Paul, Patronal, Evensong, 2013
So we come towards the end of a busy and enjoyable weekend. We have hit trees with sticks and well and truly beaten the bounds. We have relished a superb organ recital from David, we have celebrated our unity with one another and with Christ, we have eaten burgers and now we end, as we began, with prayer and worship.
It seems a good moment to reflect more fully on who this Paul is. Paul is one of the most fascinating and controversial figures in the history of the Church. That’s not to be provocative, it’s simply a statement of fact. In his own day he caused massive controversy through his attempts to bring an essentially Jewish Christianity into the Gentile world, into our world. Since then he has been controversial too, especially in the last few decades, when Paul has been described as someone who hated women and did great damage to the message Jesus taught.
There are tens of books, of quality ranging from “Could do better” through to “Really”, available at the moment describing in great detail how Paul got hold of the stories of Jesus and turned a man who was all about equality and justice and inclusion into someone who was about judgement and rules and obedience. It is massively unconvincing as an argument, not least because they all fall into the same trap that they accuse Paul of, by dealing with what people have done with Paul rather than with what Paul himself wrote and meant.
He is also controversial because we actually know less about him than we think we do. For example, the conversion on the road toDamascus. Is it convincing? God could turn a persecutor of the Church in a heartbeat into a committed believer who will dedicate his whole life to the spreading of the Gospel he had worked so hard to quell. But would he? Is it not more plausible that Paul was already well on the way to conversion even before he mounted his horse and set out to Damascus, his certainty sapped by the conviction and courage of those he had arrested and questioned, their certainty challenging his? And so he fell from his horse, blinded and dazzled when his last defences fell and he came face to face with the Living God, with the Jesus he was persecuting and had thought so much about.
And his fate is no less mysterious and fascinating. His Epistle to the Romans is his final letter, his last will and testament. It is clear from it that he is heading to Rome. The Acts of the Apostles ends with Paul in Rome, under house arrest, telling everyone about Jesus and waiting for trial. The earliest traditions have it that Paul was beheaded in Rome.
Acts ends without telling us what happens but it is fitting that the last word we have of Paul is that he is still teaching and still bearing witness: Luke writes:
“He lived there for two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” End of Acts. It is a fabulous and a fitting epitaph- but it doesn’t tell us what happened to him. We are left with an image of him, still teaching, still living for God, still bearing witness to anyone who will listen, even as he waits for his trial and execution. It feels a long way from the wicked Paul who buries the Good Jesus under mountains of rules and instructions.
Two things are really important when it comes to thinking about St Paul, I think. One is very practical and often overlooked. It’s this. Paul was writing his letters to particular people, into particular situations. The only letter he wrote to somewhere he had never been was his Letter to the Romans, and even then he had a lot of friends and contacts there, and even then it was because he was on his there. He wrote to people he knew and could picture, people he had often brought to Christ. He was writing to his own friends to help guide them through the rapids of Christian life. He wrote for a specific audience in a specific situation and he knew them well. Which is to say, to turn it round, that he would be utterly astonished, I hope, I think, to find that we are still reading his Letters today and still treasuring them. And it’s to say that we need to read the Letters with care, not like the words of Jesus, spoken once for all, but against a specific background and moment.
Secondly, what Paul is doing is theology on the hoof. It is risky and all he has to go on are the teachings of Jesus, the very youngest of traditions and his own experience of being called and changed by God. Do people have to be circumcised to belong? Should we keep Jewish food laws? Should we keep them if we don’t see the point but others in the community find it tricky when we don’t? Should we teach the Law to people who have never heard it before or is the grace of God in Jesus Christ all you need? And so on, and so on. These are vital questions which go to the very heart of the Christian community. They are about inclusion and understanding and building a loving community. They are about grace.
Paul is juggling with knives on a highwire trapeze. In a gale. Above a crocodile-infested river. And it says much of God’s wisdom, and much of his own faithfulness and vision, that he falls so rarely.
We could not ask for a better or more inspiring Patron to pray for us and to encourage us. Paul is human and flawed, and yet transformed by grace into someone amazing. He is an example to us in the way that, while he moves on to new mission fields, he never forgets those he has left behind, never stops praying for them, writing to them, guiding them, and loving them. He is an example to us in the way that he brings what he knows of God to bear on daily life. He is an example to us in the way that he always seeks the pastoral solution to a problem. He is an example to us in his drive and vision and his willingness to pay the price of service.
Above all, he is an example to us in the way that everything, at the end of the day, comes down to the transforming power of grace, comes back to the love God has for him, which overwhelmed him on the road to Damascus and changed everything. What is true for him is true for us also.
Paul is often said to be legalistic, pedantic, misogynistic. He is not. Rather we should see be inspired by his courage and example, and by the sweep of his life and teaching, by his fearless engagement with God, and then seek to do the same.
At the end we are left with the impression of a man who outwardly, as he admits, was nothing special, but who had the heart of a passionate evangelist and a tender pastor, a great trainer and inspirational teacher. We are left with the Letters and in the Letters, over and over, Paul’s love for God breaks through, even in the midst of detailed argument and painstaking explanation. We are left with the shining light of one man’s faith in God to lead us on in our own pilgrimage. And what a light. And what dedication. And what truth. And what poetry. We are left with the Letters, and they bring us face to face with the God who transformed Paul and who longs for us to let him transform us too.