Meeting St. Paul Again for the First Time

by | Jan 22, 2017

After he was in prison for some time, Paul was permitted to state his case before King Agrippa. Paul said to the king, ‘Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities. ‘With this in mind, I was travelling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.” I asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord answered, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you.I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”  ‘After that, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout the countryside of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance. For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me.
Acts 26:9-21

For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me.
Galatians 1:11-23

Good morning. I am Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, and it’s a privilege to worship God with you, the members of St. Paul’s, K Street and all guests and visitors today. I hold your rector, Richard Wall, the associate clergy and lay leaders of St. Paul’s in high esteem, and I give thanks to God for your collective witness and ministry.

Each week I worship in one of the 88 congregations in the Diocese of Washington, which allows me to experience the depth and breadth of the Episcopal Church throughout Washington, D.C. and four Maryland counties, and across that diversity to discern common themes–where we are strong, as Episcopalians, where we struggle, and where each congregation’s distinct call to follow Christ might fit into a larger witness.

And in each place I seek to bring a word of encouragement, to do what I can to support you and your leaders, and to commend each person–each one of you here today–in your personal life of faith.  

There are many claims on all of our lives, many demands on our time and energy. I urge you to take a bit of time each day to pray, reflect on Scripture or other sources of inspiration, and to seek Jesus’ guidance for your life. God’s love for us is strong and true, and God’s grace is real. But we need to do our part.

Spiritual practices are those things we do that help us become the kind of people who can hear God’s voice, feel the presence of Christ, and be open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Our practices are what we can do to help narrow the gap between the person that we are and the person God calls us to become. Or, in the words of Brian McLaren, “spiritual practices are about surviving our twenties, forties, or eighties and not becoming a jerk in the process. About not letting what happens to us deform or destroy us. About realizing that what we earn or accumulate means nothing compared to what we become and who we are.” And like most things that take time to cultivate, the fruits of our practices may not be evident to us until we need them most. And if we haven’t cultivated them in small ways over time, it’s hard to play catch up.

We’ve come to the end of what was one of the more challenging and fascinating weeks to be a resident of Washington, D.C. and her surrounding communities. There’s a lot of energy swirling around and, indeed, within us. You may be aware of the controversy surrounding decisions the Cathedral dean and I made regarding participation in inaugural events and the prayer service at the Cathedral yesterday, and also around the decision of one of your sister congregations, St. John’s, Lafayette Square to host a private prayer service for the president, vice president, and their families. There was strong criticism when the identity of the preacher for that service became public, because his is the kind of Christian witness the vast majority of Episcopalians, including me and all the people at St. John’s, do not espouse.

I don’t want to say more about these things here, although I am certainly open to further conversation. I simply want to express my gratitude to you, because in midst of all that I needed to deal with and think about in the past week, you gave another task. As your preacher on the Feast Day of the Conversion of St. Paul, I needed to spend time thinking about your patron saint, and in particular, his conversion that changed the course of his life and arguably, the world.

I confess I’ve had a hard time focusing on much of anything this week, but knowing I would be here today, I picked up a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time: St. Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate, by the brilliant world religions scholar Karen Armstrong. It was exactly what I needed to read, and I cannot commend it to you highly enough. You will never think of your patron saint in the same way again, and his life story, as told by her, will be a source of great inspiration.

Armstrong reminds us that Paul enters the Christian story about two years after Jesus’s death. Paul himself would proudly insist on his impeccable Jewish ancestry, his education–which locates him among the highest social strata of his time– and that he had been a particularly zealous Pharisee.

Though Paul played a passive role in the stoning of Stephen, he then went on the offensive against certain followers of Jesus. In his zeal, he entered house after house, seizing men and women and sending them to prison. He did not shrink from brute force. Some of his victims may have been condemned to thirty-nine lashes in the synagogue; others may have been beaten up or even killed.  

In his own mind, Paul was been doing his best to hasten the coming of the Messiah. But then, as Armstrong writes, “in an overwhelming moment of truth, he realized that Jesus’s followers were right. . . As if this were not enough, his violence had broken the fundamental principles of the Torah: love of God and love of neighbor. In his excessive ardor for the law’s integrity, he had forgotten God’s stern command: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Paul would spend the rest of his life working out the implications of an insight that was at once devastating—because it snatched Paul away from everything that had previously given meaning to his life—but also profoundly liberating.”

