Sunday, January 25, 2015

Shaming St Paul?

Sermon preached at Our Lady of Walsingham and St Francis on the feast of the conversion of St Paul 2015

Aren’t Christians supposed to forgive and forget? Here we are, remembering that St Paul was a zealot who was responsible for stirring up hatred and persecution of Christians among the Jews. We can certainly put that into context when we look at Islamic Extremists stirring up hatred against the West. St Paul was one of those.

However, we know St Paul as the Apostle to whom the most writing of the New Testament is attributed. We hold him up as an example of Christianity, and yet we never seem to be able to let his past go. We even celebrate it. Does that mean that, every 25th January in Heaven, St Paul burns with shame about what he used to do?


Probably things don’t quite work like that. Let us be clear, we celebrate the Conversion of St Paul for at least three reasons. First, we celebrate it because it means that one fewer person hates us Christians! Second, we celebrate it because one more person, namely St Paul, was rescued from the clutches of Evil. Third, we celebrate it because it gives hope to the rest of us.

St Paul does continue to refer to his conversion. He recounts it at least twice in the Acts of the Apostles and he himself says to the Church in Corinth: “For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” To the Church in Galatia, he says, “But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ. For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: And profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers. But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by his grace, To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood.”

It’s clear that St Paul is ashamed of his previous conduct, but rather than wallow in self-pity he uses it to show that He preaches the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ, not because he invented it as some people think, but because it was given him to preach by God Himself. It is the fact that he was fundamentally against the Gospel and has been persuaded otherwise that his writings are reliable. This is why he can’t forget his past even though it is quite clear that he has been forgiven.

This poses quite a challenge for us!


Clearly, we are all in the same boat as St Paul. There is much in our lives of which we are ashamed and which cause us pain when we remember them. It is a nice little device of the devil to persuade us that, because we still remember our past sins, they are unforgivable. It’s not true. If we are ashamed of our conduct, that is good news because it means we know right from wrong and we know where God is, because God is perfect goodness.

C.S. Lewis likens shame to a cup of tea. If we dip our finger in it, we scald ourselves, yet if we drink it down, we don’t. Approaching our shame the right way can bring us to better confidence in God. It is God whom we wrong when we sin, yet it is God who does really, truly and thoroughly forgive us.

As St Paul says, if God be for us, who can be against us? Our sin cannot separate us from the love of God if we truly repent of it. What do we really have to be ashamed of?

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