger Spirit to prevail.
Today we give thanks for Paul’s transcendent vision and his unique capacity to interpret the meaning of Christ. Paul said some of the most profound things ever said about God, about Jesus, about love, about the Christian Church. For me, one of the greatest was his radical statement that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.28). It is perhaps his greatest statement because it reveals how far he had travelled ideologically – from a tribal viewpoint to a universal one.
“No longer Jew or Greek, no longer male or female . . .” No longer! Paul was pointing out that a new day had begun, a new sun had risen on the horizon of human life, declaring emphatically that “no longer” would those old divisions be acceptable or justifiable. There comes a time when to be able to move forward you have to let go of the past. “In Christ,” Paul came to believe that something fundamental about the human condition had changed and that something different was truly possible. “In Christ,” Paul discovered a new way of including virtually everyone, so that indeed “the dividing wall of hostility” between races, nations and religions could come down.
President Obama spoke to those people around the globe whose chief aim is destruction and terror – that they will be judged by what they build, not by what they destroy. Within our own societies that is also true – there is a need to challenge the destroyers of hope. We need to stand up to those people, beliefs and influences that keep us isolated and afraid. Once upon a time the Rev. Martin Luther King said: “If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all. And so today I still have a dream.” As St Paul said, “hope does not disappoint us (Romans 5).”
President Obama quoted St Paul in another of his great messages (1 Corinthians 13), when he said there comes a time to “give up childish ways.” When you’re a child your view of the world is limited – you believe your family’s ways are the only ways. But as you grow out of that limited world you come to realize that there are many other ways of living and believing, and you get to a point where you are no longer threatened by everything that is not familiar to you. As St Paul said so long ago, it is time to challenge people to operate from a wider perspective, and to let go of that childish, narrow, ego-centric approach to life.
The material for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity this year (some of which we are using in today’s service) was created by Christians in Korea, where they are very familiar with the pain of separation and division. It is a nation which has seen tremendous growth of evangelical Christianity, and many people there, Christian and non-Christian, long for unity. This week is a reminder of Jesus’ summons to be one, and an incentive to move beyond our chosen isolations, our religious and cultural ghettoes, and into a stronger sense of connection with others. The Week of Prayer material presents us with Ezekiel’s powerful image of two sticks being bound together and becoming stronger as a result. In our world it is that binding together to build and not to destroy that we need to embrace.
The word “religion” suggests connecting, linking, binding together. Those links are something to be explored and celebrated, but on a much larger scale than ever before. It’s not merely Christian unity which is our aim – it has got to be a pursuit of a much more all-embracing unity of a common humanity. We desperately need people who are capable of seeing through the differences – people who can see the differences, and even celebrate them, without being distracted by those differences, from seeing the connections, the common ground.
In our time we are involved in global networks on almost everything, through travel and trade, and via the media and the Internet. On a molecular level, we share the very air we breathe with virtually everyone on the planet. In terms of water, energy, ideas, entertainment, consumer products, we are linked – we are linked globally, ecologically, economically, socially. The connections are already there! We talk nowadays about “the butterfly effect,” and “six degrees of separation,” but it seems St. Paul already understood the complex web of life. He said: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together” (I Cor 12:26). Anyone not conscious that they are sharing the planet, or that their actions don’t matter, needs a wake-up call, and that is what prophets do – they wake people up! You already are part of a network of some kind. Choose to be involved in creative and redemptive ways. You don’t have to do anything huge to start making a difference. Write some letters or email people and let them know what you think; find out who your neighbours are; be gracious and considerate to people; ask questions.
Years ago, as I celebrated the Eucharist according to the old Book of Common Prayer, I was struck by how many times the word “unity” occurred. The importance of unity, of comprehensiveness, is in the heart and soul of Anglicanism. We are in many ways an ecumenical church. Appropriately, Anglicans have been front and centre in the Inauguration activities of the last few days. The President and Mrs. Obama went to church at St. John’s Episcopal the morning of the Inauguration (a President-elect tradition), and the day after, they attended the Anglican Cathedral for a prayer service for over 3000 people. On the previous Sunday afternoon, Anglican Bishop Gene Robinson was asked to lead the opening prayer at the gathering Sunday afternoon. In that prayer he said, “bless us with freedom from mere tolerance; replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences.” Tolerance is a lukewarm attitude; it doesn’t motivate people toward the work of really connecting and trying to understand; in fact, it condones a kind of ghetto mentality where we all just keep out of each other’s way. If your spouse says s/he tolerates you, s/he is not saying s/he loves you! Love and friendship don’t arise from mere tolerance – we need a deeper motivation.
Anglicans have often been front and centre in such big social moments, because at our best we are not a parochial or exclusive church. We have a universal sense of what it means to be the church, but not in an imperialistic, oppressive, exclusive way. I want to believe that the old attitude, which always focuses on how dissimilar we are, can be left behind, and be replaced by an attitude which has the courage to discover common ground. Anglicans, with our Common Prayer tradition, are intrinsically aware of this more inclusive approach. Again, it’s in our bones. The Anglican Church has created common ground for a great variety of cultures, styles, theological emphases and liturgical expressions. We could still make a huge contribution simply by being true to that foundational character of Anglicanism.
Paul said, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility.” The world needs the “glorious liberty” which is the experience of those who know themselves to be children of God. However, we can feel pressured and even oppressed by this massive summons. Realistically, there are so many divisions and conflicts that a call to unity seems almost ridiculous. I believe we are meant to work hard at it, but the fact is, we don’t have to create the Kingdom of God – we just need to be open to its happening, its being. God creates that life in us. When we pray “your kingdom come,” we are already opening the door which allows a new spirit to be created within us, we are drawn into a new way of being – God’s way of being – which is connected with and concerned about everything. We call it Communion, and to me, a sure sign of whether a person truly knows God is that sense of “unity of spirit” that scripture speaks of.
Our simple act of being together here Sunday by Sunday is itself a demonstration of unity. This gathering is itself evidence of that reconciling and uniting Spirit at work within us, and that unity is one of the strongest messages and experiences we have for a society which seems to struggle with the concept of community.
Last Sunday, as I listened, along with millions of people, to the Bob Marley song, “One Love, One Heart, Let’s Get Together and Feel All Right” I thought, I felt, that it just might be possible. It’s that flare of hope that we need to encourage in people, because I believe that is the Spirit of God at work within us. We need to pay attention to those inner promptings!
We give thanks today for the reminder of the importance and the joy of unity. Let us keep in mind the image of sticks being bound together and becoming stronger as a result. We serve a God who enables wolf and lamb to dwell together in shalom/peace. At our best, when we are being true to who we are, Anglicans live and breathe that shalom. The dramatic turnaround experienced by St Paul in his conversion experience reveals the power of God to confront us and help us transform and renew our minds.
Appropriately, as a way of offering encouragement in this quest for unity, I want to give St Paul the final word today (fr. Romans 15): “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”