On the road to Damascus, Paul had a vision. It was as if scales had been removed from his eyes and he had an entirely new insight into the nature of God. “For Paul the Pharisee,” Armstrong writes, “God was utterly pure and free of all contamination. . . But when Paul saw that God had embraced Jesus’ filthy, degraded body and raised it to the highest place in Heaven, he realized that in fact God had an entirely different set of values.”

Think for a moment of the magnitude of that experience. Paul had to lay aside what he had previously believed to be sacred truth in light of a spiritual encounter that revealed to him a deeper truth. Jesus himself appeared to Paul, asking that haunting question, “Why do you persecute me?” Can you think of such a time in your life–when in light of a new experience or insight, you had to lay aside what you once believed with all your heart? It is very hard to do.  

I’m reminded of a story Anthony de Mello tells of a monk who died and was buried by his fellow monks, in the tradition of their monastery, in a crypt on the back wall of their chapel. After the funeral service, they heard noises from the other side of the wall. They re-opened the crypt, and the monk who died rose from the coffin and told them of his experience beyond the grave, which contradicted everything their tradition taught about life after death. So, they put him back in the wall.

Paul, in contrast, chose to follow the revelation given to him, at great personal cost. That’s a part of his story too easy for us to overlook–how much encountering Christ cost him.

We don’t know much about the first years after Paul’s encounter with Christ.  He tells us that he left Damascus and went to Arabia for three years. No doubt he spent a lot of time thinking and praying and talking with people. He tells us that he worked, of all things, as a tentmaker, which Armstrong suggests, was a complete reversal of lifestyle for Paul.

“Unlike many of Jesus’s disciples, Paul had been born into the social elite and was able to devote his life to study, a luxury that was possible only for the leisured classes. . . But by deliberately abandoning this lifestyle and living in solidarity with common laborers, Paul was practicing a daily kenosis or “self-emptying,” similar to Jesus’s when he ‘emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave.’ Indeed, Paul said that by taking up this menial occupation, he had in fact enslaved himself. It was a hard life. Paul said that he and his fellow workers were often ‘overworked and sleepless,’ and went ‘hungry, thirsty, and in rags, wearing ourselves out by earning a living by our own hands;’ and ‘treated as the scum of the earth, as the dregs of humanity.’”

Armstrong points out few of the apostles supported themselves in this way, and some of Paul’s opponents believed that by identifying with the lower echelons of society, he brought the gospel into disrepute.

“But after Damascus, Paul wanted to transcend such distinctions.”

Armstrong goes on to tell the rest of Paul’s life story, which does not get any easier. It’s astonishing to realize, given all that he accomplished, how nearly his entire ministry was defined by struggle, conflict with other Jesus followers, hardship, and persecution. In fact, according to Armstrong, the most devastating breaks in relationship for Paul came within the Christian fellowship itself.

Last night I read the seven “undisputed” letters of St. Paul, those for which there is no controversy of authorship, in chronological order. It took me about an hour. And I was reminded of when I first started seriously reading the Bible, in seminary, nearly 30 years ago. St. Paul was, as Armstrong’s title states, the Christian writer we all loved to hate. We didn’t like his views on women in leadership, human sexuality, and slavery. I will leave the debate about those texts and their authorship alone for now, although Armstrong covers them in depth.

What I want to do in the time I have left is read to you some of Paul’s most inspiring and uplifting words, words that he wrote, astonishingly, when he was living in extreme hardship. They are some of the words that touch my heart and inspire my faith, and I pray will do the same for you:

From his letter to the churches in Galatia:

There is no longer Jew or Greek there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
Galatians 3: 28-29

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Galatians 5:1

From his first letter to the churches in Corinth:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. . . If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? . . If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.
I Corinthians 12

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,* but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. . . For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
I Corinthians 13

From his letter to the Philippians:

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
Philippians 1:3-6

From his second letter to the Corinthians:

Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart…For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.  
2 Corinthians 4:4-9

From his letter to the church in Rome:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12 

May God bless you, members of St. Paul’s, K Street, as you strive to be faithful to Christ’s call under the mantle of your patron saint. I urge you to spend some time getting to know him better. Allow his inspiration and his example to inspire you and give you hope. If we all lived our lives with a fraction of the passion and faith with which he lived his, the world would be a better place. For as Paul himself would remind us, God’s Spirit working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask for or imagine.