Archives April 2010

Bible Study: Conversion of Saul


This Bible Study series will cover some of the major areas of S. Paul’s life, ministry and legacy to us. In it, we will cover the major events of his life, his writings and his theology; drawing from it all, lessons to reflect on our own lives as Christians.

Session 1: The Conversion of Saint Paul

Video Clip: Opening Sequence

The Conversion of S. Paul is one of the turning points of the Christian faith: the point where it starts to leave the territory of those who have followed Christ in person, and kept to the local and parochial, and it starts to affect the whole world, Jews and Gentiles alike.

Many have argued that it was Paul who made Christianity the world religion it was today, and it was his theology of Christ, his understanding of salvation, faith and the connection between the two which is the legacy of Jesus. We might, at the end of this course want to consider that, or seek to find through Paul, a closer connection with the Gospel proclaimed by Jesus and the post-Reformation, Post-Counter-Reformation faith we have today filtered through the insight of this powerful and effective missionary.

The story of the conversion of Saul, persecutor of the faith into Paul is attested in his own writing (Galatians 1:11-24) and in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 9:1-18 and again in Acts 22:6-16 and 26:12-18).

The pre-conversion Saul describes himself as a hardcore member of the Pharisee Party (Philippians 3:5) and his zeal against the early church is recorded in Acts 8:1-3.

Acts 9:1-18

Video Clip 1 – the Damascus Road

2              “The Lord’s Way” – a common usage in Acts to speak of “The Way of Salvation”

4              From the Greek, scholars[1 have deduced that Jesus spoke to Saul in Aramaic (“In Hebrew speech” Acts 26:14). Was this because Aramaic was the native language of Jesus or of Saul? Saul came from Tarsus, which is a part of modern Turkey, and then part of the diaspora of Hellenised Jews

3-6          Any attempt to explain Saul’s Damascus experience in medical terms, must reckon with its revolutionary and long term effects. The extraordinary enchancement of illumination experienced by epileptics as described for example by Dostoyevsky in “The Idiot” is a very different matter from a total conversion such as Saul underwent – a  conversion of will, intellect and emotion which dictated the abiding purpose and direction of his subsequent life and activity.

Epileptic experiences appear to support and enhance the direction of one’s convictions (‘I KNOW I’m right because God told me’) whereas here, Saul is proved quite wrong.

Compare with the experience of Sadhu Sundar Singh:

Bitter over the death of his mother, Sundar Singh blamed God. The fourteen-year-old boy became vicious toward his Christian teachers. He threw filth on them, mocked their Scriptures, and interrupted classes. Then he made the ultimate gesture of scorn. He bought a Bible from the Christians. Outside his house he built a fire and page by page tore up the Scripture and burnt it.

“Although I believed that I had done a very good deed by burning the Bible, I felt unhappy,” he said. Within three days Sundar Singh could bear his misery no longer. Late one night in December 1903, he rose from bed and prayed that God reveal himself to him if he really existed. Otherwise — “I planned to throw myself in front of the train which passed by our house.” For seven hours Sundar Singh prayed. “O God, if there is a God, reveal thyself to me tonight.” The next train was due at five o’clock in the morning. The hours passed.

Suddenly the room filled with a glow. A man appeared before him. Sundar Singh heard a voice say, “How long will you deny me? I died for you; I have given my life for you.”[2 He saw the man’s hands, pierced by nails. This could only be Christ. In that moment of recognition, the boy who had burnt the Bible became a man who would endure anything for the Christ taught in it.

Saul attests to the external as well as the internal nature of his experience.

Did Saul actually SEE Jesus, or simply hear him. This passage is inconclusive, but the vision is confirmed in the words of Ananias (v17) and Barnabus (v27). Saul may be using the word “seen” as meaning “understood”. Does it matter? In 1 Corinthians 9:1 he exclaims “have I not seen Jesus, our Lord?” which sounds (and he is using it as such) like a claim to a physical encounter.

Compare with Ezekiel 1:26 and the use of the phrase “likeness of a man” but for Saul this “likeness” has a concrete form: Jesus. Compare with John 21:1-19 when Jesus is (pre-ascension) present although not definitively recognised: there must be something about the Post-Resurrection Body of Christ which makes him difficult to recognise, until he wants you to (cf John 20:16 Mary Magdalene).

However, Paul’s claim to be an Apostle would require him to be acquainted with Jesus, in this case the post-resurrection Jesus as he claims he was “untimely born” (? too young) (1 Corinthians 15:5-8)

9              The fasting should not be seen as a preparation for baptism here. The practice is first described in the Didache 7:4 and Justin’s First Apology 61.2 about a hundred years later. It was more likely shock.

