January 2018

Dear Friends

In the Book of Common Prayer the feast of the Epiphany is helpfully subtitled ‘the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles’. The wise men from the east represented the Gentile world just as the shepherds, who had been the first to visit the new-born Jesus, represented the Jewish people. In Christ God was revealed to all – “a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of his people Israel.”

The early rapid spread of the Gospel among the Gentiles was largely thanks to the efforts of St Paul. He is a towering figure in the history of the Church. If it were not for Paul Christianity would probably have remained a small and insignificant Jewish sect. Not only did he take the Gospel to the Gentile world, founding churches all around the Mediterranean. Almost a third of what we now call the New Testament consists of his letters to those churches.

The key event in Paul’s life was his amazing conversion. It is remembered every year on January 25th - an epiphany experience celebrated in Epiphanytide. Paul, travelling along the road to Damascus with the intention of persecuting the Christians there, saw “a light in the midday sun, more brilliant than the sun” that caused him and his companions to fall to the ground. Paul (whose name before his conversion was Saul) was blinded by it. He heard Jesus speaking to him. “Saul, Saul , why persecutest thou me? I have appeared to you for a purpose: to testify both to what you have seen and what you shall yet see of me. I am sending you to the Gentiles to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, from the dominion of Satan to God.”

Within a short time Paul began his amazingly effective missionary journeys. In the words of the Collect for his feast day, it was “Through the preaching of the blessed Apostle St Paul that God has caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world.” That’s a huge claim, but it’s justified. Paul was a Johnny-come-lately. He alone among the apostles had not seen or known Jesus in the flesh. He described himself as “like one born out of due time.” Yet he was given not only a spectacular manifestation of Christ’s glory but also the clearest insight of any of the apostles into meaning of the Gospel. No less spectacular than the vision itself was the effect on Paul and on those to whom he preached. As Paul put it in his 2nd Letter to the Corinthians “God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, has shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Paul’s conversion marked a radical change of direction: a repentance, a turning to Christ, a clear insight into the true nature of the Gospel. Paul was not, however, granted instant sanctity. Paul remained Paul - with all his infuriating weaknesses and quirks of character. Years later he still used get terribly cross with himself: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, the evil I do not want is what I do. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

He also got with cross with some of his fellow apostles and with the congregations for which he cared. At the heart of the Gospel message, a point he stressed over and over again, was its inclusiveness: in Christ both Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free were to be brought into one communion and fellowship. On the subject of relations between Jew and Gentile Christians, Paul nearly came to blows with St Peter - and won the day! There were many more battles to be fought. The congregation at Philipp gave Paul great joy: “I thank my God whenever I think of you”. But there were others that gave him pain. Within the lives of most congregations the war against what Paul called “the works of the flesh” was constant and wearing. By “flesh” he wasn’t just referring primarily to the physical side of our nature, but to the lower, faithless side of it. He was referring to all that destroys community. The most damaging sins are not the sins of exuberance (gluttony and lust do at least show some appreciation of the pleasures God has created for us!); the social sins which figure much more prominently in Paul’s warnings His list of the works of the flesh in Galatians includes these: “enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy.” And he gives this warning: “If you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

That’s how things were in many of Paul’s churches. And how they often are today. Maybe it has to be like that. Paul wrote that some disagreements might be necessary to show who was genuine. But when Paul compared the light of Christ shining in our hearts to the light which God commanded to shine out of darkness when He created the universe, he was speaking of all of us. The contrast between the brightness of God’s glory and our dullness couldn’t be greater - yet He fills us with His light. Paul tells us that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” Those earthen vessels are our poor, frail human selves - hearts, minds and bodies which, in their inadequacy and perversity, exasperate us as much as they exasperated Paul. And yet it has always been in weakness that God’s glory has been manifested most clearly. There may be times when we feel like shouting “Who will deliver us from this body of death?” - but God is faithful. If we’re determined to “live by the Spirit,” praying earnestly for the greater gifts - and especially for the greatest of all, the gift of love - we might not be granted instant sanctity, but the light of Christ will be made manifest to us and through us. Charles Wesley’s well-known words make a good Epiphanytide prayer:

“Visit the this soul of mine,
pierce the gloom of sin and grief;
fill me, radiancy divine,
scatter all my unbelief;
more and more thyself display,
shining to the perfect day.”