Today we celebrate the conversion of St Paul. It’s a big day because he’s one of the key interpreters of what we understand Christianity to be.
Paul’s conversion was very dramatic. He started out as a zealous persecutor of Christians. God had to intervene very directly, giving Paul a spectacular vision on the road to Damascus, to get Paul to change direction.
Paul’s letters to the early churches are a big chunk of the New Testament, (the Jesus and church part of the Bible).
The Old Testament reading for today is about a conversion to ministry.
It’s about Jeremiah, who lived centuries before Jesus, and the beginning of Jeremiah’s ministry as a prophet. The reading tells how Jeremiah doubted he was up to his new ministry, but that God put the necessary words into Jeremiah’s mouth.
Jeremiah said to God “I am only a boy, truly I do not know how to speak.”
So for Jeremiah, becoming a prophet was a dramatic change.
God changed Paul, he changed Jeremiah and can change us too. Whatever we are today, however unlikely we think change will be, God can change us so that we can have a ministry.
Having a ministry isn’t just for clergy and the other folk who go on Church of England training courses. You don’t need to wear robes or stand up in front of the congregation to have a ministry. Your ministry could be to wildlife in your back garden.
You might be thinking to yourself, “I can’t have ministry. I didn’t do very well at school. I’m not doing well at work. I can’t find work. Nobody listens to me. I have no skills. I have nothing to offer.”
It’s not your job to judge yourself so harshly. God knows what wonders you are capable of, you probably don’t know the half of it.
And let’s not forget, the Bible and the history of the church show that God is very good at helping very unpromising people to do amazing things for him. Just look at St Paul.
When the time is right, if we ask God to help us change so that we can minister for him, change will come to us. And don’t be afraid of it. God will never force something on you that is not right for who he knows you to be.
In today’s reading, God says to Jeremiah.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you;”
And that’s true of us too.
God knew exactly who we were even before we had any physical form. He won’t ask any of us to do what we are not capable of.
God is here, not to help us to become other people, but to uncover the spark of potential that he put within us.
That’s one of many reasons why it’s so important to respect the potential of even very obnoxious people. They’re just children of God who have had their spark covered by the hard knocks of being a living, breathing biological being. God can still uncover it.
Keep an open mind about what your ministry will be. Ministry is more than walking about telling people about Jesus in words. Ministry tells people about God’s love with actions. Your ministry might be helping hedgehogs or running a trade union or being a peacemaker in your family. It could be anything that shares love.
When exploring what it will be, beware of being too impressed by the public ministries of famous and well known Christians. These ministers are good people, I’m sure – but because of how fame and power oriented society is, we can easily end up thinking that the best ministries are these very public ones.
Very public ministers have their role to play, just as St Paul had his – but it wasn’t really St Paul who built the early church. It was the anonymous ordinary people in the congregations and it was God.
Just a word of caution, to keep in mind when you’re asking God to help you to discover your ministry.
The stories of Paul and Jeremiah involve God speaking very clearly and directly to them. Most of the time life just isn’t like that. When you ask God to help you to find a ministry, don’t expect a direct answer from him. God can do anything he wants and it’s not for us to set limits on him, but it’s not a good idea to expect a direct answer.
Each of us has a unique relationship with God. What we share in common is that God’s way of communicating with each of us is usually not easy to understand, if it’s understandable at all.
I personally think God is mystifying on purpose.
Because we find God mystifying, we gather together in churches to talk about it. God wants us to gather together in churches and also in friendship with other people. If he spoke to us directly it’d be so awesome I’m not sure we’d ever gather together. We’d just sit and stare at him and not bother talking to other people.
Terrible things happen when people are too certain that they know what God is saying to them. When you think an idea has come directly from God, it becomes too holy to question, you begin to think like an idiot and you stop paying attention to any indications that you might be wrong.
Being convinced that you know what God is saying to you, can be a symptom of being mentally unwell. If you’ve been in that situation, there’s no reason to be embarrassed. Mental illness is as common as flu. It just happens.
However, (for those who are not mentally ill) being convinced that you know what God is saying to you makes you part of an unhealthiness in British Christian culture.
We are encouraged by other Christians to say things like God told me to run a jumble sale or God told me to donate to that mission in India or God told me to be a vicar.
A healthy spiritual outlook accepts that mystery, confusion and mystification are a natural part of each person’s relationship with God.
When God asks us to change, to uncover the spark of our potential, it may not be clear to us where’s he’s taking us or what’s going on. I think it’s best just to accept that and roll with it.