The scripture readings for today reflect a theme of obedience – but a loving obedience that goes far beyond the observing of God’s law simply by the way we behave. The readings for today invite us to think seriously about repentance – in Greek the word is ‘metanoia’ and it means the act of changing one’s mind
We see this change of mind demonstrated in the little parable in the Gospel reading . The first son thought better of his initial refusal to go and work in the vineyard and went and did his father’s will He changed his mind, and turned his mind (and his will) to what he should do. This is the essence of repentance. Today’s New Testament reading is taken from the letters of St Paul and he is for us a beautiful example of the extraordinary things that can result from a change of mind
Saul (as he was first known) was born in Tarsus, now in south eastern Turkey. His position was a unique one and spanned three of the main traditions of the day: he was a Roman citizen of Greek culture raised in the Jewish rabbinical tradition. He was fit to be a citizen of the world.
And yet Saul became what we might call a fundamentalist. A fanatic, even. And the principle object of his hate were the followers of Jesus, who were making some extraordinary claims about their teacher. For Saul, this challenged the basis of all that he believed. In Jerusalem, Saul’s hatred boiled over ‘he breathed murderous threats’ and even ‘dragged the followers of Jesus from their homes’.
Most frighteningly, he presided over the stoning of St Stephen the Deacon. There seemed little hope for this fiery young man to change. He was motivated by rage, and by a terrible sense of mission. This kind of figure perhaps all too familiar in our own time. Our knowledge of Paul’s history makes the later events of his life even more staggering, and demonstrates the point made in the reading from Ezekiel: God wants the sinner to change and return to His love. And it is never too late to do so in our lives.
InPhilippi, amongst a tough and potentially hostile community, Paul makes a plea for the binding and redemptive power of God’s love that he had experienced at first hand on the road. Into a Greek society of many gods, Paul brings the news of One, and an extraordinary One who had revealed himself on the way to Damascus by means of a blinding light and the words: ‘Saul? Why are you persecuting me?’
Paul gives us few details in his writing of his conversion on the road. We know from other sources that it was a direct contact with divinity, a kind of lightning strike that physically blinded him for some time. Afterwards, Paul wandered in Arabia, far from the protection of his kin and community. In a state of transition as he underwent a painful sort of rebirth, becoming Paul the Apostle. He had suffered a fundamental challenge to all that he believed, yet he knew he had also experienced the fulfilment of Jewish tradition: Jesus was the Anointed One – The Messiah.
In some senses, the Road to Damascus led Paul back to himself, to the many traditions he embodied at his birth. His mind opened to accept the truth of divine revelation. And so finally, from the prison of fundamentalism and fanaticism, Paul created the possibility of shared faith. He writes: ‘Always consider the other person to be better than yourself, So that nobody thinks of his own interests first but everybody thinks of other people’s interests instead’. In obedience, this son of a tent-maker underwent a journey that ended physically in the city of Rome with his execution, But his spiritual journey continues to unfold in our own time, since he created a canvas under which many of us could discover the love of Jesus. Paul embodied many traditions in his life. His genius was to relate the message of The Resurrection across continents and, via the new tradition he created through his journeys and his letters, across the entire world.
So as Paul demonstrates obedience is not easy. It means the submission of mind and will and that can be painful but Paul shows us today where the source of obedience is – Jesus.
Of Jesus Paul writes ‘His state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are; and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.’
Jesus’ loving obedience is the source of our ability to obey even when it is very difficult. That love is communicated to us as we celebrate the Eucharist today. We have turned to God, we have repented of our sins, we have listened to the word of God and now in union with Jesus we offer ourselves and our lives to God and we receive the body and blood of Jesus and within it the strength to love him and serve him – our servant King.
– Deacon Duncan Brown