25 January 2011

Conversion of St. Paul - A Homily from Yesteryear (and used again today)

Fraud.  That's what he was convinced the whole thing was:  one massive deadly, dangerous fraud.  It's not that he denied the resurrection of the dead; oh, no.  He'd go to the bat for that.  But what he specifically denied was that this Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead and then glorified at God's right hand.  Nonsense and downright evil, that's what he thought.  He was neither the first nor the last to think so.  And so he worked with might and main to stamp out the fraud by arresting and destroying those who persisted in perpetrating it upon his own people.  

Until.  Until that moment we heard about in our first reading.  The light from heaven flashing around him, the glory knocking him to the ground. Utterly bewildered, he met the Fraud face to face.  “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  “Who are you, Lord?”  “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  But rise and enter the city and you will be told what to do.”

In that moment everything, but everything crumbled for Saul.  All that he was certain of became uncertain and one thing became more certain than life itself:  the story about Jesus wasn't a fraud at all.  He had seen Him with his own eyes in the bright light, had heard His voice, had discovered in that moment the truth beyond all truths:  Jesus, the man who was murdered, crucified for the crime of claiming to be God's Son, had in fact been raised from the dead.  And not just raised, but raised in glory and incorruption.  

As he sat, blinded by the vision, his whole world left in shambles, he must have gone over it a thousand times.  He'd had it all wrong.  These followers of Jesus had it  right.  This Jesus' claims were, then, all true.  The entirety of the Scriptures of the Prophets then were about HIM and about how anyone, anyone at all, can receive forgiveness of sins through faith in His name.  

But, but, but, he'd want to argue with himself, but all the buts died before the reality of what had happened to him on the road outside Damascus.  And as if that wasn't enough, another vision.  A man named Ananias entering, laying hands on him, giving him his sight back.  And then the knock at the door.  Reluctant Ananias who knew exactly what Paul had come to Damascus to do embodying the very spirit of Jesus as he calls him “brother” Saul, lays on hands, baptizes, and gives a new life.  “You are his chosen instrument, Saul.  He told me.  You will carry His name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.  He told me.  He will show you how much you must suffer for the sake of His name, but be heartened my brother!  He HAS triumphed over death, and He is the forgiveness of all your sin.”

And so it began.  Yet he had need of more schooling, more time to grapple with what it all meant.  More time to run through the Scriptures he had long since committed to memory and to see how they were all about this Jesus who revealed Himself to him and who made him an apostle.  So off to Arabia and then back to Damascus and at last up to Jerusalem to meet his fellow apostles.

Paul, as he would come to be called, saw his whole life then as a grace.  That God's mercy and love in Christ would be big enough to reach out and pluck up someone like HIM and use HIM to be an apostle!  Who but the Risen Lord would have come up with such a brilliant and grace-filled notion? The chief opponent sent out to “preach the faith he once tried to destroy” and everyone glorifying God because of the turn-around everyone could see in the Apostle Paul.  His whole life turned upside down by the revelation that the Crucified One lived and lived in unspeakable glory, ruling over all things for the well being of His people and calling one and all to share in the life He came to bring – even those who hate and persecute His own.

In today's Gospel, our Lord speaks of how the Apostles cannot lose with Him.  Oh, they may leave “houses, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, children, lands” for His sake.  But they can't lose them.  Instead with Him they receive these a hundredfold and they inherit a life that is eternal.  He speaks there of the Church and the blessings we have already in each other as family of God.  But to the Apostles he speaks specifically of 12 thrones.  That produces a bit of a conundrum for, of course, Judas departed the number of the twelve, vacated his throne and chose rather the things of this world, and the despair and death they bring.  But whose then was that throne?  

Jesus told the Apostles to wait in Jerusalem until they received the promised Holy Spirit.  Before the day of Pentecost arrived, though, Peter leads the others in replacing Judas with Matthias.  For many years the Church has wondered about this – no ill reflection upon Matthias, mind you, but has wondered if the 12th throne did not belong ultimately to the last of the Apostles, to St. Paul himself, hand-picked by the Risen Lord and appointed to be His chosen instrument.  And here truly, the last has been made first.  

Think, my friends, of the use to which our Lord put St. Paul.  Not only that which St. Luke chronicles in the Book of Acts.  But above all, the use of St. Paul to write the bulk of the New Testament itself.  And is not this how the Apostles DO sit on thrones still, judging the Israel of God?  Their witness to the Risen Christ, what we call the New Testament, is the irreplaceable foundation upon which the Church rests.  Their words settle matters among us to this day.  Peter and Paul are not long ago and far away.  Their witness, inspired by the Spirit of God, is as close to us today as it ever was.  They still speak, and their witness, their words, still bring people to faith in what they saw and experienced:  the Crucified Lord risen in triumph over death, the Forgiveness of Sins appearing before them as their eternal justification.
No, it was no fraud.  This Saul learned on the road to Damascus.  And this the great Saint and Apostle Paul proclaimed and proclaims throughout the length and breadth of the entire world:  “Jesus is the Son of God!”  

On this feast of his conversion, we join in his confession even as we kneel before the same Crucified and Risen One and receive from His living hands the gift of His own body and blood, promising us the same forgiveness that embraced and converted Paul.  May it transform us as well that we, too, may be joyful witnesses to the life that never ends, the life that is God's free gift to all in Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory, honor and dominion with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages.  Amen.

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