The Pas The Conversion of Paul
27 January 2019
God of all mercy, your Son proclaimed good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed: anoint us with your Holy Spirit, so that all people may be free to praise you in Christ our Lord. Amen.
Reading the texts for today, as we celebrate the conversion of St Paul, it’s very easy to focus upon the great change that God, effected in his life and yet, sometimes, it’s very difficult to see how such changes have occurred, and continue to occur in our lives as well, in and for each one of us, every day.
In the gospel, for today, Jesus points out the perils we face when we step outside of these doors. This text is taken from when he sends out his disciples, and is warning them, warning each of us, of what to expect in the world, still today.
He 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)
And that imagery, that wording alone, brings to mind such Grimm’s fairy tales as Little Red Riding Hood, and such proverbs as “wolves in sheep’s clothing”.
But we often stop here.
We don’t often read further than this. We get caught up in this imagery of being surrounded by enemies, by being ‘behind enemy lines’, as a metaphor. But a metaphor that can, in uncertain moments, inspire us to great things, as Jesus encourages us to share the love of Christ, the love of God with all whom we encounter, be they fellow sheep, or wolves.
Perhaps what encourages us to stop here is the fight, flight, or stand still model of a terrified humanity that holds our attention, like deer in the headlights.
Although we focus on the fight or flight aspects of reaction in stressful situations, interestingly it’s much more common that we just freeze, unable to move forward or backward. We’re unable to make a sound unless its one of fear or terror.
But Jesus, in equipping us for the journey ahead, doesn’t stop there.
Sure we’re sheep among wolves, but it’s not the only time we’ve been among predators and survived.
The first that comes into my mind is Daniel in the Lions Den. (Dan 5:17-23)
As Daniel, surrounded by those who wished him harm, was thrown into a lion’s den, God was with him and not only kept him safe amongst those who meant him great harm, but God kept the lions mouths closed while the king and his followers expected him to die a gruesome and horrible death.
So, Jesus sends us out, and he sends us out with encouragement.
He sends us out, innocent amongst the worldly, but we’re not sent out alone. And so, Jesus gives us more advice.
We’re told “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Mt 10:16b)
We’re told: “17 Be on your guard.” (Mt 10:17a
We’re told: “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 10:19-20)
And you’ll notice it’s not if they arrest you, but “when”.
And all of this is able to remind us of Paul who thought he was worldly, who being a sheep acted and thought as a wolf. (Sheep in wolves clothing?)
For whom it took an act of God to strip away those worldly layers to forgive the errors those layers caused and to put him firmly on the path to be the Apostle to the Gentiles.
And who, as the Apostle to the Gentiles, not only had great success in sharing the love of God, the gospel of Christ with the known world, but he also suffered beating, arrest, imprisonment, and even death at the hands of those who couldn’t hear or comprehend the love of God.
But this is all good news, for each one of us.
We all know our own backgrounds and from where we’ve come. At the same time, we can identify with Paul, we can identify with his experiences, both before and after God changed his life.
We can identity with his successes, his friendships across the continents, and with his failures. But even in failure, he continues to live and spread the love of God to all around.
One example that comes to mind, is when Paul was in prison, an earthquake opened the jail and it was through Paul’s effort that not only did none of the prisoner’s escape, but he also kept the warden from committing suicide and they all embraced Christianity, that night.
“25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”
29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”” (Acts 16:16-40)
We’re able to find much in common with Paul’s ministry throughout the known world. After all, he didn’t spend Jesus earthly ministry studying at the feet of the Christ, yet here he is, bringing the good news of the gospel to Galatia, to Corinth, to Ephesus, to the Philippian followers, to those who read the letters addressed to the Colossians, to Thessalonica, and to Rome.
Paul, being a citizen of the Roman Empire, as well as a Jewish Citizen, uses that dual citizenship to carry the love of Jesus to the whole of the known world, of his day.
Just like each one of us who learned of Christ’s love and teachings from the pages of the gospel, and we are also dual citizens. We are citizens of our home nations, and we are children of God, so citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
In a world that strives to be worldly, to be wolf like, being a sheep who is “as shrewd as [a] snake, and as innocent as a dove” is an interesting stance. (Mt 10:16b)
Jesus reminds us to be aware of our surroundings, yet not to give into the lifestyle, the mindset of the wolves around us.
We are reminded to be “on [our] guard” (Mt 10:17a)
On our guard, yes, to be aware of where the Holy Spirit is inbreaking in the world around us, yet at the same time to see where wolves will continue to be wolves even when hearing the messages of peace and love that we proclaim, that we are urged to proclaim to the world.
That not everything will be rosy, all of the time.
So, like Paul, who, in the end, is taken to Rome under arrest, yet yearns to travel westward to Spain, God prepares us for such hardships, ourselves. The entire letter to the Romans is written as he was being transported to Rome under guard. Always urging us to put God first in our lives and actions.
“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 10:19-20)
And this may be the most nerve wracking provision Jesus tells us that God makes on our behalf. The one against which we will want to rail, when such wolfish structures are placed all around us.
But there we have it – God looks out for each one of us, especially when we find ourselves in what appears to be harm’s way because the message of the gospel is different that the predominant message of the world, of popular society.
Paul tells us, as he tells the community at Rome: “17 I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. 18 For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.” (Rom 16:17-18)
And in all of this, the truth doesn’t change. In all of this, the message of the gospel is a message of love for all of humanity.
But this is where we stand, this is who we are.
We are “sheep among wolves, … as shrewd as snakes, … as innocent as doves.” (Mt 10:16)
We carry the love of God into the world, a world that, in many cases, doesn’t recognize it as they don’t recognize anything to do with God.
We stand at the intersection of God’s love for the world, and the world’s intentional distraction toward absolutely anything but the love of God.
This is who we are, we are beaten and persecuted, but in our love for God, and for the gospel, God, through the Holy Spirit will deliver us, always.
This is Paul, this is Peter, this is the rest of the apostles, this is the followers of Christ throughout the ages, to today, and even into tomorrow.
This is each one of us as we carry the love of God to a world that doesn’t know God.
As we “sheep among wolves” strive to follow not only in Jesus footsteps to love our neighbours as we are loved by God, but to follow such examples as Paul who went where God led and carried the love and message of the gospel even to the heart of Rome, and into the hearts of Christians for generations afterward, even to today.
So, today, we celebrate that God changed Paul’s life. That God stripped away the layers of the world, and showed him what he was, a sheep, a member of the flock who hears the voice of the shepherd and follows.
Today we see where there is much similarity between Paul’s journey of faith, and our own, and today we listen to the words of Jesus who continues to guide us and put us in the care of the Holy Spirit who walks with each of us, still today.
The journey isn’t at an end; our journey still continues. We, watched over and guided by the Holy Spirit, are still tasked to take the message of God’s love to the world that doesn’t recognize the value of sheep as we move amongst wolves, shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves, every day.
Amen. cent 5;\ls