Sermon at the Eucharist of Members of the Church of Ireland Forum
Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Clyde Road, Dublin, Saturday, 20th May 2006
“ . . . so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek” Acts 16:3
There is a terrible joke that most of us have heard before about a Presbyterian minister who boasted that he could preach an ex tempore sermon on any subject that his congregation might suggest.
There was frantic scribbling and a slip of paper was passed up to the pulpit by one of the elders.The minister unfolded the paper and it had a single word written on it in large letters, “constipation.”
He looked up at the congregation.“Friends”, he said, “I take as my text today, the 15th verse of the thirty-second chapter of the book of Exodus, “Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets”.
When asked on Thursday evening to stand in for Alan McCann, I felt I would be a rather anaemic substitute for Alan’s full-blooded evangelicalism, and hoped that the lectionary for today would be kind to me. I opened the Bible at Acts 16 and felt like the minister must have felt when he read the slip of paper. What can one make of Paul’s circumcision of Timothy?
The Epistle and the Gospel, the two Johannine readings, presented more familiar Christian themes, but I thought we would perhaps stick with Acts and focus on the circumcision of Timothy, I think there are important insights for Christians in this verse, whatever our tradition.
In much of Christian teaching, Paul is presented to us as having a fundamental disjunction in his life: there is Saul; then there is the conversion on the road to Damascus; and he comes out the other end as Paul.Isn’t this how many people see him?We hear of people who suddenly change direction in their lives described as having experienced a ‘Damascene conversion’.
In this Beckett centenary year, those familiar with Beckett’s best-known work Waiting for Godot may also be familiar with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Rosencrantz articulates what I believe is the general perception of Paul. This is what he says:
“Eternity is a terrible thought. I mean, where is it all going to end? (Pause, then brightly.) Two early Christians chanced to meet in Heaven. “Saul of Tarsus yet!” cried one. “What are you doing here?!” … “Tarsus-Schmarsus,” replied the other, “I’m Paul already.”
The picture is: Saul. Full stop. Return. New paragraph. Paul.
Not so, Terence McCaughey would tell us, twenty years ago when lecturing on Paul. Saul is supplemented by Paul, he is not replaced; in Jewish communities he continues to be Saul.
The account of the conversion is in Acts 9; Saul becomes a follower of the Way.At the end of Acts 12, we are told, “When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem.”At the beginning of Acts 13 we find, “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”The Holy Spirit is still referring to him as Saul. Only when we get to 13:9 do we read, “Saul, who was also called Paul”. Why this note of a change of name? Because Saul/Paul was moving into a Greek-dominated area and Paul would presumably have been more acceptable.
What we see in Paul’s ministry is continuity and change; the Church is a continuity of God’s people, but it is God’s people in a different way. In order to commend the Gospel, Paul is prepared sometimes to shift towards the continuity end of the spectrum, and sometimes towards the change end. The circumcision of Timothy is a reminder of this tension within the life of the Church; it is a continuity in order to prepare the ground for the change in people’s lives that Paul is seeking.
Anglicans are about continuity and change. Like Paul, we seek to be people continuing in a God-given heritage, while at the same time meeting the challenges of the society and the world in which we live. Sometimes we get things wrong; sometimes we don’t get the tension right. Perhaps there are Catholics who are sometimes just a little bit too much into continuity, failing to shape the Church in such a way that it meets the threats of post-modernism.Perhaps there are evangelicals who are so much into change that continuity is lost, and in losing continuity we lose touch with the people whom God has entrusted to our care. Perhaps in between there is the traditional middle of the road Church of Ireland, which is neither hot nor cold, which neither builds on the rich Catholic heritage, nor engages with our world with an evangelical fervour. Perhaps each of us needs to evaluate our respective pasts in order that we may aspire to engaging with a collective future.
Continuity and change are blessed by God in Acts 16. The circumcision of Timothy in 16:3 is a mark of continuity; it is immediately followed by a mark of change. In 16:4 we read, “As they travelled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey”, the Church is emerging as an alternative focus of authority for Christians. This dynamic process is endorsed by the Holy Spirit, we are told in 16:5, as “the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers”.
If continuity and change are poles of an Anglican spectrum through time, then unity and diversity are the poles for us within time. What does the circumcision of Timothy say to us about striking the balance between an authoritarian uniformity on the one hand and a chaotic heterodoxy on the other?
The classic statement regarding unity and diversity is, of course “You worship God in your way and we’ll worship Him in His.”
Perhaps we would not articulate it so bluntly, but there is a tendency in all of us to tolerate others, while we get on with what we believe to be the best, or, perhaps, even the true, way of doing things; we can be guilty of a smug assumption that God is of course an Anglican.
Paul could have said to the Jews he met on his journey that there was a new way of doing things, and that it was his way, but he does not take a dogmatic stance (perhaps Timothy would have wished that he had!). Paul attempts to be sensitive to those amongst whom he ministers. We encounter this in the different approaches he takes in preaching at Antioch in Acts 13 and at Athens in Acts 17, striving to tailor his sermonsto the needs of his listeners.
Paul acknowledges his own diversity, he writes in 1 Corinthians 9, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some”.
Diversity is at the centre of Paul’s ministry, not because this arch-expositor of the Law has suddenly become an anarchist, but because that diversity serves a unity of purpose, “I do all this for the sake of the gospel“.
Diversity for us, then, should not be about a casual, can’t be bothered, easy-going tolerance, but about becoming what is necessary for people to have a saving knowledge of Christ. Our concern should, perhaps, not be unity and diversity, but unity in diversity
The circumcision of Timothy is probably not the most appropriate model for church life in 21st Century Ireland, but it points to the essential questions that we must answer to be Christ’s people here and now:
What must we continue from the past?
What must we change to engage with the future?
What diversity can we allow and remain faithful?
What elements of the faith are required for unity?
In answering those questions, may our churches be as blessed as were those visited by Paul and Timothy, may they be strengthened in faith and may they grow daily in numbers.