Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Trials of St. Paul

I was in mass this Sunday fairly bored by the sub-par preaching of an ESL priest who tends to think every biblical passage is about Abortion and Spiritual Warfare where the armies of Lucifer are led by - as he says - "Barrack HUSSIEN! obama".

But amidst all the arch-conservatism and superstition I was still able to experience what one theologian called the most "inspired" (pun-intended) part of the service - Sacred Scripture. We read:

"When he (Paul) had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. ...He (Paul) spoke and argued with the Hellenists; but they were attempting to kill him. When the believers learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus." (Acts of the Apostles chapter 9, verses 26, 29, and 30)

The Early Church was not as nice to Paul as we'd imagine. We have to remember what a terrible person Paul was, he was a mass murderer. He did it for religious reasons as well. He'd be the 1st century equivalent to a modern Islamo-Fascist Suicide Bomber, a local head of Al-Queda as it were. That's Paul. And he converts to the religion he has been persecuting (Christianity). Now when he comes to the church to tell them of his "decision for Christ" (to use 20th century language), where do they sent him? Tarsus. Saul of Tarsus was his Jewish name. He was from Tarsus, his friends and family would probably be there. He was the prodigy, rabbi, boy-wonder. He had been educated as a "hebrew of the hebrews", and sat at the foot of Gamaliel, one of the most famous Rabbis of the century, and was known as a zealous Jew, because of his persecution of the Christians.

So only after they see Paul arguing with one group of Jews that starts planning to kill him, did they send him away (apparently they recognized the signs of conspiracy to commit murder now, after it already happened to Jesus). So where do they send him? Where's the next worst place in the world? Tarsus. Home. His old Stomping grounds. This was Paul's great tour of duty for the church, 'out of the frying pan into the fire' to quote Tolkien.

As a convert myself, I wonder what it would've been like for Paul to face his parents (if they were still alive), and to tell them about his change of heart and mind. To hear his father say "I have no son" as his mother cried and his brothers and sisters were too hurt to say anything at all. To be barred from his home synagogue. For him to walk down the familiar streets, meeting old friends who would ask how his Rabbinic ministry was going and how many heretics he'd killed, only to begin the embarrassing story about how he was now serving the church he persecuted. Instead of lofty appointments, he would be telling them about how he was beaten, and attacked, and hated. I think of the scene from Jaws where all the men are on the boat showing off their scars from various shark attacks, etc, and think that if Paul was there, he would've been able to beat Captain Quint. Paul would now have jail appointments rather than clerical appointments, and Paul describes his life very accurately when he says:

"whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him...I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead." (Philippians 3)

So the next time you are ridiculed for your faith, just remember the story of St. Paul the first great theologian and preacher of the Church, and remember "they sent him off to Tarsus", maybe you too are being called to speak the truth in love where you least want to.

I was reading a collection of the writings of Pope Benedict XVI and he quotes Augustine at length on the issue of martyrdom in the early church:

"the blessed apostles, saw the Lord Jesus himself hanging on the cross; they grieved at his death, were astounded at his resurrection, loved him in his power, and shed their own blood for what they had seen. Just think, brothers and sisters, what it meant for men to be sent throughout the wide world, to preach that a dead man had risen again and ascended into heaven; and for preaching this to suffer everything a raving, raging world could inflict: loss of goods, exile, chains, tortures, flames, wild beasts, crosses, painful deaths. All this for heaven knows what! I mean, really, my brothers and sisters, was Peter dying for his own glory, or proclaiming himself? One man was dying that another might be honored, one being slain that another might be worshiped. Would he have done this, if he hadn't been on fire with love, and utterly convinced of the truth?" - St. Augustine, from sermon 311, 2, "Preaching that a dead man had risen!"

St. Paul the Apostle, pray for us that we too might find the righteousness that comes not from the law, but Jesus Christ, that our hearts would burn as yours did and that we would gladly suffer the loss of all things for the Kingdom of Heaven. Paul our brother in the Lord, pray that even in our shaking faith, we would be able to do small things with great love, all to the Greater Glory of God, Amen.

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