Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
(Acts ix. 4)
Church Tradition teaches that the Epistles of St. Paul were written long before the Gospels were put together or the Acts of the Apostles was compiled. The word Gospel comes to us from the older word Godspel, a combination of the Old German Gott – God, and Middle English spellen - meaning to explicate, spell-out, unravel, or describe. It is also a translation of the Greek åϖáíãåëéïí -evangel, which means Good News. So the Gospels and their extension in St. Luke’s Acts record God’s Speech or Good news to us in the life of Jesus Christ. Yet we learn today that this Good News confronted one man in the very form of God’s Speech, seizing him in such a uniquely dramatic way that he went on to teach and write about its heavenly meaning long before the Gospel writers collected all the details of its earthly manifestation in Christ.
But before we get to that, we need to remember the historical details of the life of St. Paul. By his own admission, he had played no small role in the attempt to stamp out Christianity. He was born as Saul around 5 A.D., as a Jewish citizen of the Roman Empire in the city of Tarsus, on the Mediterranean Sea in what is now Turkey. In Acts he tells us that at a young age he was trained in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God. (Acts xxii. 3) He probably spent enough time in his hometown, a center of Hellenistic learning, to understand the teachings of the Greek philosophical schools prevalent in the Empire and at odds with his own faith. By his own admission, he was circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. (Phil. iii. 5,6) So Saul was moved zealously by strict adherence to the historical Law of the Jews, and he was equally convinced that he was observing it perfectly. He called himself blameless. And if the Law was the surest way to imitate the life of God, then he was certain that he had found it.
This Law had killed Jesus of Nazareth, and Saul thought that it instructed him to round up, torture, and kill Jesus’ followers. Jesus had prophesied of the Sauls of this world: They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service. (St. John xvi. 2) So bound was he to this Law that he could not even hear the counsel of his old mentor Gamaliel, when he cautioned the Sanhedrin against slaying Peter and John for spreading the Gospel of the recently Ascended Christ. Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought. But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God. (Ibid, v. 38, 39) Needless to say, this wisdom fell on Saul’s deaf ears.
Saul did not yet realize that The Law is made for man, and not man for the Law. (St. Mark ii. 27) Nor did he then comprehend what he would later tirelessly teach – that if there had been a law given which could have given [new] life, verily righteousness should have come from the law. (Gal. iii. 21) So bedeviled and crazed with his own sense of goodness, he pursued an imagined evil. Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the Disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, and desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this Way, whether… men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. (Ibid, ix. 1, 2) The Sanhedrin had said to Pilate, We have a law, and by our law [Jesus] ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God. (St. John xix 7) Saul believed that in order to discourage the movement, the followers should die also. The Jewish Law had become to him a false god that justified the death of those who looked not to the Law, but to Christ as the source of righteousness.
What he had to learn the hard way was that Jesus Christ was alive and well in Heaven and still entering in and out of the hearts and souls of his friends, the new members of His Mystical Body. Saul would have to come to the knowledge that in persecuting and killing Christians, he was attempting to crucify the Son of God afresh to his own harm, and holding Him up to contempt. (Hebrews vi. 6) Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (St. Matthew xxv. 40)
So we read that as Paul journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: and he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And Saul said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. (Acts ix. 3-5) To kick against the pricks or goads is an ancient proverb used to describe what happens when an unbroken oxen resists the spiked goad the farmer uses to tame and steer it. He is stabbed. So is Saul. For in his murderous pursuit of Christians, the pain will turn back on him as the sharp nails of Christ’s Crucifixion begin to prick him with consciousness of the Divine Love. The Law he observes is now leading him to his own certain death.
And so in the blinding Light of the Ascended Christ, Saul sees himself as a spiritual murderer whose own soul is dead. In the Light he comes to realize that he has been trying to kill not the earthly mourners of a dead hero, but, as Monsignor Knox suggests, the God who has become Man and desires to infect the human race with His Divinity. (R. Knox: St Paul’s Gospel, Ign. 562) What he was determined to preclude was that the Word should be made flesh at all! How could it be God’s will and Word that men should through the law be dead to the Law that they might live to God? (Gal. ii. 19)
Saul had forgotten that the Law was given by God to man in order to teach him of his sin and the need of a Saving Mercy. Thus afflicted with such a serious loss of spiritual vision, nothing short of a dramatic cure could reverse the course of his terminal disease. The man whose eyes strained to detect the tiniest violation of Mosaic Law in the external world was blinded by the superior Light of God’s love. Falling to the earth, his own flesh was silenced by the Word that he heard. Benedict XVI tells us that The dazzling radiance of the Risen Christ blinds him; thus what was his inner reality is also outwardly apparent, his blindness to the truth, to the light that is Christ. (“St. Paul’s Conversion”: Sept.3, 2008) For Saul to be inwardly illuminated, to see himself in relation to God for the very first time, his earthly sight must be suspended and his earthly resolutions destroyed so that his spiritual vision might be discovered.
Saul’s companions saw the light but did not hear [or understand] the voice of the one who was speaking to [him]. The voice spoke to Saul’s soul alone and personally, in order to reveal his sin against God’s Word and Will in Jesus Christ. Saul was blinded for three days. A certain Ananias receives a commandment from the Lord to find Saul of Tarsus and to lay hands upon him that he may receive his sight. Ananias is so close to God that he is able to voice his doubts about Saul. Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem: and here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name. (Ibid, 13) Ananias must believe and trust the Jesus Christ will make Saul [His] chosen vessel to bear [His} name to the Gentiles… [and] that… he will suffer great things for His name’s sake. (Ibid, 15, 16) So St. Paul tells us in a later account, Ananias, a devout man according to the law… came unto me, and stood, and said unto me, Brother Saul, receive thy sight. And the same hour I looked up upon him. And he said, The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know his will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of his mouth. For thou shalt be his witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard. And now why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord. (Ibid, xxii. 12-16) Saul became Paul and would forever thereafter discover the will of God in Jesus Christ, see and understand the meaning of Christ’s Incarnation, and hear Him clearly as God’s Word and Speech governing himself and all others who would be saved.
In this morning’s Gospel, Peter, thinking that he and his fellow Apostles have already done what they needed to do, asks, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? (St. Matthew xix. 27) Jesus emphasizes that twelve faithful Apostles shall sit upon twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Ibid, 28) But he emphasizes the extent of the sacrifice that they must make when he adds that every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life. (Ibid, 29) This is the death of the self that finds its center of spiritual meaning in the Cross which alone leads to new life.
For St. Paul the Good News is God’s Word and Will expressed first to him by the Ascended Christ whose Light blinds him. If you and I hope to be saved, we must seek Christ’s Light that goads us into our own crucifixion to the world, the flesh, the devil, and ourselves. In this Light alone St. Paul saw Christ in everyone, Christ in everything, nothing but Christ. (Knox, 563) In this Light alone, he saw his true nature and destiny. Thus he writes, I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Gal. ii. 20) Amen.
Thy will be done, in earth as it is in Heaven.
Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. This is the day on which we celebrate our Patron. Most Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican churches have Saintly men or women as their Patrons. Some take their names from the essential moments of Christ’s life – like the Church of the Incarnation, Church of the Transfiguration, Church of the Nativity, Church of the Holy Cross, Ascension, and so on. We chose St. Michael & All Angels because we had a keen desire for heavenly protection and defense, strength and power, and the celestial joy and rapture that must envelop our spiritual pilgrimage.
If the angels are to provide us with the service we desire, first we must have a better understanding of who they are. Angel comes to us from the Greek word αγγελοσ, which means messenger or one who is sent. We know that angels are creatures who have been made by God, and so have not existed from all of eternity. Today’s Psalm verifies this truth when we sing, Praise Him, all ye angels of His: praise Him, all His host/.... For He spake the Word, and they were made; He commanded, and they were created. (Ps. cxlviii. 2,5) St. Paul tells us that by Christ were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by Him, and for Him…. (Col. i. 16) We know that they existed before the creation of the earth since God asks Job, with no small amount of imposing irritability, Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding… when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job xxviii. 4,7) We know that the angels were created to live for eternity since Jesus tells us that in the Resurrection of the Dead men will not die anymore but will be equal unto the angels… the children of God…. (Luke xx. 36) Angels were the first offspring or children of God. And we know that they are pure spirits or intelligences and thus have no bodies since their creation predates the creation of any kind of matter. St. Augustine tells us that they are to be identified with the first created light in Genesis. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. (Gen. i. 3-5)This could not have been physical light, since God would not make the sun until the fourth day.
