Acts 7:58, 8:1a, 9:4,15; II Corinthians 12:9
Dimensions of an apostle
We are not like the apostle, Paul. Practically everyone here would not be comfortable being called an apostle. Our mind is on mother’s day and the emotions that brings out in us. Yet in today’s lectionary reading the apostle Paul is not an apostle yet. In fact he is the opposite of an apostle. He is a persecutor. This text catches Paul at his lowest moment morally. He is instrumental in the killing of a blameless disciple. What I want to focus on today is the reality of this one person being so different within the text of the Bible. In all fairness, chances are that Saul, as he was called at this point, was very committed to the cause of religious purity. Chances are he didn’t go from being evil to angelic. One thing that is constant about Saul/Paul is that he is always very committed to the principles of his faith. But as we have seen in history committed people can lose their way, they can distorted. Ben Ferencz was a 27 year prosecutor at the Nuremburg trials. He prosecuted not the extermination camp administrators, but the SSrs who killed Jewish men and women in cold blood on the streets of Russia and Ukraine. Ferencz says that a lot of those soldiers did not start out as savages, war made them savages. Ferencz became an anti-war activist and was instrumental in the birth of the world court of justice.
Friends, Saul wasn’t a war criminal, but there was something of the savage in him. But the story takes a positive turn just two chapters later in Acts. Saul finds himself on the Damascus road; he is blinded and he hears Christ speak to him, wondering why Saul is persecuting Him. This is the turning point. Saul becomes Paul who will eventually die in Rome as a persecuted Christian, suffering the fate of his own victims. This is one of the great transformations in human history. But Paul is still Saul and Saul is still Paul. He is still committed and his fervor for one cause becomes the fervor for another. But what is different is his spiritual evolution, how Paul surrenders himself to the grace of God and how he overcomes his ego. Our text in Second Corinthians shows us that Paul. So here we have it, friends, three men in one, Saul who persecutes and condemns, Saul/Paul who converts and Paul who humbles himself.
A few years ago there was a short Spanish film entitled “Aquel no era yo” or “that wasn’t me” about a child soldier in Africa who has to come to terms with his cruel past and learns to speak about it. The film reminds us that people can be shaped to do terrible things under the influence of others they either trust or fear or both. It is the Holy Spirit of Jesus that saves Paul from staying Saul. Paul hints at his own suffering in his letters. He speaks of the thorn in his flesh, some physical ailment it seems, but could it be that the thorn is his past? Fascinating thought.
Friends, we did not persecute or condemn like Paul. We did not have his kind powerful conversion experience. We will never reach the stunning wisdom, humility and willingness to sacrifice Paul has made. But the dimensions of the apostle are also in us, just to letter extent. We have a condemning, judging side; we have a part of us that can change from selfish and mean to compassionate and good, sometimes in the twitching of an eye; we also have a side of faith to us that can cause us to becoming people of humility. Judging, changing, humbling. These are dimensions of us, friends.
The point here is what we can learn. We know that God calls us to become more like that Paul in Corinthians. He is still the same person, he is just a converted and transformed person. He is troubled by all the issues we also struggle with like annoyance and insecurity and the desire to control.
Does the person who condemns and judges in us stay forever? Can we ever completely get rid of that part? Do we backslide into that way of viewing other people? Are we open to change for good once we open our heart to transformation? Or do we slide back into judgmental thinking. Once our faith in God matures and we become more humble, can we sustain that? Or do we go back to inflexibility and arrogance. Perhaps all we can expect is that through prayer and reflection we can shrink the dark and destructive part of us and make the lighter side of us grow. It is a question of reconfiguring ourselves.
Friends, let us look honestly at the condemning and judging part of us, the part of us that is open to change and transformation and the part of us that committed to humility and a reliance and God’s grace. May we become better people. May God give us wisdom.