A Sermon preached by Andrew McKearney at St Mary’s Iffley on 11 September 2022
I don’t intend to preach this evening about the death of our late Queen – there have been and will continue to be plenty of words spoken and written about her for us to reflect on. Rather I want to preach about the Christian faith the she held so dearly; and I want to do that by simply reflecting on our two readings this evening.
There are two places in the Bible 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 the book of Acts; that he violently persecuted the Church of God and tried 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 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 our second reading came, 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 – not letting the sheep remain lost, searching and sweeping to find the lost coin, running to meet the prodigal son on his return.
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 us, his wayward children. Often it seems we need a measure of divine violence to be brought to our senses. That’s certainly been my experience.
But however we get there, whether the path is convoluted or straightforward, it is a profoundly joyful journey that we end up on back to the father’s house – a joy that outweighs any pain or struggle.
A joy like a shepherd’s:
‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that
A delight like a woman’s:
‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had
So to the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.