Do not fear: Sermon for Epiphany

Here is the sermon I preached yesterday – as I read it, and came to the end I thought (and said as much to the congregation) “That was shorter than it seemed when I wrote it!”

I was right! I’d forgotten that I’d printed it double sided, so I only read the first and the third pages, missing out everything between the two asterisks… I don’t think it mattered terribly, but I still feel a bit of a muppet!

Jeremiah:31:7-14 Psalm 84 Ephesians:1: 3-6,15-19a Matthew 2: 1-12

Today’s Gospel reading starts with fear and ends with joy. At the beginning the Magi, the Wise Men, the Seers from the East arrived at Herod’s palace and spoke of a baby, born to be King. And immediately Herod felt threatened. He feared that everything he knew would be taken from him, and that he would lose his power and his riches. And all Jerusalem was afraid – for they knew that if Herod was angered he’d no doubt take it out on them. And isn’t this so often the way today – the leaders of our countries want to hang onto their power, and their status, and because of this the ordinary people seem to be the ones who pay. Whatever your politics, I am sure that you can think of an example for yourself, for regardless of political beliefs this appears to be the way of the world.

From his very birth onwards Jesus challenges people. He turns worlds upside down. Perhaps now, we don’t quite realise how the incarnation, the idea that God has become human, was such an earth shattering notion for those living at the time. Although the Jewish people had an idea of a God who saves, a God who would, one day, come again as the Messiah, the thought of him breaking into humanity was unthinkable.

But the question that faced Herod is the one that faces us: how will you react to the child who has come to bridge the gap between the Divine and the human? Of course there will be fear: as Herod was afraid of losing all that he held dear, when facing the Almighty we too might fear losing control, losing security, of being asked to give things up. But we can choose to enfold ourselves in this fear, and close ourselves off from the wonders that Jesus offers us, or we can choose to stand, naked and shivering before God, afraid yet open to all that he will give us.

For if we recognise that Jesus is God’s outrageous gift of generosity that changes lives, then we can begin to move from the restrictive fear that Herod felt to the liberating joy that the Magi experienced as the star led them to the place where they could meet God. If we accept that Jesus is the bridge of hope and redemption we can move from despair to hope, from emptiness to fulfilment and from darkness to light. Jesus, Word made flesh, the physical presence of God, takes us from the reality of the incarnation to the unfolding realisation of who and what God is and does as we approach Epiphany. Without God’s inspiration and engagement, humanity would have remained stuck in a place far from hope and far from heaven.

God’s gift to the world was his taking flesh, being born, but we need to accept that gift. We must recognise our need, before we can understand the wonder. As Denise Levertov writes in her poem “On the Mystery of the Incarnation”: It’s when we face for a moment the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know the taint in our own selves, that awe cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart.

(*) One of the phrases that Jesus said often during his ministry was: Do not fear. And it is that fear that he came to take from us.

Fear is the source of so much that is evil in this world: because people fear what will happen to their jobs they begin to abuse those who they think are to blame, because people fear what they don’t understand there is a rise in Islamophobia, in anti-Semitism, in homophobia… , because people fear they don’t have enough money, or possessions, there is a downturn in generosity, in caring for others. Fear breeds fear… When we forget that God is in control, it is then that we too feel fear, and that fear begins to cause us to become what we do not want to be, we recognise “the taint in our own selves” and we build walls between us and God, between us and others.

But Jesus tells us time and time again: do not fear. Even his name, given to Mary at the Annunciation, is a reminder that we have no cause to fear: Jesus, meaning God Saves.

Sometimes as a preacher there is a mystery as to why those who put the Lectionary together chose certain readings to go with certain others; but today there is no real mystery. The reading from Jeremiah is one that speaks of the hope for a future when God brings his faithful people home from exile. They will need to fear no more, for God is with them, he is faithful and true, and will fulfil his covenant. Human helplessness and hopelessness will be transformed by the unshakeable presence of God. The Psalm too speaks of the joy of knowing that God is close, and the Epistle reminds us that we – you and I – are adopted members of God’s family and it celebrates the belief that in Jesus, God plans to embrace all people and the entire created order.

The good news is that God chooses humanity. God is on our side, and will travel with us throughout history. We have not been left on our own or to our own devices. We have not been left without meaning to our lives, or directions to travel. We have choices and hope, because God chooses to identify with us. God chooses to accompany us throughout the journey of faith and life.

