A Sermon preached by Andrew McKearney
at St Mary’s Iffley on 11 September 2016
There are two places where we learn about Saint Paul’s past – the Acts of the Apostles and in Paul’s own letters.
The Acts of the Apostles tells graphically of Paul ravaging the church by entering house after house, and how after dragging off both men and women he commits them to prison. Then at the end of the story of Stephen being stoned, the Acts of the Apostles mentions how Paul approved of Stephen being killed.
When Saint Paul writes in the letter to the Galatians of this period in his life, he confirms this picture that we get from Acts. In the letter he writes that he was violently persecuting the Church of God and trying to destroy it.
So it is with some feeling that we heard Paul in our first reading acknowledge his past, calling himself the foremost of sinners, a blasphemer, a persecutor and a man of violence. His past was no longer something he was proud of!
No longer, because of something else that Paul talks about with even more depth of feeling – and that’s the mercy of God – and how the grace of the Lord overflowed for him with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus, going on to argue that this is why Christ Jesus came into the world.
Paul is desperate to share this with us. This is what fires him up. He wears his heart on his sleeve and talks about his past so that he can then go on to talk about the freedom that he now knows in Christ. Yes he was the foremost of sinners, but God’s grace and mercy are vast in comparison!
That’s how Paul comes across in all his letters – giving priority all the time to God, his mercy and grace, revealed in the face of Jesus Christ, experienced in Paul’s life and now overflowing from his pen.
Luke chapter 15, from which today’s Gospel is taken, tells the same story but differently. The whole chapter consists of 3 well-known parables – the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son. The three parables all have a strong movement within them: from being lost to being found, from going away to being brought back.
Being lost or going away is not portrayed as a happy experience whether it’s for the one sheep or the younger son – it’s not a good place for either of them.
And for the person in charge – the shepherd, the woman or the father – they are provoked into action. The shepherd leaves the 99 in the wilderness and goes after the one that is lost; the woman lights a lamp, sweeps the house and searches carefully for the coin; and the father, when he sees his youngest son returning, is filled with compassion, runs to meet him, puts his arms around him and kisses him.
This is the grace and mercy of God in action – not letting the sheep remain lost, searching and sweeping to find the lost coin, running to meet the prodigal son.
That moment of encounter is interesting.
For the lost sheep and the lost coin the moment of encounter is straightforward – they’re picked up off the ground by the shepherd, by the woman! But for human beings it’s more complex!
You’ll remember how for Saint Paul, the moment of encounter was on the road to Damascus. He’d got authority from the high priest in Jerusalem to seize any Christians and bring them back bound to Jerusalem. While on the way he experienced a sudden light from heaven and fell to the ground. He then heard a voice from heaven, and when he got up, he found that he had been blinded which took some days to wear off.
For the prodigal son the moment of encounter started when he was eating the pods that the pigs he was looking after had been given to eat – it’s then that he ‘came to himself’ or ‘came to his senses’ and decided to take the journey back to his father’s house.
Being blinded and struck to the ground as happened to Paul, or eating food that animals are given, as the prodigal son did, these are not experiences you would freely choose to have.
But difficult experiences often seem part and parcel of that moment of encounter between the mercy and grace of God and his wayward children. That’s been so many people’s experience.
But despite this, it is a profoundly joyful journey that we end up on back to the father’s house – that note of joy rings out of all the parables we’ve been looking at. And it’s because of that joy in our hearts that we can join with Saint Paul in his outbreak of praise which concluded our first reading and which concludes my sermon:
‘To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the
only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever.