Monday, January 25, 2010
The Conversion of St Paul
Acts 9:1-22 / Matthew 19:27-29
We are not altogether comfortable with the story of the conversion of St Paul. Indeed, we are decidedly of two minds about stories of conversion in general. On the one hand, we are very much fond of stories in which the persecutor has a change of heart, in which he is not defeated, but won over. To move from breathing threats of slaughter to having left all and followed the Way, becoming the most storied, respected, and influential witness to the Gospel — that is a story even unbelievers can appreciate. Even children not versed in the sacred Scriptures have heard the echo of Paul's conversion to Christ in the person of Dr Seuss' Grinch. It is a story we applaud, and with good reason.
We are no doubt all the more likely to find Paul's conversion hopeful in these recent and troubled times. The kind of zealot who delights to find any men or women belonging to the Way that he might bring them in bonds to Jerusalem is precisely the kind of religious believer most distasteful to us. We have seen and had enough of zeal which puts men and women in chains, which tears their very limbs apart with heartless calculation. To find someone happy to see the pain in those who belief is other than his own able, and by a short and radical turnabout, to become one of the very people he had despised — to hear this story and know it is true reminds us that, however grim the purveyors of credal and confessional violence may be, even they are not beyond the power of sovereign love to restore.
Yet, while we applaud the tale so far, its aftermath leaves the contemporary mind more than a tad disappointed. Were we to write the story, Paul would move from the position of intolerance and exclusivity rooted in violent oppression to tolerance and radical inclusion rooted in open dialogue and a solidarity grounded in diversity. However, that is not quite what we see. To be sure, the violence is gone. Whatever violence Paul comes to know in his following of Christ is only that which others inflict upon him, never what he brings upon others. Likewise, there is in the converted Paul a kind of radical inclusivity — without failing once to be a zealous lover of the Torah, Paul also becomes just as willing to identify, even to live, as a Gentile among the Gentiles. His boast is in the Cross of Christ, not the Torah, in the blood of Christ which draws the two so long apart into one, not in the Law that divides.
Even so, Paul's new mission as one converted is unambiguously one that seeks to convert. Paul does not merely share in his own personal encounter with Christ and declare how that encounter was true for him, exhorting others to find their own truths, their own encounters. No, Paul after his conversion is unequivocally partisan for Christ and his Gospel. The inclusion he preaches is not one that leaves others alone, free to imagine that God has a way to himself different for each people and each person, so that some may choose to come to him apart from his Incarnate Word. Rather, Paul's message is clear: Saul grew all the stronger and confounded the Jews who were living in Damascus, proving that this is the Christ.
Ultimately, the truth never excludes. We are, all of us, made to know and love the Truth. Even so, we can most certainly divide ourselves from what is true. To reject what is true, stubbornly to cling to what is wholly true as though it were the whole truth or true of the whole — this is the stance that divides. Yet, Christ is Truth, he is Truth Incarnate, and so there is no teaching so correct, no piety so laudable, no ethic so righteous that it can excuse the rejection of the Word made flesh. There are, then, many paths, many ways which lead us further and further from the Way, and whose travellers benefit not at all from their journeys. All the same, there is no path so perilous, no way so crooked, that Jesus Christ will not haste his way along it to meet his wayward sheep. That is the hope we have in the conversion of St Paul. That is the hope we have in the Way who is at once our Lord and our Friend, Jesus, who is the Christ promised from before all ages.