The Pas Conversion of Paul (observed) + Epiphany 4
28 January 2018
Psalm 67 pg 788
God of liberation,
who comes not to destroy
but to set us free,
bring wholeness to all that is broken
and speak truth to us in our confusion;
through Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord. Amen.
I know it’s a question that we don’t like to think about, or even ponder, but looking at the gospel, for today, I pondered the question: What is death?
Jesus tells us, today “21 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 22 You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Mt 10:21-22)
And admittedly, this is one of the things Jesus says that we just want to gloss over, move on, and focus on the positive, on the parts that we see will challenge us in our lives, right now, as Christians.
So, we’re able to look at Jesus words, today, and ponder what they can mean for us, and for our lives, today. After all, as much as Jesus message of God’s love is shattering to our mindsets, is surprising to our way of life, it’s one way, and only one way to love God and to be loved by God, at the same time, I don’t believe that physical death is what Jesus is talking about, in today’s passage.
At the same time, today, we celebrate Paul’s conversion to Christianity. Today, we celebrate that he stops persecuting followers of Jesus, and at the same time stops being a follower of Judaism.
So, then, as far as his Jewish connections are concerned, Saul is dead. He is no longer a part of their community because he no longer lives according to their laws, dictates, customs and rules.
And we can see how this kind of thinking has affected not only the first Christians, but how it can still affect each one of us, today.
In Saul’s early life, before he took Paul as his life and vocational identity, when he was passionately opposed to Christianity and did all in his life and vocation to destroy what Jesus builds, because he saw those followers of Jesus as outside of Jewish life, and therefore dead in their own rite.
Paul tells the Galatians “13 For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being.” (Gal 1:13-16)
In his zealousness, Saul, who became Paul, caused many divisions, equal to death, in families who will never again see their loved ones because of imprisonment, because of religious differences between family members.
But we are talking of different kinds of death, rather than open animosity or violence between peoples.
Still, if there is someone we don’t speak to for reasons of conscience, of faith, or because we’ve had a difference of opinion, or they’ve just rubbed us the wrong way, that, too, can constitute death.
When teaching Confirmation, we always discuss the Ten Commandments, and I’ve had the chance to point out to the young people who are there, and even us older participants, that when we gossip about another, say things that are hurtful, then those actions constitutes killing them, killing their spirit.
Today, in our society, we are able to see the systemic effects of bullying on individuals, and how that begins with shunning someone, it starts with separating them from the community, destroying their identity, and their intentions, and it just gets worse from there, forcing the bullied individual to make decisions that in the end keep them cut off from the life of the community.
If a family is unable to find peace within because of differing opinions, between members, or when one opinion is forced on the others then, that too, constitutes killing the spirit, the relationship that we have with others. And it, in the end, has the same result as physical death – we are unable to bring ourselves to pick up the telephone and contact the one who we have hurt, or who has hurt us.
A wounded pride may be the biggest detriment that we have, today, as it won’t even encourage us to take steps that will encourage us to heal the breaches between brothers and sisters, and see each other as alive.
But Jesus is not wanting us to focus on death, but rather be aware that our enthusiasm, our actions, our zealousness for Christ can be a barrier between us and others.
Today, Jesus tells us, “16 “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.? (Mt 10:16)
He tells us this because talking about lives of faith, because talking about a pattern of faith that is different than what one is familiar with can be seen as threatening to those who are unprepared to see things as we are able to present them.
No matter how prepared we are to talk about our faith, our lives of faith, it is often the most uncomfortable of discussions that we have between people of differing beliefs.
Still, we’re familiar with Jesus’ words in regards to sheep and wolves, but we often leave it there. We stick with our comfort zones and we dont often look further to Jesus advice that we are going to encounter testing, that we’re going to encounter opposition to the message the gospel that has so changed our lives, today.
Or even Jesus words of caution to “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”
But here, here is where we can find hope, where we find life eternal. Here we are able to find ways that will lead to initial discomfort, yet gives us the ability to open the doors between those who believe and those who are not comfortable with our patterns of belief and faith.
The key is being knowledgeable about our lives of faith, our systems of belief. The key is trusting in Jesus teachings to love as we are loved by God, to treat our neighbour as we wish to be treated. To fulfill the law of God, the teachings of Jesus through love, even more than being knowledgeable about our lives of faith, although I’ll never discount a good bible study that will bring us closer to each other, and to the will of God for our lives.
When we know as much as we can about Jesus teachings, about how the church, the denominations have come into being, the mistakes, and the good strides that have been made, since Jesus sent out the disciples, it is then that we can have conversations, interactions that allow us to explain, to demonstrate, to be as innocent as doves, in our interactions with those of other mindsets, and other systems of faith and belief.
Jesus recognizes that the offer of God’s love is a challenge to those who are unprepared to open their lives, their hearts, their minds to something that is so different that it easily constitutes a drastic change to life, and how we live.
Today we have the ability to forget that, at one-time, Christianity wasn’t the mainstream religion that we see, that we live, today.
Today, we have the understanding that anything that isn’t Christianity is a reason for conflict in our lives in our hearts, in our families, and in our friendships. Yet, society has never been ‘black and white’ in its perceptions of itself, in faith, or in how to live that faith in and to the world.
When Paul ‘is born’ on the road to Damascus, in the encounter with the risen Christ, in that moment Paul declared Saul dead. Saul is considered dead because he is a member of the Jewish ruling class who is opposed, to the ends of their toenails, to Christianity in all forms.
So, when he became a follower of Christ, and became the apostle to the Gentiles that was Paul, and Saul was no more.
Perhaps what we’re seeing is that all those who followed Jesus teachings, and Paul’s proclamation of God’s word ran into similar difficulties in their efforts to live out Jesus teachings, their newfound expression of faith in God.
It was a new message of God’s love that was carried throughout the world. A message of love, not of sacrifice. A message of inclusion, not a stratification of society. A message that can only be carried throughout the world as lambs, as doves, as children of God, every day.
In the contemplation of what it means to be dead, I was reminded of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, a beggar. “22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ [Abraham said] Between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’” (Lk 16:22-24, 26b)
The true meaning of death, for us, as children of God, as an integral part of God’s creation, is to be separated from the love of God. We, as part of God’s creation, as the children of God, and followers are Christ are intended to be in fellowship with God, with the Son, through the efforts of the Holy Spirit.
It’s not something that we think about as we strive to compartmentalize our lives so that in the church we are good Christians, in the community we are good community members. Perhaps that is why we often forget that the true meaning of death is separation, not just physical, but emotional and spiritual, as well.
Jesus words, Jesus message, Jesus teachings of God’s love are a new message for each of us, who has embraced these teachings, but especially for those who do not yet understand. These are teachings that have the ability to open lives and hearts to God, yet, for those who don’t understand, then it causes harm, and division to our relationships, to our trust amongst each other.
And this is our opportunity to reach out and help people to understand that Jesus message is one of life, not of death.
Jesus knows that his message is life for the world yet, because of free will, we don’t always choose what is life, however, we do choose.
Today Jesus tells us “18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. 19 But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, 20 for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Mt 10:18-20)
And in the teachings of Jesus, in the words of the Spirit, we are offered life, forever more.