Paul was an educated man. He was very religious, very upright – as far as he was concerned, he knew what God wanted. He was young and idealistic. He would defend his faith to the hilt, even going so far as to harass the people he thought were deluded heretics. He was even happy to be part of the crowd which murdered a man because of his beliefs. He didn’t see the evil in his own heart. He though his violence was justified. He thought he was doing God’s work. He thought he was OK. In reality, he was lost. He was trapped by the conviction that he was right. He was trapped because he found people with different views offensive.
And then he met God. God showed him how blind he was, and how impotent. And Paul had to learn to see again, to see things in a new way, with a new perspective. Despite everything Paul had done, God forgave him and God helped him start again. He received God’s mercy. And for the rest of his life, he was aware of God’s mercy guiding him and upholding him. And Paul learnt to share God’s mercy with individuals and groups all over southern Europe and the near east.
He says it in his letter to Timothy: I received mercy. He says it twice: I received mercy. The lost lamb had been found.
Paul received mercy, not because he deserved it, but because that’s what God is like, and God needed Paul. Our God is merciful. Our God cares about each one of us. Our God forgives us. Our God accepts us just as we are. Our God will help us turn away from the things that hold us back so that we can thrive and go forward.
Think about your own story. When did you receive mercy? When did you discover that God had taken you into his arms to carry you home? For Paul, it was that moment on the road to Damascus when the light hit him. For me, it was long and slow. I went to church right from being a babe in arms. I always believed, but there were moments when God came closer and my faith grew. As a teenager, I delighted in the Lord who loved me. I was eager to learn more, and studied theology. Then in my mid-20s, I started to learn more about prayer. In my 30s, I opened my heart to look more widely, and found I needed to learn more about myself and about God. In my 40s, I discovered to my surprise that God was calling me to ordained ministry. Each stage has required a new commitment, a new trust, a new discovery of God’s mercy. I too received mercy, and what joy it brought me!
Think about your faith story. That’s your homework for this week. How did you become aware of God’s mercy and what did that mean for you? Next spring, the Diocese is having a mission, which they’re calling Talking Jesus. Bishops will come from all over to work with parishes to help them reach out to their communities. As part of the preparation, they want to hear people’s stories of faith, which can be used to inspire others. So tell me. Or write it down for me. You are all here because God loves you. You have all met God in some way. You have received God’s mercy. What was that like?
As we go through life, the way we think about God changes. The God we know when we are children is different from the God we come to know as we grow up. It’s not that God has changed, but that our capacity to encounter God deepens. Sometimes our experiences of life leaves us with distorted images of God, just as Paul’s understanding was shaped by his early training, and had to change when he met the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus.
There are things we can do to help us know God better and help us experience the mercy of God:
- Prayer is essential – prayer is about spending time with God, hanging out with him, getting to know him, having a conversation with him. Prayer isn’t just about giving God a shopping list of all the things we want him to do, but it’s also about listening to God and finding out what God wants.
- Reading the bible – the Bible tells us in so many ways what God is like, and help us explore for ourselves.
- Reflecting on our own experience of God. Thinking about what God has done and is doing in our lives.
When we search for God, God lets us find him. That is part of God’s mercy.
Today’s Gospel reading gives us a wonderful picture of what God is like. In the story Jesus tells, God is like the shepherd who cares for the lost little lamb so much, that he goes out to look for her in all the dangerous places where she might have strayed. The Lord is my Shepherd. He comes to find me when I am lost. He goes looking for you, when life has got you down, when you have turned away from God, when your life is so full of other things that you have abandoned your first love of the shepherd.
And God cares for every little lost lamb in Bensham, every waif and stray, every one with lifestyles and habits we can’t abide. They are part of the Good Shepherd’s flock and he wants to pour out his love and his mercy on them. If the good shepherd came to Bensham, where would you advise him to go looking for the lost sheep? That’s where we need to be, as a church. The church is the Body of Christ, and therefore we need to act as the Good Shepherd to the people in our area. We need to show God’s love. We need to be merciful.
And as we start preparing for the Talking Jesus mission, that’s what we need to be thinking about. Where are the lost sheep, the ones who are desperate to be picked up and loved by the good shepherd? And how can we reach out to them?
We have received God’s mercy. How can we share that?