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Title: Paul’s Last Word
Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York
Date: 4 April 2023 5.30pm
My daughter has just turned six. Some time over the next year or so, she will discover that her parents are weird. We’re weird because we go to church.
This means – well, as she gets older there’ll be voices telling her what it means, getting louder and louder until by the time she’s a teenager they’ll be shouting right in her ear. It means that we believe in a load of bronze-age absurdities. It means that we don’t believe in dinosaurs. It means that we’re dogmatic. That we’re self-righteous. That we fetishize pain and suffering. That we advocate wishy-washy niceness. That we promise the oppressed pie in the sky when they die. That we’re bleeding hearts who don’t understand the wealth-creating powers of the market. That we’re too stupid to understand the irrationality of our creeds. That we build absurdly complex intellectual structures, full of meaningless distinctions, on the marshmallow foundations of a fantasy.
So wrote the novelist Francis Spufford, in a robust apologia for Christianity that was published about ten years ago.
Now, I imagine that you’ll have heard those objections before, or countless others that are similar. But the really hard thing Spufford had to say was:
But hey, that’s not the bad news. Those are the objections of people who care enough about religion to object to it …the really painful message our daughter will receive is that we’re embarrassing.
I wonder if any of that rings true to you this evening – that sense of ‘raised eyebrow’ (at the very least) on the part of ‘normal’ people (ie those people who don’t go to church on Sundays), if you admit to them that you are a real, committed church-goer. That fleeting look of bewilderment or pity – never mind hostility.
The truth of course is that there is nothing new in this. Christianity has often seemed to make no sense to those who spectate it from the outside, and whose heart is too hardened to dare to venture in. And when it has not had to contend with apathy – which is a comparatively new phenomenon in matters of religion – Christ’s church has had to deal, often, with outright contempt and hostility.
A good number of Roman emperors took it on themselves to launch persecutions of the church from the First Century until the end of the Third Century – persecutions which saw mass murder, fear and oppression as a recurring constant for the Body of Christ. And I hope that in the comfort and security of York, we don’t forget for a moment that Christians in some parts of the world face persecution today. Indeed, in this very morning’s Guardian there was a profoundly sad article about the Christian presence on the Mount of Olives being subject to discrimination and the possible confiscation of sites where Jesus was teaching and preaching in this, the last week of his life.
And then there was that extraordinary fellow – the one who changed his name. The one who was a religious nut himself – that tiresome, unstoppable, belligerent, self-opinionated Pharisee – was his name Saul….?
In its way, the story of Saul-who-becomes-Paul (or, at least, becomes known to us as Paul) is one of the most remarkable in the Bible. For he was a man who was convinced by the rightness of his arguments, and would hold his position with energy and vigour, and could clearly argue passionately for hours without ceasing.
The trouble was that Saul’s zealousness and energy was devoted pretty much 100% to persecuting and destroying the very first Christian communities. But rather than invoke a miracle that stops or drains his energy and his abilities, God just turns everything upside down for him, by recommissioning him from persecutor to preacher, and making him a passionate apostle and disciple for Christ.
Paul encounters the risen Christ, and his life is given a new focus. He never loses his fanatical passion for religion – he just comes to understand that his faith, his zealous, pharisaical, Jewish faith, has reached its climax in the person of Jesus, and in the event of the Cross.
One could argue that all of Paul’s writing are one great collective Last Word on the death of Christ. His entire activity from the Damascus Road onwards to his probably martyrdom in Rome is his response to the event of the Cross and its implications. But tonight we hear, I believe, the very essence of his thoughts about the Cross.
Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God…for God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
So take heart should the world scoff. Take heart if a six year old tells you that you are weird. Take heart if they roll their eyes at you at work or at school or over the dinner table or anywhere else. For Paul’s last word could well have been that The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. What will your last word be this week?
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