The Feast of the Conversion of St.Paul brings us back to that road to Damascus in which Saul (as he then was) comes face to face with the reality of the risen Christ. His life is changed. A man, who had been an expert in keeping the letter of the law, now finds new birth into the life of the Spirit. It is a matter of pure grace. The love of God is poured into his life, despite the fact that had mercilessly been persecuting the Church, and he is both saturated by that love and enmeshed in the ongoing work of Christ in the world.
In my preaching, I have always found the need to achieve a balance between presenting the possibility of such ‘moments of conversion’ as something we should all expect in our lives and the reassurance that those who have never had a ‘Damascus road experience’ are nonetheless authentic Christians. The first disciples simply accepted the invitation to follow Jesus. There are many Christians, who perhaps were brought up in the faith, who learnt of the love of God, revealed in Jesus, and just got on with the business of being disciples. Perhaps the most dramatic of conversion experiences will always come to those for whom the contrast is the greatest. One moment they do not know the presence of God (and perhaps lead godless lives) and the next moment they are overwhelmed by the reality of God in their lives. The change is powerfully transforming.
My own experience is of many moments of transforming change, almost all of which have come when I have stopped and opened myself to hearing afresh the voice of the Divine. There are certain performances of certain pieces of music which have touched my heart and changed me. There have been moments in liturgy that have opened my heart afresh to God. As a young man it was through joining a contemplative prayer group, led by Martin Israel, that I came to my own moment of Pentecost. What was it like? Well, being caught up in a hurricane and having my heart set on fire with love would be very good metaphors to use.
What change did that bring? It was the experience of being so intensely and deeply loved, despite my many faults, that brought healing, transformation and new life to me. It engendered in me a capacity to love that affected all my relationships. A deep sense of compassion was born in my heart in that moment, so that every perspective on life that I had was significantly and profoundly changed. To use another metaphor, it really was a new birth into a new world. Nothing would ever be the same again.
Throughout my ministry, the Church to which I belong has always had heated debates about sexuality, marriage, divorce, abortion, euthanasia, nuclear weapons, Christian unity and many other things. Passionate arguments have raged, and biblical texts have been used as missiles. Of all these issues, the question of Christian unity has been the one closest to my heart. So much effort has gone into finding common ground with those from whom we are separated by variant traditions and doctrines. Perhaps, one day, we will find an agreement on these things that will draw us to be united as one Church. Yet, for me, ecumenism is not really about such agreements. Unity is about a joy to be found in sharing what it means to be broken people, who have experienced what it means to be filled with the fire of God’s love. Unity is about discovering the shared capacity for a deep compassion, which draws us to together and compels us to go out in service to a broken world. To put it another way, Christian unity is about the common experience of being ‘one in Christ’, accepted, forgiven and set free, which beings us together as one people, even though the paperwork of unifying our doctrine has a long way to go before it catches up. It is only as we accept the gift of such unity (despite our many disagreements) that the world will believe.