Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) – January 30, 2022
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19; Psalm 71:1-6, 15-17; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13; Luke 4:21-30
The Conversion of St. Paul
Do we know what a perspective sculpture is? Anyone? It’s one of these sculptures where if you look at it from a certain angle it just looks like a bunch of junk, but then if you shift around it and you look at it from another angle (just the right angle) you can see what it actually is.
The classic one is it just looks like a bunch of pipes, but then if you like at it from the profile and all the pieces line up, it’s a bicycle.
Or I’ve seen one where it’s just a bunch of sticks in the ground (and it looks like a bunch of sticks in the ground) but if you go to a certain angle you see Nelson Mandela’s face.
And so again, if you go to a certain angle of it, all of a sudden it makes sense. And even though you have all of the same pieces as you had before—at one angle it looks like garbage—but if you go to a certain angle it all makes sense, and you see it, and you’re like, “Oh, that’s actually really cool!”
This past week on January 25th, we celebrated an important day for our parish: the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, the day Paul got knocked to the ground on the road to Damascus, encountered Jesus Christ on the road, and everything changed! Everything changed.
Paul’s conversion though is very much like a perspective sculpture: Paul had all of the pieces. Paul was one of the most intelligent men in the history of the world, he knew scripture better than almost anyone, he knew all about the promises God had made about coming to set things right, about God’s Messiah, about the new Kingdom of God that was going to be established by the Messiah—he knew all of it! Which means that Paul also knew how unfaithful the people of Israel are, how they tend to start worshiping false gods and that they have followed more than one false messiah in recent memory. And so when Paul hears about these Christians following this new “Way” and their supposed “Messiah,” some Jesus from Nazareth who ended up dead and now they were claiming he was alive—when Paul heard all of this he thinks, “Oh no, more people gone astray.” And, famously, we know that he goes and begins to persecute them. And he doesn’t do it because of some weird Jewish nationalism or something, but because he wants to call them back to the worship of the one true God. He knows the people are no good at being faithful, so he wants to call them back to fidelity and loyalty to the one true God. And even when he hears the preaching and teaching of Stephen, he is still not convinced. He consents to the martyrdom of Stephen.
So what happens? Well, Paul is on his way to Damascus to persecute some more Christians and it is on that road that he encounters the risen Lord. And it seems ridiculous…but from that one encounter, Paul’s entire life, his entire perspective, everything changes. This encounter “shifts him around the sculpture” (so to speak) and *bam*—he sees it, and his entire life changes. This encounter gives Paul’s life a new horizon and a decisive direction (c.f., Benedict XVI Deus Caritas Est). Everything in his life changes. And he spends the rest of his life risking his life to announce this good news. He spends the rest of his life being persecuted and imprisoned and beaten and eventually martyred to announce what had happened to him, and what was being offered to all. Paul spends the rest of his life on this trajectory. And in this, Paul finds a new life, a life he could never have provided for himself. Famously he says, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
For Paul, all of the ideas, and the “trivia,” all the content of Christianity was there! But it took an encounter with a fact, with the person who had given his life for him, to rescue him, to liberate him—it took this encounter to change everything.
The example I love to give is how little kids think it’s so gross when they see their parents kiss, or people kiss in a movie. And then you tell your little kid how one day they will fall in love and want to kiss someone. And they are like, “Gross! Never!!” And even in seventh and eighth grade, they’re like, “Girls are gross!” Until that one cute girl in their class looks at them, then all of a sudden, everything changes, everything makes sense.
That’s Saint Paul! What St. Paul’s conversion shows is that faith is not an idea, or a belief system, or a political structure we agree with or accept, no. Faith is “a love to which we adhere, a presence to follow more and more with all ourselves” (Giussani).
1 Corinthians: The Great Insight
In this very famous, tried and true second reading at a wedding—here in St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he’s not talking about marriage (sorry, I know, I’m a kill-joy). Paul is talking about how so often we—as followers of Jesus—are missing one thing. We know that as a Christian we are different, that we are called to be in the world but not part of the world, called to give a prophetic witness, to speak out, to be a light to the nations.
Some of us are supposed to “speak in human and angelic tongues”—we are called to preach, to teach the faith, to share the truths our faith teaches us. Some of us “have the gift of prophecy, and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge”—we can keenly see the world as God sees the world. Some of us “have all faith so as to move mountains”—we are fiercely loyal to Christ and His Church, we have entrusted our entire lives to Him! Some of us “give away everything [we] own”—we are extremely generous with our time and our talent and our treasure, we are a “good person.” Wonderful!
But Paul will tell us: if that’s all you got…you’re still missing the point.
Adherence to a Love, not Ideology, Comes First
So often, when it comes to our faith, we begin from an ideological standpoint. We have been taught what is right and wrong, we know what God teaches us, we know how we’re supposed to behave—all of it! Especially as kids. And then as we get older, “taking on the faith” is compared to taking on a belief system: “This is what I agree with. This is what I am going to do. This is what I know is right.” And fair enough. Again, the Catholic Church has the “right” answers.
But go back to St. Paul. What changed his life wasn’t the Church’s teaching—he listened to Stephen preach (a very convincing preacher, by the way) and was not impressed. It was not until he encountered Jesus Christ himself, until there was a presence in front of him that loved him, that loved him past his flaws, that loved him to his destiny…this is when things changed.
What comes first? An encounter with someone that loves you.
“Why are you always learning so much about her and talking about her?” Because I love her. “Why do you plan your life around her? Why do you always put her first?” Because I love her. “Why won’t you come do this just once? She will never find out.” Because I love her. “Why do you spend so much money on her and buy her flowers?” Because I love her.
Jesus At Nazareth
Why is Jesus almost immediately rejected in his home town of Nazareth? Not because of his claim to be the Messiah, not because of the miracles he has done. He’s rejected because he claimed that his Messianic mission extended to more than just the good little Jews that were following the rules—it extended even to non-Jews, to Gentiles, to all the nations. And when he said something that didn’t square with the ideas the people had, the ideology they had, what happened? They took offense, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph? Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary?” Later on they’ll get upset, “This man is friends with sinners and eats with them.”
Why did the poor and the lame and the sick and the sinners…why did they all flock to Jesus, accept him, follow him? Because no one had ever looked at them that way before; no one had looked at them with such tenderness. They gave their lives to him. When they met this man, everything changed.
It’s this way of love. That’s what was missing. Paul’s great insight? Without love, it’s pointless.
Eucharist: Sacramentum Caritatis
The Eucharist—this sacrament of charity, of love—is the gift that Jesus Christ makes of himself, and thus reveals to us God’s infinite love for each one of us. Here in this Mass, in this Eucharist, we don’t just come to some “rally” to agree upon ideas and morals and what have you. We come to receive…to consume…to adhere to the one who loves us and gave himself for us—continues to gives himself to us!
In the Eucharist we encounter Him—this one who loves us. This is the key we are missing. When we are placed in front of him, kneeling before him, fallen down on our knees in the midst of our journey through life…we encounter Him. And everything changes. Life has a new horizon and a decisive direction. Not because on an idea, but because of a love. And it is to that love we adhere. It is that love that changes our life.