So the Church’s Tradition has it that the angels were the first created spiritual light. They were the created spiritual and angelic light in and through which all else that was created makes sense. And lest the pure created light of God’s truth, beauty, and goodness should be darkened by ill will, malevolence, envy, jealousy, and pride, we read that God divided the light from the darkness. The darkness was not created, and so we believe that this must be that band of good angels who rejected God because they desired rather to bask in the radiance of their own beauty, truth, and goodness rather than God’s. St. John the Divine has a mystic vision into the creation and redemption of the world and describes the origins of evil through a description of the warfare between the good and bad angels. And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. (Rev. xii. 7-9) Because the good angels live in the Light of God, they are called created light, and their lives constitute the first spiritual Day. The bad angels are called the darkness, and they live in the spiritual Night of everlasting darkness. (D.C.D. xi, xii)
So from the beginning of the creation we believe that the good angels were commanded by Michael, whose name means one who is like God. Michael is an Archangel, and this word comes to us from the Greek αρχαγγελοσ, meaning chief angel, and the Greek Church calls him αρχιστρατεγοσ, meaning chief commanding officer. If Michael has been involved in the warfare of heaven, we can rest assured that he will lead the charge in defending the redemption of creation that his fallen friend Lucifer is determined to disrupt. Michael and his fellow angels have never swerved from their intention to do God’s will. For as Richard ***** reminds us about Michael and his friends, beholding the face of God, in admiration of so great excellency they all adore Him. And being rapt with the love of His beauty, they cleave inseparably forever unto Him. And [their] desire to resemble Him in goodness maketh them unweariable and even unsatiable in their longing to do by all means all manner of good unto all creatures of God, but especially unto the children of men. (Eccl. Pol. iv. 1)
Michael and his friends desire to resemble and reflect God’s overflowing goodness, and so they long to transmit and impart this goodness to all of creation and especially to men. And why to men, you might ask? Because as ***** says, when they look upon us, they behold themselves beneath themselves. (Idem) So in us they see that spiritual potentiality and capacity that with them can know, adore, love, and serve God. In us they find another self – a friend, brother, sister, fellow child of God whom they long to aid, assist, and associate with the motions of God’s Word, even Jesus Christ our Saviour. And so their prayers and praises always surround us, to include us in their unending desire and longing for our salvation. They have always been one with God, and it is into this unity that they passionately pray we might find our rest and home at last.
Their knowledge and love of God moves them into greater service when the Word of God will reverse man’s Fall in the Incarnation. Gabriel the Archangel foretells John Baptist’s birth to Zachariah. (Luke i. 13) He defines Joseph’s role as Foster-father to the Messiah. He calls Mary to become the Mother of the Word made Flesh: Hail thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee…. Fear not,... the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. (St. Luke i. 28, 30, 35) When the child is born, the heavens open with a multitude of the heavenly [angelic] host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (St. Luke ii. 13) Then with Gabriel’s warning the Holy Family flees Herod’s murderous wrath. Much later, after their old friend Lucifer tries and fails to tempt Jesus in the desert, the angels came and ministered unto Him. (St. Matthew iv. 11) And prior to His passion and death, St. Luke tells that when His human nature felt its powerlessness to perform the task that lay ahead, he said, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done… [and] there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him. (St. Luke xxii. 41-43) At the Crucifixion, the angels can do nothing. They are silenced with all creation into wonder and awe at the unimaginable need for this Word made Flesh to die. G.K. Chesterton reminds us that they stand at attention ready to do battle for their Lord, but must look on and learn what Christ’s Love alone must do to bring man home to God.
Seeing Him fallen where thou couldst not follow,
Seeing Him mounted where thou couldst not fly,
Hand on the hilt, thou hast halted all thy legions
Waiting the [It is finished] and the acclaim…
St. Michael and his friends come to learn that the Crucifixion involves warfare beyond their strength which the Son of God alone can fight and win in order to free man from the bad angels and reconcile him to God. They return to active duty revealing the truth of the Resurrection to those who believe. One of them rolled away the stone from the entrance to the tomb, and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for He is risen…. (St. Matthew xxviii. 3-6) With Christ’s Ascension they understand the nature and meaning of the new life Christ died to unleash and discharge, and so they ask, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven. (Acts i. 11) And so the angels will forever thereafter assist Peter, Paul, and all faithful others who long to become the sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father.
