Saturday, April 13, 2013

Easter 3

Many many years ago I read a book about the advertising industry, called 'Techniques of Persuasion'.  It was quite a disturbing read, given the authors' premise that any of us can be convinced of just about anything.  It seems the persuaders aren't even put off by the fact that we might originally hold a point of view exactly opposite to the one they want to convince us of – in the book a Soviet KGB officer was quoted as saying the easiest person to convert to Communism was somebody who was fanatically committed to some other 'ism'.  Apparently techniques of persuasion aren't so much rational, as emotional.  We are not convinced by a clever argument, we are sold a new version of ourselves.

This morning's reading from the Acts of the Apostles depicts the best-known ever example of sudden conversion – St Paul's experience on the road to Damascus.  It's a story that even finds its way into our common speech – 'what?', we ask each other, 'did you see the light?'

It's a story that starts – not in the first dramatic weeks after the resurrection but perhaps as early as two or three years later.  Christian Jews haven't yet decisively separated from mainstream Judaism – in fact that wouldn't happen for decades yet - but amongst the immigrant communities, the Greek-speaking, foreign-born Jews in and around Jerusalem - problems were on the way.  The synagogues had always welcomed a few non-Jewish guests, Gentile 'God fearers' as they were called – and it was this lot, when they started to hear and respond to the Christian message, that started all the problems.  If Gentiles wanted to be Christian, did they have to become Jewish first?  Did they have to be circumcised, did they have to follow the Torah and obey the food laws?  Arguments like these seemed to be behind the events that led up to the stoning of Stephen and the immigrant communities' rapid exit from Jerusalem that we read about in Acts, chapter 8.  It's an argument that Paul finds himself right in the middle of - an argument that basically comes down to the age-old problem of faith communities everywhere during times of rapid change – how do we protect ourselves against the loss of our distinctive culture?  And Paul, and others like him, conservative Jews, would have felt they were fighting to preserve what it meant to be Jewish – the right attitude towards scripture, the right observance of Torah. 

What happens to Paul on the road to Damascus is not only one of the most dramatic turnarounds in history, it's also one of the best documented events in the Bible.  Not only does Luke – writing I guess a generation or so after Paul's death – tell the story no less than three times - here in chapter 9, then twice again in chapters 22 and 26 – but Paul himself, in his own letters to the churches in Corinth and Galatia, agrees in all the essential details.  Paul, the highly educated Pharisee, driven, passionate and single-minded in his determination to wipe out the sect of Jesus Christ, becomes Paul the highly educated Pharisee, driven, passionate and single-minded in his determination to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.  Interestingly, his personality doesn't change after his Damascus-road experience – he is and will always remain an over-educated over-achiever. 

But it is the backflip to end all backflips, it's a complete U-turn in Paul's life, and it is accompanied by some sort of physical crisis, some sort of breakdown in his physical and mental state to accompany the break between old priorities and purposes, and new ones.  Paul's life has just got turned inside out, but not – and I think this is significant – because he is persuaded by the arguments or succumbs to some evangelist's emotional appeal. It seems Paul already knows a fair bit about Jesus and the sect of the Christians, he knows about it and opposes it – what's made the difference, according to Luke's version and according Paul's own account as well, is that he's bumped into the actual Jesus as a very much alive reality.  Luke does make it sound like a sort of ethereal heavenly vision, pretty impressive but not quite in the same league as the risen Jesus appearing to shocked disciples in the days and weeks following that first Easter Day.  Paul himself insists – in his letter to the Corinthian church – that this is not just a vision, not just a flash of insight or a fancy mental breakdown – encounter, not persuasion, not hallucination, is what it takes to turn the direction of Paul's life around 180 degrees.

So what's the point?  We know, of course, that this brilliant, argumentative, conflicted man goes on to be the most effective missionary ever of the Christian church.  In fact, without Paul, it's hard to say whether there would even be a Christian church today.  Without Paul's brilliant ability to adapt the gospel of Jesus to the pagan cultures he encountered, it's hard to say how Christian understanding of Jesus might have developed.

But, what's important for us right now about how St Paul comes to have faith in the resurrected Christ of faith? 

Two things, I think.  Firstly, that it's about more than just conversion.  Certainly it starts with the psychological experience of finding a whole new meaning to your life, but it goes further than that.  Because what we see in Paul's experience – as in the experience of Peter in our gospel reading today – is that the transformation that comes from bumping into the risen one has got some strings attached.  Not just the warm inner glow of having a personal Saviour but the urgency of realising you've got something important to do with your life.  Running into the risen one is less about affirmation than about call.  Peter and Paul both demonstrate the reality that Christianity is not just a feel-good consumer option – not just a belief system but an encounter that's got some implications for how you live.  What brings us to faith is not persuasion but relationship – for us, 2,000 years later, the encounter with the risen Christ takes place within the context of the faith community – we see the risen Christ in and through one another – and how we live out our faith brings us into new forms of relationship with others.  For Paul, of course, it meant recognising that what had seemed so important – the institutions of temple and Torah that defined the difference between Jews and pagans – were of no importance at all compared to the new community of Jews and Gentiles living together as people connected with one another because of the new life experienced in Christ.

Which brings us to the second point, which is that Paul's new self-understanding based on encountering the risen Jesus – in a sense he sees his own life as being submerged in the death of Christ and re-awakening to a whole new way of being in the resurrection – changes his orientation from the past to the future, from being defensive and inward-looking to adventurous and outward-looking.  It becomes less important for him to protect the boundaries of tradition, more important to recognise the newness of what God is doing, the welcome of God that is now extended to Gentiles as well as Jews, and to let go of anything that might stand in the way of that.   

The resurrection changes everything – if we take it seriously we become people who are prepared to cross boundaries, people oriented towards the future, not the past – oriented towards new relationships and new possibilities, no longer anxious about protecting our traditions or preserving our sense of identity.  It's especially important, I think, because in a sense the church finds itself today in a similar sort of bind to the Jewish communities of Paul's own time – living in a cultural environment that's leaving us behind, changing so fast that we can't build bridges any longer between our own traditions and the community around us.  There's a temptation to withdraw into defensive isolation – to feel threatened and to blame the secular world for not coming to church in droves like they used to – but I don't think that's the resurrection option.

The resurrection option that St Paul shows us is to recognise that relationship comes first – our encounter with the Christ of faith makes possible new and life-giving relationships with one another and encourages us to trust that God is also showing us new possibilities in the world outside the four walls of our own tradition.  Like St Paul – who remains for the rest of his life a Torah-observant Jew - we can learn new ways of proclaiming the gospel without losing touch with the life-giving source of our own faith and spirituality. 

But what has this got to do with you and me, unless we are called to be apostles?  Quite a bit, I think.  Paul is an unlikely super-hero, at best.  Bookish, not bad on paper but less than impressive in person, as the stroppy Corinthian church were quick to point out to him, a bit of a disappointment to them, it seems.  We are not all called to be preachers, or evangelists, or even theologians (thank goodness!) – but like Paul we are all called to be Christians living in interesting times, times of transition and change – called to trust, not in the stability of a church or a tradition, but in the living person of Jesus and the here-and-now presence of God's Holy Spirit who is leading us into the future.

Just as Paul gets that it is about encounter with Jesus, he also gets that it is about how we live as Christians.  He gets that it is about relationship, about our encountering the risen one and being formed into God's people in the everyday, sometimes inspiring, sometimes conflicted real relationships of the Church.  His writings – real letters to real Christians – demonstrate that over and over, and show that for Paul, God could be trusted to complete in us the work that he has started.  The secret, in fact, for Christians who doubt their own ability to be passionate or articulate advocates for their faith, is that persuasion and having the right words are not the key.  Relationship and trust are the keys, willingness to be open to the future and humility to discern God's leading in our lives – these are the keys to faith that St Paul teaches us.  Willingness to allow our lives to be turned upside down by God's surprising and insistent call – that's the key!