This is what the Incarnation is about – Emmanuel, God with us. God with us through the turmoil of life. God with us in the joys and sorrows. God with us when we don’t feel close to him. God with us in the valleys and the mountaintops. God with us at the start of a new year, full of uncertainty and confusion. Do not fear.

And that is what is at the heart of Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth: the promise that it is precisely this world that God came to, this people so mastered by fear that we often do the unthinkable to each other and ourselves that God loves, this gaping need that we have and bear that God remedies. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, the living, breathing, and vulnerable promise that God chose to come live and die for us, as we are, so that in Christ’s resurrection we, too might experience newness of life. (*)

Whatever our fears may be, Epiphany reminds us that we can live our lives in a new light. Epiphany reminds us that Jesus, the light of the world, has arrived in all his rule-breaking, table-turning glory, helping us to see all things, and even ourselves, in new ways.

It is the greatest news that ever was, is, or shall be. “Take heart,” Jesus says, “It is I; have no fear.” May you and I always seek to live in the light of his promise.

A Pause in Advent…

Angela over at Tracing Rainbows is hosting “A Pause in Advent” where bloggers blog each week about Advent, giving us a pause from the business and maelstrom of Christmas preparations to think about what is coming…

I haven’t joined in as I wasn’t sure how much I’d feel like blogging (see Black Dog post from earlier) but I thought I’d add a few links…

Yesterday’s sermon

If you should be interested, here’s a link to

  1. Christ Church, Clermont Ferrand’s website
  2. The website where we publish the “weekly message” (though not always weekly…)

During the summer, the Eglise Reformée, who own the building, have their Sunday morning services there, so we have to have our service at 17h30. Not terribly convenient for people like me, who travel from some distance to get here, but there’s nothing to be done.  Because many of our parishioners go home to visit family, or take the opportunity to tour Europe, during this time, we took the decision to only have services every other week. It’s not ideal, but it does mean that the service leader doesn’t spend hours preparing a service for two people.

Yesterday I was taking the service – the one Eucharistic service in July. My sermon is on the site “Oh Taste and See“, under the title “Being and Doing” If you go to read it, it would be nice if you left a comment, evenif it’s just saying “Hello”!

I can just imagine Martha saying “Those vegetables won’t peel themselves, you know!”

 

Not every day do we encounter God…

 

 

Not every day do we encounter God;

not every time is opportune for prayer;

not every hour one of grace.

We fail, and fail again, till journey’s end.

We turn back, only to lose our way once more,

and grope in search of long forgotten paths.

But God, holding a candle, looks for all those

who wander, all who search.

 

 

(from the Selichot service for Jewish High holidays)

Christ Church, Clermont Ferrand

A few weeks back I was stuck, not knowing what to write about, and Mags suggested that she’d like to hear more about Christ Church, the Episcopal church I attend in Clermont Ferrand. I don’t know much about its history, so I did a bit of digging, and found some information, including a text from someone writing about the beginnings of the church…

So, here is this small very “Anglican” chapel in the centre (well, on the outskirts) of a suburb of Clermont…How did it get here?

It’s actually in Royat, which used to be a seperate Spa town, until Clermont grew and swallowed it up. Royat was popular with Brits – possibly on the Grand Tour (although as it’s not very well known, it may have been on the not-so-grand-tour)  but possibly just for those who wanted to “take the waters”. There are several spa towns in the surrounding areas – Volvic, Vichy, St Galmier… So in 1886, an Anglican chapel was built here

This plaque inthe church commemorates Amie Brandt who was obviously very involved in the founding of the chapel. As far as I can find, her husband, Dr GH Brandt was carrying out research of some kind on the waters at Royat-Les-Bains (to give it its full title)

The chapel was handed over to the Eglise Reformée (Protestant church) of France, and specifically into the care of the Eglise Reformée of Clermont Ferrand, but they had built their new city centre church in the 60s, to replace an older building, and weren’t too interested in using this small chapel

The inside of the Eglise Reformée Clermont Ferrand

Here we are, with a small unloved chapel needing an occupant…and in elsewhere in Clermont Ferrand, a seed was starting to germinate…

Using the words of a member of Christ Church, the story unfolds:

In the mid-1990’s, a small group of Michelin employees expatriated from the U.S. began to talk about start an English speaking worship service.   They found that there were several American and British families living in the Auvergne looking for a church to call their own.   The Convocation of American Churches in Europe in Paris was contacted for advice and help in starting a new church in France.  With the support of the Episcopal Church, the first service was held in front of the fireplace at the home of Blake and Nadine Redding on May 29, 1996.  The Bishop in charge, the Rt. Rev. Jeffery Rowthorn led five families in that first worship service.