The Pseudo-Dionysius, a 6th Century Syrian monk, tells us that St. Michael and All Angels have three functions. They carry purification, illumination, and unification to us. (Hier. Coel. ix. 2, op. cit. Danielou; The Angels and Their Mission) What they bear to us from Jesus is the purification of our bodies, the illumination of our souls, and the Spirit’s new desire for our unity with God. If we pray for their protection and defense, they will surround us, make a safe place for Jesus’ sanctification of our souls, and carry the gifts of His love into our lives. As the first offspring of God, they long without ceasing that we should become their brothers and sisters, as God’s will that is done in the Heaven for them, might be done in like manner on earth in us. And so it is with great thanksgiving that on this day we sing with Edmund Spenser:
…O the exceeding grace
Of highest God, that loves his creatures so,
And all his works with mercy doth embrace,
That blessed Angels, he sends to and fro…
How oft do they, their silver bowers leave,
To come to succour vs, that succour want?
How oft do they with golden pineons, cleave
The flitting skies, like flying Pursuivant,
Against foul fiends to aide us millitant?
They for vs fight, they watch and dewly ward,
And their bright Squadrons round about vs plant,
And all for love, and nothing for reward… (Fairy Queen, ii. viii)
For I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
(St. Matthew ix. 13)
Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Matthew the Apostle. Matthew and his brother St. James, who was another of the Twelve Apostles, were the sons of Alphaeus. They came from Galilee, which was home to Jesus during most of His adult ministry and was ruled under Rome by King Herod Antipas, who killed John the Baptist and played a role in the Passion and Crucifixion of Our Lord. St. Matthew was one of those Jews who would have been more hated and despised by his own people than by the foreign Roman occupiers since his livelihood was made by collecting taxes for Caesar. We have read about Matthew’s conversion in today’s Gospel, and following the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension, as he went out to evangelize the nations, he also wrote down his memory of it all in the first Synoptic Gospel, which bears his name. Some say that he died a martyr in Ethiopia, others say it was in Persia, and still others say he died a natural death. But for our purposes it doesn’t really matter whether his life ended naturally or by the enemy’s sword. He died having lived a life moved and defined by the life of Jesus Christ which leapt from his heart into the lives of others.
Tax Collectors in Roman-occupied Palestine were considered to be the worst of sinners. It was not only that they committed sinful acts against themselves and others as the normal way of sin ran its course. And it was not only that they made a false god out of money, becoming hoarders or spendthrifts as greedy men do. Rather, they collected Jewish monies for the purposes of Caesar’s pagan Roman domination of Israel. And more than this, the publicans were known to be thieves since it was their custom to overtax their Jewish brethren in order to make a personal profit. We know that they were in the habit of doing this since St. Luke tells us that when the tax collectors went to John the Baptist to receive the Baptism of Repentance, he warned them to exact no more than that which was appointed them. (St. Luke iii. 13) So they were despised and abhorred, exiled and alienated from the Jewish community, and thus found friends only in the company of other sinners.
And so it is all the more remarkable that the Gospel tells us that, more often than not, it was into these communities of the despised, rejected, confused, and compromised that Jesus traveled to make new friends. The Jewish religious establishment of the day was, of course, scandalized. Why wouldn’t it be? Men who think that religion is all about personal sacrifice, good works, pious practices, and clean, moral living tend to look down upon those who don’t live up to their standard. If true religion is the prized possession of those who think that they have made themselves righteous and proved themselves holy, then, by all means, they do well to avoid notorious livers whose association might blemish their good reputations. And so, in today’s Gospel Jesus, having called St. Matthew, and proceeding to break bread with him and his friends, is accosted by the Pharisees. His Apostles are asked, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? (St. Matthew ix. 11)
Before we find the answer, we must examine the nature of those lives that Jesus’ love dared to invade. St. Matthew, his publican friends, and the other sinners had found no hope for conversion and transformation in looking at the religious men of their day. What they saw was a judgment that offered no mercy. What they sensed was a law that offered no love. What they perceived was a condemnation that smothered all hope. Their present state elicited neither compassion, nor pity, nor kindness. Not one man cared enough to ask about their past, how painful it was, and how it might have formed and molded the lives they lived. The external and visible world of Jewish piety condemned them to a ghetto of despair and dejection. And so they lived in a community of misery.
Now, to be sure, publicans, in particular, benefited financially from their complicity with the Roman Government and their robbery of the Jewish people. They had all the money in the world. But their earthly riches could never have compensated for the loss of identification and unity with their people. The publicans were useful tools for the Roman political and financial machine, but they were neither citizens nor kin to their foreign overlords. They were by birth Jewish and so destined to inherit the promises of God, and yet their occupation ostracized them from the worship and fellowship of the Temple. So what they had was the love of money, which, as we all know, is the root of all evil. (1 Tim. vi. 10) The more one has of it, the less happy he is likely to become. The problem with it is that its value or worth comes and goes like the southwest wind, and all that it can promise is a return or profit that arrives and departs with equal probability. Its promise of happiness is so uncertain that the maddening anxiety that its possession engenders should really encourage its immediate release. And yet more often than not the man in this state falls rapidly into its total possession and control. We do well to remember that the words miser and misery go hand in hand. And yet as Bertrand Russell once remarked, Extreme hopes are born from extreme misery.
And so it is into this world of extreme misery that Christ’s love comes, for Christ Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners into repentance. (St. Luke v. 32) St. Matthew doesn’t tell us about the life he used to lead, or that he was purified, washed, cleansed, and made good like the Pharisees. Matthew wasn’t good at all, and he wants us to know that it is because Jesus finds him in it that he is then called out of it. And as Jesus passed forth from thence, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him. (Ibid, 9) St. John Chrysostom tells us that St. Matthew disguises not his former life, but adds even his name. (Hom. xxx) St. Matthew is not presenting a type of sin that Jesus comes to eradicate. Jesus comes to catch out a true-to-life sinner in the act of his sinning! And if Jesus can catch out a self-acknowledged, money-grubbing sinner named Matthew in the evil of sinning itself, he wants us to know that there is hope for us too!
Chrysostom reminds us that Jesus calls him while he was sitting at the receipt of custom - to show the power that can, in the midst of evil living, lift a man out of it. (Idem) Jesus doesn’t come to bless and consecrate righteous living into His service. Men are not meant to make themselves presentable or tastefully tarted-up for the visitation of the Lord. He wishes rather to come into our misery, pain, sadness, sickness, ugliness, and sin in order that we might feel more powerfully His love that desires to conquer it all. For it is only in knowing, acknowledging, claiming, confessing, and revealing our true sinful state in the face of Christ’s longing gaze and merciful eye that we can then be startled and stunned into such need and desire for Him that when He says, Follow me, we cannot help but arise, forsake all, and follow. (Ibid, 9)
The Pharisees ask, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? (Ibid, 11) And Jesus answers, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Ibid, 12, 13) Jesus desires mercy and not sacrifice, and what He means is that He desires to give God’s merciful and all-powerful healing to those who most need it. Those who most need it are those who know themselves to be most spiritually maimed, alienated, exiled, confused, frightened, hurt, wounded, sick, and lost. This self-knowledge alone forsakes all and follows Jesus, because such misery longs most deeply for the all-powerful mercy that can love it out of its sinning.
My friends, today we are called to be arrested and called by the desire of Jesus out of our sinning and into His loving. George Herbert describes the call of love to one sinning like this:
Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.
'A guest,' I answer'd, 'worthy to be here:'
Love said, 'You shall be he.'
'I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.'
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
'Who made the eyes but I?'
'Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.'
'And know you not,' says Love, 'Who bore the blame?'
'My dear, then I will serve.'
'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.'
So I did sit and eat.
St. Matthew was arrested by that love that shined into his sin and longingly called him from the receipt of custom and into the new life that leads back to God. In Jesus Christ, St. Matthew perceived a love that seized and embraced his soul. St. Augustine describes such love like this: What does [this] love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like. This is the love that captured the heart of St. Matthew the publican and sinner. This is the love whose worth and value made the coinage of his custom house but dust and dung. This love is made for men who are so sick of their sin that they jump to the call of love’s offer of new life. This is the love that calls forth its own potential capacity and nature from the hearts of those who once knew only hate. And this is the love with which St. Matthew then responds when he opens his house to Jesus and all others. And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in [his] house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. (Ibid, 10) … So [they] did sit and eat. Amen.
But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him
be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve.
(St. Luke xxii. 26)
When it falls upon the preacher to produce some useful exhortation on the Feast Day of one of the twelve Apostles, the task is not always easy. Of course, with some of them, about whom we know more rather than less, the problem is that he is inclined to say too much. Such would be the case with Saints Peter, Paul, John, or even Judas Iscariot – though he doesn’t have a Feast Day, and with good reason. But with others the problem is not that he is inclined to say too little, but that he cannot say very much since we know next to nothing about them!
