Friday 3 March 2023

St Paul 2

In my last Blog, I tried to convey to you something of the character of Paul the Apostle. Paul, as you know, before his conversion on the road to Damascus was known as Saul the Pharisee. Before that dramatic conversion we can in the Acts of Acts of the Apostles get a glimpse of that passionate angry Saul:
Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers. So he went to the high priest. He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them—both men and women—back to Jerusalem in chains. (9:1-2)

I have also previously mentioned a description of Paul, a description that has been handed down to us from the second century. That description amongst other things, describes him as being ‘full of grace’ a man of undeniable presence, so much so that his letters, and his actions have left an indelible mark on the pages of human history. It was my intention, at the time, to present this little cameo of Paul as a way also to personify the attributes of the beginnings of the early Church, its struggles, its victories and its suffering in a pagan world, and how Paul as one of its leaders endured in adversity. Why should we be interested? And my answer to that question is that there are clearly valuable lessons that are here for us today as we too must live in an unregenerate society along with the corrupted churches that increasingly are becoming more and more blatant in their godlessness and their estrangement from the teachings of the Bible.
In a recent conversation, I talked about the churches, how they are today and what is actually being preached in them. For those members of congregations that are subject to that thing we know as a ‘sermon’, I said in the same conversation, that they, the gathered congregation on a Sunday should at least receive something from the preaching of the Word, the preaching of the scriptures that is meaningful to them. It’s got to be something of practical help and of spiritual value. In other words, a sermon has got to have direct relevance to the Christian lives that we are all trying to live; it must have some direct relevance to your life. Preaching is not merely an  attempt to present some information or to say ‘something interesting’;  though that wouldn’t be a bad thing. But, rather this, and I put it to you like this, by asking you what actually is it that is required of us as Christians, as followers of Jesus within your own personal ministry? Yes, that’s right, your own personal ministry. Does your faith make a difference in the world amongst other people, even amongst unbelievers? Does it make a difference?  Because you and I, all of us, we who gather under the roof of the Church today have to make that difference. We are judged are we not? - Not so much by what we say we are, but rather by what we might not mean to say, and ultimately what we do.
We might not think that the conditions are always favourable towards acting out our highest ideals, our love of God and loving our neighbour as we love ourselves. It’s not always easy. It’s not easy because we have to deal with what they call ‘the nitty gritty of life’, the nitty gritty of life, the adversity of it all and the unexpected problems that always seem to pop up. When things seem always to be going against us, when it's difficult to make headway. And when our intentions are misunderstood, and when we make mistakes as well. So, in line with this ‘strength from adversity’ idea I’ll mention an adage that no doubt you will have heard, an adage that has been described as ‘a proverbial phrase used to encourage optimism and a positive can-do attitude in the face of adversity and misfortune’. It reads like this:
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
The explanation being that, ‘Lemons suggest sourness or difficulty in life; making lemonade is turning them into something positive or desirable.’
But being positive, or staying positive is one of these things we are always being told about. I mean to say, we would always prefer the company of someone who has a positive attitude rather than a negative one. Who wants to listen to someone who is always whinging? We know from experience that negative people are physically and spiritually sapping. At the same time, I think it’s not always possible to put a positive spin on a negative situation. Sometimes it’s best to say nothing. Sometimes we just have to accept things the way they are or just the way that things have panned out. Sometimes we just have to remember to live in faith and put our trust in God.
You’ll remember that story in the book of Genesis, Joseph and his coat of many colours who when he was about 17 years of age was stripped of his special coat, made for him by his father, and then sold into slavery by his jealous and hostile brothers. Later, he was resold as a slave again, in Egypt. How bad can that be, how bad can that be to be sold into slavery by your own kith and kin, by your own brothers? How rejecting and how painful that experience must have been! That’s not something that can be easily forgotten! But the man, Potiphar, who bought Joseph as a slave soon recognised that there was something about Joseph, something different and we know that because the Bible tells us that the Lord blessed Potiphar’s house for Joseph’s sake.
And then when Joseph found himself unjustly imprisoned even the keeper of the prison saw that there was something godly about Joseph, the Lord was with him and so the jailer treated him accordingly and treated him well. Eventually Joseph rose to become second only to Pharaoh in command in Egypt. Why should that be? Because the Lord was with him, it’s as simple as that. You know that none of us will probably ever rise to high office, but that’s not the point, is it? I mean even as a slave in prison, in what should have been another low point in his life, Joseph’s relationship with God still made a difference. Joseph didn’t achieve anything by making positive affirmations about changing lemons into lemonade or whatever the Hebrew or Egyptian equivalent would be. He achieved through the grace of God because God was with him.
And therefore, I say to you, that your ministry too is about your relationship with God, it’s about your prayer life, it’s not about trying to look good, or by pretending that bad things don’t happen, but it is about holding on to your faith and by allowing that inner light of yours to shine so that as Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount letting your light shine before others so that they may see you and praise your Father who is in heaven. What we must do is to live only to the glory of God.
Well, it seems that we have come quite away from my initial comments, my restatement on the life of Paul. But there is a thread, a link from godliness to Paul to the life of the early Church and the life of the Church today. We want the life of our church today to shine in a dark world. But it has to begin at the level of the individual a personal quest for holiness a quest and for personal piety and in this quest we would do well to remember those words from the Psalms (139: 23-24)
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
Point out anything in me that offends you,
and lead me along the path of everlasting life.

In other words, we also have to be humble. As in the words of Max Ehrmann, we should not compare ourselves to others otherwise we could become vain or bitter, for there will always be greater and lesser people than ourselves. Sometimes I think, we may not, in our own busyness or in our own self-esteem, be consciously aware of the qualities and abilities of someone else or we may just overlook them. If I think about Paul after his experience of Jesus on the road to Damascus, I’d have to say that he would be in a pretty difficult situation, leaving his relatively high-ranking, zealous, Pharisaic position and then trying to join and get in with the people of the church he was trying to kill and destroy. He began his ministry pretty much as the loathed outsider, treated with suspicion, treated with contempt and very much seen as being at the bottom of the pile.If we want a glimpse of that church Paul was trying to destroy, we need only look at the text from Acts 4:32-36:
All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had. The apostles testified powerfully to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God’s great blessing was upon them all. There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need.

For instance, there was Joseph, the one the apostles nicknamed Barnabas (which means “Son of Encouragement”). He was from the tribe of Levi and came from the island of Cyprus. He sold a field he owned and brought the money to the apostles.

Now, I want to draw your attention to that name, Barnabas; he became Paul’s sponsor, so to speak. You will see that Barnabas is described as an apostle; he was definitely what we might today call a ‘member in good standing.’ On the other hand, Paul at the beginning wasn’t. But God had other plans, there was something about Paul that attracted Barnabas’s attention. The Lord was definitely with Paul. Barnabas in the beginning obviously carried more clout than Paul, and perhaps it never occurred to anyone, maybe least of all Barnabas, that Paul, in the end, would eclipse all the apostles in a way that would have been unimaginable in those very early years. True humility is a Christian virtue. Years later in his letter to his Church in Philippi, Paul expressed this sentiment in one sentence:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. (2:2-4)


Photograph: Peloponnisios, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons