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Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Skipping from Damascus

and at St. Luke’s, Augathella



Jeremiah 8.1-3, 5f, 8-10
Psalm 70.1-6, 15,17
1 Corinthians 12.31-13.13
Luke 4.21-30

To Paul there could be no understanding of the gospel other than that which he had first encountered on the Damascus Road. There he had met, in vivid fashion, the risen Lord, Lord of the same Church that he, Paul had been rigorously persecuting. To Paul these Christians had been corrupters of his Judaism. There and then, on the road to Damascus, he had realized that his life of brutal obedience to the Laws of his Jewish faith, commendable as they were, were insufficient. There he had first encountered the words that were to be his motto: my grace is sufficient. Subsequently, during fourteen years of reflection in the region that he called “the regions of Syria and Cilicia,” he had internalized those words. He did not reject Torah, but rather recognized that his brutal subjection to it had in itself become a form of slavery, far removed from the liberation that his ancestors had received when God their Creator and his had set them free from the sweat yards of the Egyptian delta.

Perhaps we have all known Pauls. Ironically the Christian community, too, is full of them 2000 years later. Their adherence to the routines or to the appearances of Christian faith is beyond reproach. Their knowledge of the scripture or the traditions of the church can leave us feeling pathetically inadequate. Their attendance at every function of the church community might leave us feeling cavalier by comparison. They are known and respected in the wider community for their obvious Christian qualities. Yet somehow their faith leaves us unmoved when we encounter them; they represent in some way Christ without a smile, God without compassion. They leave us feeling smaller than we were before, sometimes dangerously smaller.

We need to get this right: there are others whose every moment is involved in the activities of the church, or whose knowledge of scripture or tradition is unparalleled. They, by contrast with the hypothetical dry-Pauls however, leave us feeling inspired, enriched, and the better for having known them. It is not their activities but their graciousness, their Christlikeness, that inspires us. Where that Christlikeness is informed by immersion in the depths of faith all the better and all the further removed it is from the dry and slavish religious obedience that had been the hallmark of the pre-Damascus Road Paul.

Paul was forced over and again to defend his understanding of the gospel. Vividly recognized on the Damascus Road, it had been honed in those fourteen years of retreat and reflection of which we know no more than that they took place. His was a fierce mind, and that his knowledge of the traditions of his people was, as he would put it with characteristic immodesty, second to none. But his encounter with the risen Lord had swung him from a fierce sense of his own adequacy in relationship to God to an equally fierce sense of his own inadequacy. It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me. Others wanted to correct his understanding of the gospel, changing it either into a very twenty first century western world gospel of “if it feels good do it” (Corinth) or into a very severe and loveless repeat of Paul’s own former Jewish obedience (Galatia).

Brutally he fought for the gospel: the Corinthians were new agers, rejoicing in freedom to exploit and live a me-now gospel. Peter, James and others had become Judaizers, ignorantly trying to turn Paul’s Damascus Road encounter with the Risen, joy-bringing Lord into a new Judaism, a new and rigorous set of laws. Paul would have neither.

And so always, as should be the case wherever and whenever we proclaim the gospel, Paul emphasized the grace, the underservedness of the encounter with the risen and healing Lord Jesus. Grace was always at the heart of all that he said or wrote. But grace is often an invisible sign of the workings of God:  sacraments, some of you will recall, were to be an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. The inner workings of grace are, as Paul knew so well, just that: inner. These are inner transformations, invisible to the neighbour who, thank God, cannot see our deepest struggles.

But there had to be a sign, and Paul was powerfully aware, with all the early Christian community, that there was. That sign was to be the quality of their love. Did their lives proclaim love that transformed injustice, loneliness, and all the other trials of human existence? If not then their lives were not being opened to the grace-working activity of the Spirit of Christ. But where they were opened to the grace-working activity of the Spirit of Christ the resurrection power of God would be inescapable. And so, in all Paul said and wrote, there was a litmus test: what is the quality of their love. For Galatians and Corinthians especially the answer was clear: we fall short of the qualities demanded by this great passage, the hymn to love. And where 21st century Christians have floundered that again has been the answer: we fall short of the qualities demanded by this great passage, the hymn to love.

So for us the challenge is the same as that faced by Paul’s many opponents. My grace is sufficient. Can we learn to open our lives to the challenging but transforming love of God, the God who takes us out of the driver’s seat?



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