Main Street Community Church

The life of Paul, part 1

This talk was given by the Reverend Andrew Emison on .

The sound quality is very poor. It has been post-processed to improve audibility. It is included as it was the first part of the series and provides helpful background to the series.

Before the talk, Acts chapter 9 verses 1 to 20 was is read from the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version). This reading is included below.

The total length of the recording is .

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A transcript is available lower down the page.

Bible reading and transcript

Bible reading: Acts 9:1–20 (NRSV)

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. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’


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As the sound quality of the recording is lower than usual the transcript is also less reliable that we aim for.

How many of you have a routine for your personal prayer time? A place you go or something you use? Does anyone want to share what that might be? Plenty of hands up saying, “Yes, I do.” Does anyone with their hands up, “Yes, I’d like to share what I do.” OK, yes?

Participant 1: I kneel at the bed.

Andrew E: Kneels at the bed. A lot of people do that. Kneel at the bedside, perhaps before you settle. Maybe first thing in the morning. Yes. Something you do, a ritual or something else?

Participant 2: I just sit in the sitting room. I have a journal and I write down the people that I’m praying for. Then I write down the answers and I can look back and see what’s been happening – [crosstalk]

Andrew E: Write down the way in which God has answered those prayers. Wow, okay.

Participant 3: I’ve a bag of bits and pieces that I go through … cards from people to remind of the ones that I’m praying for.

Andrew E: I have to make notes on this because I’m rubbish at personal prayer. I’m here to confess before you and all God’s people that if I don’t have a thing to do, I won’t do it because my mind is all over the place. I don’t do anything the same way. Also, I’m one of those people who – You know when somebody creative is leading prayer and they come with a bag of pebbles or some soft fabric. You ever done that? You hold the pebble, I’ve got to say, people, that I’ve tried hard and I’ve always struggled.

When you give me a pebble, nothing spiritual is happening in my head, whatsoever. I’m useless at that sort of thing. I’m so glad that I’ve got brothers and sisters who are good. That’s what we need in the church, other people, by the way, so that we can get better at what we do and notice there are different ways of approaching the Lord. There are all sorts of disciplines and as this is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we might remark that, perhaps, some of the other traditions within the one church of Jesus Christ are better at this than we are.

I think Roman Catholics are better at this thing than we are; they have rituals. The Anglicans have offices. I know I might seem a bit high church with a dog collar and all that kind of thing. I suppose I’m a little bit closer to you guys than perhaps some of the other churches, in that sense that we don’t do a right lot of that. We have better open prayer in the way that Neil’ just led us. Now, most of the Catholics have a rosary, don’t they? I’m not suggesting you get a rosary or anything like that, but maybe there’s something else that could help you to pray.

Now, I think this is perhaps more important – I think we can shy away from it in churches like ours because we don’t want to be seen as being too weird when it comes to the way that we Christians do we, in this society? Actually, out there, now, people are doing all sorts of meditation and stuff, aren’t they? I think it’s all come from all sorts of other ideas, Greek philosophical ideas and maybe Buddhist ideas and they YouTube those. Maybe we need to say, “Actually, we can [inaudible 00:03:07] our prayer time too.” Just a thought.

At the time of Jesus, there were different camps within the faith then too. It’s not that we just went wrong when we split into churches. There have always been plurality and diversity within the community of God. There were two camps, at the time of Jesus. There were Sadducees: they didn’t believe in the resurrection. If you want to know who they are, you know that they are sad-you-sees because they didn’t believe in the resurrection.

The cool people, the uber-cool – if the Saddducees were singing the traditional hymns – they were the Pharisees; they were singing brand- new worship songs. They were really cool and they were avant-garde, they were progressive in their thinking. They would use meditative techniques. That is why at the start of our series on Paul here in this place, I’m going to start with Ezekiel chapter one because that’s what we see as the start. I think I’ve got a picture where is it?

Let’s have a look? Right, okay. Have we got my slides, please? They’re coming. Pray people, pray. Pray. All right, whilst we get those, I’m going to talk about Ezekiel, a guy who when we get the reading from Ezekiel, the prophecy of Ezekiel, he’s in exile. Remember about 586, 587BC, the people of God were transported from Jerusalem, the place they loved, and they found themselves in Babylon, where they would write poems that we call the Psalms, one of which says,

“How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’ It says that the word of the Lord comes to the man Ezekiel. Ezekiel is a Zadokite priest. That means two things. As a Zadokite priest, you believe in the worship of God is guaranteed. Number one, because of the unbroken line of Davidic kings. That might seem a bit weird but that’s what they thought.

