Acts 9.1-22 Galatians 1.11-16a Matthew 19.27-30
Why do you persecute me? asks Our Lord of St Paul in St Luke’s account of the Damascus Road experience in the Book of Acts. It is a question which resonates down the centuries, a question designed to strike at the avenging Saul’s heart, to stop him literally in his tracks with the blazing shaft of light, to make him think.
A why question prompts an answer. A command, Stop persecuting me is for the disobedient and the ignorant, not for the intelligent, devout and zealous man who was Saul of Tarsus. For in being asked why, he has to probe deep down in the outer reaches of his mind for a response, and in order to respond, he has to ask the question of himself, Why am I persecuting Jesus? and he finds the answer in his own background, as he outlines for us in his letter to the Galatians, written within a few years of this experience: I advanced in Judaism far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.
There is no doubt at all that Paul was an exemplary Pharisee, and while we know the Pharisees from their frequent clashes with Our lord, so we also know – and certainly Christ knew – that within the Pharisees’ psychology and conviction lay the seeds of true discipleship. For Pharisees adhered to the Law of Moses, yet they also valued the oral traditions; they were open to spiritual intervention and most of all, of all the religious sects around the Mediterranean at the time, they believed in the resurrection of the dead on the last day. Like Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, Lazarus and other such prominent Pharisees, Paul has excellent credentials for the task he is being called to – borne out by his own assertion that God set me apart from before I was born and called me through grace.
What is revealed to Paul on the Road to Damascus is the fulfilment of all he believed, for he sees the Risen Christ, Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, risen again, appearing to him at the very height of his violent aggression, and he realises that God has done for one man what he will do for all people in the fullness of time; and having realised that, Paul then spends every moment of the rest of his life proclaiming Christ among the Gentiles.
And because Paul was who he was, he set about doing this with the same zeal for the gospel as he held for the Law. And while the sudden and dramatic change of heart was baffling – indeed, terrifying to those who he now called brothers and sisters – it was according to divine law, and, as testified by Paul himself, predetermined. And just as Our Lord was in the beginning with God, so Paul’s apostleship is pre-ordained.
And it wasn’t simply membership of the Pharisee sect which equipped him for the task. St Paul was of his time and a man of the world – or, to be precise, a man of three worlds, the Roman world, the political authority; the Greek world, the predominant culture of the Mediterranean lands, and the Jewish world, the faith he was born into. And also, and most importantly, he inhabited a fourth world, the world of God, and he urges us all throughout his ministry to look to the divine world, to seek out the things of God, to recognise the power of the Christ within and to live as he commands us to do – in love.
St Paul’s letters are a treasure-house for Christ’s followers. Sadly, they are so often read out of context, or worse still, many of his pronouncements are held up as a set of hard-and-fast rules for all of us to obey when in fact much of the advice he gives is specific to circumstance, to the churches or people he is writing to, and often in response to letters of which we have no record, rather like listening to one half of a telephone conversation.
I often speculate what a modern-day letter of St Paul to the twenty-first century church of Christ would read like – but I leave that to far more learned scholars than I.
Our archbishop quoted St Paul when he entered his Cathedral for his enthronement – I come to you in fear and trembling. This wasn’t a matter of his own sense of unworthiness for his office, nor even a nod to the enormity of the task ahead, for he knew that this was what he was being called to do, by God’s grace; his choice of words is a reminder that St Paul was a trail-blazer, that all he did was – and – is – for Christ, and we seek always, always, to do God’s will, conscious that, however unworthy we think we might be, however unlikely the calling, we stand with St Paul and all his persecuting history as an instrument chosen by God, as the Lord said to the puzzled Ananias as he is sent to the Street called Straight: and I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.
One of St Paul’s more memorable passages is his inspirational writing on the subject of Love in 1 Corinthians 13. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. So often read at weddings, it was of course not intended for weddings at all, but specifically for the wayward Corinthians who were treating Our Lord’s gospel of love with contempt. And he tells them that if they want to know how to conduct themselves, then he will show them a more excellent way, the way of love. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. As a Pharisee, St Paul looked to the restoration of all things at the end of time, of God and his people reconciled, together for ever. In Christ he saw that reconciliation embodied, the divine and the human held together in the Jesus who he persecuted, the Jesus who taught us all the way of love, of peace and reconciliation.
In an uncertain world, a world which can appear to be driven not by faith, hope and love but by selfishness, fear and hatred, the hope for the future has to be the ministry of reconciliation, of looking to that which unites and not that which divides. In this week of prayer of Christian Unity, it is imperative that we who confess Christ crucified and risen reveal to the world the hope which St Paul sets before us. The Blessed Apostle, who we give thanks for today, struggled with mistrust, opposition, persecution and eventual imprisonment and martyrdom, and yet he remained true to the vision which was revealed to him in those life-shattering moments on the Damascus Road.
Jesus asks, Why are you persecuting me. Last week he asked us What are you looking for? And throughout the gospel, he constantly asks these questions of those he meets – in other words, he asks these questions of all of us, inviting us to answer in faith. And our response will determine where we go to next in our witness to his love in a turbulent world. A young friend of mine recently wrote: Forging ahead with a renewed sense of compassion and desire to impact positively the lives of those you can is the only option…But it’s a good one. Love, respect and peace will triumph over evil. It may take a kicking from time-to-time, but it will triumph; words which could have become from the pen of St Paul himself!
St Paul’s legacy is huge; he speaks to all of us as he ever did, with passion, conviction and confidence. And he was careful to teach those coming after, mentoring, encouraging, nurturing, so that the Church which was founded on the apostles and prophets could grow and flourish as it continues to do today. And we, as my young friend said, are called to do that same, to strive to make a difference in whatever way we can, however small, coming with fear and trembling but in great heart, hearts full of the joy and love of the Gospel of Christ, the one who St Paul was persecuting. Amen