And it is into this category that today’s Saint Bartholomew falls. He is mentioned in the Gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but only as coupled with Philip in the list of the twelve Apostles. He is not mentioned in the Gospel according to St. John as Bartholomew, but is there named Nathaniel – this probably being his second name, and is there also coupled with Philip. And if our Bartholomew is indeed the same man as Nathaniel, then we learn a bit more about him from St. John. We know that Philip, who came from Bethsaida, the hometown of Peter and Andrew, was found by Jesus, who said unto him ‘Follow me’. We then read this:
Philip findeth Nathaniel, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see. Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! Nathanael saith unto him, Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee. Nathanael answered and saith unto him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel. Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these. (St. John i. 45-50)
So if Saint Bartholomew is Nathaniel, we can infer that he was from Bethsaida and that he was a skeptic who judged men according to where they came from. So he set himself up for his own come-uppance when Jesus reveals that he knew exactly where he came from – from under a fig tree in a state of laziness and indolence! And so he is converted by the Divine knowledge that Jesus uses in this instance, but with this admonition: Thou shalt see greater things than these. (Idem) What Jesus means to teach Nathaniel, or Bartholomew, is that it is not where a man is from geographically and physically that matters, but rather where a man is relation to the Himself that will matter. In fact, Bartholomew will learn later that this Jesus, who always knows where everyone is, will come to him if he remains faithful. If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. (St. John xiv. 23) And also, I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. (Ibid, 3)The point he will learn is that where Jesus has come from, is from the Father. And where He intends to lead all men is back to the same Father. Man has come from God and is made to return to God. And so the location that will matter most for Bartholomew in the end will be that inner and spiritual place of union with God the Father, where Jesus Christ comes alive in man’s soul through the Holy Spirit and leads him home to Heaven.
And so with this in mind, I think we will be in a better position to understand why it is not really all that important where the Apostles ended up geographically. They were called, sent, and went whithersoever the Lord guided and directed them. And so how fitting it is that Saint Bartholomew, who formerly judged all others by the historical reputation of particular towns, cities, even empires that spawned them, ends up disappearing from the pages of Scripture after a final mention of him at the Ascension in The Acts of the Apostles. Then for some time it seemed that he was no-where to be found. Saints Eusebius and Jerome catch up with him in the 4th Century, and from them we learn that he had been in heathen and Gentile lands as far removed from one another as India and Armenia. It turns out that the man who cynically doubted whether any good thing could come out of Galilee, came to believe that every good thing could come out of any place so long as Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, was being planted, cultivated, and grown in the hearts of men. What ended up happening was that Bartholomew’s prejudices and bigotries were overcome by God our Saviour; who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth, (1 Tim. ii. 3) no matter where he found them!
So the Church has always believed that Saint Bartholomew is not to be counted as unimportant or ineffectual because we do not have all the when’s and where’s of his biography. What matters is that he became a true Apostle of Jesus Christ, living in and through his Master, having matured beyond arguments over which of them should be accounted the greatest (St. Luke xxii. 24) as we heard in this morning’s Gospel. For here we learn that at one time he and his fellow Apostles had been posturing and competing to see who would succeed Jesus, like the kings of the Gentiles who exercise lordship over their servants. (Ibid, 25) In all cultures and places the custom has ever been not only where and when, but who should rule over others. But Jesus asks them, who is greater, he that sits at meat, or he who serves? And then he answers it by saying, I am among you as He who serves. (Ibid, 27) And, as we know, what He serves up to His Apostles and Disciples, in the long run, is Himself – the food of salvation. In St. John’s Gospel, he reemphasizes the point by washing His disciples feet, and then says, If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. (St. John xiii. 14-16) Again today He says, I appoint unto you a kingdom, as my Father hath appointed unto me; that ye may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Ibid, 29, 30) But none of this will come to pass if Jesus’ Apostles and Disciples do not become the where - those inner places and spaces, where He, His Father, and His Holy Spirit dwell and thus wait on others, serving up to them the food of salvation.
This is precisely what we read about in today’s Epistle lesson. For there we read that following Christ’s Ascension, and in the grip of the Holy Spirit’s Pentecostal power, by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people… Insomuch that they brought forth the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and couches, that at the least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them. There came also a multitude out of the cities round about unto Jerusalem, bringing sick folks, and them which were vexed with unclean spirits: and they were healed every one. (Acts v. 12, 14-16) From different places, and out of different cultures and races, men and women sought ought the Apostles that where they were [spiritually], the people might be also. The where they sought out was the place where Christ was to be found, even in the hearts and souls of His servants, the Apostles. They believed that even the shadow of Peter might heal them, because they believed that Christ was in Peter and Peter in Christ.