Number two, it was guaranteed, God’s promises were guaranteed because of the continuing worship in the temple – the sacrificial temple worship. But Ezekiel is in exile, so guess what? There is no Davidic line of kings, that’s the tree of Jesse, it’s cut off to a stump if you remember that, and there is no temple. Ezekiel’s saying, literally, “How can I worship God here?” It says in Ezekiel 1, he has a vision. I’m hoping that one day we are going to have a picture. The word of the Lord comes to Ezekiel and he has this vision of God coming to him on his throne.

It’s coming soon. It will go from Jerusalem, it’ll go all around the [unintelligible 00:05:58] and out of the North it came to Babylon. Ezekiel has this picture. If you ever read the book of Ezekiel and you think, “I’m not up to this because there’s some strange imagery.” I’ve got to say, the writer and scholar Walter Brueggemann, who’s an expert on all this stuff, looks at the book of Ezekiel, and summing up his whole theology, he says the book of Ezekiel is bizarre. It really is weird.

If you read it and think it’s a bit bizarre, it really is a bit bizarre. Ezekiel has this vision of God coming to Ezekiel on his throne. It says there are wheels and there are wheels within wheels. You know the passage?

Wheels within wheels and the wheels have eyes on them and above it, this platform. On the platform, there’s a whole dome, which reminds him of God’s dome, the firmament, from Genesis chapter. There, at the center of the platform, is a throne.

There, sat on the throne is, – well, Ezekiel says, “The appearance of a man.” He doesn’t want to say that it’s God though he knows that this is who Ezekiel is encountering. The Pharisees who are really, really cool and really, really into their Bibles, would use Ezekiel chapter one as part of their spiritual discipline. Particularly, if they were on a journey. Now, this is an active imagination on my part. I’m going to justify it later. Don’t be put off that I’m not going use the Bible.

Just imagine that there is a young Pharisee on a business trip, he’s been sent to do a particular job. He’s come into scope, view to the right. That’s the reading, keep going, more, more, more. Keep going, keep going, it’s about ten to the right. Yes, yes, that’s the story and the reading that we just had. Keep going, yes, and next, there’s the exile. Next one, that’s where he ended up. That’s where Ezekiel is right now, he’s on the right and here’s the vision. Here’s the vision that he has. There, you can see the wheels and the wheels that are within wheels and the eyes on them, and the cherubim, the seraphim, the platform, and the dome of the firmament.

Then, the throne and then the image of a man. This young Pharisee who is avant-garde in using modern spiritual disciplines uses this vision of Ezekiel. He would have perhaps the text before him, perhaps he knows it off by heart. He’s on a journey and it’s a steady, rhythmic clip-clop-clip-clop of the horse that he’s riding. What they would hope to do, is that if they really focused on God, if they really sensed God, if they excluded everything else but centring their minds carefully on God’s presence in their lives, then they would have progressively got further and further into the vision.

This Pharisee, we imagine, has been doing this for a number of years. Before, you know, he’s already got as far as the wheels within wheels and then sometimes when his heart is really quiet, he’s got a bit further. This time, he is progressing in his heart’s mind’s eye and he’s getting further. He brings the wheels within the wheels and then, as there’s the rhythmic clip-clop-clip-clop of the horse, continues. He realizes he can see the firmament. Then, coming in to crystalise into his view, comes an image of the throne. That’s a surprise, he’s never got this far.

On this day, slowly those final verses of Ezekiel chapter one come into some focus. It says in Ezekiel one, “Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendour all around.” This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell on my face and I heard the voice of someone speaking. This Pharisee is getting there and the image is starting to form of a man of the throne, and he hears the voice from heaven. “Saul. Saul. Why are you persecuting me?” Of course, Saul falls on to his knees because he realizes, to his shock, to his horror, perhaps, that the God he has been seeking all his life has met with him in that vision.

And that God that he’s been seeking to serve all his life, is going to Damascus to serve, is none other than Jesus of Nazareth. Now, that’s an act of imagination on my part but Paul will go on to say, when he’s writing, that Jesus appeared to me, that last of all Jesus appeared to me. He came in great glory and great lights. He’s blinded by that vision but more importantly, this is where I get back to what I think this is based on the Bible, and that is that Paul, Saul who becomes Paul, that he is not so much converted from one religion to another but that rather he has been transformed by this same God that has met him on the Damascus road.

I wonder if we can go another slide to the right, and another one. It’s not so much that God has transformed him but rather all the promises of this God that he’s known all his life have been rolled up in this Jesus and have come, have scattered the skittles of his understanding: not so much conversion as a revolution that’s going on with Saint Paul. It’s really critical, as we embark on a series about Paul, that we understand that the God of which Paul talks about in all of his teachings and all of his writings are about Israel’s God.