Periodically, services were held in the home for several months, but it soon became apparent that the group did not want to limit the number of worshipers, so a search began for a larger worship space.  The leaders of the small congregation knocked on the doors of the Eglise Reformée in Clermont Ferrand to ask their advice.  The Eglise Reformée had a chapel in the spa town of Royat – a village five kilometers from the center of Clermont Ferrand.  They only occupied the chapel in the summer, so they were willing to let the new congregation use the chapel.

So the fledgling group had a five families and a place to worship – now to secure the services of a priest.  It was obvious Bishop Rowthorn could not lead services on a regular basis, so the Reverend Joe Britton agreed to come to Clermont Ferrand for a short period of time.  Father Joe led services two times per month.  He would get on a train in Paris in the morning, have lunch with some of the congregants in the afternoon, lead services at 5:00 PM, and take the four hour train back to Paris at 7:00 PM Sunday evening.  Father Joe remained faithful to  this “short-term” arrangement from 1996 until December 2002.

Soon after the chapel in Royat was located as a home for the congregation, news began to spread about the availability of English speaking worship services.  Although started by Episcopalians and adding a British family of Anglican tradition, the expatriate community in Clermont Ferrand comes from a variety of Christian denominations.  Everyone arrives with their idea of how worship should be held; what it means to worship, how we pray, and how we relate.  In spite of these differences, here in the Auvergne, these individual perspectives are laid aside in favor of a communal worship experience.

The church expanded and contracted depending on the economic constraints and needs of the employer of the majority of the congregation.  The mission was surviving with the help of the convocation.

Then, after nearly six years, Father Joe accepted a position in U.S. and was no longer able to hold services in Clermont Ferrand.   So the Bishop’s Committee at the church was asked to consider options about how to proceed.  Could the small mission, whose viability to that time had relied on a particular population, hire and maintain a full-time pastor?  After much prayer, a plan was laid to hire an interim priest.  In January 2003, after a great deal of preparation, we welcomed our first resident pastor, the Reverend Karl E. Bell.  Father Karl’s appointment was as an interim priest – meaning he would be leaving in the near future.  This concept wasn’t heavily factored in to the equation of hiring a priest.  More mundane issues such as finding an apartment, paying utilities, furnishing an apartment, and setting up bank accounts took priority.  All of those tasks that individuals do for themselves, in a non-English speaking environment, now needed to be done for someone else.   With Father Karl available, the church began holding services every week rather than twice per month.  Since most of the congregants are expatriates, a lot of families take the opportunity to travel in Europe on weekends during their short stay.  So, many in the congregation believed that weekly services would reduce the number of people in the pews.  Oddly, the opposite was true, and the congregation began to grow.

Due to Rev. Bell’s retirement, Christ Church began a search for its second resident minister in spring 2004.  Father Tony Clavier and his wife Pat moved to Clermont Ferrand to take services as an interim priest.  Now the small but growing congregation had a priest and a pastor’s wife.  The chapel is in the hills outside of Clermont, is a summer chapel, and the winters are cold.  Other than an unreliable (and later proven dangerous!) gas heater, there was no heat.  From December until late March, congregants dressed warmly and we could see our breathe during most services.  So, thanks to a grant from a women’s outreach club at the Cathedral in Paris, we installed infrared lamp heaters.  Also during this time the Bishop’s Committee decided to change services from 5:00 PM to 10:30 AM.  Again, many in the congregation believed that weekly services would reduce the number of people in the pews.  And again, the opposite was true, and the church continued to grow.

After a long and far-reaching search, the Bishop’s Committee sought the help of the Holy Spirit.  After much prayer, the committee discerned that Father Luk DeVolder was called to shepherd our church.  Father Luk and his wife Tiffany accepted the challenge, in July 2005, the Reverend Dr. Luk De Volder took to the pulpit.   And the church continued to grow.

Through a series of true “Leaps of Faith” the congregation has grown and thrived.  It is funny what a bit of success can do for a group. People who in their “home towns” that would not think of attending the same church, worship and fellowship together.  Willingly.  Happily, Faithfully.  I often hear from former members who have returned to their lives in the states.  Overwhelmingly, one of the main things they miss is the fellowship of the church.

