In this Epiphany season, Sunday after Sunday, we are learning about the many ways God calls people to discipleship: we’ve heard about the first disciples, the boy Samuel, the prophet Jonah, and today the call of a man called Saul to turn his life around and share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world; the story of our patron saint, the apostle Paul.
Our Scripture readings today give us the outline of Paul’s story: his history as a Pharisee prosecutor of those members of his community who were disobedient to Jewish law; his zeal in hunting down the first Christians, who were, like Jesus, Jewish; his determination to even chase them down in foreign countries. And then his dramatic encounter with the risen Christ as he was traveling to Damascus, followed by his baptism and a complete turnaround of his life, as he traveled all over the Roman world proclaiming the Gospel and founding congregations in city after city. Paul repeatedly infuriated his own siblings, the Jewish leaders in the cities he visited, preaching that Jesus was the son of God, giving his personal witness, and drawing both Jews and Gentiles to Christ.
Our reading from the book of Acts comes towards the end of the book, after Paul has been imprisoned for some time in Caesarea, by request of the Jewish authorities; he has appealed, as is his right as a Roman citizen, to the imperial courts for justice. Agrippa, king of Judea and grandson of the King Herod whom we know from the story of the Magi, is fascinated by Paul, and he summons him to make his defense against the charges of blasphemy, before sending him on to Rome to face the emperor. There is a deep irony in this charge, as in his previous life, Saul tried to trick Jewish Christians into committing blasphemy so that he could have them put to death. You can see why we heard the Gospel that we did today.
Who could have predicted that this passionate lawyer, hell-bent on suffocating the Christian faith at birth, would be transformed into a unique instrument of God’s grace, spreading the Gospel across western Asia and into Europe? Who could have predicted that he would in a sense be the founder of the church as an institution that would stretch across the globe and continue for millennia? It’s hard to imagine a less likely saint.
Consider this: here was an educated and sophisticated man, steeped in the Jewish traditions and Scripture, trained in public speaking and debate, without family attachments, fearless in pursuing what he believed to be right, confident in speaking before every kind of audience, from peasants to kings. All of these characteristics made him a strong candidate to be a missionary and preacher, and God’s call involved the use of all his gifts, preparing him to be one of the most effective speakers and writers in history. His ONLY flaw was his extreme hostility to the Gospel. And God was able to overcome that through the personal intervention of the risen Christ.
If God could call someone like Saul to ministry, with the spectacular success that ensued, why shouldn’t God call each one of us, with all our frailties and shortcomings?
For all his strengths, Saul could have responded with any one of a number of excuses. He could have said, “I don’t know enough about Jesus to be able to share his Gospel.”
He could have said, “That doesn’t appeal to me: in my current work I have a whole supportive community around me, I have considerable power, I’m comfortably wealthy, and I am well respected in the community. I don’t want to give all that up for this new thing.”
He could have said, “I am not worthy to be a speaker for the Jesus movement: nobody is going to take me seriously.”
He could have said, “I have responsibilities and commitments that make it difficult for me to give the time that this ministry needs.”
He could have said, “Those people hate me and my life will not be worth living if I try to hang out with them.”
He could have said, “I’m not sure that this new movement is going to succeed, and I don’t want to commit myself to an uncertain outcome.”
Any one of these would have been a perfectly reasonable response to God calling him to something new.
In case you are wondering how I came up with all these excuses, it’s because I have heard them all, and I have used some of them myself. We can all come up with great and logical reasons why answering a call to ministry isn’t for me, or isn’t for now.
We know that our God is the God of surprises, a God who favors the weak and powerless, who seeks out the most unlikely people to do extraordinary things, who makes a way where there is no way, who makes the desert bloom and who brings light to the darkest places. God delights in turning our expectations, our human logic, upside down. As the saying goes, God does not call those who are ready, God makes ready those who are called. I am convinced that one of the signs of a true call from God is a sense of what I call holy terror; and if you’ve ever felt it, you know exactly what I mean. It’s that feeling of being stretched, of being asked to do something you know you’re not qualified for. Holy terror is not a reason to say no: it’s an opportunity to grow in faith and trust, to discover strengths that you didn’t know you had, to step out into something new, trusting that God will shine a light before you on the path.
I have experienced this holy terror several times in my life, including: the decision that I and my husband made to take jobs in the United States; the moment when I knew it was time to start a family; the realization that I was being called to ordained ministry; the invitation to move 2700 miles on my own and serve as Dean of this cathedral; and most recently when I felt called to make a pledge to the music room campaign that I didn’t see how I could fulfill. In each case it was eventually made clear to me that saying yes to the call was the right decision.
Perhaps you will never be called to move to another continent or to enter Holy Orders; but I can guarantee that God has a call for you, and probably a series of calls. I don’t think any of us can expect a road to Damascus moment, but we do encounter the risen Christ on a regular basis, in his body the Church, and this community is where we can most expect to hear God calling us. On this Cathedral Day we celebrate our identity as a Eucharistic community with a specific corporate call. We are called as a body to live out the vocation of a cathedral: as a spiritual center for the diocese, a space dedicated to community service, a resource for our brothers and sisters in Christ, and a safe space for exploring together what it means to be a beloved child of God. We are called to offer beautiful liturgy that lifts people’s hearts and souls into God’s nearer presence. We are called to be a refuge for those who have been battered by the world. We are called to be responsible stewards of this magnificent facility and of the other resources that have been entrusted to our care by former generations.
How do we position ourselves to most clearly hear God’s call to us? Through individual prayer and corporate worship; through quiet moments of mutual pastoral care and rousing celebrations of the great feasts; through listening to each other’s story and helping one another recognize the actions of God in our lives; and through opening our hearts to those in need, our unsheltered neighbors and the victims of war, climate change, and injustice. There’s an old song that I love in our Lift Every Voice hymnal: There is a Balm in Gilead (LEVAS 203). The middle verse reminds us that God has a job for every single one of us: “If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot preach like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus, and say He died for all.” It’s that simple. Love Christ, Serve Others, Welcome All. And listen for God’s call to you. Happy Cathedral Day.