Last Sunday we kept the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul. Here is the sermon from Mother Anne-Marie.
My very first car was a second hand Morris 1100 – solid, reliable and British. I had it for two years. Then I moved to London as a newly qualified social worker and realised I could get a loan for a brand new car. The job involved a lot of driving with visits to foster homes on the Kent Coast, therapeutic communities in the south west, and children’s homes in the Welsh mountains. I wanted something a bit more “trendy” than my Morris. Other social workers at the time drove Volkswagen Beatles or bone rattling Citroens. I wanted a bit more comfort that the Citroen deux chevaux, but I knew I wanted something foreign. I went for a Renault 5 – bright yellow it was – and so began my love affair with Renaults.
My next car was still a Renault 5 but bright red. The love affair with Renaults was sealed when Frank Suarez put a card on my windscreen about Renault servicing and repairs, and I found his garage in the arches at Clapham North. For thirty years he faithfully repaired my, and then our, Renaults – I converted Jerry to them too – through a 14, a Savanna, a 25, a Laguna and a Scenic. Virtually all my adult life the car had to be Renault. But then I needed to replace the Scenic. Jerry read an article about Mazda 5’s. I still wanted a seven seater to take grandchildren on outings but I wanted something that was not too big and was nice to drive. Jerry tried to persuade me, but I was set on a Renault. I had never had anything else. Jerry pointed out that getting to Frank’s garage in Clapham was no longer easy and that there were other makes of car. I was probably swayed by the fact that Frank had now retired and returned to his native Canary Islands. The garage was still there with Andy providing a good personal service, but Frank had gone and it made the change a bit easier.
I agreed to look at a Mazda. I agreed to test drive a reasonably priced second hand one. I liked it – could I possibly be converted? It was hard to change after so many years of loyalty to Renaults, but I managed it. And if you look outside the vicarage you will see Jerry now has also switched the old Renault Laguna for a second hand Mazda 6 – we have switched allegiance!! We have been converted from Renaults to Mazdas!
Can you think of something you have clung to like this? A make of car or vacuum cleaner. Your politics – are they still the same as your parents? Are you loyal to a particular supermarket or clothes shop? Most of us have something in our lives that seems unchangeable. It is how we have always voted, the shop we have always used or the make of car we feel wedded to. But conversion is possible!
When we are wedded to something really firmly we talk about being “dyed in the wool”. “She’s a dyed in the wool Tory”. “He’s a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist where food is concerned – it has to be roast dinners, sausages or stews – no foreign rubbish.” Saul was a “dyed in the wool” Jew. He says in the reading we heard from Galatians “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” Definitely “dyed in the wool”. The phrase comes from wool that is dyed before being spun into threads, so the colour is least likely to fade or change. The colour is deeply ingrained. For Saul, Judaism was ingrained in his soul, in his being. It was his life. Being zealous for the beliefs of his ancestors led him to be zealous in the persecution of the new religious sect which formed around this person Jesus – “the Church of God” as Paul describes it in his letter to the Galatians. By his own words Paul says that his old self was violently persecuting this Church of God.
Changing one’s make of car after many years of loyalty can be difficult. So just how difficult is it to change ones politics or religion where that belief system is so ingrained it is part of our very being. Of course in this country the political climate is changing. When I was growing up, on the whole you were either Labour or Conservative – you were what your family was. My family were staunch Labour, apart from Grandma who had never made the switch from being Liberal. She voted Liberal to her dying day because that is how she was brought up and Lloyd George had been the great hero of her youth. But now there is a political shift and there are other parties on the scene and old allegiances maybe be shifting for good or ill.
And there are shifts in religion too. More people in this country are being brought up with no faith, or becoming people of no faith as they grow up. But we also see people changing faith – not just between denominations of Christianity – but the much more radical change from for example Christianity to Islam, or Hinduism to Christianity. As we are now much more a multi faith country, so people come into contact with other faiths. I met last year at a conference a wonderful English convert to Islam. She was a thoughtful academic theologian who had found in Islam a greater spirituality and prayerfulness than she had found in the Catholicism of her childhood. And there is of course a tide in the other direction. Despite the many difficulties they face with their families and culture, many Moslems convert to Christianity – it is estimated by Al Jazeera, not the most likely source for such information, to be in the millions worldwide, though we hear little about it.
We are now more aware of what it might mean to be converted from one religion to another, and maybe we can appreciate more fully the traumatic experience of Saul on the road to Damascus. His encounter with Jesus left him not just blind but I am sure traumatized. His whole frame of reference had to change. If our reading from Galatians had gone on we would have read this – I’m reading from the last phrase of our epistle this morning – Galatians 1 verse 16 on to verse 21 – the Epistle actually ends in mid sentence,
“I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia and afterwards I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas (that’s Peter) and stayed with him for 15 days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you before God, I do not lie! Then I went into regions of Syria and Cicilia.”
Probably the Epistle ends where it does because if you read on in Galatians it kind of contradicts our reading from Acts this morning. Did Paul, still Saul at this stage, start preaching straight away as Acts says or did he have period in Arabia, as he himself says in the letter to the Galatians. It was three years until he went to Jerusalem and met Peter, but he must by then have been preaching and be known by reputation to the other apostles. But although he had this instant conversion, I think he may have needed a period of reflection and adjustment, and further revelation from Christ, and this may have happened in Arabia.
Whatever the sequence of events, the essential is the dramatic change which came upon Saul through his encounter with Jesus. Often we see his name change as part of that change in him. But unlike Simon’s name change to Peter which was given by Jesus, the change of Saul to Paul seems gradual. It does not happen at his conversion or baptism, but it is mentioned in Acts Chapter 13 verse 9. Acts tells us Saul had been preaching the gospel and the text then says “Saul also known as Paul” and from then on in Acts he is referred to as Paul. Saul was a very Jewish name and Paul was a Roman name, so it may have simply been that he became known as Paul as he moved amongst the gentiles of the Roman Empire, or he may have changed it deliberately to fit in, to be accepted, to have an opening to preach the gospel of Christ. But the name change does somehow signify the great change that happened in this life and how God, through Jesus Christ, worked in him.
Here this morning, we will be a mixed bunch in terms of how we came to be a Christian. Some of us will have grown up in the Christian faith, maybe always been C of E. It’s part of our DNA almost. Others may have changed faith, been brought up in a very different faith and tradition, or brought up with no faith at all, and somewhere along the road either had a dramatic conversion or a much more gradual experience of spiritual transformation which brought them to Christianity. Still others may have had some quite dramatic “conversion” to Christianity, even if they were brought up in the Christian faith. I see myself in that category. I had a life changing encounter with Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, during a Pentecost Mission. It changed the whole direction of my life and the power of it continues to sustain me.
As today we reflect on the Conversion of St Paul and the amazing change of direction it brought to his life, it is good to remember and reflect on our own route into belief in Jesus Christ as Lord, and to give thanks for that faith which sustains us in our daily living. It is also good to remember that Christ still needs evangelists, now more than ever perhaps. We are a multi faith country and respectful of other faiths, but I hope Christianity, faith in Jesus, has been so life changing for us that we want others to know the love and power of Jesus in their lives. Jesus needs us, Christians here in Caterham, to share our faith, to tell our story – it may not be dramatic, but he needs us to relate how Jesus has changed and sustained our lives. May we take Paul as our model? May we allow Jesus Christ to find us, to change us and then enable us, so we like Paul can tell others what Good News Jesus has been in our lives?