The church has grown from being a mission relying on the Convocation for support, to a mission that supports itself, and contributes to the Convocation.  We have members that participate in every area of the Convocation; on the Council of Advice, the Finance Committee, and participation in Youth Events.

Some of our ministries include Sunday school, prayer chain, women’s bible study, men’s bible study, couple’s bible study, youth group, outreach to college students, lots of music, and lots of fellowship. Starting with five faithful families, the support of the Convocation, the vision of Bishop Jeffrey, the continuing support of Bishop Pierre, the commitment of Father Joe, the numerous members of Bishop’s Committees, hundreds of congregants come and gone, until today, our church has been blessed.

After Father Luk left, a new Rector, Rob Warren and his wife Caireen came from Scotland. He led the church for 6 years, with Caireen doing tremendous work with our young people.

Caireen leading Lunch Bunch – our “Sunday School”, held on Friday lunchtime.

Their last Sunday with us, before setting off for a new adventure in Rome, was a bitter sweet occasion….but as the note says: regular services continue, even though Rob and Caireen have left us.

And now we are in a period of interregnum – deciding where we are going next. As the congregation has grown smaller, as Michelin’s policy on ex-pats has changed, we find ourselves unable to support a full time Senior Rector, so we are looking at different possibilities. We have had tremendous support from the Convocation of the Episcopal Church in Europe, and look forward to our first visit from Bishop Mark Edington, the newly elected Bishop, at the end of June. He has experienced bi-vocational ministry in action, and we hope that he will be able to give us advice and encouragement.

Archdeacon Walter Baer, Deputy to the Bishop, preaching a couple of weeks back. Thanks Walter for visiting us and encouraging the congregation with the Word of God!

For the moment, we have Eucharistic services, using reserved sacrament, which I lead, plus morning prayer led by other talented members of the congregation. We have some visiting priests too, but generally, I think we are thriving under this temporary regime. I rather like it, as I’m getting plenty of opportunity to preach!!

Here is the congregation last Sunday, at Pentecost. I’m there, slap bang in the middle, wearing my Reader’s robes, as I’d just led the church in Communion (using reserved sacrament) It is missing some key members, who are on holiday, or visiting family.

We are particularly proud of one member of the congregation, who is away at boarding school in the UK. From our FB page: After a long essay style application and a thorough discernment process, Caitlin Mahoney, one of our youth from Christ Church has been invited to serve on the Planning Team for the triennial Episcopal Youth Event (EYE 2020). The event will be held in Washington D.C in partnership with the Washington National Cathedral, Howard University and the Diocese of Washington. She will be required to attend 3 planning weekends in the USA and EYE 2020 – all in her A level year! She will be representing not only Christ Church but also the Convocation at this large event with 1400 youth. Caitlin says, ” I am thrilled to have the opportunity to be a part of this Youth Planning Team for this wonderful event, where so many young, diverse young Christians come together to strengthen their faith and worship the Lord” Well done Caitlin.

 

So, there you are, Mags, a potted history of Christ Church, Clermont Ferrand. If my readers are so minded, some prayer for the future of our small but lively congregation would be gratefully received.

From one end, and the other!

 

 

Good Friday service

Yes, I know that Good Friday and Easter Sunday have passed now, but I thought I’d tell you about the Good Friday service that I led.

I set up the church thus:

for the beginning of the service. A friend made the big cross for another Good Friday service that I led: it stays in the cellar most of the time, but comes out at Easter!

This was the liturgy:

The Last supper – Reading: Mark 14: 12 -26 – Silence

The Reader lays a chalice and loaf at the foot of the cross.

Lord Christ, when you shared your last meal with your disciples, you talked of love, of sharing and of sacrifice. Too often we come to your table unloving, ungracious and concerned about ourselves.

We lay at the foot of the cross the burden of our selfishness.

Lord, take these symbols of your sacrificial meal, of your desire to share yourself with the whole world. Heal us of our selfishness and bring us to a fresh understanding of how you call us to be your servants in the world.

We lay at the foot of the cross the burden of our selfishness.

MUSIC: The Last Supper by Adrian Snell

Jesus is betrayed by Judas – Reading: Mark 14: 32 – 51 Silence

The Reader lays a bag of money at the foot of the cross

Judas betrayed his Master for a bag of silver coins. In his greed for his own gain he gave his Lord to his enemies.

