Homily for the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul
January 25, 2009
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based on Acts 22:3-16; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 16:15-18)
Before the passage from Acts was read:
You’ve heard me voice my frustration before, about the way those who composed the lectionary for liturgy frequently give us passages that are chopped away from their real context so we miss much of the point. That’s true today so before we hear the prescribed passage here’s the setting:
Paul had been arrested and put in chains because the Jews were rioting over what he was preaching. As Paul was being led away, he spoke to the commander of the troops in Greek. The commander was amazed that he spoke Greek and was a Roman citizen, so when Paul asked to address his fellow Jews he gave him permission and Paul addressed them in Hebrew.
* * * * * * *
In today’s liturgy the church invites us to reflect and pray over one of the most significant events in the church’s long story: the whole history of the preaching of the Good News to the Gentiles – and to us – would not have happened without the conversion of Saul. The dramatic story has been depicted in paintings and statues and plays by great masters. But that very fact makes it quite easy for us to turn it into a nice tableau. A piece we see in a museum and say, “That’s nice” and move onto the next painting. We can miss the serious challenge it presents to us, an opportunity for deepening our growth in the Spirit.
To understand the man we know as Paul we need first appreciate the man who was known as Saul.
We say glibly that he ‘persecuted’ the early Christians. The word easily becomes an abstraction.
The reality is quite different. Saul was a violent man. He broke into the homes of innocent people and dragged them out, to put them in prison in chains. Maybe the best way to realize what he was about would be to think of the Taliban in today’s world. He was a religious fanatic, inducing terror.
Saul was convinced that he was doing God’s work. He says of himself that he was “zealous for God.” He was sure; he was confident; he was certain.
And after all, he had good reason! He had studied with the great rabbi Gamaliel. (I imagine someone today saying, “Hey, I graduated from Xavier!” Or even from Notre Dame – a real Catholic school!”)
And more importantly, he was sent by the highest authorities. He’s commissioned by the Elders of the Temple in Jerusalem. He was a member of the Pharisees. Across 2000 years of preaching we have reduced them simply to hypocrites. We need to remember that they were the upstanding religious, the pure ones, the pious: lay people who really kept the law and all its prescriptions down to the last detail.
The irony is that the light Saul was following was darkness and blindness, spreading pain and torture. How can he be transformed?
He isn’t converted by debating with these followers of the Way (which was the very first designation of the followers of Jesus). He isn’t converted by digging back into the Scriptures and re-thinking it all. He is converted by receiving a gift. It comes in the form of the realization that the Lord is identified with these people, totally. He thinks he’s pursuing people who have become apostates from the Law, and the Lord says, Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
It turns his whole world upside down. He is thrown into total confusion: how can this be? The revelation is so bright that it actually plunges him into utter darkness. He becomes blind. This supremely confident persecutor is helpless. He is reduced to simply asking what the Lord wants him to do. He, who was always supremely in charge, has to be led by the hand.
And there is another irony. The one to whom he is sent, Ananias, is not some wild-eyed fanatic, but someone who although he follows this new Way is also totally observant and true to the Covenant.
The story is so compelling that we could stop there and easily imagine that Saul’s conversion has happened, then and there. It’s complete. Nothing left but to fit him for a miter and measure him for a halo.
But conversion doesn’t happen like that. Paul has a life-time of continued growth in the Spirit ahead of him. The immediate aftermath of this passage is only the introduction to a life-long struggle: the Jews listened to him speak further until he tells them the Lord said to him, “Go, I shall send you far away to the Gentiles.”
They listened to him until he said this, but then they raised their voices and shouted, “Take such a one away from the earth. It is not right that he should live.” And as they were yelling and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, the commander of the cohort ordered him to be brought into the compound and gave instruction that he be interrogated under the lash to determine the reason why they were making such an outcry against him. (vv. 22-24)
And during all the years of his ministry his conversion will be challenged, not just by the outsiders but by the members of the early church itself. Those who had accepted Jesus but were themselves not fully converted kept demanding that any new believers had to be circumcised and be bound by all the prescriptions of the Jewish law. They badgered him and bullied him over and over. Conversion doesn’t happen in an instant, it involves the difficult and confusing process of shedding long-held beliefs. It means entering into insecurity and confusion and letting go of all that had made life secure.
So what does this all mean for us? Aren’t we already converted? After all, we have been baptized; we go to church and we receive the Lord’s own life in Holy Communion and we read our bibles.
Let me tell you a story about conversions in our time.
A couple of years ago I saw a documentary over at Xavier. It was called But the Bible Tells Us So. It’s the story of five couples who come from the evangelical, fundamentalist tradition. They are wonderful people. A down-home couple from Missouri; an African-American couple from South Carolina; a U.S. congressman. They are church-going, highly committed people. One couple has ministers in their background for generations. And their lives are grounded in the belief that God dictated every single word of the Bible.
Then something unexpected happens to each couple: they discover that a son is gay, a daughter is a lesbian. They are devastated. It’s difficult for any parent to struggle with the reality of homosexuality but what do you do when you are convinced by your reading of scripture that this is an abomination? They are torn by a contradiction between the two most powerful forces a human can confront: their conviction of God’s leading in the bible and the love of their child. They pray out of their great pain and confusion. Some pursue extended research into scholars’ conflicting interpretations. One of the women is a serious adherent to the teachings of Dr. James Dobson, the founder of Faith and the Family. She reads his materials and drinks in his sermons regularly. Finally she writes a letter to her daughter in which she tells the girl that she is going to hell – and the girl commits suicide.
In the end they tap into a Gospel impulse that lies deeper in them than their fundamentalist conditioning. They all conclude that God’s will for them is to be found in the unconditional love of their child. God is not to be found in violence and hatred and fear. They reach a place of peace and joy and trust in the Lord.
Some reach a place of courage. The courage to become active in fighting the bigotry, the sin of homophobia that condemns good young men and women to a life of paralyzing secrecy, of isolation from the human community. They protest publicly in front of Dobson’s offices in Colorado. Some are taken to jail for trespassing. The woman whose daughter committed suicide finds in her public speaking a mission: that her daughter’s death will not be in vain.
The story may cause us feelings of confusion, but that’s what every conversion does. They do not have all the ends tied in a lice bow. They live in faith, not certainty.
As does Paul of Tarsus. And we. Jesus in today’s Gospel from Mark brings us up short. He tells us we won’t know the hour of his coming. We don’t know just how the call to deeper conversion will come to us. What form it will take. What contradiction it place before us.
It is only years later that Paul will arrive at the ability to put it all down in the memorable words of First Corinthians. There are really only three things that matter: faith and hope and love. And only one that will last, one that will enable us to know the peace that surpasses all understanding: the greatest of these, which is love.