This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 9:30 Eucharist on 25th January 2015 – The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. The readings were Jeremiah 1:4-10, Acts 9:1-22 and Matthew 19:27-30.
What are you scared of? What makes you truly afraid? Spiders? Heights? The curate standing up to preach?
I think it’s fair to say we all have things that make us uncomfortable, some things that we don’t like the idea of, and some things that, as Timothy puts it, “scare the life out of my skin!” It’s also true that some of these fears are irrational, but some are not – and either way, the fear is no less real. I know we are hugely blessed that, for the majority of us in here, we have less reasons to be afraid than many other people in this world, but this doesn’t make our fears any less valid – just we are probably in less immediate danger, or have more chance of avoiding them in 21st century Roker (unless you truly have a fear of the curate’s sermon…)
But consider how you feel when confronted by even the thought of those fears. Here we are, in a safe place surrounded by good people, yet just thinking about that thing that scares us will have left some here feeling uncomfortable or worse – sorry for that.
But imagine if you suddenly felt God calling you to confront one of those fears. And not just one of the irrational ones – finding a spider in the bath in this country is unlikely to be a life or death matter, however creepy some find them – but a really dangerous one. Ananias finds himself in this position in today’s New Testament reading.
We now know Paul as a great man – a great saint – without whose letters we would lack so much great teaching in the faith, such wonderful writing. And yet we shouldn’t underplay just how scary the prospect of meeting this man would have been for Ananias.
In the chapters of Acts before this reading we see how jealousy and fear of the Romans had led to the persecution of the early church, leading to imprisonment & flogging. When we first meet Paul, at that point known as Saul, it is at the stoning of Stephen. At first he seems more of an observer than a threat – a young man minding the coats while the really scary people get on with the business of killing a man by hurling rocks at him. But the first verse of chapter 8 I find chilling: “And Saul approved of their killing him.”
What would it matter if he ‘approved’ of it or not – unless his opinion was valued by those in charge. Then we see his true power.
“That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.”
Saul was leading a campaign of terror against those who professed Jesus name – and seemed ruthlessly good at it. This leads us up to the first two lines of today’s reading which cement all that has gone before.
“Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”
Saul was on a mission to destroy this Jesus cult, and was not going to be held back.
Then – a miracle. Jesus himself intervenes. Saul is left blinded and understandably shocked by what happens – all his certainty, all his belief, his zeal his passion shown as misdirected, as against the wishes of the God he thought he was protecting. No wonder he spends the following days fasting & praying, trying to make sense of it all.
So, enter Ananias. And imagine for a moment you’re praying, taking a quiet moment in a busy day, when you have a vision. Is it a daydream, a flash of images, just words? Whatever and however it happens, suddenly you become aware that God is speaking to you – and is asking you to do something unbelievably terrifying, scarier than your worst nightmares. Worse than picking up a spider, looking out from the top of the church tower, or discovering too late that it’s me climbing up to the pulpit. In Ananias case, he is to go to the most dangerous person in the region, a man who is rounding up friends and fellow believers, who has been involved in the killing of his associates, and talk to him about Jesus. To put it in modern terms, it’s maybe up there with one of us being asked to parachute into Northern Nigeria and have a chat with the leader of Boko Haram
But it is unmistakable. God wants Ananias to go, and remarkably says He is going to use Saul as a missionary to the world. So Ananias goes, lays on hands, and the rest is history.
For this is a massive part of the story of our faith, of our journey to eternal life and salvation. And it shows, amazingly, the biggest stumbling block to love – to God’s love being shown to the world – isn’t hate. It’s fear.
We spoke a few weeks ago about how perfect love casts out fear, about the way to win the war on terror, to defeat the evils of this age is through love conquering fear, and here is a great example. Because if Ananias had succumbed to the fear of what mortals could do to him – if he had run scared from facing Paul – or if he’d thought more about what ‘people’ said and thought rather than listening to the Lord – I appreciate the offer, Lord, but Saul is evil and terrifying and I, little old me, will have no hope facing him – he wouldn’t have gone.
And alongside this, if Paul’s fears had got in the way, he too would have run a mile. What if he’d sat there thinking of all the things he’d done in his life – the persecution, the pain & misery, the mistakes he had made – and decided he wasn’t worthy of being a follower of Jesus. That he wasn’t good enough. Or if his pride had put up a barrier – if he’d worried about what this change of heart was going to look like to those around him. Imagine what would happen if a well-known atheist like Richard Dawkins suddenly came out and said he’d become a Christian. That he was wrong about Jesus & faith and was now not just a believer, but truly committed to helping others find a relationship with their creator.
Paul had to overcome the fear of what people would say, how people would react, the complete change of direction his life would have to take because of his newfound belief in Jesus. And thank God he did. Because there is a distinct possibility that, without Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, without Ananias listening to God and facing his fears, we would not be here today – or, more importantly, would not have the love, hope and amazing privileges that come from being in a relationship with God our Father, though Jesus His Son by the power of His Holy Spirit.
Through prayer, through time reading the Bible, we have direct access to the one who made us, loves us and wants the very best for us, in this life & beyond. Who knows us better than anyone – just look at the words spoken to Jeremiah in our Old Testament reading.
So I don’t know about you, but I think this story of Paul’s conversion should bring great comfort and courage to us all. Because once again it shows ordinary people being called to do extraordinary things by God – and then being equipped to do them. It shows nobody is beyond salvation, no matter what has happened in the past. It shows there is true forgiveness for sins, true redemption of lives. It shows people like you and me overcoming fear with love, and changing the world.