Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


Saint Paul
January 31, 2012, 10:11 am
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday 29th January 2012

Tonight I want to think a little about St Paul, whose Conversion we celebrated last Wednesday. At Mass I made some more or less extempore remarks, which I should like to put in more coherent form now.

We all know the outline of St Paul’s life. He was born in Tarsus (in modern Turkey), studied in Jerusalem as a Pharisee, rejected the claim that Jesus was the Messiah, and persecuted those who made it. Then, suddenly, on the road to Damascus, he had a vision of the risen Christ, which turned his whole life upside down. From then on, he passionately proclaimed what he had previously denied, and saw it as his special mission to preach this not simply to his fellow Jews, but to people of any and every nation. He wrote a number of letters to the churches he had founded, and was eventually sent to Rome as a prisoner, there to be martyred under the Emperor Nero.

All that is true, but it is not all the truth. There is more. By God’s providence, we have not only most of the letters he wrote; but we have at least an outline of his career in the book called “Acts of the Apostles” by St Luke, the author of the third Gospel. Paul was by no means the only missionary of the first decades of Christianity, but he was the one whom Luke knew best, and so he became the hero of the second half of Luke’s book. But Luke only gives us the view from the outside. It is in the Epistles that we see inside Paul’s mind, an even more interesting view.

Because Paul’s letters are “Bible”, they are read by many in a naive and uncritical way as “God’s word”, without reflecting on the human mind through which that word comes to us. Paul is made to answer questions which he had almost certainly never thought of, and his words are given the technical meaning of later theology, forgetting that neither Paul nor his first readers could have understood them in that way.

So what was St Paul’s essential message, his Gospel? It can be summarised in words he wrote to the Corinthians: “God in the Messiah was reconciling the world to himself, and he has entrusted to us the message of reconciliation.” St Paul accepts that the world as it is, is full of hostility and conflict, between human beings and God, and between human beings themselves. This is not how things ought to be, not how God intended it. Never mind how it has come to be, what has God done about it? He has sent the Messiah. Jesus has reconciled the world to God.

How has Jesus done this? He has reversed the process of human disobedience by his own obedience. Though he was rich, he made himself poor. Though he was in the form of God, he emptied himself. He proved his utter obedience to the Divine will by submitting even to the death of the cross. The very fact that was originally a stumbling block to Paul, he now sees as the key to God’s purposes.

One of the great divisions in humanity, as Paul saw it, was that between Jew and Gentile. God had revealed himself to Abraham, and again to Moses. He had formed a People, made a covenant with them, given them a Law. Many Jews (himself included) had seen this in an exclusive sense: we are chosen, you are not. Paul now realised that the mission of Israel had always been a universal one, to bring all nations to God. This could not be achieved until the Messiah came, but now the mission to the world had to begin in earnest, and he himself had been specially commissioned by Jesus himself to promote it.

Paul was, and is, much misunderstood. He did not reject or even belittle the Law God had given to Israel. He merely said that it was not, in all its detail, binding on any but the Jews: Gentiles could come to God, through Jesus, without it. The Law had been a preparation, Jesus was the Living Law who fulfilled it, by his own faithfulness. It is this faithfulness to God, and in particular to God in Jesus the Messiah, that counts. Obedience is in the heart, not just in outward conformity. We are put in a right relationship with God (“justified”) when we trust him entirely (“have faith in him”). God’s faithfulness to his Word is our reason for being faithful to him.

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