A SERMON GIVEN ON SUNDAY, JANUARY
25, 2015 ~ THE CONVERSION OF ST. PAUL,
AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT, BOSTON, BY THE RT. REV. ALAN M. GATES, BISHOP OF MASSACHUSETTS
Kicking Against the Goads
The tale is told of Crown Prince Vladimir of Kiev. In the tenth century he felt the need for a new religion for himself and his people, and he sent emissaries throughout the world to find the right fit. Judaism was rejected because the Jews were a wandering people, and a transitory nation was the opposite of what Vladimir had in mind. Of the Muslims it was reported to him that drinking alcohol was not allowed - so Islam was rejected immediately. Drink, said Vladimir, was the joy of his people! Catholic churches in Germany were visited, but Vladimir was told that German Catholic churches were nice, but a tad boring. But when the Prince’s emissaries returned from the great Orthodox Basilica of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, they reported that when they had experienced worship in that splendid place, they “knew not whether they were in heaven or on earth.”
So Orthodoxy became the form of Christianity which was brought and took hold throughout the Slavic lands. With its bells and incense, candles and chanting, dazzling vestments and magnificent frescoes, the Orthodox worshipper was repeatedly drawn into an altogether different reality, given through their liturgy a glimpse of another world. A world of mysterious darkness and brilliant light, a world of resurrection.
I rather suspect that this story is perfectly comprehensible to anyone who worships regularly at The Church of the Advent - the Hagia Sophia of the Diocese of Massachusetts. This is a place where you may, by God’s grace, have experienced a world of mysterious darkness and brilliant light, a world of resurrection - just as did Crown Prince Vladimir. I hope you have.
Here let me pause to say how pleased and grateful I am to be here with you at the Advent so early in my time as your bishop. I thank you for rearranging the schedule of your annual meeting to accommodate my visit on this Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. In December Tricia and I slipped in to worship with you at Advent Lessons and Carols, certain that this would be the right place to commence the Advent season. We were not disappointed.
Now I am delighted to join you on official episcopal visitation. I am thankful for the companionship of your dedicated clergy. I am eager to get acquainted with your lay leaders, and grateful for your welcome.
Finally, a word of personal gratitude to all those who participated in the Consecration on September 13 - to all who had a role in the liturgy, to choristers, and particularly to Tom Sopko and the Flower Arranging Guild. Speaking of miraculous conversions - the transformation of a hockey rink into a cathedral that day was nothing short of astonishing, and was due in large measure to the artistry and devotion of your guild. It was a great gift to every person who attended or watched the liturgy that day. Thank you so very much.
“It hurts you to kick against the goads.” (Acts 26:14, NRSV) So said the voice of the Risen Christ to a zealous Pharisee named Saul. A righteous young man, studious, earnest, Saul is eager to protect the integrity of his religion from those whom he understands to be the misguided disciples of a blasphemous messianic pretender. In today’s First Reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, the apostle Paul relates how, in a rage, he was pursuing followers of Jesus to Damascus, determined to bring them to harsh prosecution. But there, on the road to Damascus, as he later told the story:
At midday along the road ... I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me ..., ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads... I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.’ [Acts 26:13-15]
The rest, as they say, is history. The young man, blinded by the radiance of Christ’s glory, enters his own world of mysterious darkness and brilliant light, a world of resurrection - a prototype for Crown Prince Vladimir a thousand years later; a prototype for every faithful Christian believer in his or her own way. St. Paul the Apostle, whose conversion we commemorate this day, is transformed from zealous persecutor to tireless evangelist.
And what does Paul report having heard from the risen Christ at the moment of revelation? “It hurts you to kick against the goads.”
It was, we are told, a Greek proverb, familiar in the agriculturally based world of the first century. A goad [or “prick” in the KJV] was a long stick or pole with a sharp point of iron on its tip. It was used to prod and guide the oxen when they were pulling a plow. Most of the time a gentle swipe or poke would steer the creature in the right direction. But if the animal resisted by kicking out against the goad, then it would dig deeper into the flesh. The more furious the resistance, the greater the pain. “It hurts you to kick against the goads.” The proverb used this image to underscore the notion that resisting authority was a bad idea. (Or, as the Vogons would put it in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Resistance is useless!”)
Here it is slightly different. This, as we have noted, is what Christ first says to Paul from the blinding light of his revelatory vision. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.” God has been directing this young man to his world-changing vocation. No doubt, his whole life had been pointing him towards the greatest apostolic mission in the history of humankind. “A member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin ... ; as to the law, a Pharisee; ... ; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” [Philippians 3:5-6]
Like the master ox-driver, God has been preparing, guiding, prodding, steering this man to his vocation - to the thing that God needed him to do. And like the stubborn, apprehensive, proud, misguided, oh-so-human person he was, Paul resisted. His uncertainty is masked as dogmatic certainty. His fearful attraction to Christ is masked as fearsome loathing. Like the stubborn, apprehensive, proud, misguided person every one of us is, so was Paul. And he resisted. And that resistance, ultimately, would not do right by God. It would not do right by God’s people. In the end, running from the thing he was meant to do was not good even for himself. Jonah had learned that lesson long ago. Now it is Paul’s turn. It hurts you to kick against the goads. Indeed, it does.
So I wonder, dear friends. What are the goads against which you and I are kicking? What is it towards which, or away from which, God is steering you? What is the direction in which you are being nudged, prodded, called? What is that which you are resisting to your detriment?
Is there a change in the course of your life which might be frightening, but is finally right? Is there a vocational tug? Or some new channel for spiritual renewal?
Is there something to be taken up? Or something to be put down? Is there a compulsion to be healed, a dependence from which to be released? A discipline to be accepted joyfully, a duty to fulfill willingly?
Is there a relationship which is truly of God and needs to be embraced? Or one which is damaging and needs to be left?
What direction - expected or unexpected, dreaded or hoped for - is being revealed to you through blinding light, or unexpected darkness, or still small voice? What word does God speak to you through conscience, dream, reason, communal discernment, prayer, listening, and still more prayer? The God who loves you beyond measure and seeks both your obedience and your greatest welfare is nudging, prodding, directing. And it hurts you to kick against the goads. Indeed it does.
How then will this conversion come to pass, for you? By God’s grace, surely. Only by God’s grace. Just as it did for Paul. There was nothing - nothing - in Paul’s manifestly competent and capable set of gifts that could truly have prepared him for the reversal and new calling that lay before him. But in the brilliant flash of revelation was given to him also the burning power of the Spirit. In the passing phase of sightlessness was given to him the clearest of vision. And in the healing embrace of his fledgling community was given to him the strength of the ages. Grace, my friends. It was all the work of grace. For Paul, as it shall ever be for me and for you.
May God work in you that conversion of heart and soul for which we give thanks this day. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.