10-12     The Visions were 2-way: Saul received a vision that he would be visited by Ananias and Ananias that he had work to do. Straight Street (and lots of ancient cities had one – I am thinking of Valetta in Malta) is still one of the main thoroughfares of Damascus

17           Ananias calls him “Brother Saul” with the same word in Greek which suggests he was addressing Saul in Aramaic

18-19     Saul was baptised immediately. His teaching / catechesis came later (in the desert) and it was a full three years before he came back to Jerusalem to encounter Peter and James (Galatians 1:11-24). For Saul, the encounter is the most important thing, the revelation, the emotional response which calls him to appear in the synagogue proclaiming Jesus. The strength of his conviction overrides his experience.

To Reflect

  • Have we ever felt so convinced that something was so wrong that we had to devote our energies to undermining it or destroying it?
  • If that thing is now so far past, are we able to reflect on our actions and see if it was right, or moral or justified?
  • We often speak of “Damascus-road” changes, but have you ever experienced any dramatic volte-face or have changes and understandings been more gradual, more organic?
  • Was Saul right to get out there straight away, or should he have bided his time, learnt more?
  • Does that affect what we do in church? Are we more worried about getting it right than getting it done?

To close: Collect for the Conversion of S. Paul

O God, who by the preaching of your apostle Paul
have caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world:
Grant, we pray, that we, having his wonderful conversion in remembrance,
may show ourselves thankful to you by following his holy teaching;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

[1 Bruce FF (1988) Commentary on the Book of Acts. NICNT. Eerdmans

[2 Interesting that Singh receives this in Hindustani. Jesus always wants to encounter us where we are, in our culture.

Sermon: Easter Vigil and Easter Day

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleleuia!

Goodness me, it seems so long since we have been able to cry that word: alleluia!

Our sermon series for this Triduum concludes with this burst of joy, the same burst that comes forth from the tomb, and proclaims the concluding victory of Christ over sin and death; as the Exsulstet that I have just proclaimed also speaks of that triumph, that bringing of light into the darkness in which we have to this point been entombed.

Rick Founds, the writer of this song manages to convey in a very few words, the scale of the story of Salvation History. Our Salvation does not begin with the Cross, but begins with the very creation of this earth – the God who creates is the God who saves. The Incarnation is the ultimate proof of the God which so loves us, that he is prepared to enter into this world to engage with us.

Edward Schillebeeckx, possibly one of the most significant theologians of the past fifty years and only recently gathered to God (and frankly, one of the hardest names to spell, I have ever come across!), wrote that:

“The Incarnation is not merely a Christmas event. To be man is a process of becoming man; Jesus’ manhood grew throughout his earthly life, finding its completion in the supreme moment of the incarnation, his death, resurrection and exaltation…

…By the fact that he became man, the Son of God is fundamentally already the Christ. But we must realize that it was only upon his rising from the dead that, because of the love and obedience of his life, the Father established him absolutely as the Christ”

E. Schillebeeckx: Christ, the Sacrament pp20-21

The proof of the Christ is in the resurrection. All that Christ had taught, had done, had established was vindicated by his resurrection, and through that resurrection, we are able to know definitively that His way is the truth.

All of Christ’s promises are true. Because of the truth of his resurrection.

No-one was present in that tomb, no-one was able to witness to the awesome power of God, even the Holy Shroud of Turin (which many of you will know, I believe to be genuine) was only a passive, silent witness to the actual event;  but the evidence of the resurrection stands as truth in itself:

  • The actual, proven death and entombment of Christ by those charged with his execution – knowing that the penalty for failing to crucify someone was to be crucified yourself; the blood and water from Christ’s side which can only occur in death.
  • The appearance on the first day of the week to women, whose testimony could not have been relied upon in a court of law at the time(and I am sorry about that, but that’s what a patriarchal society was like) – if you were going to fake it, you would have used reliable witnesses: another example that God’s ways are not our ways.
  • And for me, the clincher: the Martyrdom of the Apostles. If the Apostles had stolen the body and then claimed the resurrection, then surely when faced with their own Martyrdom, at the first sign of the sword or the nails they would have come clean about the deceit. No lie is worth dying for. That the first witnesses all went to their own deaths proclaiming we have seen the risen Lord surely proves the truth of the event.