So today we remember thankfully the life of one in whom Christ’s Holy Spirit was swaying and guiding, in secret and in company, at all times, in all places, and in all his actions. (Jenks 163)As Christ waited upon and served up the Father’s truth to Bartholomew, He did the same through him to others. And though the bearers and carriers of the Word, like Saint Bartholomew, might end up being lost to the memory of human history, what was most important was that they were always where Jesus was, dwelling in Him, and He in them, as God’s Word was seen and heard, embraced and cherished, grown and passed on. In the end they would be waited upon by Christ in His kingdom, but only after the when and where, the here and now ceased to matter.
So where St. Bartholomew and his fellow Apostles were always was in the spiritual presence of Jesus, as His Love moved them unselfconsciously about this world in pursuit of all lost souls who were seeking salvation. Where they were most significantly was in that spiritual place that could declare with St. Paul, I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me. (Gal. ii. 20) Where they were always was everywhere. They were scattered about the world shining as lights in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, keeping themselves unspotted from the world, and conquering men’s affections with the Love of Jesus alive in their hearts. And so they could have cared less about their earthly whereabouts or their reputations because they were better pleased to do their duty than to hear about it, not seeking glory from men but the honor that comes from God alone, counting themselves worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. (Ibid, 161) For, they were determined to dwell in that place where, as Eliot writes:
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
… In my end is my beginning.
Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season,
if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations:
that the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold
that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise
and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ….
(1 St. Peter i. 6,7)
Many people like to undermine the credibility of the ancient Christian witness because so little is known of those early Christian disciples and martyrs who gave their lives and selves to transmit its truths to posterity. Most clergymen are known to become mildly irritated at one time or another when a Red-Letter Saint’s Day pops up, and they have so very little to tell their flock about the Saint they are celebrating. Inquiring minds question the clergyman: Who were his parents? Where was he born? What did he do before he met Jesus? Was he married? Did he have children? Where did he end up? Was he a martyr? And so forth. And in most cases, with most of the questions, the clergyman must answer: We don’t know. And if he is intelligent enough, he might also add, And we don’t need to know!
Now the Saints whom we celebrate today—Saints Peter and Paul—we do tend to know more about than the other Apostles or even the Mother of our Lord. We don’t know anything about Saint Peter’s wife, except that he had one, and that her mother was once sick and Jesus healed her. And we don’t know about the exact nature of Saint Paul’s thorn in the side, except, again, that he had one, and that it wasn’t his wife, since he didn’t have one of those.
Yet we do know that Saint Peter’s original name was Simon, or Simeon. He was the son of Jonah, had a brother named Andrew, came from the village of Bethsaida, and had some kind of fishing business along with James and John the sons of Alphaeus. Simon was later called Peter, as we read in today’s Gospel. The word in Latin is Petrus, derived from the Greek Πετροσ and related to the Aramaic word for kepa, which became, again in Greek, Κηφασ, all basically meaning rock. So we read of either Simon Peter or Cephas in the New Testament as the rock upon whom Christ Jesus intended to build his Church.
The rest of what we know of Simon Peter can be read in the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles of St. Paul, and St. Peter’s own Epistles. Suffice it to say that St. Peter was an eyewitness of the adult life of Jesus Christ, denied the Lord whom he knew, witnessed His Resurrection, received the Holy Ghost at Pentecost, and then went on to contribute in no small way to the conversion of the nations. Tradition has it that he died a martyr at Rome, crucified upside down by the Emperor Nero between 64 and 67 A.D. He was crucified because, like his Lord, he was not a citizen; he was crucified upside down because he did not deem himself worthy to be hung right-side-up like his Master.
St. Paul, on the other hand, was a late-comer to the Christian religion. By his own admission he had played no small role in the attempt to stamp Christianity out. He was born as Saul around 5 A.D., as a Jewish citizen of the Roman Empire (unlike Peter), in the city of Tarsus on the Mediterranean Sea in modern day Turkey. In all probability Saul studied at the ancient university of Tarsus, renowned for its philosophical instruction. There he would have become familiar with the Greek schools of thought prevalent in the early Roman Empire – Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism. By his own admission, he was circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. (Phil. iii. 5,6)
Saul’s knowledge of the Law and Prophets led him first to persecute the infant Church, and then, while on the road to Damascus to round up and arrest more Christians, he realized the futility of keeping the Law perfectly when he was confronted by Jesus Christ in a vision. Once he began working as a Christian he used his Latin name Paul, since his ministry was mostly to the Gentile pagan world. What we know about him we learn from his companion St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, and then from his thirteen Epistles or Letters. Tradition has it that he too died in Rome, a martyr under the same Emperor Nero, but by beheading, the punishment reserved for citizen traitors.
