You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me.
The story of the conversion of Saul is so well known that “Damascus Road experience” has passed into our language. Perhaps less ‘on our radar’ is the period after those few days and before Paul’s missionary journeys began. Here Paul gives us a glimpse into his experiences during those 12 years. He’s giving mixed messages but in a helpful way if we are looking for a discernment model – for ourselves or as local churches or even as a denomination.
Paul’s first instinct seems to be to say – I’m not being guided by human beings but by God. God’s is the voice I’m listening to. God’s is the guidance. God’s is the grace in ‘my’ calling. But, he’s also showing us that he did consult – eventually. He talked to Cephas (Peter) and to James in Jerusalem (then the centre of the Church).
In our Conciliar Structure (Church Meeting, Synod, Assembly) we are discerning together the will of God under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Many of us will have experienced meetings where one or two voices have spoken and clearly been the word we needed to hear that makes the way clear, brings peace, or offers a motivating challenge. Both being open to God the opinions of others, together, is the whole-ness of how we govern ourselves.
Another example is in the testing of a sense of calling in a range of lay, commissioned or ordained roles. That calling is tested through personal prayer and consultation; both are needed. No-one can insist that ‘God is calling me to XYZ’ if that inner sense of certainty hasn’t been tested by the Councils of the Church.
This Pauline wrestling of divine and human tension is a good discipline in many areas of our church life. Perhaps this could also be an encouragement to any who chair the Church Meeting to do our best to ensure this is what really happens. And perhaps, too, this is a word to anyone exploring a sense of calling – each person’s sense of God’s word to them does need to be tested by the wider Church in its (God-guided) humanity.
God be with us in our meeting together in all our humanity in all our wrestling.
God guide us in our decision-making as we listen to you and to each other.
God keep calling keep calling us to discipleship keep making it clear what that looks like for each person.
God bless the places of discernment may we be humble to hear what others have to say for they – and I – are part of the Body of Christ together I’m not in this on my own.
For we ask it in Jesus’ Name. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Rosalind Selby is principal of Northern College in Manchester and a member of Didsbury URC.