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.
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