We lay at the foot of the cross the burden of our greed.

Lord, take these symbols of Judas’s greed and betrayal. Heal us of our greed, our desire to always have the best, to always have more. Help us to be aware of how our greed exploits others, how we betray our brothers and sisters  as we reach out to grasp the next thing that we want.

We lay at the foot of the cross the burden of our greed

Peter’s denial – Reading: Matthew 26: 69 – 75 Silence

The Reader lays chains at the foot of the cross.

Peter stood in the courtyard and watched the people condemn you. Afraid of what would happen if he admitted knowing you, instead he denied you. He said he never knew you. He even swore that he had never met you. Instead of bringing your love to the place where he was, he dismissed you.

We lay at the foot of the cross the burden of our fear.

Lord, take these chains, symbols of Peter’s fearful denial. Heal us of our fear; the fear that binds us, the fear leads us to deny that we know you, the fear that prevents us from bringing your light and life to others. Help us to have the strength to bring your love and Good News in all situations that you have placed us in.

We lay at the foot of the cross the burden of our fear.

  Jesus is condemned – Reading: Matthew 27: 11 – 26 Silence

The Reader lays a basin at the foot of the cross.

Pilate washed his hands of you. Swayed by public opinion, he did what he knew was wrong and gave you over to be crucified. He cleared his own conscience by blaming other people. He would not own up to his part in your death.

We lay at the foot of the cross the burden of our guilt – and our acceptance of that guilt

Lord, take this symbol of our willingness to blame others. Dear Christ, too often we are quick to blame other people for the problems of the world, and we do not recognise our own part in those problems. Help us to see how it was as much our voice as the voices of others that condemned you to die; help us to understand that it is our greed, our lack of care, our indifference   that contributes to the oppression of others and the slow destruction of our world. Help us to care.

We lay at the foot of the cross the burden of our guilt – and our acceptance of that guilt

Jesus is mocked by the soldiers  – Reading: Mark 15:16 – 20 Silence

The Reader lays a crown of thorns at the foot of the cross.

The soldiers mocked you, they spat on you, they forced you to wear a crown of thorns, they treated you as something less than human. In their eagerness to make fun of you, they neglected to see that you were as much a person as they were. They were indifferent to your pain and to your suffering.

We lay at the foot of the cross the burden of our indifference.

Lord God, take this symbol of our indifference. Like the soldiers, sometimes we too do not see the humanity of others. We pass by the beggar without seeing his hunger; we buy the clothes with no thought for the sweatshop workers who made them; we see the pain of others but do not question how we can become involved. We avert our eyes and pass by. Heal us of our indifference. Help us to see you in every person in need, help us to ask what we can do. Help us to see humanity.

We lay at the foot of the cross the burden of our indifference.

 MUSIC: AGNUS DEI – Fauré

Jesus is nailed to the cross – Reading: John 19:16 – 24 Silence

The Reader lays a hammer and nails at the foot of the cross.

It is our sins that nailed you to that cross. But it was your love for us that held you there.

We lay at the foot of the cross the burden of our sin.

Christ crucified, take these symbols of your suffering, and our sins.  Forgive us for the times when we take your suffering lightly, unconscious to what it really meant for you to go through this for us. Help us to recognise our part in your death, and to thank you with true humility and gratitude.

We lay at the foot of the cross the burden of our sin.

Jesus dies – Reading: Mark 15: 33 – 37 Silence

The Reader lays candle at the foot of the cross.

We lay at the foot of the cross every burden that is in our heart.

Silence.

MUSIC: At the Foot of the Cross

Reader: The tiny flickering flame of just one candle scatters the deepest darkness.

The reader lights the candle.

Rise up, O flame: By your burning light, show to us beauty, wisdom, truth and love

I think it went well. There was a little lad there with his mum, who can’t have been more than about 6 (the boy, not his mum!!!). I was worried that it might be too long and serious for him, but he was tremendously well behaved. He whispered questions about the different artefacts I was putting down, and he had some colouring to do, but apart from needing to go out once, he was great. His mum explained that they go to the Evangelical church, but there was no Good Friday service, so they came to us. It was a pleasure to have them visit us.

