Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 22nd January 2012
22 January 2012 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
The self-described atheist journalist Matthew Parris who writes for the Times may not believe in God but he sometimes write like an angel, so he often engages my interest. One piece he wrote not very long ago caught my attention like no other. Africa, he said, needs Christian faith. Not just its good social works of education and health care, but the faith itself. Parris doesn’t believe in this faith and he’s sometimes attacked aspects of it, but now he thinks it’s necessary. It can free people from their social shackles, help them hold their heads high. ‘I've become convinced’, he wrote, ‘of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: as distinct from the work of secular projects and international aid efforts… In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. With its teaching of a direct, personal link between the individual and God…it [helps] them cast off a crushing tribal groupthink [which still enslaves so much of Africa].’
Part of me bridled at the article. It seemed patronizing. Why should Africa need this faith, but not the rest of us? But I was also struck with delight. Here was a journalist writing about good news: about the positive transforming power of Christian faith, rather than its dangers and abuses. Most of all I was struck by the brave change of mind. Parris may not have been converted to faith himself, but he was acknowledging a change of view. He was seeing good in something he had previously diminished. It’s a very powerful thing, isn’t it, when someone says ‘I once was blind, and now I see’. We feel they are speaking with a special authority. We take notice.
Conversion is the theme of all these Matins sermons in January. I began with Jesus own change of heart in a Gospel encounter with a woman, then last week described our own conversion in terms of what Nicodemus experienced when he encountered Jesus. Today, prompted by that Parris article, I now turn to Paul’s conversion which we celebrate this week. For this was perhaps one of the most radical changes of all: from outright opponent of Christian faith to its greatest exponent. It was considered so significant in the early church that it’s recounted in full by Luke in Acts, three times; and Paul himself explicitly refers to it three times, in his letters to the Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians.
For Paul, unlike Parris, this was more than just a change of viewpoint. It really was a change to his whole person and direction in life. I don’t mean that his personality was obliterated by his experience of conversion in a sinister sort of way (the sort of thing we might describe as brainwashing or even breakdown). As we read carefully through the accounts we realize he didn’t cease to be who he was: a naturally zealous person, a thinking person, a theologian, a teacher, a Jew. But all this - his zeal, his thinking, his theology, his Jewishness - was now turned 180 degrees to be used in a new purpose: it was all used for, not against, the Gospel; and in particular, for living and promoting the generosity of the Gospel: that is, the generosity of God’s grace for all, not just for keepers of Jewish law and custom.
Of course, this turned-round Paul was still not perfect, as he himself admitted more than once. It wasn’t easy to take all he was, his background, personality, zeal, and use it for this new direction and purpose without some rough edges and contradictions still showing. So we do sometimes see in his thinking and writing signs of ‘work in progress’, rather than a finished article And because, like many new converts, he had such conviction about his personal call, he does self-dramatize rather a lot about his own story! Yet, whatever his abiding human flaws, the overall direction of this change he experienced was palpably good, and bore extraordinary fruit.
For just think of what Paul’s turning round has led to. His radical vision of divine grace and generosity to all really has helped reform societies, including our own: not only did it help abolish slavery, which I mentioned last week, but it helped drive new policies in health care and education: it has been a constant challenge to privilege, and to any system which limits benefits to exclusive groups; it has helped liberate us from being in thrall to any kind of elitism and tribalism – just the sort of liberation Parris saw at work in parts of Africa, but actually we need everywhere, not least within the churches. It has offered us instead a vision of a new community of people in which there is no longer any hierarchy of Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female; a vision where the highest law for any society is mutual dependence, so that all parts of society are equally valued, as each part of our own body is valued. No underclass here. No parts of society written off merely as collateral damage. It’s also offered a vision for personal character, not just social change: i.e. a vision where the highest law for personal character is love – that love which is ‘patient, kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant’. If Paul’s personal story, his conversion, has in any way furthered all this, then he and the early church were right to dramatize it. It has had authority, and has had effect.
But there is also just other thing I want us to notice about it, and it’s the same thing that led me to describe Parris’s article as brave. All conversion entails a little death. All real turning from one direction to another involves a cost, a letting go of the old view, the old way. Even just to say: ‘I once was blind and now I see’ costs some pride. It certainly did for Paul: ‘I have to count some things now as loss, he said. ‘We left things to follow you’, said Peter in the Gospel. These little deaths involved in all conversions are important. Not because God wants us to suffer loss, but simply because it is sometimes necessary for the change we need to enter this new generous life. So could this loss also be a preparation? Are these small deaths along the path of life, preparing us for the biggest change of all, the biggest letting go, at the end of life: death itself? Perhaps our conversions in life, big or small, are indeed the very things that God will use, by grace, not just to redeem society, but to redeem us too – for eternity…