A Sermon preached at the church of St Paul, Brierley on their Patronal Festival, 25 January 2014

A priest I know used to describe St Paul’s writings as rather like a currant bun! If you’ve tried reading straight through any of the epistles you will know what he meant. Much of it is pretty hard work, quite stodgy and not very easy to follow and then you hit one of his marvellous passages which just sing out to you of the glory of God. Something like “I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can  separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38ff) There are lots of those sort of passages. Paul had a grasp of the amazing glory of God and a grasp on the kindness and love of God and Paul was absolutely amazed that this God, in the form of Jesus Christ, had taken the trouble to knock him off his horse and show him a far better way of following him than the one that had taken up his life so far. Paul never, ever got over that; he never stopped thanking God for it. Read through his Epistles and you find that every one of them begins “I thank God…” He really did. It was one of the most attractive things about him.

Yet St Paul has a bad reputation. People say his writings are unintelligible. They have a point. He can be difficult. He was struggling to write Christian theology for the first time. He was having to get his mind around totally incomprehensible ideas like the Trinity. He had to invent new ideas, drag old words into new meanings. He did an amazing job. His writings take up a mere 60 pages of the average bible and yet thousands and thousands of books have been written about him. Your patron Paul was probably the most creative theologian the Church has ever known.

People say he was bad tempered. Well, maybe but when you look at the reasons for his anger you see he is angry because people were destroying the Gospel, trying to steal the freedom away from these sons and daughters of God. Yes, he says “You stupid Galatians; Who has bewitched you?” (Gal.3:1) They were being stupid. They were letting men persuade them to take on all the 600 rules and regulations of the Jewish law, abandoning the wonderful freedom of being saved by Christ. That was stupid! Paul loved his Christian brothers and sisters. He cared passionately when they did stupid things. He cared most of all when people came and corrupted their faith and took away their hope of salvation. Paul got angry and sarcastic, because he loved people. He wasn’t going to stand back politely and let them be carried off to hell.

I don’t know what you think of Paul but I hope you love him. He deserves to be loved. In the first place he loved God. He saw what God has done for us in Christ and was utterly amazed by such generous love. He saw how God forgave the most awful sins. God had forgiven him after all. He tells the Galatians “You have heard how I persecuted the Church of God and tried to destroy it”.  Yet God forgave him all that and made him an apostle. What an amazing God we have!

So Paul became a missionary. He was a tremendous missionary. When you look in your Bibles at a picture of Paul’s missionary journeys you see how he covered all the Middle East, more than once. He did it on foot. No car, no bus, not even a horse. He walked and walked and walked. Sometimes, it is true, he went by boat but that wasn’t comfortable: “Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people… in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure…” How can we not love a man who puts up with all that so that he can bring the news of Jesus Christ to people who did not know him?

So when we think of criticising Paul, we need to ask whether we can even hold a candle to his example. Do we preach Christ as he did? Do we tell our friends about this Jesus whom we meet in church? Do we show by the quality of our lives that Jesus lives in us, in such a way that people will say to us “Tell us about Jesus”? I can’t answer “yes” to any of those questions. I need to ask myself how I could do that better. Well, I think I know how we could all do it better. We could follow Paul’s example and really think about Jesus, let Jesus come into every part of our life. We could look at him every day in the Gospel and see what he is saying. We can ask him to set us on fire with love for him, as he set Paul on fire and then people will see Jesus in us and ask to know more about him.

Will they see Jesus in us? If they look at us what will they see? Two of the best letters Paul wrote were his letters to the Christians in Corinth. They were a wildly enthusiastic congregation who were badly divided. They were divided into little groups, criticising each other, each saying they were better than the other. Some could pray in tongues, some preached well, some had more money and showed off about it. It really was a shocking business. Paul was furious. “Is Christ divided?” he thunders at them. No, Christ is not divided but we often are. In this week of prayer for Christian unity we see how divided we have been for centuries. Methodists, Anglicans, Catholics, Pentecostals. We may co-exist but we offer a divided Christ to the world. Or even within our own Anglican church we are sadly divided: between sound Catholics and Aff Caths, between low church and high church, between evangelicals and others, between priests and laity. All these different groups have gifts, insights, virtues which we all need. It is not easy to bring them together. I do not myself see how it can be done. It requires love, hope, vision and a great longing to bring the divided Christ back together again. We must not settle contentedly into our little divisions. We must weep over them, repent of the part we have played in creating them, pray to know how we can heal them. We need to start with all of us looking to Christ, longing to be more one with him, longing for him to be part of our lives. St Paul knew what it was to have a divided Church. He saw divisions in Corinth. He saw divisions between Jews and Greeks and he found the way of unity was simply in Christ: “Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Greeks but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God”. (I. Cor. 1:22ff)


            Nicolas Stebbing CR