Sunday, 25 January 2015

Conversion of St Paul: Dangerous zeal

Today’s readings should cause us profound unease. If they don’t then we probably aren’t reading them carefully enough.
The thing that bothers me in them is all that zeal; there are no half-measures here. I’ll come on to St Paul in a moment, but let’s start with the Gospel reading. Jesus tells his followers that if they  leave their “ brothers, sisters, father, mother, children or fields, for [his] sake”. They will “ receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life” which might sound ok for the person who is doing the leaving, but what about all those brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers and children? Never mind receiving a hundredfold, they just wanted the presence and support of one person, the person who has headed off into the wide-blue-yonder with this troublemaking preacher.  Can this really be right? However good the cause, should we really be leaving behind those who need us?

As ever with the Bible, we need to take the context into account, though . This passage isn’t some universal instruction for Christians. There are many occasions in the Gospels when Jesus tells people to stay put in their communities – a mentally ill man he heals inGerasa begs to follow Jesus, but he’s firmly told to go back to his family and his village. They are the ones who most need his message. Jesus enjoys – and relies on – the hospitality of families  like that of Martha, Mary and Lazarus too and often stays with them in their homes.  Most Christians through most of human history have lived out their faith within their families and neighbourhoods, settled, stable and supporting each other, and that is as it should be. It’s just as much of a calling to stay where you are, with the people whom God has given you, as it is to go to the other side of the world on some great, exciting mission, and often as challenging too.

But whether we leave home or not following Christ can, and probably will, bring challenges for us wherever we are, and sometimes conflict too, so these words are still important.  The people Matthew was writing for knew all about that. They lived in dangerous times. When they decided to follow the way of Christ some of them would have been rejected by family and friends and some might have faced death. Was that fair on their dependents? Jesus’ mother might have sympathised too. What can it have been like for her to watch Jesus die? He could have opted for safety, given up his preaching, lived in obscurity and given her grandchildren. But he didn’t.

The Gospels don’t suggest or condone deliberately neglecting our responsibilities to those who depend on us, but they do recognise that life can involve painful choices. That’s not just true for Christians. It is true for anyone who has a conscience. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese activist, endured long years of house arrest, unable to see her husband and children, because of her opposition to the dictatorial  rule of the Burmese military.. Perhaps there were times when her family wished she’d kept her opinions to herself. But if no one speaks out, evil goes unchallenged.
Families who hid Jewish people in Nazi occupied countries during the war took appalling risks to do so, and some died as a result. Should they have shrugged their shoulders and shut the door in the faces of those who needed their help? Their own families would have been safer if they had. Health workers who have volunteered to go to care for those with Ebola, exposing themselves to the risk of catching it too; is it responsible of them to put their own families through all the anxiety, and possibly the grief of losing them?

Our dilemmas are often smaller, but they weigh on our minds nonetheless. We may want to volunteer to help in some local organisation or good cause, but it’s not just us who pays the price of that in time and energy, it is our nearest and dearest too.  Is it right to say “no” to our own families so we can say “yes” to some cause, however worthy?  What is the message we give to our children if are so busy with others that we have no time for them? But equally what does it say to them  if we play no part in the community around us? Enthusiasm, commitment, zeal – they are important, but in a pressurised society, can we afford them? It’s a perennial dilemma for all those of us who run voluntary organisations like the church or other local groups. We know that people have demands of work, family and friends to meet too, but if no one helps then nothing happens and neighbourhoods become poorer for it

St Paul doesn’t seem to have had a family of his own, or if he did he had long ago left them behind in his determination to follow his religious calling. We heard his story in today’s first reading; he’s called Saul here, but it is the same man who this church is dedicated to, along with St Peter. Saul is the Hebrew name he used in Jewish circles. Paul is his Roman name. Commitment seems to have come naturally to him, zealous passionate, 110% involvement in the things that mattered to him. But what is it that matters to him?  When we first meet him, his number one priority is getting rid of Christian faith. He was probably a Pharisee, a strict, ultra-observant Jew, and he if  firmly convinced that Jesus was not just wrong, but cursed by God. He believes the Jewish authorities were right to persuade the Romans to crucify him, and that they should get rid of his followers too.  

We don’t have to look far to find young men like him today. He’s not so very different from those  Islamic Jihadis who head off to the Middle East to fight in what they think is a noble cause. We are so used to the idea of Saint Paul as Christian hero that we may miss or underplay what came before that. There was blood on his hands. His opposition to the church was violent. He set off to Damascus “breathing threats and murder” against Christians. That’s not a figure of speech; it is a description of reality. He had a reputation for dragging Christians out of their houses and having them committed to prison, where some of them would certainly have met their end. He’s there in the background at the stoning of St Stephen, holding people’s cloaks so they can get a better aim.

There was and is nothing intrinsically violent about Jewish faith, of course. It was the faith of Jesus, and most of his first followers; many who followed the path of Judaism were peaceful, good, loving people. Most didn’t think like Paul, any more than most Muslims are jihadis, or most Christians like Medieval Crusaders. But there are always some followers of any faith or political ideology who get so caught up in their own self-righteous certainty that they lose track of humanity and empathy. They stop seeing those who disagree as having any right to exist. That’s where the trouble lies. It is certainty that is the killer, the belief that we have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Once you’ve started to believe that, it’s natural to think that other people should accept that truth, and then it’s a short hop to feeling entitled to force it on them.
Certainty is comforting, energising, attractive. It pulls in the crowds and galvanises response. But it is horribly dangerous.

Paul is dangerously certain about his faith when he sets out from Jerusalem to go to Damascus to root out any Christians he can find there. He is certain that Jesus can’t be the Messiah, because God would never have let his Messiah be crucified. God is great, mighty, all-powerful. Why would he let his Chosen One suffer death, especially the shameful, humiliating death of crucifixion?
It takes a dramatic experience to make him question that.  As he travels along there is a blinding flash and he’s thrown to the ground. As he lies in the dust, he hears a voice from heaven. The last person he expects it to be is Jesus. Why would someone cursed by God be in heaven. But the voice insists it is so. And all Paul’s certainties crumble to dust.
If he’s got that wrong, what else has he got wrong? And how can he ever live with the knowledge of the damage he has caused to Jesus followers? No wonder he is blinded. The world he knew has vanished.

His healing comes only when Ananias, surely one of the bravest people in the Bible, goes to this person who he thinks is hell-bent on his destruction, goes to him to pray with him, and then persuades the Damascus Christians to accept him too. This is what changes him, not the blinding vision, but the healing, courageous love he receives. Paul embraces Christian faith with the same energy that he had given to Jewish faith, but the murderous zealot becomes zealous for love. Famously he writes tothe Christians in Corinth, “ If you haven’t got love, you’ve got nothing. You can speak fancy words – the tongues of men and angels. You can have faith to move mountains, you can give up your possessions and your body too, but if you haven’t got love, then it is all worthless. It was Ananias who taught him that, who saw beneath the fanatical jihadi to the child of God he really was, and Ananias who had the courage to love that child of God.

Passion, zeal, commitment are good things. They are necessary things too. If we just shrug our shoulders and sink into apathetic self-absorption good will wither and evil will thrive. What matters is that our passion is fuelled by love and directed by love, not by the anxious craving to cling to certainty and impose that certainty on others.  Paul learns to be zealous for love, committed to forgiveness, passionate about welcoming those who are different, breaking down the walls that separate people from one another. He learns it through the brave and committed love of Ananias and the church in Damascus, and we are called to do the same – to find that love, to live that love and to share it with those around us too.  Amen

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