Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Reading the Bible Literally?

Text:  Acts 9 & Acts 22 & Acts 26

The Conversion of Saul - Fact or Fiction?

This story - of the conversion of St Paul - is a bit of a puzzler, isn't it? It makes us wonder why Jesus doesn't call everyone with a bright light, and a voice from heaven. I mean - when you first began to accept the notion that Jesus was worth following, were you struck down by a bright light in the middle of Waitrose? No...neither was I.

What you may not realise is that there are in fact three accounts of this story - all within the book of Acts.  And on each occasion, the facts of the story are reported slightly differently.  The first time we hear it, Luke tells the story. Then the next two times, Luke records Paul's own version of events - but each version is slightly different. (If you want to check out the different stories for yourself, then read chapters 9, 22 and 26 of Acts).

Why so many different version of the same story? I suggest that it is because we are not meant to take the story absolutely literally. Who exactly heard it the voice? What exactly did it say? Did the light flash, or shine? It is difficult to get exact answers from the three accounts. This has the feeling of a story which has changed since the original event...one that has been embellished along with the telling, over the years.

You know what it's like. It's like a fisherman's tale of the one that got away. The fisherman isn't telling a lie, as such. There really was a big fish. There really was a struggle. But by embellishing the story, the fisherman makes it memorable...it becomes a story that a whole community can enter into with their imaginations.

I tend to think that the story of Saul's conversion is a bit like that. I might be entirely wrong.  Though I would love you to tell me how the different versions of the story in Acts can all be true.  I rather prefer a more human-scale version of the story. Saul's conversion happened while he was in the middle of a journey. He had just finished persecuting Christians in Jerusalem. He had just been standing in the crowd, holding the coats of those who were stoning the first martyr, Stephen. Now he was on his way to Damascus to persecute more followers of the Way. Saul was a highly religious man, a teacher who knew his Hebrew Scriptures back to front and inside out.

So there he is...walking the 120 miles from Jerusalem to Damascus. He has got a lot of time for thinking - and for musing on the horror of what he has just witnessed. Watching a man being stoned to death - just for believing something different - it must have been a sobering, thought-provoking thing to have seen. As the miles ticked by, at walking pace, perhaps Paul found himself revisiting all the Hebrew Scriptures that he knew so well in his mind. Perhaps he was searching for proof that this Jesus that the 'followers of the Way' were on about could not possibly be the Messiah, the Christ. But the more he thinks about it - the more he realises what the character of God is like...as described in the Hebrew Scriptures...the more he comes to see that Jesus was exactly that...the Messiah, the Christ.

It is as if a light is switched on in Paul's mind. The light is not on the road - flashing or shining. The light comes on in Paul's head. Now he sees himself very differently...as someone who has just participated in the stoning of an innocent man. He begins to ask himself..."why did I persecute that man? What was I doing? The scriptures actually do point to a Messiah who will be humble, riding on a donkey - one who would be 'wounded for our transgressions'. So why am I persecuting Jesus and his followers. I've been such a fool!"

Later, when Paul tells people about his dramatic change of mind...he dresses it up a bit. He's a preacher...a communicator. He knows how to spin a good yarn. You can imagine him saying "It was amazing! It was like this light came on...this blinding light...and it was like Jesus himself was saying to me 'Saul, why are you persecuting me'"

A few more tellings...a few years later...by a few more people...and no longer is this a story about what it was like...but now its a story of actual lights coming on...super-trooper spot-lights from heaven. No longer is it a story of Jesus speaking to Saul through his imagination...no, it’s a more dramatic story of Jesus actually speaking real words.

Why am I telling you this? Why am I taking the trouble to break down the dramatic story of Saul's conversion that we all love - deconstructing it to something more ordinary...more life-like?

Quite simply because I want you to see that Saul's story can be our story too. I don't know anyone who has experienced the kind of dramatic conversion - the full-blown theophany of lights and sound and action - that the story of Saul suggests. Perhaps such people exist. Perhaps God does act in that way, from time to time, for some people. I don't discount the possibility...God can do whatever God wants.

But for most of us, God works in a much gentler way. Most of us come to a realisation, at some point on life's journey; that the essential underlying truth of God is worth pursuing. For some of us that realisation is gradual...week by week, month by month, we find ourselves caught up in the dance of God. For others it’s a more dramatic moment - like a light being switched on - when all that we've heard about God suddenly, somehow, makes sense.

And it is healthy, I believe, for us to think in these terms - and for us to talk in these terms to our families, friends and neighbours. Too many Followers of the Way go around promising their friends that if they become Christians they will see dramatic, miraculous intervention in their lives by God. I believe that God does indeed intervene...through the miracles of love, compassion, charity, hope, friendship, family, community, healing, wholeness and purpose. But he doesn't very often shine bright lights out of the sky, nor talk with an audible voice.

I suggest that the story of Saul's conversion is just that...a story - rooted in a real event - a life-transforming, paradigm-changing encounter with Truth, and with God. The exciting thing is to realise that this story, and this life-transforming event is available to all of us...every single one of us is invited to embrace the Truth, and to have our lives totally transformed by that knowledge.

