A Confidence in God

From Sermon XLVI (1624)

Here was a true transubstantiation and a new sacrament. These few words, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me,” are words of consecration; after these words, Saul was no longer Saul but he was of Christ. “Christ lives in me,” he says, “It is not I that live,” not I that do anything, “but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

It is but a little way that Saint Chrysostom goes, when he speaks of an inferior transubstantiation, of a change of affections, and says that here is another manner of lycanthropy than when a man is made a wolf; for here a wolf is made a lamb. “A bramble is made a vine,” says the father; “cockles and tares become wheat, a pirate becomes a safe pilot the lees are come to swim on the top, and the last is grown first; and he that was born out of time has not only the perfection but the excellency of all his characteristics.” Saint Chrysostom goes further than this: “He that was the mouth of blasphemy is become the mouth of Christ, he that was the instrument of Satan is now the organ of the Holy Ghost.” He goes very far when he says, “Being yet upon earth he is an angel, and being yet but a man he is already in heaven.” Yet Saint Paul was another manner of sacrament and had another manner of transubstantiation than all this. He was made “the very same spirit with the Lord” (Gal. 6:17), so in his very body he had stigmata, the very marks of the Lord Jesus.

It is but a little way that Saint Jerome has carried his commendation, neither when he calls him “the roaring of a lion,” if we consider in how little a forest the roaring of a lion is determined; but that he calls him “the roaring of our lion,” the lion of the tribe of Juda, that as far as Christ is heard, Saint Paul is heard too.

Jerome says, “Wherever I open Saint Paul’s epistle, I meet not words, but thunder, universal thunder, thunder that passes through all the world. For that which was done in him wrought in him the world; he was struck blind, and the world saw the better for that.”

So universal a priest that he sacrificed not sheep and goats but himself — and not only that, he prepared the whole world as a sacrifice to God. He built an ark — that is, he established a Church — and to this day receives not eight but all into that ark.

And whereas in Noah’s ark, if he caught in a raven, he went out a raven; Saint Paul, in his ark, as he was, so he transubstantiates all of them and makes them doves of ravens. Nay, so over-absolutely did he sacrifice himself and his state in this world, as that he sacrificed his reversion, his future state, the glory and joy of heaven, for his brethren, and chose rather to be anathema, separated from Christ, than that they should.

Still all of this is far from an occasion for any person to presume upon God, because he afforded so abundant mercy to a persecutor. But still from this, let every faint soul establish itself in a confidence in God. God, who would find nothing to except, nothing to quarrel at in Saint Paul, will not lie heavy upon your soul, though you must say, as he did, that you are a greater sinner than you know any other man to be.

John Donne (1572-1631) was an English cleric, poet, and scholar, acclaimed as one of the finest preachers of his day. He is widely considered the preeminent metaphysical poet, prized for his inventiveness in the use of metaphor and his dramatic, vigorous style. He was ordained after a political and military career, serving as chaplain at Lincoln’s Inn, and for the last ten years of his life, as dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, where he preached this sermon on the Sunday following the Feast of St. Paul’s Conversion. Donne is commemorated on the liturgical calendar of several Anglican churches on March 31. The text is slightly adapted for modern readers.

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