The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:
s191e04 Lockleys 12/9/04 Sunday 24
"I received mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief". 1 Timothy 1.13
This seems an incredible excuse for St Paul to make. After all he was formerly a Pharisee. By his own admission he said: "I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God." (Acts 22.3) If anyone knew what the will of God was, then the last person who could claim ignorance was St Paul.
This is the trouble with religion. It is often the religious who "know" what religion is all about, and they will never be persuaded otherwise. And this impeccable knowledge of religion is most often about who are unacceptable to the Almighty.
Some people lament that they cannot claim to have had a conversion experience identical to St Paul; flashing lights and heavenly voices. I suggest that we ought to rejoice if this is so, for St Paul was definitely on the wrong road, and it takes God a fair bit of fireworks to bring into line someone who knows their path is surely God's.
I am sure that God gives us brains to use and a bit of guidance as well, to sort out what we should do with people who break the laws like speeding, theft, murder and the like. But God has to stand up and act when people hurt others while purporting to act in God's name. Paul wasn't traipsing off to Damascus because he disliked those he was persecuting, he was going because he thought God wanted him to do that. There was no self interest in his actions, in the manner that there is a goodly deal of self interest involved in the sorts of continuing ethnic conflicts about which we hear every day.
St Paul was shown mercy, not the error of his ways. And if God shows mercy to St Paul, we too ought to show mercy to those we consider are erring. For it is in showing mercy that we most accurately portray God.
Indeed had not Paul being hell-bent on persecuting others, God may well have left him in his unbelief. God surely didn't stop Paul on that road to gain another convert. God stopped Paul on that road because he was going to hurt others in the name of the God of Israel.
St Paul of course is right. He did act ignorantly and in unbelief. He was ignorant of the mercy of God and didn't believe the wideness of that mercy. He was brought to a knowledge of that mercy by being included in it, and he was brought to realise that if he was included then no one else was excluded.
St Paul describes himself prior to his conversion as a "blasphemer, a persecutor and a man of violence". The use of the word "blasphemy" interests me. He certainly didn't go around using the divine name in vain prior to his conversion. He, like any good and upright Jew would hardly have spoken the name of the Lord at all. But after his conversion he began to realise that he was worshipping the wrong god: a god who was restrictive rather than a God who is merciful towards all. It is blasphemy to suggest that the god who has mercy on all would allow a disciple to persecute others.
The proclamation of the mercy of God has to be backed up by our own actions: by our own acceptance of others. A couple of weeks ago I spoke about the Holy Communion being the converting sacrament, and asked do we dare let it be? I have said before that we hope that others will "know we are Christians" by our coming to Church and by our reciting the appropriate creed, not by "our love". And if our coming to Church and participating in the sacrament of Holy Communion reflects the limits we believe God places on the divine hospitality rather than the wideness of God's mercy, people out there are not going to believe that we are really serious at all about God's mercy. They will rightly conclude that we actually don't believe God to be merciful towards all.
Ignorance and unbelief, is all about a lack of perception in the wideness of God's mercy, which encompasses you and me and all people. So the truth and faith are all about the wideness of God's mercy, towards you and me and all people. Christianity is fundamentally not about how we choose to worship or the name by which we call on God, but on the perception that God loves people other than ourselves as well as us; however they choose to live their lives and which ever way they choose to worship God or not. If Christianity is any less than this, how is our worship any different to idolatrous worship we would rightly condemn?
When I ponder why Jesus came, there are many possible reasons. I reflect, not for the first time, that Jesus often said to people: "Your faith has made you well", not "my power .."
So for me, the fundamental reason Jesus came was not to bring faith but to find faith, and faith was found in curious places. In the woman, in the Roman Centurion. These had all come to a conclusion that God's mercy was indeed wide. The tragedy of those who opposed Jesus was that they had come to the conclusion that faith was restricted to themselves, and it was blasphemy to suggest to them otherwise!!!
And we are called to follow Jesus, and so we too are called to look and to see and acknowledge faith wherever and when ever we find it. We too will find it in exceedingly curious places, and frequently not where "orthodoxy" is proclaimed.
Ignorance and unbelief amongst those who seemingly knew what God was all about, but not just ignorance and unbelief, but also, as the gospel for today tells us, grumbling that others are included and ultimately violence towards others.
Is our religion one of grumbling that other people are with us or rejoicing that others are found? The choice is before us all and we do well to choose wisely. Jesus has made it clear what God's attitude is, and what God would prefer for us. We might think that God is more exclusive but the reality is otherwise.
Ignorance, unbelief, grumbling, violence and I was surprised to read the one use of the word "abomination" by Jesus. It is in Luke 16.15, and it is not directed towards those who express their intimate affections towards someone of the same gender. The words are: "The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, "You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God."
My final reflection for today is that before his conversion, St Paul was quite certain just who was and who wasn't part of God's family. He was wrong. His conversion led him, not to more certainty, but to less certainty, about such matters. God led him to be tolerant of others, to live a life of uncertainty and therefore by faith. We worship God in a particular manner and there is nothing whatsoever wrong with how we worship God; as long as we let others worship God differently. St Paul was led to be more flexible and I suggest this is a hallmark of someone led by God. The ability to change, to learn and to experience fresh insight is the joy of the Spirit. Unyielding dogmatism about what is right and what is wrong, and who is right and who is wrong, is ignorance, unbelief and death.
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