May you know the power of Truth in your life.  May you encounter God again and again along the road of your own life's journey.  And may you, like Saul, become transformed by that knowledge - and like Paul, find yourself led into the fullness of life that Jesus offers to all who follow his Way. Amen

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Learning from other faiths and cultures...

Today marks the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which we will commence by meeting with our friends from other churches at the United Reformed Church, at 1200.  So for today’s sermon, I’m going to draw heavily on the texts of the booklet of resources for the week of prayer, which has been prepared by Christians from Burkina Faso. 

Burkina Faso is in the Sahel region of West Africa, which extends into the neighbouring countries of Mali and Niger. It has 21 million inhabitants, of about 60 ethnicities. Approximately 64% of the population is Muslim, 9% adheres to traditional African religions, and 26% is Christian (20% Catholic, 6% Protestant). These three religious groups are represented in every region of the country, and in virtually every family. 

Burkina Faso is currently experiencing a serious security crisis, which affects all faith communities. After a major jihadist attack was mounted from outside the country in 2016, the security situation in Burkina Faso, and consequently its social cohesion, deteriorated dramatically. The country has endured a proliferation of terrorist attacks, lawlessness and human trafficking. This has left over 3,000 people dead and almost two million internally displaced. Thousands of schools, health centres and town halls have been closed, and much of the socio-economic and transport infrastructure has been destroyed.  Social cohesion, peace and national unity are being dramatically undermined.  Christian churches have been specifically targeted by armed attacks. Priests, pastors and catechists have been killed during worship and the fate of others who were kidnapped remains unknown. Christians can no longer openly practise their faith in many areas of the country.

The materials for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity were prepared by an ecumenical team from Burkina Faso. The chosen theme is “You shall love the Lord your God ... and your neighbour as yourself” (Lk 10:27) – which, coincidentally is mirrored by our parish strapline:  “Loving God, Serving Neighbour”.

The fact is that many of us will not have heard about the challenges being faced in Burkina Faso before encountering the material from the Week of Prayer.  That is a powerful reminder of the many neglected conflicts that continue to destroy lives and devastate communities around the world.  Sadly, many fail to capture, and fewer still manage to hold, the attention of the world’s media.  The Church is called to be an advocate for those caught in these forgotten conflicts, and to amplify the voices of those who feel, and often are, entirely forsaken.

In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity the Church is being challenged to stop and tend to the wounded and, in so doing, to recognise our own wounds as churches and as communities. As the General Secretary of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, Dr Nicola Brady, has written: ‘Facing the reality of our own brokenness helps to connect us to the suffering of others from a place of humility and deep empathy, creating a sacred space of encounter inspired by Christ’s healing love.

The parable of the Good Samaritan was chosen as the centre piece of this year’s Week of Prayer.  It is one of the best known passages of Scripture, yet one that never seems to lose its power to challenge indifference to suffering and to inspire solidarity.   It is a story about crossing boundaries that calls our attention to the bonds that unite the whole human family.   As I’m sure you know, the core of the story is that of a foreigner (to Jewish eyes) turning out to be the one person who can help the Jewish man beaten up in the road.  His own people, even his own priest, was unable to help him.  But the foreigner, the Samaritan, was able to set aside his own prejudice, and to be a good neighbour.

In choosing this passage of Scripture for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the churches of Burkina Faso have invited us to join with them in a process of self-reflection as they consider what it means to love our neighbour in the midst of a world-wide security crisis. Communities in the British-Irish context may be less vulnerable to acts of mass violence than in Burkina Faso, but there are still many living with the memory and/or the threat of serious violence, centered on issues of identity and belonging.  There are also groups within communities, including people from ethnic minority backgrounds and people seeking asylum, who feel particularly vulnerable to violence or to being displaced by the threat of violence.

Our neighbours in Burkina Faso call us to reconnect to God’s dream for us – a dream of a unity formed of ties of love and compassion. This challenges us not only to reflect on the learning from our ecumenical journey so far, but to widen our vision. What can we learn from people of other faiths?  What can we learn from those whose backgrounds are most different from our own?  And what do we need from each other?

In recent weeks, as you know, we’ve had the joy of getting to know a family of Christians from Pakistan.  They have been learning a lot from us – especially about how to worship in the rather traditional way we do things here at St Faith’s!  But we’ve been learning from them too.  They have helped me to see St Faith’s as others see us – especially newcomers.  We’ve also had some terrific discussions about the differences in our cultures. 

One example worth relating is a chat we had about how families function in Pakistan.  There, unlike here in England, different generations tend to live together.  Grandparents, parents, grandchildren – all living together in the same house.  Children are brought up to respect their elders.  They routinely attend church and learn to worship as their elders do.  The faith, and its traditions are thus handed down from generation to generation. All this is very different to the English practice of creating ever more novel ways of worshipping, to meet the consumerist choices of the next generation.  We also tend to separate and stratify our different age groups.  In schools, for example, we stratify children by the year of their birth.  In churches, young people routinely leave the worship of the adults, and are sent out to Sunday School.  There are, therefore, only rare opportunities, in England, for young people to grow up in the company of their elders.  Unlike Pakistan.

This is just one example of an answer to the questions posed by the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  Those questions bear repeating, as I conclude:  What can we learn from people of other faiths?  What can we learn from those whose backgrounds are most different from our own?  And what do we need from each other?  Amen.