When I had lunch with an old friend last week we did that catch-up where you compare your various ills and inconveniences. He quoted that famous trope of Bette Davis “old age is not for cissies.” It’s true, of course: old age is not for cissies. I thought back to that conversation later in the day when I was struggling with the readings we’re having each week from St Paul’s letter to Roman Christians. You see, I am convinced that Christianity is not for cissies either.
Just think about Paul’s language. He doesn’t mess about - sin, death, judgement, condemnation – oh, and life, most of all. These are words laden with meaning. Given that he was dictating to a secretary, you can imagine the intensity of focus, the concentration and energy that went into that work.
Paul had begun life as Saul, from Tarsus. He was a man whose youth was an assured progress in the ancient and respected “profession” of a Jewish teacher in the Pharisaic tradition. He’d been educated in Roman and Greek philosophy; he understood the religions of the Roman Empire; he was grounded in the Jewish Torah, in the prophetic tradition and in rabbinic teaching. He knew his place in life and in God’s providence. And then everything changed. Saul himself does not tell us how that came about, except to say that Jesus appeared to him. It is St Luke who tells a story about how that happened. Luke narrates how the whole structure of Saul’s life was dramatically overturned while on a religious mission to the Syrian capital of Damascus. Luke states that it happened in a blinding flash which left Saul sightless for three days, and that, in his subsequent recuperation with a Christian group in the city, he went through a revolution in his understanding of God’s covenant with God’s people, and of how human beings should live their lives to attain the fulfilment God wants for us.
Of course, if you had Saul’s background – or anything corresponding to it – you couldn’t just dump it all. He could not say “we Jews got it all wrong. God’s promises to our ancestors were just figments of the imagination." But in that Damascus crisis Saul quite suddenly saw things as God would have us see them. He had a glimpse of reality usually hidden from view. He had heard about Jesus – otherwise he would not have been on a mission to arrest Jesus’ followers. He must have thought about the blasphemous / ridiculous – choose you own word – status of Jesus’ claims and his followers’ dangerous delusions. Then, suddenly, he was faced with a startling certainty that, actually, Jesus had been right, and that his followers really had encountered their resurrected teacher after his death. That blinding realisation changed everything for Saul.
Jesus truly was God’s anointed – in the Greek of the time, Christos / Christ, in Aramaic or Hebrew mashiach / Messiah. Jesus had died, had risen from the dead, and had confronted him, Saul. In which case, everything had to be reassessed. Saul underwent a baptism (a Jewish cleansing ritual); he received the Holy Spirit at the hands of a sceptical member of the local church; and then he realised that he had joined Jesus in an almost physical sense. Saul, whose Hebrew name suggests someone who asks challenging questions, changed his name to Paulos or Paul, a Latin name which suggests smallness and humility.
Paul was convinced that he had been confronted by the living Jesus, that Jesus who had willingly submitted to execution and had been raised by God from the dead. In his turn, Paul willingly laid down the whole of his religious, spiritual, professional and personal life to join Jesus. And he knew from that moment that God had already raised him from death. Sure, he would one day die physically, but, so far as Paul was concerned, that was a detail because he had already entered into a new life, the new life that Jesus had taught about. Paul knew now that God’s promise of a life of fulfilment and joy was not only still valid, but had been extended to the whole of God’s creation. As the first reading today describes it:
…the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
…and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign…... (Isaiah 55. 12-13)
God really does want God’s children to have joy, peace, justice, fulfilment - a share in the common wealth of the world we are given. These are what the Bible calls the “fruits of the Spirit.” They are the birthright and the inheritance of all those who, as Paul puts it, “live in the Spirit.” You can’t buy it, you can’t even earn it through a life of good works. The only way open to that kind of fulfilment is to join yourself to Jesus and live “in the Spirit.”
There are plenty of models of life in the Spirit for us to understand what this means. Take Paul himself.
We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (2 Cor. 6) or, the NEB translates it “penniless, we own the world!”
And we have countless other models. In recent history, we have only to think of martyrs like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King; or of pioneers for justice and compassion like Teresa of Calcutta; Cecily Saunders who founded the hospice movement; Desmond Tutu who struggled for justice for his people; Caroline Chisholm who campaigned for housing & education for families living in squalor, poverty & disease; or Josephine Butler who stood up for women whose lives were crushed to the point where they were on the streets. What links them all is their leap of faith, or, to choose another word, their gamble, their punt, their willingness to put their last penny on God’s promise: join your life to mine and live life to the full. Yes, it’s often difficult, sometimes even dangerous, but always fulfilling and frequently joyful beyond imagining.
Have you had those moments when you are faced with an important decision, a fork in your road? You could take your usual careful decision: you wouldn’t upset anyone if you did. Or you could do something unlike your usual self, stand out against the crowd perhaps. You are pretty sure it’s what you would do and be at your best, your most generous, your least conformist, your most authentic. I can’t give you proper examples because I am not you, living your life with your choices, your decisions. I can suggest that you listen actively for the promptings of God’s Spirit, urging you to do what you definitely would not do without the promise of God’s solid support and encouragement. That might mean you blow a whistle in your work place; it could mean being financially silly and giving more money than you can easily afford to save someone whose life and wellbeing are imperilled – refugees, children at risk, someone who can’t feed their family. It could be as simple as speaking out when you know you ought, instead of keeping quiet so as not to upset the apple cart. I can’t tell you because all I can do is to listen to the Spirit myself, the Spirit who sometimes whispers, and occasionally shouts in my ear about my priorities and my decisions. What Paul will tell you is that putting your shirt on God’s urging, joining yourself to Jesus, is the only way to real fulfilment, and to joy that lasts for eternity.