This is Israel’s God. We know that he’s going to speak of the Greek culture but he will speak of Israel’s God. If you ask of Paul and I won’t use an act of imagination, and that’s all preaching is, by the way, and that’s the tradition of the prophets. When we ask the question, was the teaching and preaching of Paul Bible-based? I think the answer is – sometimes. It depends who he’s speaking to. If he’s speaking in the synagogue, which he often does, then, yes, he talks about the Old Testament a lot.

If, on the other hand, as he is in Acts 17, he’s on Mars Hill, the Areopagus, he’s talking to Greek philosophers, he uses their poetry and their language in order to talk about Israel’s God. This is really important for us to get. It is not that we talk about Greek Gods in kind of Christian terms, it is rather that we take the God who’s revealed to the whole of scripture, and find ways of talking about this God of Israel in our contemporary culture. That’s what I believe Paul does.

We need to understand Paul’s teaching in those terms.

Paul is not going to abandon anything. What is happening to Paul is not what of Paul’s doing. That’s why I think it’s so important to remember, for instance, when we’re being baptized, especially somebody who wants to get baptized as an adult and we do that as well. What they talk about is something that I want to do, I like to ask, “Is this something that you are doing or is it something that God has already done to which you are responding?”

That’s what is going on in Paul, I think. Paul is being drawn on into that new work and that new understanding of who God is. It’s about Israel’s Messiah and not, therefore, some Greek God. I think that’s really important as we seek to share our faith, actually. We seek to understand the way that God works in our lives and in the world. I think some of us, so often, do not have the of Israel in mind, we have some Greek God in mind. Let me show you the picture. Next one.

This is a scene from the old movie, Jason and the animals. There, we have on the right that’s supposed to be Zeus and this is Zeus’ daughter, I don’t know who it is … Hera? These figures here, it is like a chess board and they’ve got Jason and Argo, which is the boat, and then moving them around and they’re playing with them like a game of chess. Now, I think some of us, and if not us, people we are trying to witness out in our community, have the image of a Greek God, who is like a God who is somewhere else, who is pulling the levers.

One of the levers has the weather. “God, can we have a sunny day?”, and we have a sunny day. That God works in that way. That God has to be bartered with and appeased. I don’t think that’s the image of God that we are given throughout the whole story of God. I think rather, … Who has done this? Who has gone to Eddisbury Square … and next slide, please.

That if we pray to God, that God who has the big Eddisbury Square chessboard, will move a car out of the parking space so that I can park my car and say, “Yes, God has answered my prayer.” Now prayer can work like that but I don’t think actually that’s the grounding of our understanding that this is a God who is pulling levers somewhere else somewhere else of which we are puppets, no.

Our God is the God of Paul, is the God of Israel and the next slide, please.

The God of Israel is God, Yahweh is the name of God (in Hebrew the letters are written right to left). The God who is a God of promise. A God who is a God of deliverance. A God who is a God of sustenance. A God who has created the whole of the world and whereas other faiths and other religions say, “Well, the reason why there are problems in the world is because the Gods have fallen out and you have to pray to the Gods and you have to sacrifice to the Gods in order to appease them.” This story says, no.

That God made the Earth and everything in it – we had Psalm 8 – perfect!. The whole world is the Lord’s. Genesis 1 says that God made everything and everything that God makes is good, people. If you want to understand what’s wrong in the world, says this particular strange faith of which we are a part, if you want to understand where the problems are, it’s because human beings have turned away from that initial prototype of humanity that we have in Genesis Chapter one and in Genesis Chapter two.

The God that we worship, is a God of promise. A God who made promises to Abraham and to Sarah, and fulfilled those promises when it seemed too late or them to be made true. The story is retold through Isaac and Jacob and their wives. We talk about them being the stories of the fathers, the patriarchs, but they are not because there are some very strong women in those stories as well. Men and women receiving from God’s promise but it seemed too late for God to come good on his promise.

Then, later in the story, stories of deliverance, when God’s people are slaves in Egypt, or they are in exile in Babylon or they’re slave to sin, God acts powerfully to deliver them from Egypt, to deliver them from captivity in Babylon and to deliver us from the captivity of death, in Jesus Christ, his cross and resurrection. Amen. A God of promise, a God of deliverance, a God of sustenance, who feeds the people, God’s people in the desert, when there seemed no hope of food and sustenance.

The God who feeds his people and provides resources for them to worship and be faithful in Babylon. The God who sends his Holy Spirit upon us that we might be empowered to live and work to his praise and to his glory as the Spirit dances in our world and comes within our lives. This is the God of which we proclaim. The God that we see in Jesus. Now if you’re good evangelical types, and I think you all are and I am, then it’s all about Jesus, it’s all about his word.

Yes, but this Jesus, is not an image as being some Greek God or Buddhist God. This Jesus is the God of Israel and that– I don’t know whether Paul was using that meditation or not – what I do know is that it was Paul’s profound conviction that he had met in Jesus Christ that same God who had created the heavens and the earth hands and called call all people to share in the ongoing creation of the world.

That’s why Paul talks about ‘in that creation,’ he talks about how in the resurrection of Jesus, then there’s been a new creation begun on a new day. On the first day, as it says in John’s gospel when the resurrection takes place, the start of a brand new week – first creation and new creations. You and I are called to be a part of that.

We’re talking, in our culture, about new and young, and youth, and fashion, and all that sort of thing. That word in Greek is ‘neos’, but when Paul talks about newness, very often he is using the word..’kainos’. And ‘kainos’ is a renewal and a new thing within us. The important thing about that newness is not how young or old we are, or whether we’re new to the faith, or whether we’re long in the tooth in the faith. The question of newness and revival and fidelity is about how close are we now in our lives and in our worship to the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

I pray that we will get a sense of being caught up, a sense that God is calling us to participate. Not only just to pray to God, to appease God, to keep God happy, but that God is calling us, like St. Paul, to participate. A God whose initial blueprint of the world was for us to be co-creators in this world. This world which is not finished. A God who is the God of promises and sustenances and deliverances and how can we talk about that in our world? That’s why our faith is so deeply planted on this earth. That’s why you here at Main Street, do this in spades as you meet here in the midst and at the heart of our town’s life.

That’s why you do things on Thursday. That’s why you started your Bible studies to gather around the word. It’s doesn’t matter how much stuff you know, whether you’ve read Brueggemann and so on, it matters, how close are you to these stories of promise and sustenance and deliverance? If you think you can’t come to the Bible study because you don’t know your stuff, please, understand that is not how it works. That’s not how it works. All of us are called to be part of that.

I’m going to finish with a story because I have had my twenty minutes. I’m going to finish with a story. It’s a story which I’m slightly embarrassed about. A guy called J John, he tells a very similar story but I’ve looked up when he tells it, and my story comes first. I want you to understand that very, very carefully. It comes from when I used to have a proper job as an engineer. I was leading my work. If you’ve been to Mally’s breakfasts, you’ve already heard this, sorry. I was leading the work and obviously, you have to give in your notice. I was a manager in this engineering firm, at Sharp. And because I was resigning, people wanted to know why.

We worked in mobile phones. Normally, if you were resigning, you were resigning because you knew that the only way to get a pay rise was to move to a different company. If you worked for Sharp, like me, you wanted to go work for Samsung or, in those days, Nokia – do you remember them – or Apple or something like that. People got wind of the fact that I was leaving. People said to me, “Why are you leaving?” I said, “I’m leaving engineering because I’m going to be a minister of the gospel of the Jesus Christ. I’m going to be a full-time preacher.” – and they backed away.

“I’m an agnostic, get me out of here. This is not the water-cooler story that I really want. This is not what I want, Andrew.” I thought this isn’t working, I need to be more subtle. It was Enda. Enda had been on holiday. He came back and he said, “Andy, Andy, I’ve been told that you’re resigning but nobody would tell me why. They said I’ve got to come to ask you.”

I said, “Well, Enda, I’m going to let you guess. Here are some clues. I’m going to be working for a large multinational. We have outlets in just about every country in the world. We’ve got schools. We’ve got coffee mornings. We’ve got citizen’s advice bureaux. We’ve got clinics. We’ve got job-creation schemes” – I’m thinking of Steve Chalke. You know Paul Wintle’s a big fan of Steve Chalke, knows Steve Chalke very well. This is what Steve Chalke says, actually.

We’ve got clinics. We’ve got schools. We’ve got hospitals. We’ve got work-creation teams. We’ve got KRDP and basically, we’re in the business of global reconciliation. Enda went, “Wow.” He said – and this is true – “Have they got more any more jobs going ?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Can you give them my CV?” I said, “Enda, they’ve already got it.” He said, “What is this incredible organization you’re going to work for?” I said, “It’s the church. It’s the one church in all its multicolours. It’s the one church of Jesus Christ.”

That’s why people want to know. Our God is not a God who sits on clouds somewhere else. Our God is a God who’s known in the midst of our community, in the midst of our lives, at a bedside, in the midst of all of our pain and our suffering and our choice. This crucified God is the one that Paul encountered. This crucified God is the God that Paul would proclaim all his life in whatever context he found himself. This God, who keeps his promises, who delivers us and sustains us. I pray as you get more into this teaching series, you would have your focus on that God that we are encouraged to know through our lives and through the words of the scripture. Amen.

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Scripture quotations marked NRSV on this page and in the talk are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.