A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne on the Feast of the Conversion of Paul, marking Australia Day 2014:
The man for whom St Paul’s Cathedral is named would have been an excellent Australia Day ambassador: a man whose life was turned from a the deliberate persecution of others, to promoting the message of freedom and unity that can be found in serving God and one’s neighbours. Paul’s message remains a great encouragement in an age and a nation in which we are still grappling with the question of national unity in the light of our rich cultural diversity. For from the moment of his dramatic conversion on his way to Damascus, Paul lived out his profound insight that God grants unity where there are divisions; seeks the welfare and peace not of one nation or cultural group alone, but of all nations and languages.
Paul’s journey to Damascus was the moment that turned his life upside down; the moment that profoundly challenged his long-held values and traditions. The instant, in which he lost his religion and his sight, and instead received faith and insight. In our epistle reading, Paul gives us a glimpse into what life looked like for him before this moment of radical transformation: ‘You have, no doubt, heard of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it’ (Galatian 1.13). Paul’s entire life had been devoted to religious observance, our readings suggest: ‘brought up at the feet of Gamaliel’ (Acts 22.3), one of the greatest legal minds of the mid-first century, he was ‘educated strictly according to the Jewish law’. It is not out of pride, I suspect, but in order to make the point that his religious learning lacked nothing, that Paul assures the Galatians that he ‘advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people’ (Galatians 1.14). His radical conversion was not based on ignorance, Paul asserts. Indeed, he ‘was far more zealous for the traditions of his ancestors’ than many of his contemporaries, Paul confesses (Galatians 1.14). It was not his lack of study or understanding of his religion, its laws and traditions, that led to Paul’s conversion.
What did lead a zealous defender of the traditions and laws of one nation to become the ambassador of God’s freely-given gifts of grace, unity and peace, for all peoples, was a blinding encounter on his way to put his religious observance into practice: on a mission as a special commissary of the Jerusalem religious courts Paul was travelling to Damascus in order to bring those Jews who recognized Jesus as the Messiah into line. For Paul it was clear that those who saw Jesus as the Son of God, and professed his resurrection from the dead were a real threat to the unity of his religion: they were dangerous heretics, who departed from the traditions and laws of their ancestors. In our first reading we hear how Paul had ‘persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them into prison’ (Acts 22.3). Accused of breaking the faith and promoting heresy, Paul maintains that the point of imprisoning the followers of Jesus was for them to be killed. Paul was so good at his work that ‘the high priests and the whole council of elders can testify about me’, he explains (Acts 22.5). So good was his work as a special prosecutor, that he was furnished with arrest warrants to extend his operation beyond Jerusalem to other principal cities in the province Syria.
It was on this journey to Damascus that Paul lost his sight. Blinded by a dazzling vision as the sun stood at its zenith, Paul lost his sight. It may have been the loss of his physical sight that led Paul to acknowledge his inner blindness; led him to realize that his zeal to maintain the traditions and laws of his elders had left him with an inner blind-spot, made him ‘inly blind’. Many who were aflame with zeal for a particular course have shared Paul’s experience: those who followed their course relentlessly to the exclusion of all other pursuits may never come to recognize their blind-spots. It is only once they have been stopped in their ways, that that work of recognition can begin, Paul’s story suggests. At the moment at which Paul lost his physical sight, his inner blindness; his inward darkness was removed, replaced by the blinding light that took away his physical vision: ‘I could not see because of the blindness of that light’, Paul explains (Acts 22.11). His entire body was subsumed by a light whose brightness was such that it seared away all darkness: all was light. This was by no means a private vision, though its effect on Paul’s inner life was, at first, deeply personal. Those who accompanied Paul also shared in the vision of that light: ‘those who were with me saw the light’, Paul affirms (Acts 22.9).
The light that the darkness has never overcome consumed Paul’s inner darkness and took away his inward blindness. The light that was from the beginning dazzled him with its searing brightness and took away his sight. And so, left with inner vision and recognition but physically blind, Paul was converted from persecuting Christians to promoting Christ. And at the heart of that conversion lies the revelation that Paul alone heard: Jesus’ words of challenge and commissioning – ‘why are you persecuting me?’; ‘Get up and go’ (Acts 22.7, 10) – that reveal to Paul the reality of the Son of God and conqueror of death. Later Paul will reflect on that pivotal moment as God’s gracious personal revelation of his Son Jesus. The moment when, in the words of today’s gospel, his ‘mind was opened to understand the Scriptures … that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead, and that … forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations’ (Luke 24.45-47). And it was in the strength of that revelation, that conversion and commissioning, that Paul puts his hand into those of his travel companions, and is led into an unknown future—having lost his sight, yet full of insight; having lost his religion, yet full of faith.