Another visitor asked if she could take the liturgy away with her – I’d provided leaflets with things to meditate on, but not the liturgy shown above. I was happy for her to take it away. If anyone reading this thinks they might wish to use it in the future, feel free. I honestly can’t remember if it’s something I created, or something I “borrowed” from elsewhere

This is the text from the leaflet:

We are gathered here, as the family of God to remember the day that Jesus chose to die for us, to try to understand what this meant for him, and to marvel at the extent of his love for us.

We think of the part we play in crucifying Christ today, and lay our burdens of guilt and sin at the foot of the cross.

The Last supper:         Mark 14: 12 -26

Think how easily you can tear bread: think how easily a person’s body can be hurt and broken.Think how easily wine can be spilled: think how easily a person can be made to bleed.Think how hard it is to undo the damage.

A chalice and bread is laid at the foot of the cross.

MUSIC: The Last Supper by Adrian Snell

Jesus is betrayed by Judas:  Mark 14: 32 – 51

Judas gave a kiss to his Master, and in this way, he delivered Jesus into the hands of his enemies. He betrayed the One who trusted him. How do we betray Jesus in our words and actions, when through self-centredness we turn from those whose needs are entrusted to us?

A bag of money is laid at the foot of the cross.

Peter’s denial:   Matthew 26: 69 – 75

Stay with us, Lord Jesus, we pray, and at those moments when we are most vulnerable, help us to remain firm in faith. With Your help, may we take our stand against all that is wrong and evil in our world, and testify to Your saving and redeeming love.

Chains are laid at the foot of the cross

Jesus is condemned:   Matthew 27: 11 – 26

So many accusing fingers…denouncing, destroying our fellow men… How ready we are to blame others for our own calamities, our failures, our sin… How easily we point the fingers at those who cannot defend themselves…And yet, as we make others suffer, we diminish ourselves. Our threatening hands bind us with new chains…

A basin is laid at the foot of the cross.

Jesus is mocked by the soldiers:      Mark 15:16 – 20

What is that heap of bones, that pathetic pile of rags at the side of our roads? It is a man, as I am a man. Hungry belly, face stained with mud. Many like him cry out…But every humiliation inflicted on any person disfigures us all, because it disfigures the humanity we share.

A crown of thorns is laid at the foot of the cross.

MUSIC: Agnus Dei – from Fauré’s Requiem.

Jesus is nailed to the cross     Reading: John 19:16 – 24

Before we can begin to see the cross as something done for us, we have to see it as something done by us.”  ― John Stott

God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing – or should we say “seeing”? there are no tenses in God – the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up. If I may dare the biological image, God is a “host” who deliberately creates His own parasites; causes us to be that we may exploit and “take advantage of” Him. Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.”    ― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

A hammer and nails are laid at the foot of the cross.

Jesus dies           Mark 15: 33 – 37

A candle is laid at the foot of the cross.

MUSIC: At the Foot of the Cross by Kathryn Scott

At the foot of the cross
Where grace and suffering meet
You have shown me Your love
Through the judgment You received

And You’ve won my heart
Yes You’ve won my heart
Now I can … Trade these ashes in for beauty
and wear forgiveness like a crown

Coming to kiss the feet of mercy
I lay every burden down
at the foot of the cross

 At the foot of the cross
Where I am made complete
You have given me life
Through the death You bore for me

I’m laying every burden down
I’m laying every burden down

The candle is lit

The tiny flickering flame of just one candle scatters the deepest darkness.

Rise up, O flame: By your burning light, show to us beauty, wisdom, truth and love

As I say, if you think you can use it, then feel free.

It’s been a long road… Today’s sermon.

READING ACTS:9:1 –  18

A Damascus Road conversion – this is a phrase which many people understand as meaning a complete about face, being changed from one point of view to another that is diametrically opposed, a U turn. Even if people don’t know much about St Paul, it is the dramatic turn of events on the Damascus Road that they usually know about. Very little about what went before it, and probably even less about what went on after it. And to be honest, I wonder if some of us are in the same situation – I know that my knowledge of Paul’s life is sadly lacking. I know he went about preaching to a lot of people, and that he was a copious letter writer, and that much of the theology of the Church today is built on his understanding of the revelations of God. But I don’t really know much about him…

Well, it seems that few backgrounds could have better prepared Saul, as he was known before his conversion to Christianity, to be the chief persecutor of the early church. He was born in Tarsus – “no mean city” as he liked to describe it – which was a major Roman city on the coast of Southeast Asia Minor. Tarsus was a centre for the tent making trade and from Acts 18 verse 3 we know that Saul was a tentmaker as well. It says there that he stayed with Aquila and Priscilla, who were tent makers “because he was of the same trade”. Although Saul was well known was a teacher of the Jewish Law, he would have still needed a profession to support himself, as teachers of the Law were not paid for their services; thus he was a tent maker.

