Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Lesson Of Saint Paul’s Conversion: We Must Stop Trying To Convert Christ


The Conversion of Saint Paul by Bartolome Esteban Murillo

From The Acts of the Apostles 9:1-22
Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that, if he should find any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might bring them back to Jerusalem in chains.
On his  journey, as he was nearing Damascus, a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him.
He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  He said, “Who are you, sir?”  The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do.”
The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, for they heard the voice but could see no one.  Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus.  For three days he was unable to see, and he neither ate nor drank.
There was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias, and the Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.”  He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”  The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight and ask at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul.  He is there praying, and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, that he may regain his sight.”
But Ananias replied, “Lord, I have heard from many sources about this man, what evil things he has done to your holy ones in Jerusalem.  And here he has authority from the chief priests to imprison all who call upon your name.”
But the Lord said to him, “Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel,  and I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name.”
So Ananias went and entered the house; laying his hands on him, he said,  “Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me,
Jesus who appeared to you on the way by which you came, that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight.  He got up and was baptized, and when he had eaten, he recovered his strength.
 He stayed some days with the disciples in Damascus, and he began at once to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues,
that he is the Son of God.  All who heard him were astounded and said, “Is not this the man who in Jerusalem ravaged those who call upon this name, and came here expressly to take them back in chains to the chief priests?”
But Saul grew all the stronger and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus, proving that this is the Christ.


When you look at St. Paul, and at his letters, and his life, and missions, do you ever feel like saying, "Christ tagged the perfect man for the job when he tagged Saul -- obedient, really grasping God's plan." 


If you do feel that way, then you've got the wrong man!  You're not talking about Saul.  You're talking about the man who emerged  from that incident on the road to Damascus, re-named Paul


Saul had all of reality defined: God, the Jews and Gentiles, the world, and the heretics following the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  This man, Saul, was self-assured. Sallying forth, leading a holy crusade for God and the Law. Saul was sure about everything. Except for that memory haunting him: the look of peace and forgiveness on the face of Stephen the heretic, as he was stoned to death. That memory made Saul feel hungry inside. Saul saw Someone else in Stephen’s face, and heard Someone else speaking to him in Stephen’s voice.   Saul was hungry -- for God. God was calling Saul’s name from eternity. But Saul kept feeding himself on empty definitions of God, instead of the true experience of God's love and mercy in Our Lord Jesus. 


When Saul experienced that vision of the Risen Jesus, and fell to the ground, it wasn't merely a physical tumble. Saul’s concepts of God, of himself, of judging, of salvation -- of everything --  were shattered by encountering and finally experiencing the one, true God in Jesus the Christ.  But the fall to the ground wasn't the signal that Saul had been converted to Paul. Not yet! It was only the beginning of a process that would continue to convert Saul until his death.  


The Conversion of St Paul,
Ananias Restoring Sight

by Benjamin West
Saul-the-proud began that process of conversion by experiencing the humiliation of being led by the hand – like the humiliation of Christ being led to the cross.  Saul stayed blind, with his reality shattered, for three days -- like Christ in the tomb -- until Ananias was sent by the Lord.  Ananias led Saul out from his blind definitions, into the true light of Christ’s definitions of salvation and who will receive it.   When "things like scales fell from his eyes," Saul’s personal scales of judgment also fell to the ground and shattered.  Saul finally saw -- and accepted the reality-- that he was wrong about Jesus and about those who followed Jesus.  


Saul’s conversion experience continued all his life. Somewhere along the line, Paul overtook Saul and remained.  And then Paul, the new man in Christ, continued on that ongoing trip of conversion!

Just because we attend Mass on Sundays or every day does not mean that we are fully converted to Christ.  We are all, very much, like Saul.  All of us have many parts of ourselves that still stubbornly resist God's call and stubbornly refuse to be converted. We’re blinded by our own lights.   We all have our "absolutely-right-and-can't-be-wrong" definitions about God, Jesus, ourselves, and others.  


Have we fully experienced God -- or just our safe definitions of God and our calling ourselves by the demands we want to be called by?

  • Jesus Christ converts us, we don't convert Jesus Christ.  
  • Jesus Christ defines us, we don't define Jesus Christ.  
  • Jesus Christ defines us to be His people on his terms, not on ours. 

So, it seems, you and I are like Saul in many ways. We still must be converted in so many ways. 


Thank God we have God's Words in Scripture.  
Thank God we have the Eucharist -- along with Saint Paul’s prayers to help us!  
Thank God that we have the graced opportunity, every day, to be like Ananias to each other, helping each other recover our sight, by allowing ourselves to be filled with the Holy Spirit and be continually converted. 


Ananias said, “Saul, my brother, regain your sight. ... Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight.  He got up and was baptized, and when he had eaten, he recovered his strength.”  Ananias, in the Holy Spirit, led Saul to the truth about Our Lord Jesus and about the Jews and Gentiles following Our Lord Jesus. 


May the Eucharist we receive convert the murderous Saul within us, into the loving Paul -- by helping us see and accept Christ’s definition of who we are, and not our own.

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