Saturday, 31 January 2015

Resolving dissonance through encounter - the conversion of St Paul

Apologies for such a long reading to start with, but we need the whole story to make sense of what I think this means for us...

Acts 9:1-22

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’

So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ All who heard him were amazed and said, ‘Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’ Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.


I'm learning a new musical instrument.... 
If you follow the link you can see that it's a kind of drum but it's made of metal and has tongues cut into the surface of different lengths to produce different tones, so it's actually more tuned percussion than drum. In my experience the only way to learn an instrument is to practice and practice, and slowly, gradually, a new skill begins to take shape (hopefully!). It's an incremental process.

But when I was younger I found something quite different with mathematics when it came to learning something new. I recall, as a teenager, sitting in the classroom as the teacher, for the first time, tried to explain quadratic equations to us. I puzzled and puzzled over what he was saying, looking again and again at what was on the blackboard (yes it was that long ago!) And then suddenly it all clicked into place. I understood. And it was like 'scales fell from my eyes', which is a wonderful piece of English vernacular, born in this story and intended to convey a sense of sudden understanding. 

The narrative from today's reading in Acts gives the story behind the saying; a literal experience of St. Paul, then going by his Jewish name of Saul, receiving back the sight which had been taken from him by his encounter with the risen Christ. The way we use the phrase now is as a way of explaining that we understand something, and that the understanding has dawned on us suddenly.  What I want to suggest is that for Saul this was not just a physical experience, but also a moment of extreme clarity, after which Saul was changed forever.  But to understand this we need first to go back to getting a picture of where St. Paul was from his perspective as Saul the Pharisee...  

At this point in its history it seems that Judaism was very focussed on the Torah, the Jewish law for how a Jew lived. You may recall that many times Jesus criticised the religious leaders for focussing on the outside appearance, not the inside.  There is a good reason behind this.  Some five hundred years earlier the people had been delivered from captivity in Babylon. On returning to their land they were intent on not repeating the mistakes of the past, and being wholly and completely faithful to God. And so the Torah took on a very important place in society. And in many ways it worked. The Jews preserved their allegiance to God in the midst of the surrounding polytheistic nations with whom they went on to do business. It kept them together in the midst of persecution. The emergence of the Pharisees was perhaps as a result of this commitment to maintain Jewish purity and enforce a separation from unclean Gentiles. However, the downside of this was the way in which their religion appears to have become more concerned with a legalistic approach to purity by focussing on the outward nature of belief.

I've been reading a book by Francis Spufford recently called 'Unapologetic' which I wholeheartedly recommend, and in which he talks frankly and honestly about why Christianity makes good emotional sense. One of the points that he makes is to do with this outward show of religion.  You see here's the rub. If you are someone who wants to be religious, who has a natural bias in that direction, then a system of rules that you can keep will serve to assuage your concerns over whether you are good enough for God. If we think of the Judaism of the time of Jesus, they had numerous rules and regulations, of fast days and festivals, of when you should pray, how you should pray and so on.
And if you were really dedicated, as Saul the Pharisee was, it was actually possible to keep all of those rules. Yes it was difficult. It demanded huge amounts of dedication and discipline, but it was possible to do this. That would mean that a person could look at themselves and say, 'I am a righteous person because I keep all of the rules of my religion.'  And of course this is not an attribute that's unique to Judaism.  Other religions, such as Islam, have rules which must be kept in order to be thought of as truly following the tenets of your beliefs.

In all of these instances a dedicated follower can count themselves as righteous if they keep the law of their religion, and it seems likely to me that this is where St. Paul was coming from as Saul the Pharisee. But Christianity was different, and even though we have our struggles with rules and regulations in the present period, there is at the heart of the Christian faith something that is rather different: It looks at the heart first as the originator of righteous actions, not at the actions themselves.
In fact I would go so far as to say that you can get all the actions completely right and yet not be remotely righteous because your heart is in the wrong place. Spufford actually goes even further, and I think he's quite correct in this. In the Christian faith the commandments are actually incredibly severe and utterly impossible to keep, and that is probably the whole point!

Think about it for a moment. We often say that there are only two commandments in Christianity; Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, will and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. That's it. So how are you getting on with that... today?  

That's all there is to it, and you know what, if we're honest, we can't keep them. No one can. I know I certainly can't. But I can try...

And that's the point. Christ says to us, 'Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect', with the understanding that we can't. And that is precisely why the Gospel writer John begins his Gospel by saying that we have all received from Jesus grace upon grace upon grace upon grace...  In other words Christianity is a religion in which it is the heart of the person that must be changed, and in which the outward religious practice is of no value whatsoever unless it flows from our heart, and because our hearts need to be changed we live in the grace and forgiveness of God during that process.

As this change develops over our lifespans, so gradually we naturally become focussed on worshipping God and helping others. But without a change of heart those things on their own are useless.

Now can you imagine what it must have been like for young Saul, to have dedicated his life to serving as a Pharisee, of becoming a Rabbi who had studied at the feet of the famous Rabbi, Gamaliel, and along come this bunch of people whose lives are so very different, yet who attribute their changed lives to following an obscure rabbi about whom they make astonishing claims, as opposed to a strict adherence to Torah. Can you imagine the anger and frustration?

Saul has worked so very hard to get it right, and then he watches Stephen being willing to lay down his life as the first martyr; someone who has nothing like the zeal he has for the law who nevertheless has something about him that is so much better.  It strikes me that somewhere deep inside Saul something probably snapped.  He became at war within himself, what psychologists might call cognitive dissonance, where the beliefs of his mind and the evidence of his eyes are in such complete disagreement as to throw him into a very dark and confused place, and the casualties were the followers of this new sect, the Christians.

What stops his bloodthirsty anger is when he encounters Christ for himself. When Paul later recounts the story to King Agrippa in Acts 26 he adds an additional phrase that Jesus said to him, 'Saul it is hard for you to kick against the goads.' A goad was a pointed stick which was used to guide an Ox.
In other words Jesus was saying to him, 'Believe the evidence of your eyes, not your theology of ritual purity. Following me is the right way, not a sect that needs to be destroyed.' And that was what Saul needed, a divine encounter which would resolve the dissonance within him.

Let's turn the clock forward a few years because the repercussions of this new understanding for Saul reverberated throughout much of his ministry. Saul takes on the Romanised version of his name, Paul. And then gradually he sets about dismantling all of the Jewish legalisms that have made their way into early Christianity. You see, at the beginning of our faith, we were a Jewish sect. All Christians also kept Torah, the Jewish Law, because all Christians were also Jewish.  But then something new happened, and people who had never been Jewish began to come to faith. And so began a battle between the conservative Jewish Christians and the liberal non-Jewish Christians, with the Jewish Christians insisting that all new converts must also keep Torah. And yet Paul, formerly the arch-conservative Jewish Pharisee, sides with Gentile Christians, adopting their more liberal stance. He insists that new Christians should be permitted to lay aside all the outward purity rules basis of religion and depend instead on grace. And he's right. If we depend on the outward signs as being indicators of righteousness, what we end up with is self-righteousness, the deluded belief that we're actually keeping the rules and so we're good people. If we're like that then the only people we're fooling are ourselves. Everyone else can see through us. This, I think, is one of the reasons why the church has fallen into such disfavour in modern society.  They look at us pretending to be righteous when scandal after scandal hits the news. The reality is that Christianity is about the grace we receive from God through Christ. This is not to say we shouldn't try. Paul's letters were exhortations to Godly living and James wrote that it is by our works that we demonstrate our faith.

So it's not that Christianity doesn't have rules, it is purely that we have the grace to still be accepted by God because it is impossible actually to keep even those two simple commandments all of the time. But the trouble is our old humanity keeps getting in the way and we think we ought at least to look righteous, not realising that by concentrating on outward forms we just alienate ourselves and fool ourselves.  Keeping the rules doesn't define us as being a good Christian. Making an outward show of faith is meaningless without an inwardly changed heart. Everything that we do as a church and in our collective worship absolutely must have this as its basis, that we live under the grace of God through Christ and are changed by the actions of the Holy Spirit within us. The more we give ourselves over to the working of the Spirit, the more we will naturally become like Christ. Yes we have to work at it, but let us not work at merely looking like we mean it. Let's not just try and be pious so people think we're good. We should genuinely try and be loving, and filled with grace for each other, mirroring how Christ is with us, and being patient, because none of us are finished works yet.

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