“DAMASCUS ROAD EXPERIENCES”
So exactly when did you become a Christian?
It is a deceptively simple question -
which some people find easier to answer than others.
There are those Christians - and I suspect some of you
who can tell to the hour - maybe even to the minute -
that point when you found the Lord, when you “saw the light”.
Some of those who pinpoint their dramatic conversion
are very much like St Paul on the Damascus Road - able to point to
a specific time because that is when everything suddenly changed -
and a former life characterised by
drink, drugs, promiscuity, greed, whatever, was totally overturned.
And maybe there are stories like that here today -
and if, I thank God for them.
But let me
read a you a short extract from a novel
by modern author from the American deep South -
Elizabeth D Vaughan:
heroine is called Sylvia Grace Mullins,
and when she is 12 she is kissed by a boy for the first time.
But the boy wonders whether he has done the right thing -
is this girl religious enough?
So he asks her - Have you been born again?
And Sylvia tells us “I knew what he meant.
I’d been at Nashville Christian Academy
long enough to know exactly what he meant….
Its not good enough to be a Christian there -
you’ve got to have a conversion experience,
preferably one that makes you cry when you talk about it.
You have to have a before and after story with big differences,
like I was on drugs but now I’m clean,
I was a wife abuser but now I’m nice,
I was blind but now I see, but I didn’t have anything like that.
I was only twelve years old - how could I have anything like that?”
Dewberry Vaughan, Break the Heart of me” Doubleday 1994,
quoted in The Christian Century Jan 18 1995)
And of course lots of people never have that
one definitive and defining moment -
maybe sometimes we wish we had -
it could be reassuring to have certainty that sort of experience often brings -
There may even be a subtle temptation
to invent or at least embellish a conversion story
for public consumption & private reassurance.
Lets be clear - those who, like St Paul in our reading
have a classic “Damascus Road” experience of sudden dramatic conversion
have received a wonderful gift (and others should never knock it).
But that is a million miles away from saying
that such a spiritual history is normative -
let alone necessary- for all Christians.
once heard someone describe their coming to faith
as like a flower coming into bloom.
We all recognize a flower when we see one -
but who can point to a particular minute of a particular hour
and say “That is exactly when the bud became a flower”?
Faith can arrive and grow in many ways.
Saul of course had been an arch enemy of the Church -
he was on his way to Damascus precisely to persecute the Christians-
so his conversion to Christ represented a huge seismic shift.
But even for Paul, this is not simply a one-off event -
his whole life from that point on is a process
of increasing discernment and knowledge of God,
as he learns through visions and opportunities,
opposition and acclaim, imprisonment and freedom.
And who knows what conversations and prayers
had prepared the way for that day on the way to Damascus?
Well so much for how
and when and where God speaks to us -
But the really important thing about Paul on the Damascus Road
is not how God spoke but how it changed Paul’s life -
And the same is true for us
how and when did you become a Christian?
An interesting question.
· What difference does it make to
your life now you are -
or are becoming - a Christian?
A critical question.
people tell you that if you really give your life to Christ
everything in the garden will be rosy
another spam email the other day
promising that if I gave my life to the Lord
that would be an end of my financial worries
and I’d get a big pay rise.
I am not sure if the Circuit Treasurer was copied into the email -
I fear possibly not….
Well do you want the bad news or the good news?
The bad news is that it doesn’t work like that -
take up your cross and follow me, said Christ -
and cross carrying is seldom well paid or easy work
Ask St Paul how his life with Christ panned out - its in 2 Cor 11:24-9:
I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.
Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned,
three times I was shipwrecked,
I spent a night and a day in the open sea,
I have been .. in danger from rivers, .. from bandits, ..
from my own countrymen, .. from false brothers…..
Saul stopped persecuting the Church,
there were plenty waiting to take his place -
so Paul in turn became the victim.
And frankly, if we follow Christ & don’t feel the pain somewhere along the way,
we might need to stop & ask if we have really got it right…
But don’t forget the good news -
The good news is this, that the power of God in Christ
is ultimately stronger than that of the powers-that-be in this world -
Grand Inquisitor Saul,
SS Obergruppenführer Saul,
Religious Bigot Saul,
is ultimately no match for the vulnerable man of Nazareth
who quietly says to him, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
I am the one you persecute -
I am not merely taking an interest in the Christian Church which you attack -
I am the Church which you attack -
the Church is my Body, the Body of Christ -
attack the Church, you attack me.
Remember that next week when we officially celebrate our
new building -
for all the wonders of the building scheme,
we as a Church are far more than a building -
we are the Body of Christ -
and though we be persecuted and attacked
and all manner of foul things are said of us,
we are at one with Christ and cannot be defeated.
That is a special message today for our friends from
who know more than many of us in recent years
what it means to be persecuted for your faith -
Christ is risen, and his shall be the victory!
Do you recall the story told by a character
in The Brothers Karamazov:
Jesus returns to earth and once again
he teaches and heals and blesses the people.
But Jesus has returned in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition,
and the ancient Cardinal, the 90 year old Grand Inquisitor,
has Jesus arrested as a danger to true religion and thrown in a dungeon.
He begins to interrogate him.
But Jesus replies not a word,
but simply looks gently in his face of the old man.
Then at long last Christ approaches the old man in silence
& softly kisses him on his bloodless, aged lips.
That was his whole answer.
The old man shudders.
Something trembles at the edge of his lips.
He goes to the door,
opens it and says to him,
‘Go. And come no more. Come not at all. Never. Never.’
And he lets him out into the dark squares of the town.
Inquisitor - for all his worldly power -
is no match for the power of the love of God.
yet again this week we have commended
a member of our Community to God in heaven -
and we rejoice for our sister Marian James.
And again we read at the Crematorium on Thursday (Rom 8):
“Nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”
think about casting our vote,
we need to vote wisely and compassionately
on behalf of the poor and the needy & persecuted -
but let us not be seduced into thinking that the ultimate destiny of the world
is in the hands of Governments, let alone Opinion Polls or Presidential debates -
we are citizens of two Kingdoms -
& ultimately no earthly democracy or dictatorship
can defeat the Kingdom of God.
it is said that if you follow in
Paul’s footsteps to Damascus
to the Street Called Straight, you will find one very old building
which generations ago now was a Christian Chapel, no longer so.
A symbol you might say of the Church’s failure.
But go up onto the roof and scrabble there in the dust
and it is said you can still find an ancient inscription from Psalm 145 -
“The Kingdom of God is an everlasting Kingdom”
comes to us in many ways.
Following him may lead us to the gutter and the cross,
but praise God, that is not the end of the story - for as Paul discovered,
the Kingdom of God stands for ever - for Christ is risen,
and nothing, neither life nor death, nor principalities nor powers,
nor anything else in the whole of creation,
will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Order of Service
Hymn 457 “Christ whose glory fills the skies”
All Age Ministry - Debbie Myhill
Hymn 215 “Amazing Grace”
Minister; Let us share God’s blessing.
Adults; The peace of the Lord be with you
Young Church; And also with you.
Minister; Go in peace.
(Young people leave for their own sessions)
Acts 9:1-19 (p.1102)
Hymn “Christ, be our light”
(Bernadette Farrell Common Ground No 21 © OCP Publications Calamus Licence 1613)
Sermon “Damascus Road Experiences”
Hymn 788 “Behold the Servant of the Lord”
Song Open our eyes Lord, we want to see Jesus
(Robert Cull, NHWS 261 © 1976 Maranatha Music, CCLI 58752)
Prayers of Intercession
Song (seated) Open our eyes Lord…
Hymn 216 “And can it be”