What is most remarkable about Saints Peter and Paul, and all other Saints who were like them, known to us or known only to God, is this. Far beyond the miracles that they performed, or any details of their personal lives that the Scripture reveals, both Saints Peter and Paul were men who came to embrace the living Christ fully in their hearts after much trial and tribulation. Each of them had, in his own way, denied Jesus Christ. Each of them had to be broken; each had to repent and die to his former self before Christ came alive in him.
In the first instance, we have St. Peter. His zeal and passion for Christ needed to be moderated by faith, hope, and love before he could become a true disciple and shepherd of the embryonic Church. You will remember that in Christ’s darkest hour, Peter denied his Lord not once, but three times. The Peter who should be the rock on which the Church would be built had to be completely broken and ground to powder before converting truly to Christ. When later, Peter exhorts his friends to come to Christ, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God and precious (1 St. Peter ii. 5), he speaks as a man who had at one time disallowed, disowned, dismissed, and denied Jesus Christ. For this precious stone, [now] made the head of the corner, had been to him a stone of stumbling, a rock of offence, because he had stumbled at the Word [of God in Jesus Christ], being disobedient. (Ibid, 8)
Peter, the disciple whom Christ loved, knew only too acutely and piercingly his own sin against Jesus Christ. Peter denied Jesus, and we read that once the cock crowed, he went outside and wept bitterly. (Ibid, 62) Jesus prophesied that Peter would deny him, but He said also, Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers. (St. Luke xxii. 31) So Simon Peter did, as prophesied, indeed turn back to the Lord; he repented, waited, watched, and finally was converted through Christ’s Resurrection and the descent of the Holy Ghost into his soul. Like the woman who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears, Simon [whose] sins which [were] many, [were] forgiven; for [he] loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little. (St. Luke vii. 47)
And the same holds true in the life of St. Paul. Paul sinned grievously against Christ. As a Pharisee he spent no small amount of time, energy, creativity, and zeal hunting down, persecuting, and devising methods of eliminating the followers of Jesus Christ. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that his vengeance and revenge reached such pique that breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, [he] went unto the high priest, and desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this Way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. (Acts ix. 1,2) Saul was hell-bent on destroying Christianity in the name of the Jewish God. And the Jewish God’s Son, Jesus Christ, met him on the road to Damascus, having decided that his zeal and fervor should be put to better use. Paul was thrown down off of his high horse, slain in the Spirit with a Vision of the Ascended Christ, and converted.
Paul’s conversion was doubted for some time by the Jewish-Christian community. The Jewish-Christians, led by Peter, were suspicious and cautious over Paul’s conversion. But Paul, for his part, eventually won them over through the Grace of God working in him. And his effort was successful because he was so cruelly and painfully honest about his own sins against Jesus Christ and His disciples prior to his conversion. With all humility and self-abasement, he fully and completely confessed that he had persecuted the Church of Christ. He said, I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Gal. ii. 20)
What is most remarkable about Saints Peter and Paul, and all of the other true Saints for that matter, is their receiving and passing on of the life of Jesus Christ. Peter would have agreed with Paul’s summary of the new life which they both found in Christ: But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ… for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in Him… that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death; if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. (Phil. iii. 7-11) Both Apostles, Peter and Paul, were always dying to themselves, coming alive to Jesus Christ, and calling and welcoming others into the new Mystical Body that was being made by Him. They knew that this was the only way home to the Heaven of God’s love.
So on this Feast Day of Saints Peter and Paul, let us pray that we may be determined to embrace the death and life of Jesus Christ in our hearts and souls as they did in theirs. Christians don’t worship Saints, not even Saints as venerable and sanctified as Peter and Paul. But they do venerate, honor, praise and thank God for them. Why? Because, as Austin Farrer reminds us, out of them Christ’s dying and rising faith has overflowed into the hearts of others, out and into human history. Through them the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ molded and shaped a new Mystical Body, a communion and fellowship, the Church. Through them, from soul to soul, heart to heart, and mouth to mouth the Real Presence of Jesus Christ’s faith walked into history. Isn’t it high time for us to receive, try, and test this faith once again? St. Peter says that it is of more value that precious gold. And both he and Paul died and lived through Jesus Christ that we might receive this treasure from heaven. Amen.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons