The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s069a15 The Conversion of St Paul  25/1/2015

‘the God of our ancestors has chosen you’   Acts 22.14

Today is the feast day of the conversion of Saul, and so I thought I’d start by considering to what faith Saul was converted.

Of course the simple answer is ‘christianity’ but actually this isn’t particularly helpful, since there are a multitude of different definitions of ‘christianity’ - and naturally each assume that he was converted to their particular version of ‘christianity’.   There is clearly a good deal of self-aggrandisement in this for the preachers of this sort of theology.   Again, we might narrow it down a bit to suggest that he was converted from a religion based on a fallacious efficacy of animal sacrifices to forgive sins to a religion based on the truth of the eternal efficacy of the atoning death of Jesus on the Cross for the sins of all who believe this.  (1)   But both of these are entirely concerned with the self, the ego.   They are both all about the forgiveness of MY sins, MY relationship with the divine, MY eternal salvation.   They are both essentially selfish, narcissistic. 

Now selfishness and narcissism range from either a complete disregard of another’s feelings and even existence to an active persecution of others, the later being true in Saul’s case. 

And suddenly on that road to Damascus to perpetrate and perpetuate that sort of persecution, Saul is confronted by the Lord, who says that he is persecuting the Lord.  I am reminded of the words used of the younger son in the parable of the prodigal father: ‘when he came to himself’.  (2)   A real epiphany!   Or as Wile E Coyote’s board says as another incredible failure is about to happen: ‘What am I doing?!!!’ (3)

If someone is preaching that on that road to Damascus Saul was converted from someone else’s selfish religion to their own selfish religion - where is the escape from selfishness?   The blind indeed leading the blind!

If Jesus died on the Cross to change us from worshipping one deity for selfish purposes to worshipping another deity for selfish purposes - it doesn’t seem to me that we or the world are any better off.   If Jesus died on the Cross so that we might - finally - use the correct name for the deity - then this deity is simply pedantic and not worth worshipping.

For the first time I have read this passage from Acts I realised that Paul asserts the Jewish heritage of Ananias.   Not only does Paul acknowledge his own Jewish heritage, but says of Ananias, that he ‘was a devout man according to the law and well spoken of by all the Jews living there’.   Ananias himself identifies his spiritual ancestry with Paul’s.

So Saul’s conversion critiques not Judaism, but Judaism practiced selfishly.   Indeed it critiques ‘christianity’ practiced selfishly, and every religion practiced selfishly.   Saul’s conversion tells us that any practice of faith, spirituality or religion which divides the world into cliques, disregarding other people, their feelings, insights and inherent dignity, disengaging from the world and society, is to persecute the Lord of the ancient people of God, identical to the new.

It is as likely that Judaism can be practiced as unselfishly as ‘christianity’ can.   Solomon’s Temple was to be ‘a house of prayer for all people’. (4)

So when Paul writes in Galatians that he didn’t bother to confer with any of the existing church leaders following his conversion (5), Paul is saying that the simplicity of selfless religion is enough.   It is the selflessness that is important, not the intricacies of the religion.   Saul / Paul didn’t see his conversion to be from a fallacious faith to a true one, but from a religion motivated by selfishness to one empowered by selflessness.  

Selfishness is always the result of fear, fear of alienation and condemnation.   This fear can only be neutralised by the opposites: affirmation and inclusion, unconditional affirmation and inclusion, unconditional love.   Any dilution of unconditionality lets the possibility of fear and selfishness to sneak in.

So selfishness is overcome by incarnation, that preparedness of Jesus to sit down and eat with one and with all, to accept the offerings of saint and sinner alike.   And we, like Saul, are chosen to do likewise - to go into all the world - to sit down and eat with all - to accept the offerings of one and all, without hesitation, without discrimination and without expectation.

And while I have noted before that often the world is far better than the church in doing this - accepting the dignity of others on a completely non-sectarian basis - we are chosen to do this in the name of the divine, in the name of the God of the ancient people of God, in the name of Jesus.   We do this to dignify the world’s attempts to create a society less riven by divisions and we do this to witness to the truth of the one God.   We do this so that we ourselves are part of the solution, not the chief obstacle to be overcome.  

And we are chosen to do this, it is not an optional extra that we might (or might not) do after receiving the holy communion and being sent out ‘to love and serve the Lord’.   If our holy communion service is not, in itself, the vehicle for sitting down and eating with others, all others, without hesitation, without discrimination and without expectation - WHAT IS IT?   A sop to satisfy, ever so briefly, our fears of personal alienation and condemnation, to feed our selfishness and narcissism for another seven days?

If our incarnation in the world, our sitting down and eating with all others without hesitation, without discrimination and without expectation is undertaken without the essential elements of the body and blood of Christ how are we achieving that which we have been chosen to do?   If the REAL sacrament is left in the aumbry or tabernacle - is not the world justified in believing that they are not actually receiving the real thing when we share an ‘ordinary’ meal with them?   If the task is to bring others to church how is this an expression of unconditional affirmation and inclusion?

One of the characteristics of a bully is to expect an underling to do a task without giving them the wherewithal to achieve it.   Is not the church bullying her congregations by expecting them to go out into the world without the wherewithal to do the task - the real sacrament to share with others?   How often have congregations and ministers been made to feel inadequate and unworthy because they haven't managed to bring someone else ‘to the Lord’ that week?

For all I might agree with the concept of ‘the priesthood of all believers’ (6) and ‘the ministry of all the baptised’ (7) - if these are just more opportunities to put others who don’t measure up on ‘on the outer’ they are just a continuation of bullying.   They are just another way the church avoids being who it is called to be, of institutional fleeing from Nineveh, rather than embracing it.   They are just others, in a long history of ways, the church has clung to her selfishness.  It is another way the church like Jonah complains: ‘I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing’ (8) but hiding this from others.

It is another way of disguising the truth of the very incarnation that is the foundation of the church, that incarnation wrought by God, who ‘so loved the world that he gave his only Son.’ (9)

1.  Hebrews 9.26
2.  Luke 15:17
4.  Isaiah 56:7
5.  Galatians 1:16
8.  Jonah 4:2
9.  John 3:16