We, who today mark this remarkable conversion, know where that journey would lead him: not to the safety of his old faith community in Jerusalem or to his fellow apostles in the same city, but first to the fringes of the Roman Empire, and eventually to its capital city. It was among the Gentiles, those who did not share his erstwhile religion, that Paul took his newly-gained insight that God’s will is done, not by slavishly following a carefully calibrated set of religious observances, but that God’s will is done where people seek his forgiveness, friendship and love. And in order for those people to know the good news the God who seeks to offer us forgiveness, they need others who will share that news with them. As Paul put it in his epistle to the Romans: ‘How are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?’ (Romans 10.14b).
Paul’s conversion ensured that the faith in a God who seeks the friendship and peace of all people was proclaimed not to one community alone, but to all nations. The moment Paul regained his sight, he sought baptism, ‘to have his sins washed away’ (Acts 22.16) and, thus made a member of Christ’s family, ‘went away at once to Arabia … so that I might proclaim Christ to the Gentiles’ (Galatians 1.17). The message that Paul made known was simple and consistent: God no longer knows favourites; no longer knows a chosen people, but seeks the friendship and salvation of all people. God no longer knows Greeks or Hebrews, no longer distinguishes between Jews and Gentiles, but seeks that all nations and languages are made one in him. The message that Paul made known was simple, yet costly: our epistle reading only alludes to the conflicts that lay ahead for Paul in convincing his fellow-apostles, not only of the truth of his own conversion from persecutor to evangelist, but of his radical claim that God knows no chosen race. That work of persuasion, which would occupy most of Paul’s career, lies implicit in his reflection in our epistle that he did not ‘go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before’ him to persuade them of his newly-gained conviction, but instead ‘went away at once into Arabia’ to first make known his insight to Gentiles (Galatians 1.17).
Only after his three-year missionary journey into the Arabian peninsula and province of Syria did Paul go to Jerusalem to confer with Peter and James. There he shared not only the story of his successes as a preacher of unity and peace among the Gentiles, but also his firmly-held conviction that this unity and peace was for all people; not only for Jewish believers (Galatians 1.18). In sharing his own story, Paul challenged his fellow apostles, and was not afraid to chastise them, either: for instance in ‘opposing Peter to his face’, shaming his ambivalent attitude to gentile believers as ‘hypocrisy’ (Galatians 2.11). For the rest of his life, Paul spoke out against such hypocrisy, chastised the exclusive pursuit of self-centred living, exposed those who pursued their own gain and goals to the exclusion of others, and rebuked those who deliberately sidelined or ignored certain ethnic and social groups. For the remainder of his ministry he explained that the blinkeredness that once characterised his own religious practice only ever will lead to a fragmentation of society; exhorted others to open their eyes to the reality he discovered for himself when he was struck by physical blindness: the insight that our God is a God who seeks to heal our divisions, is a God who seeks for all people to share in the gifts of unity and peace.
Paul’s message is not only for Paul’s generation. We do well to pay heed to Paul’s insights today. Our Australia Day celebrations bring into focus the desire that ours may be a nation where people share in shaping a society that is based on shared values; values that transcend our cultural heritage or diverse social structures. The apostle Paul discovered what it truly meant to live in God’s freedom when, blinded by the dazzling light that had subsumed his inner darkness on the road to Damascus, he put his hand into that of his travelling companion and entrusted himself to the care of his former opponents—literally stretching out his hand across the divides of culture and faith (Acts 22.11).
This Australia Day let us celebrate the rich diversity of our nation and city, our Cathedral and our congregations. Let us celebrate that our patron Saint that he challenges us to work to promote the gifts of unity and peace that are the hallmarks of true freedom and liberty; that he challenges us to turn away from our inner blindness that only ever beholds ourselves; that he challenges us instead to look out for others by sharing Christ’s light and life. This Australia Day, let us commit ourselves to work together for the unity and peace of our nation that are both gift and mission for all who seek to follow Christ. Let us do so in the knowledge that in transforming our own nation, we serve a nation that transcends all kingdoms and realms: God’s kingdom of peace where all can and will forever be ‘one in Christ Jesus’. Amen.