The reality of this event reverberates around the world, and transforms it. The rising of the first fruits in Christ changes you and changes me, and shows us that sin and death are no longer our Masters, but that we have been won, paid for, redeemed by Christ; and that this was the ultimate outplaying of the whole Incarnation.

“From heaven to earth, from the earth to cross, the cross to the grave, the grave to the sky”

No, there is nowhere that God’s love cannot reach, as the Psalmist notes in Psalm 139 (Ps 139:8), and for that on this morning, and every morning we are called to praise him for his marvellous works, his glorious resurrection and proclaim in the words of our song for this morning:

“Lord, I lift your name on high…”


Meditation for Good Friday on the Seven Last Words of Jesus

Opening Hymn:   When I survey the Wondrous Cross

1. “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23: 34) (2:07)

Forgiveness is terribly easy to ask from others, and yet so very hard to give from ourselves. As Our Lord was nailed to the instrument of his passion, he spoke asking the Father’s forgiveness, whilst he freely forgave them himself, for as St. John repeatedly notes: “I am in the Father and the Father is in me”.

Forgiveness is at the heart of the Gospel: at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, Christ calls for repentance, metanoia to herald the Kingdom of God. His whole ministry is to seek to reconcile God and his creation once more, and the route to that reconciliation is forgiveness:  The woman accused of adultery was told “go, and sin no more” (John 8:11), the paralysed man lowered through the roof told that “his sins were forgiven” (Mark 2:5), and the woman who anointed Our Lord’s feet was given the same dispensation (Luke 7:48): “your sins are forgiven”: simple words, such power, such authority.

We pray that we too may be forgiven, for our manifold sins. Forgiveness is part of God’s grace and is freely given, if we but have the courage to ask for it.

We pray that we may also forgive: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”. It is not only those who bear hammer and nails against us whom we need to forgive; but those whose offenses are in comparison, quite small. “How many times should I forgive my brother, Lord? Seven times?” “Not seven, but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22).

“They know not what they do” … and neither do we.


2. “I assure you: this day you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:34) (2:14)

The penitent thief is the only person recorded in the Scriptures who speaks directly to Christ, addressing him by his own name. Not Rabbi, not Master, not Lord, but simply and directly: Jesus.

Such honesty was not bourne out of overfamiliarity, or rudeness, but out of a common bond between them: the bond of the condemned cell. Our Lord and these thieves shared an intimacy which we can only hope to aspire to: to be alongside Christ, and more importantly, to have Christ alongside us in our hour of need.

When we glance away from our own crucifixion, we may just be able to glimpse Christ crucified alongside us; suffering as we suffer, suffering greater as he suffers not only our pain and anguish, but the pain, anguish and bitterness of the whole world. And we hope to hear those words, available to all who have the courage to ask of Christ: “You will be with me in paradise”

We pray for the faith to spot Christ alongside us, especially when we are so wrapped up in our own crucifixion to notice His; and we pray that we may have the opportunity, no matter how fleeting or transitory, to experience the intimacy of Christ: to feel his love and concern, to allow his Grace to guide us to our heavenly home.


3. “Woman, behold your son.” (John 19: 26) (2:21)

Theotokos – “God Bearer”: Our Lady carried such responsibility; in her womb, in her upbringing of the Saviour of the World, in her faithful following of her Son’s ministry from that first sign at Cana in Galillee (John 2) to the foot of the Cross and to the Garden early that Sunday. It was a responsibility which would be almost impossible for any human to carry alone, but for God’s grace. The same Grace which removed the stain of Original Sin from Our Lady is the same Grace which redeems us all, and all we have to do is to accept that Grace from God: “be it done unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38)

We give honour to Our Lady because she is a model for us of humankind’s response to God in faith. So often we find our own faith obstructed by practicalities and earthly considerations: other things to do or say and God’s call to us buried amid the hubbub of daily life and work. Our Lady’s response was to say yes to God without thought or consideration or reference to earthly concerns – a miraculous child born of an unmarried girl far away from home. For this faith, Our Lady is rewarded with a further task: as the beloved disciple is commended to her, so we are commended to her care and her intercession, for we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.

We pray alongside Our Lady, our adoptive mother to God, asking her intercession for those things in our lives which need the Grace of God to help us through: the sicknesses, the anxieties, the worldly concerns.

We pray that our response may also be “be it done unto me according to thy word”.


4. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27: 46) (2:28)

There is a dark night that the soul must endure, before it reaches it’s goal – to be with God. On that journey as described by St. John of the Cross, there will be times when one might be forgiven for feeling forsaken by God.