However, in Acts 22:3 it tells us that Saul was actually brought up in Jerusalem, studying under Gamaliel, who was the most illustrious and respected rabbis of the day. Perhaps he and his family moved from Tarsus when Paul was young, but his father taught him the rudiments of tent making even then. Whatever it was that brought Saul to Jerusalem, it gave him the opportunity to study Jewish Law under a great teacher. This training prepared Saul to become one of the Pharisees, who were the religious elite of Judaism. He was the kind of pupil every teacher dreams of, zealous, enthusiastic and interested – I bet he always got his homework in on time! So much so that he outstripped his peers in enthusiasm for the traditions and in his zeal for the Law. He had the opportunity to observe the Council and come to know many of its principals and inner workings. He would have been there to watch encounters between the Council and members of the Way, as Christianity was called in its early days, and to be astounded at the blasphemies that were being revealed. And he was there at the stoning of Stephen, which galvanised his commitment to traditional Judaism and set him off on a mission to seek out and destroy as many believers as he could. As Acts 8:3 reports “ As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison”.

He was then devout, energetic, outspoken, enthusiastic, stubborn, and full of fire for what he saw as God’s way. Perfect to rout out the blaspheming Christians and put them to death. Even more perfect for what God had in mind for him…

Because, as we know, God had great things planned for Saul… But first he had to realise and to understand that what he had seen as great blasphemy – that a man, Jesus of Nazareth, is also the Christ, the Messiah, God in human form come to save the world from its sins and to open the way to a new and different relationship with Jehovah, the God of Abraham – this blasphemy was in fact the Truth. And how on earth was God going to do that? It would need something huge and dramatic to convince Saul of Tarsus. So huge and dramatic was what Saul of Tarsus got.

And that is one of the great things about God – because he knows us all so well, he knows what each of us needs to show us the way. We saw this in the Gospel reading. Having betrayed his Lord three times Peter was no doubt feeling despondent and a failure. So Jesus took him to one side and offered him the chance to reaffirm his love for his Risen Lord. And what I like about this story is the way Jesus gently gets Peter to realise that all the way along, through all of the pain of the crucifixion, Jesus had known of Peter’s love and devotion, that his denial had been a lapse, but that his love for his Master had never faltered. For on the third asking “Do you love me?” Peter answers, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you!” You have always known; you know what I need and you meet that need… Jesus gave him what he needed. In our modern world there are some, who like to question and debate, and there are Alpha courses where questions are welcomed and debate is continued; Jesus meets them in their questioning, gently providing answers. For others, sadly, they need to hit rock bottom before they will listen to what God is saying and be able to take his hand; for people like me, brought up in a Christian home, there is a gradual realisation of what God has done, and a quiet handing over of ones life to the Lord; and for yet others, stubborn and convinced that they know where they are going, there is the Damascus Road experience. Which is exactly what Saul got. Whichever way we need to finally convince us, everyone has to, at one point or another, submit to the will of God.

Perhaps the chief irony of Paul’s calling (for we must call him Paul, now he has changed, and had his life turned round) was that he was called to be the “apostle to the Gentiles” We are told in Acts 9:15 that God tells Ananias that Paul “is a chosen vessel to bear my name before Gentiles, Kings and the children of Israel”. The irony of this, and a demonstration of how, if we’re truly honest, we can see God doesn’t always make things easy for his followers, is that Paul had been a Pharisee, the very title meaning “to separate”. Some Pharisees would not even eat with non-Pharisees for fear of being contaminated by food which was not ritually clean. They kept themselves separated from women, from lepers, from Samaritans and especially from Gentiles. So Paul was being asked to make a U turn from all he had been taught, from all that was ingrained in his upbringing, and to mix with Gentiles.

And let’s make no bones about it – he found it hard. He was being asked to do things that were not natural to him – to mix with foreigners, to treat women in the same equal way as men. It took Paul years to re-evaluate his perspectives and to bring them in line with the heart of God for the world. But his character, which God knew and loved, stood him in good stead – his stubbornness meaning that once he realised what God wanted he would have struggled even with himself and his natural tendencies, with his enthusiasm and zeal for God shoring him up in his darkest times. When we become Christians God asks us to change our perspective, he doesn’t ask us to change our characters; he has made us as we are, and loves us. Whether we are shy, hot headed, stubborn, not particularly clever, outgoing – whatever we are, God can use those parts of our characters to his good and glory as long as we are open to him. Just as he used Saul’s character to make Paul, ambassador to the Gentiles, so he can use us to do his will.

But, as I said, this about face wasn’t easy for Saul, he needed time to think, to re-evaluate all that he had done before. It can’t be easy for someone to suddenly revise the entire theological basis on which he’s been living. No-one – least of all Paul – likes to admit that they’ve been wrong. No wonder he needed to spend a lot of time in prayer. And in order to help Paul face what needed changing God sent two things.

First, he gave Paul “time out” – he was made blind for three days, making it a necessity for him to be still and not to move about. All he could do for those three days was to sit and think, and to talk to people. And I think to it was here that Paul may have had his first lesson in humility and in the need to depend on other people. I get the feeling that the old Saul had never depended on others before; he had everything he needed to forge his way in the world, he was self assured and confident. Imagine how difficult it would be for this know-it-all Saul to have to listen and learn from others, which is what he would have to do, as any young Christian learns from those who are more mature in their faith. So he needed to be brought down a peg or two – I don’t suppose God took any pleasure in it, but he knew the necessity. So, in his blindness, Paul learned to depend on others for his food and for every other need, and he had time to sit and think and learn – about himself, about the Way, and about what it was God required of him. He was given time to be able to talk to others.

And this is the second thing that God gave Paul. He gave him a friend. Because, if you think about it, this new Christian wasn’t necessarily going to be welcomed with open arms into the Christian community. He had been heading to Damascus in order to hunt down, arrest and ultimately to kill the Christians who lived there. And suddenly he was claiming to be one of them. Well, was this a trick? Had he really changed? Who was going to be brave enough to find out?

I really admire Ananias. He had no doubt heard that Saul, the scourge of the early Church, was on his way to Damascus; he would have known Saul’s methods, his eagerness to persecute those who followed the Way, and I am sure that Ananias was scared. Maybe he had already prepared himself to be hunted down, arrested, imprisoned and ultimately put to death for his beliefs. And then, as is his way, God asks Ananias to do something that, on first sight, seems utterly ridiculous.

In a vision, God spoke to Ananias, “Go to the street called Straight and inquire at the house of Judas for one Saul of Tarsus”… And basically, Ananias replied,

“You must be joking…I’ve heard what this man does to people – and you want me to go and speak to him…?”

But God replied, “I have great things planned for this man”. And he might also have added, “and you will be the one to start these off.”

Ananias must surely have been terrified, but he went obediently to lay hands on Saul that he might receive the Holy Spirit and to baptise him. And as a result Ananias witnessed the spiritual birth of one of the early church’s greatest spokesmen. He also saw a dramatic demonstration of the truth that God’s grace can overcome anyone’s background.

But what would have happened if Ananias hadn’t trusted God enough? If he had refused to believe that God was asking him to do such a seemingly stupid thing as go and introduce himself to the persecutor of the followers of Jesus? We will never know, as thankfully Ananias was obedient to God. But perhaps it should cause us to pause and think – who might God want us to approach with his message? Who do we harbour doubts about, believing that they will never change, never enter the faith?

If Ananias had not responded to his call from God, perhaps God calling Paul would have been worthless, for he would not have been able to take the next steps towards growing into a charismatic leader and tireless preacher of God’s word. We should wonder, now that God has called us – in whatever way – how can he use us to bring others, however unlikely we might feel they are, into his love?

I know I have read this short piece recently, but I think it bears repeating, especially as we consider Ananias’s faithfulness to God’s call:

There is an old Christian tradition

That God sends each person into this world

With a special message to deliver

With a special song to sing for others

With a special act of love to bestow.

No-one else can speak my message,

Or sing my song

Or offer my act of love.

These are entrusted only to me.

As Ananias was called on to speak the message to Paul, to sing the song of God’s love and to offer his hand of friendship to a man who had once been his enemy, we ask ourselves What is God calling us to do? What is our message, our song, our act of love?

*****

And here’s a rather pleasant country-style song, “The Road to Damascus”