Paul’s conversion, and ours

A sermon by the Rev. Dr. Ian T. Douglas to the Convention of the Diocese of Washington, Friday, January 25, 2008 (The Conversion of Paul.) An audio file is here.

By Ian T. Douglas

These are tense times in the Anglican Communion with threats of division and schism flying about unchecked. Letters and communiqués from ecclesiastical leaders, newspaper headlines, book titles, and blogasphere banter all claim, and proclaim, that the Anglican Communion is in crisis. So in light of your convention theme we Anglicans, here and around the world, might begin by asking ourselves: Is it at all possible “that we all may be one”?

Now I am not so naïve to deny that the Anglican Communion is experiencing a crisis. I believe, however, that the crisis of the Anglican Communion today is not about fights over human sexuality and the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the life of the Church. Nor is the crisis primarily about issues of authority and identity (although questions of who is in charge and who gets to speak for the Communion abound.) Rather the crisis in the Anglican Communion is fundamentally a crisis of conversion . . . a crisis of conversion.

What do I mean by a crisis of conversion? I understand conversion as a profound altering of life that results in a reorientation to God and God’s purposes; an amendment of life that calls one deeper into the heart of God; a turning around and joining God anew in what God is up to in the wider world. Conversion is thus fundamentally a reordering of one’s life, a reordering of one’s life to bring it in line with the misso Dei, the mission of God. The crisis for the Anglican Communion is thus, at its heart, whether we will let ourselves be turned inside out, upside-down, for the sake of God’s mission? Will we move from an established, known, secure and well-ordered place of privilege to a place of change, unknowingness, risk and marginalization for the sake of Christ in the world? Can we all be converted, whether we are Anglicans in Washington or Anglicans in West Africa, from our positions of power, comfort, and insularity to a deeper engagement, one with another, in God’s reconciling mission in the world? This is the crisis for the Anglican Communion.

St. Paul, whose conversion the Church remembers today, knew something about being turned inside out, upside-down, for the sake of God’s mission in the world. Called to move from a place of privilege, narrowness, and judgment, Paul set his foot on a new path, a costly path, of embodying and extending God’s reconciling love for all people.

Most of us know the story pretty well. Saul of Tarsus, as St. Paul was known before his conversion, was a devout and faithful Jew. Raised as a scholar of the Law, Paul was a man who took God and God’s word seriously. His many gifts and privileges, including a brilliant mind, a deep piety, an energetic and ambitious spirit, along with Roman citizenship, put Paul on a fast track to religious and political leadership.

As an up and coming leader in first century Palestine living under Roman rule, Paul could not avoid the challenges to the established order posed by the followers of Jesus. The author of Acts, in our first lesson, thus gives voice to how Paul persecuted the Christians. Paul says that he had in his previous life: locked up the followers of Jesus in prison, condemned them to death, punished them in the synagogues, and even pursued them to foreign cities in an enraged frenzy.

And so it was in one of his pursuits of the trouble-making Christians that Paul found himself on the Damascus road. There the living Jesus appeared to him as a light from heaven, brighter than the sun. Falling to the ground, Paul is bid by Jesus to stand up and receive a new commission, a new charge. Jesus says: “No longer are you to persecute me. Rather I am appointing you to serve and testify to the truth you have seen. I am sending you to your own and to the Gentiles so that their eyes may be open, that they may turn from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God, to receive forgiveness of sins and a place among the sanctified.” Blinded by the light of God, Paul takes on a new life, a new vocation, as scales fall from his eyes. He reorients his life to God and God’s purposes and in so doing the Good News of God in Christ is made manifest to those who had previously been considered beyond the reach of God’s grace.

Giving his life to God in Jesus, Paul is thus turned inside out, upside-down, for the sake of God’s mission? Over and over Paul emphasizes that God in Jesus called him from his former ways to a life of proclaiming and making real the reconciling love of Christ to all people. In our Epistle from Galatians, Paul states that earlier in life he was more zealous for the traditions of his ancestors than almost anyone else. (More zealous for the traditions of our ancestors, does that sound familiar in Anglicanism today?) But God did a new thing. By the grace of God, Paul moves from an established, known, secure and well-ordered place of privilege to a place of change, unknowingness, risk and marginalization so that God’s love in Jesus could be made known to all. Similarly in our Gospel reading tonight the apostles are presented with the reality that proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ will result in alienation, arrest, judgment and persecution. The conversion of Paul and the commissioning of the apostles model for us the cost of following Jesus in God’s mission. And it is the same cost that is laid before the Anglican Communion, laid before each and every Anglican the world over, in our crisis of conversion.

