Preached by Rev’d Emma Pennington at Cuddesdon and Horspath on 25th January 2015 (Feast of the Conversion of St Paul).
In an open letter to the leaders and fighters of IS, leading Sunni religious authorities from across the world directly quote from the Qu’ran to challenge their actions performed in the name of Islam. It concludes with these words:
‘Reconsider all your actions; desist from them; cease harming others and return to the religion of mercy. God says in the Qu’ran ‘Say [that God declares]: ‘O my servants who have been prodigal against their own souls, do not despair of God’s mercy. Truly God forgives all sins. Truly He is the Forgiving, the Merciful’ (Al-Zumar, 39:53). And God knows best’.
One hundred and twenty six of the most influential Islamic thinkers have put their names to this document, which you can find in full on the Oxford Foundation website. Taking the words of IS they meticulously demonstrate how the ideology used to justify their actions is an aberration of Islam. In this final paragraph, they call the leaders of IS, in the name of Allah, to cease from their crusade or jihad. They essentially call them to conversion. Strangely enough the spirit of their words is not dissimilar from those spoken to Saul on the road to Damascus: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
From our reading in Acts, the author makes it clear that Saul was part of the small group of people who were responsible for the stoning of Stephen. Luke describes him as a young man and it is in this fervour of youth that he then actively goes in search of anyone who follows Jesus, dragging them out of their houses, both men and women alike and putting them in prison (Acts 8:3). It is only later in his letter to the church in Philippi that he admits his actions were out of zeal for his faith (Philippians 3:6). Scripture therefore presents us with a young man who was a devout Pharisee, intent on threatening and murdering those who were not following Judaism properly as he saw it. In our reading we hear him actively seeking permission from the high priest to be allowed to go to the synagogue in Damascus and imprison anyone there who followed in the Way, for at this time Christianity was not so much a separate religion but still an aspect of Judaism and many of the followers of Jesus worshipped in the synagogues still seeing themselves as devout Jews. Saul is therefore wanting to weed out what he sees as an aberration of his faith and is going about it in terrorist ways. It’s not surprising therefore that Ananias is reluctant to say the least to follow the Lord’s command to go and meet this person in Damascus at the street called Straight. But Ananias is key to the conversion of Saul.
For unlike those young men of Is, Saul does not receive a letter from the disciples begging him to reconsider his actions, and desist from his violence. Instead into the life of this zealous young man God directly intervenes and confronts him with the truth of what he is doing: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul immediately knows that it is the Lord who is speaking to him but up to this moment Saul separates the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob from the person of Jesus. For him they are separate individuals and the latter is an imposter. Now at this pivotal moment in Saul’s life he is given a direct revelation that the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, whom he loves and obeys, is the very same Lord Jesus who he is persecuting. Ironically, this revelation does not so much open Saul’s eyes as blind him. But it seems to me that at this point the narrative of Saul’s conversion takes on a symbolic twist. Just as Jesus was entombed for three days so Saul enters his own darkness of blindness only to be reborn as Paul, a disciple of Christ. Acting like a bishop, Ananias then lays his hands upon Saul and he receives the Holy Spirit. It is only then that Saul’s eyes are opened and he is baptized. In the whole of Luke’s narrative, he emphasises that Saul’s conversion is not simply a change of heart or a self-realisation by Saul himself but it is an external, divine intervention by God who transforms him into his chosen instrument.
Today we celebrate this central moment in Paul’s life when he was converted from a persecutor into a disciple of Christ and we give thanks for those who are similar converted to faith but interestingly Paul himself did not see this moment on the road to Damascus as the central or pivotal moment in this lifetime. In his letter to the Galatians he writes ‘God set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace… three years (after the Damascus Road conversion), I went up to Jerusalem.’ The events of Damascus road were surely very important to him but Paul reminds us that conversion is invariably not simply a one off event which we then leave behind but that our lives consist of a series of conversions, major and minor, yet each one in turn gradually transforms our lives and our will into the nature and will of God. It is this notion of the transformation of our lives that lies behind the third of the Benedictine vows made by all those who enter the monastery.
Scholars have recently disputed the sloppy translation of “conversatio morum” which was always taken to mean “conversion of life” with phrases such as “[conversion to] a monastic manner of life”. These draw on the Vulgate’s use of conversatio as a translation of “citizenship” or “homeland” in Philippians 3:20. Some scholars have claimed that the vow formula of the Rule is best translated as “to live in this place as a monk, in obedience to its rule and abbot.” That aside the notion that the monastic life is one of essentially converting one’s life to that of the will of God still the permeates the Rule Benedict formulated for the simple and is of great wisdom to all of us regardless of whether we wish to don the habit or not. For when we look back on our lives it is often clear that God has worked through those we love and trust the best to help us through small seemingly unconnected incidents, however painful they may be at the time, to slowly be converted towards the truth of God in Christ.
A number of years ago Jonathan and I travelled through the Levant from Istanbul to Cairo and of course we made our way through the beautiful and historic country of Syria. One of the places we were determined to visit was Damascus and the lovely chapel that now stands in the street called Straight and is dedicated to Paul and his conversion. It was as holy and remarkable as we expected but when we were staying in the city it was the moment of the sun’s eclipse. When other people around the world were marvelling at this solar phenomena the people of Damascus had been ordered to stay in their homes. The streets on that day were completely empty. Today those streets are a war zone and the city of Damascus has changed once again as it has many times in its long history. Today let us pray for the conversion of those young men and women of IS to a true expression of their faith but let us also pray for the continual conversion of our own hearts and minds. Amen.