The Conversion of St Paul
Sermon preached by Rev. Christopher Harrison, St Mary’s church, Nottingham, 2010
The parish of All Saints, St Mary and St Peter, Nottingham
Christopher Harrison home page
Who was St Paul ... from Tarsus, in the south of what’s now Turkey ... a Roman citizen, which denoted high status ... Originally known as Saul ... appears to have been a senior figure in the temple at Jerusalem ... zealous in persecuting the early Christians ... Present at the stoning of the first Christian martyr, St Stephen.
Conversion – thought to be soon after the death and resurrection of Jesus ... no later than AD36 ... road to Damascus .. saw Christ in a vision ... blinded him .. asked why he was persecuting him ... healed by Ananias and was baptised. Withdrew for some years from public view ... then re-emerged and began to found churches, travelling far and wide around the eastern Mediterranean – Asia Minor (Turkey, Greece, Rome (died there). He wrote at least seven of the epistles of the NT, which set out some of the core beliefs of the Christian faith. If St Paul hadn’t spread the Gospel so widely and left such comprehensive statements of Christian belief and church organisation, it is unlikely that Christianity and the Church as we know them today would exist.
St Paul has become known for a number of Christian beliefs which lie at the heart of our faith. He’s also got a reputation for being difficult to understand. The heart of the difficulty which is often found in St Paul’s writings is to do with what he means by ‘salvation’ ... so I invite you to spend the next few minutes exercising the brain cells
What do you understand by ‘salvation’? it’s one of those words we hear and use a lot in church but I suspect most people are reluctant to admit it when they don’t really understand it ... To simplify radically – it’s basically to do with whether, after this life, you will be judged as righteous by God ... and so go to heaven. So the talk, in a church context, of being ‘saved’ – is about the same thing – same root word – if you’re saved you will be judged as righteous by God and go to heaven. It also means that in this life, before you die, you are already ‘saved’ – in other words, through your relationship with God you can be confident of being judged as righteous by him, and live your life in the certainty of knowing this. All this is basic Christian belief (although what we understand by heaven, and its opposite, is another matter, which we won’t go into now).
So what exactly does St Paul mean by ‘salvation’, which is where I said the heart of the difficulty in understanding his writings lies? What does this process of ‘being judged as righteous by God’ actually involve? Since the Reformation ie the over the last five hundred years or so – Protestant churches have tended to sum the process of salvation as follows: Jesus Christ, being sent by God, as his Son, being free from sin, died for our sins on the cross – in other words voluntarily taking upon himself the punishment for sin which would otherwise have been laid upon us, which would keep us from going to heaven. This is known as the Atonement. If, then, a person believes in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and has faith in Christ’s atoning death and resurrection, this is sufficient to enable that person to be ‘saved’ and enter heaven. This wiping away of humanity’s sins by Jesus’ death and resurrection is an example of what is known as God’s ‘grace’ – in other words a gift from God, freely given, to enable us to be saved.
All this is drawn from the writings of St Paul, and has become, in the last four or five centuries, the classic Protestant understanding of salvation and the atonement. It’s simple – it’s attractive to people – it has been a great source of new hope for people burdened by guilt and trapped in low self-esteem – and the way in which it places God’s love and his forgiveness of sin at the heart of Christianity has inspired many to lead more loving and forgiving lives themselves.
But is it really quite so simple? Such an understanding of salvation can easily lead people to conclude that either you’re saved or you’re not – and if you’re not, you’re clearly bound for hell. Can we really be so sure? It also can lead to the conclusion that, since what matters most of all is whether or not you have faith in Christ, what you actually do with your life is of secondary importance. Also, according to this way of reading St Paul, you can’t be saved – get to heaven - by good works alone, however numerous they may be – it’s your faith in Christ that really matters. So we end up, in some churches, with a huge amount of emphasis being placed on personal statements of faith in Christ – which requires one never to waver or doubt.
All this is well and good – up to a point. But what has been emerging from recent studies of St Paul’s writings is that all this is actually an oversimplification – and, moreover, in certain key respects, actually misunderstands St Paul. Let me give you a few examples:
Then we’re left, after all this, with what I believe is a more mature understanding of the ‘Atonement’ – the way we obtain salvation, and are judged as righteous by God. It’s not enough just to believe in Christ: we need to be loyal, faithful, and obedient to him; God’s grace does require a response on our part, and this response needs to involve serious attention to the teachings of Christ, and a deepening of discipleship. All this, according to the so-called New Perspectives on St Paul, is entirely scriptural, and reflects a comprehensive understanding of what St Paul really meant, in the light of modern scholarship.
Now – if you’re still with me – you may think that the conclusion which we’ve just reached is all just common sense! For most people probably do assume that Christianity involves trying to lead a good life. But it is of course much more than this, and I hope that this has given you a brief glimpse of how important it is to look closely at the meanings of words we find in the Bible, and that when we do this we can grow in our understanding of what it means to be a Christian – and modify our lives accordingly. Amen.