The difficult question before the Anglican Communion today is thus: Can a historically mono-cultural, Church of imperial aspirations embrace a new Pentecost as a multicultural family of churches embodying wide differences yet called in unity to incarnate and extend God’s reconciling love in every corner of the world?

Allow me to unpack this question a bit. Within the lifetime of most of us gathered here tonight, especially if you are middle aged like I am, The Anglican Communion has been transformed from a white English-speaking church of the West to a radically plural and global family of churches made up of 80 million Christians in over 160 countries. And along with this radical transformation, individuals and groups who historically have been silenced or hidden in the Church have begun to find their voices and places at the table. Previously colonized people, people for whom English is not their first language, people of color, people around the world who live in dire economic, political, social, and health circumstances, are all standing up and saying they belong. And here in The Episcopal Church particularly over the last four decades: women, Africa-Americans, lay people, and most recently gay and lesbian people, are beginning to own their places in the Body of Christ. The Anglican Communion is thus no longer the Church primarily for the Ian Douglases of the world: heterosexual, white, male, economically secure, overly educated, Western-thinking, English-speaking, US passport-holding, middle-aged, clerics. Thanks be to God.

So the question really is, given the plurality of voices and peoples in this New Pentecost that is the world-wide Anglican Communion today, will we become alienated from each other in attempts to secure new privileges through the assertion of our own single identity politics? Or will we be converted anew to God’s mission in the world and therein find our unity and the possibility “that we all may be one.”? Like St. Paul, will we Anglicans, each and every one of us in every corner of the world, be knocked off our various high horses on our own Damascus roads and then be picked up and turned around by Jesus to new service in God’s mission? Will the scales fall from our eyes so that we may join with one another and set out together on new missionary journeys?

I am blessed to say that I have witnessed over and over Anglicans around the world being converted anew to God’s mission. I think of young men and women who, through The Episcopal Church’s Young Adult Service Corps work alongside sisters and brothers in Christ in almost every province of the Anglican Communion. I have seen how they and their co-workers outside the United States have met Jesus anew in each other through these relationships. In my own diocese of Massachusetts, we have joined with the Mother’s Union in Kenya and Anglican church leaders in Uganda and Tanzania to feed and provide medical care to literally thousands of HIV/AIDS orphans. And in so doing we all have been changed, in Boston and in East Africa. And last July I witnessed 40 African Anglican bishops and 30 American Episcopal bishops come together in a consultation in Spain to share stories of what God was doing in their lives and their dioceses, beyond divisive church politics. In Spain I saw American and African bishops converted anew to God’s mission and to each other. I even saw your own Bishop (if I may John) moved to tears and transformed as he heard an African brother tell about dodging gunfire in a civil war in order to rescue the Gospel that had been translated into his own local language by his friend and mentor who lay dying from gunshot wounds. I hope and pray that though the meeting and sharing of such stories at the Lambeth Conference next summer, Anglican bishops from every church in the Communion will be similarly transformed. And, last but not least, I have witnessed how the invitation to dioceses, parishes and individual Christians in the United States and around the Anglican Communion to contribute 0.7% of our incomes in support the Millennium Development Goals has turned the hearts and minds of millions of faithful Anglicans to the possibility of making poverty history as a response to God’s mission of reconciliation.

So yes, these are tense times in the Anglican Communion. The Conversion of St. Paul however, reminds us that we never know where God might be leading us. Following in the footsteps of Paul and of the apostles, we are called to proclaim and make real the reconciling love of Jesus for all people to the ends of the earth. The challenge before the Anglican Communion today, the crisis of conversion each and every one of us invited into, is to move from established, known, secure and well ordered places of privilege to places of change, unknowingness, risk and marginalization with Jesus and each other in service to God’s mission. And when we are so converted to God’s mission, I do believe that “we all will be made one” in Christ Jesus. AMEN.

The Rev. Dr. Ian T. Douglas, Angus Dun Professor of Mission and World Christianity at Episcopal Divinity School, is a member of the Lambeth Conference Design Team.

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