January 25, 2021
Categorised in: Sermons
Acts 22.3-16, Conversion of St Paul, Evening Prayer
On the Use of Swords
Needles are constantly in the news. Every day we watch people receiving their jab and being grateful for it; and we’re grateful too that ours may be on the way soon, if we’ve not already been immunised.
But needles are not always beneficent instruments. They have an almost archetypal quality as threatening objects not to be touched by the unwary.
It is not for nothing that at the centre of the plot of Sleeping Beauty lies a needle, which if ever it should prick the skin of the princess will plunge her to a deathly sleep.
And the same ambiguity applies to swords. You might say that swords have a two-edged quality! They cut through thickets – useful when you’re a handsome prince trying to deliver true love’s kiss – but they are also weapons of war which do not prick but rather pierce and impale others.
Today we begin the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul. This Cathedral is dedicated to Paul as well as to St Peter – which is why we see swords and keys all around the church, on the coat of arms of the Diocese, the sword being Paul’s symbol.
We’ll come to the good side of Paul’s sword presently, but let’s start with the dangerous side. Paul, you see, started as a Hebrew zealot, a dangerous man who believed that the truth was on his side, and like all the worst zealots he believed this enough to want to root out and kill others.
The first account of his conversion in the Book of Acts begins: ‘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’ – for judgement for sedition, of course.
Whatever happened to Saul or Paul, the Hebrew and Latin versions of his name, when he was converted is relevant because it’s about what happens to violence and the weapons we use to express it, and about what might take us to the other, good and beneficent, side of the sword.
I began thinking about this on Friday, which our friends the Quakers have reminded us, was the day that the UN treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons came into law. 122 states have signed up and 50 have ratified it so far.
Naturally enough, the nine nations holding the nuclear weapons have not signed, though this treaty marks another stage in the journey away from the ideology of mutually assured destruction.
And we must be glad of that, as this pandemic reminds us of what indiscriminate loss of life looks like on a global scale. We must find other ways to keep the peace, even if these weapons, like swords, can never be un-invented.
That’s why Saul’s conversion is a vital lesson. When Paul was converted, he swung a sword with a different edge – the sword of the Spirt, which is the word of God – a sword which was more, not less about the truth than in his former zeal.
As we stand with the United States, praying for deliverance from their appalling epidemic, and for their overcoming of violent divisions in their land, we hope for a leader whose sword can cut through a thicket of untruth and wake up the sleeping beauty, the land we knew of individual freedom but generous neighbourly compassion.
So back to the key question: what caused Paul to change the cutting edge of his sword? Yes, he was ‘converted’ – he made a radical turn-around – but what actually happened in his conversion?
The book of Acts gives a clear answer: it was an encounter with the enemy. ‘Who, are you Lord?’ said Saul as he was felled by a great light from heaven. ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting’, came the reply.
Imagine what it was like to have one’s certainties so totally upended, in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye – to be blinded and then have one’s sight restored, so that then one could see what really was true, and bear witness to it with new zeal, with a new heart and new understanding.
For Paul. It seems to have happened in a flash; for most of us it’s a process over time, as we encounter those who represent a threat to us and see them instead in the light of Christ.
Next Wednesday on Holocaust Memorial Day a group of Jews, Muslims and Christians are gathering by Zoom to discuss this year’s HMD theme, Be a Light in the Darkness. It’s taken quite some time to arrange, but along the way there have already been useful conversations.
One small moment of conversion came for me when I was talking to the Muslim speaker. Now I must admit to a prejudice: as I look to the Islamic community, I see a younger, more devoted and more zealous group than in the Church of England, and this leaves me with mixed feelings of admiration, defensiveness and rivalry.
But as my friend PJ talked honestly about the tensions his community, my monolithic fantasies and projections were cast down, and I found my heart strangely warmed, as I realised that all religions attempt great good, but none avoid argument and division. Sociologically, were are as one – fractured lights shining in the darkness.
The story we heard today of Paul’s conversion is wonderful example of a momentary conversion, but as we know, if we read the letters he writes to the young churches in his care, he spent the rest of his life wrestling with the relationships between his Jewish heritage and his calling as apostle to the Gentiles. Paul didn’t want to wield his sword wrongly by excluding those whom God had included; he wanted all held in the light of God’s truth.
We, like him, won’t loosen our grip on the weapons of hostility until we’re prepared to see enemies, rivals and strangers differently, until we see that the truth we seek and wish to live by is a living reality to encounter and inhabit, rather than to own and defend.
That’s why we’re here to worship the living God, in the hope that he would shine his light on us, and that we would learn little by little to love even our enemy, as Christ commanded, and that we therefore may come to use our own swords well, to fight for unity and peace.