Psalm 22, which Our Lord recalls, speaks of desolation and isolation, but if we focus only on the first half of the Psalm, we lose to context of Christ’s quotation: Christ spoke in an age when the Scriptures were identified by their opening lines: we begin with “Our Father…” and we know the rest of the prayer, Our Lord said “Eloi, Eloi…” and the faithful would recall the whole Psalm. The second and longer part of the Psalm speaks of faith and redemption, of Grace and fulfilment.

For each dark night, there is a brilliant day which follows it.

Even with the sins of the world on his back, Our Lord was not deserted by God, for he carried the promise of hope and fulfilment with him.

In our darkest nights, we pray that we too may be able to recall that promise, that redemption, that Grace. We pray that others whom we see ensnared by despair may be able to complete their Psalm, and see the joy which comes in the morning.

We pray for the dawn from on high, to sustain us through our dark night, until at last we achieve our soul’s perfection.


5. “I thirst.” (John 19: 28) (2:35)

We are driven by our own concerns and needs, our self-centeredness and our conceit; yet the call of the Christian is to emulate the selfless love of Our Saviour as he hung on the tree. Christ’s humanity and his divinity are exposed on the cross, and the vulnerability of He who moved over the waters was displayed for all to see.

Christ’s thirst was not only physical, but was a thirst for our redemption; a desire so compelling that he would accept the cup ordained for him by his Father.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6)

What do we thirst for? Our own needs? Our petty desires? Or do we thirst for Christ, as the deer pants for the water (Psalm 42:1).

We pray for those who are persecuted for their faith or their convictions. We pray that we may receive the Grace to hunger and thirst for righteousness.


6. “It is completed.” (John 19: 30) (2:42)

The last words of Christ were not words of resignation or defeat, but a shout of triumph to cut through the pain and desolation. Christ did not whimper “I am finished”, but proclaimed to the dark sky and the shaking earth the news that death had been conquered, Adam’s had been repaid and humankind would be released: “it is completed!”

“Now Lord, you let your servant depart in peace” (Luke 2:29) was Simeon’s prayer, knowing that what was promised to him had been completed. Too often, we are impatient, and look for the quick fix, the easy way out, the short cut, and thus prevent Our Lord from completing his task within us. We are works in progress, drafts on the potter’s wheel; we are shaped and formed by our loving creator and it is only by his act on the cross that we are complete.

We pray for the Grace given freely to Simeon, to accept with faith the promises God makes to us, for the perseverance to see our calling through to its proper conclusion.


7. “Father, into Your hands I commend My Spirit.” (Luke 23: 46) (2:49)

With these words, the divine word returns back to the one who sent him. His redeeming work complete, the atonement fulfilled. By pouring himself out for us (Philippians 2:5-11), he shows us the supreme self-sacrificing love for us of the Creator. With these final words he died, and the servant suffered for the last time.

What follows is silence.


At the end of our lives, it will only be by God’s Grace that we can commend our souls to him. It is a Grace freely given, fully won, completely atoned.

It is our salvation which calls us from the Cross.


Closing Hymn: Praise to the Holiest in the Height

Sermon: Good Friday

On this, most significant day of the Holy Week journey we are left at the foot of the Cross, watching helplessly as the Christ hangs upon the tree, nailed there by our sin, our doubts, our unbelief.

This Matt Redman sing draws heavily upon probably the finest lines in the letters of S. Paul, and scholars don’t even think that he wrote them!

In his letter to the people of Philippi, Paul quotes from a hymn which would have been known to them all, a common cultural reference, the equivalent of quoting from a current pop song. He speaks of Jesus ‘pouring himself out upon the cross’ – kenosis – a self-sacrificing, emptying of himself.

On this very cross, Jesus eschews all heavenly power in order to win the ultimate victory over sin and death for us. In his capacity as God, this would have been no trouble: we have already seen that Jesus is master over life and death – the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the Widow of Nain’s son and Lazarus have shown that; but Christ overcomes sin and death not from his position as God, but from the lowliness of our situation – subject to death, but not defeated by it.

Each time we meditate on the Cross, as this song calls us to, we should be captured by the scale of that act of kenosis, to reach out from heaven into this earthly space and to walk through the very experiences that we have to, including death.

The Instrument of Torture becomes and instrument of freedom, and gives true meaning to his last words “It is accomplished!”

It is.

Sin and death are defeated on the tree. Life comes from death.

“Thank you for the Cross, thank you for the Cross, thank you for the Cross, my friend”