Every nation, every community, every family, has a defining story of an event – or events – or of an experience, that is part our common identity. It tells us something deeply significant about who we are: our character, our distinctiveness, our quirks as well as our gifts. Here in Monaco, a visit from Hercules, back in the mists of time, has its place alongside the chronicles of the Grimaldis since the 14thCentury; and maybe de Gaulle’s blockade of 1963. Many national and community sagas exist in different versions. Some details can become exaggerated in the retelling. Some details may get forgotten over time or are deliberately supressed to avoid embarrassment or to secure the upper hand. Once you dig below the surface of these stories, you discover that things are more complicated and not always what they might, at first, appear.
In the Christian Church, one of our defining stories is of Paul’s so-called conversion. In the English language, a Damascus road experience has become synonymous with a sudden conversion. The earliest generations of Christians considered this episode in Paul’s life to be so decisive that it receives five mentions in the New Testament: three of them in the Acts of the Apostles; and two of Paul’s own recollections in his surviving epistles. Like all great stories, there’s a measure of evolution in the telling, and some of the detail differs in the various accounts. But these small differences are an indication of how widely the account was in circulation among those diverse fledgling Christian communities in the decades after Jesus was crucified.
The New Testament stories suggest that Paul’s experience was a sudden, one-off event. The English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, calls him ‘once at a crash Paul.’ This is what we heard in our reading, this morning, from the most vivid and detailed of the accounts in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 9). But there is much else that Paul has to say about his calling (and thisis the word he most often uses) his calling to be an apostle of Christ. It suggests that this extraordinary moment on the Damascus Road is only part of a more complex story.
From what Paul tells us in his letters, often when he’s tearing his hair out, he is doing his best to reconcile conflict and division in those fragile Christian communities that emerged along the ancient trade routes, and in the major centres of the Roman Empire. His world came crashing down because there was a gradual realisation that his words, his actions and his beliefs were, somehow, creating a clashing dissonance in his life. To use the language of contemporary psychology, he was beginning to recognize that he was living with a divided self.
Few of us are able to make such a profound change of heart and mind and will in one easy step. It is often the outcome of much mental wrestling, of self-doubt, of weighing the arguments, not to mention sleepless nights. If it was a crash, it was a crash in slow motion. Whatever happened on the Damascus Road, we can see how this event only begins to make sense in the years ahead, as we eavesdrop on the conflicts and joys that punctuated Paul’s desire to teach the faith, and bring cohesion to these fragile and fractious communities, that were as diverse as they were unpredictable.
This is why the story of Paul’s conversion is decisive and definitive for the Christian Church’s self-understanding. As the American scholar, Ed Sanders suggests, Paul’s call to be an Apostle only begins to happen in the testing heat of conflict. Paul shows us, as he grapples with the competitiveness, insecurity, and arrogance that surfaced in the earliest Christian communities, that it is only when everyone feels they have a stake in the Church, where divisions are overcome, where exaggerated ideas of superiority are laid aside, that the Church can truly be the Church. Maybe, as Paul heard about the disagreements, the hostility, the unfairness, he wondered if he was witnessing a reflection of his own old divided self. ‘Is Christ divided?’ he asked the quarrelling Christians in Corinth; as he tries to bring them back to their senses, telling them that the only power that matters is the power of weakness, seen in the crucified body of Christ. This is how we begin to respond to the challenge of dealing with people who are fundamentally different; and where, in Christ – and this Paul, again – there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, but one single new humanity in Christ. This is the starting point to resolving conflict with wisdom, justice, imagination and truth, and living the life Christ calls us to live. This is how every person has their eyes opened to a vision of Christ’s kingdom of peace, truth and justice.
And that brings me nicely from St Paul on the Damascus Road to St Paul’s, Monaco!
What is your defining story? What is it that shapes your shared identity as the community of Christ’s crucified and risen body in this place? And what is that story telling others about you? Has it been the same story all along; or has it evolved? And what aspects of the story lie hidden beneath the surface?
I’ve said enough about Paul’s experience already to leave us in no doubt that there has been conflict in the Church from the beginning, and it’s been part of the story of the Church ever since. We have just observed a week of prayer for Christian unity. This is a potent reminder of how divided the worldwide Church still is. But the story of conflict that is the story of St Paul’s, Monaco, at this present moment, is a cause for deep sorrow, as we open a window on the confusion, the hurt, the mistrust and the anger. I can well understand why we might be tempted to give up in despair. But Paul is in no doubt that hope, not desperation, is the obstinate and enduring mood-music of the Gospel.
Last year, I took part in a symposium at the Institut Catholique in Paris, where I addressed the conflicts that are currently undermining mission and unity across the worldwide Anglican Communion. I was speaking to an audience of Roman Catholics, as well as people from other Protestant churches, who were baffled as they looked at us. The title of my address was ‘The Wisdom of Dispute.’ I suggested that dispute was often a necessary way of getting to the truth, reach consensus, and build more solid foundations for our future flourishing as a church. It requires patience, basic courtesy, a willingness to listen, telling the truth in love, as well as a commitment to see our own individual needs and preferences as secondary to the common vision of the whole body.
We can sense something of this in Paul’s story. Paul’s former life was blown apart by the dawning realisation that his ways of believing, speaking and behaving were unsustainable – if not indefensible. Paul saw that our reconciliation in – and through – God will never be achieved by controlling others, by power struggles or in diminishing others. It is only achieved by living after the pattern of Christ’s own sacrificial self-giving on the Cross. Paul called it ‘Grace.’ We can’t earn it; and it’s certainly not a reward. We just have to be open to receive it. It’s a free gift. Pure and simple.
I wonder what would happen to us, in this particular church community, and as an Anglican Communion, if we were more gracious, imaginative and truthful in the way we approach tension and disagreement. What if we see it as a vital part of ourcall to conversion? I don’t mean submitting to the majority view all the time, or allowing conspicuous individuals to go unchallenged; but as an invitation to rediscover what inspired and energised our call to mission and service in the first place. I wonder about this because I sense this is happening to Paul, as he gets himself tied up in all sorts of knots in his letters, pouring out his exasperation and joy at what he sees in those earliest Christian communities. As he strained to deal with the kind of beliefs and behaviour that threatened to rip these early communities apart, there can be little doubt that, time after time, he was driven back to that defining moment on the Damascus Road, back to his total reliance on the love, the grace, and the abundant mercy of God in Christ.
Are we, who gather here around this altar, to celebrate this sacrament of unity, committed to exploring how seemingly irreconcilable differences can lead towards new places of trust and mutual flourishing? Are we committed to reliving those defining moments of encounter with the inexhaustible love of Christ, so that we can draw others to discover their own place within this community? These are the searching questions we must ask on this day. It is only by understanding how the conflicts and opportunities of Christian community can inspire conversion, that we can begin show the world, as Paul did, the full extent of the wisdom and love of the crucified and risen Christ. This must be our defining story: how our openness to the free gift of the grace of God enables us to become the people he is calling us to be.
A Sermon preached in St Paul’s, Monaco, on Sunday 27thJanuary 2019,being the Festival of the Conversion of Paul, Apostle
by the Archdeacon of France & Monaco, The Venerable Meurig Williams