Conversion of St. Paul.17
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Today we celebrate the namesake of our parish: St. Paul—specifically, his conversion. In his letter to the Galatians he writes: “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.”
Then, Paul tells us, something happened on the road to Damascus which forever changed his understanding. In short, he becomes what he had despised, and even feared. He becomes a true believer in the risen Lord, Jesus Christ. If you bear in mind that Paul was a man possessed of no small amount of pride—you can begin to imagine how very remarkable this conversion was.
Think about it: to become the very thing we despise and hold in contempt is a miserable experience. To realize that what we have hated and persecuted was correct all along—and we were the ones who were wrong, and then to begin to recognize the damage we have caused—well, now this is devastating. For most people, after confronting the shame and confusion—and perhaps a full blown personal crisis—most of us would be more determined than ever to hold close to the breast the truth that God has uncovered for us—never letting it see the light of day.
Paul, however, doesn’t seem to be overly afflicted with either shame, confusion or devastation. In his eyes, he was a righteous Jew—doing what righteous Jews were supposed to do—following the law as outlined in the Torah to the letter. Then, his eyes were opened, and he became an equally, if not more ardent follower of Christ. Yet, there is a fundamental difference. And here it is: From a man devoted to violent persecution he became equally devoted to indiscriminate love—Jew or Gentile—in Paul’s mind, it mattered not, God’s grace is sufficient for both.
This brings me to what I consider to be Paul’s greatest gift to our Christian faith, his theology of grace; and let me tell you; in a word, it is brilliant. In his letter to the Galatians Paul expounds on his understanding of the meaning of God’s grace. A theological definition tells us that grace is nothing more than the unmerited favor of God. That’s a mouthful—but what it comes down to is this. Grace cannot be earned—it can only be given. Think of grace as a gift. In Galatia, the problem came down to this: The Galatians had begun to accept the teaching that Christians needed to be circumcised. In other words, followers of Jesus needed to adhere to some of the Jewish customs in order to be considered good Christians. Paul says, in a word, “balderdash”. You’ve got it wrong. Grace isn’t about anything you’ve done—it’s all about what God’s done. In other words, Paul stands on its head the prevailing way most people, including ourselves, view the world.
Think about it. Most every institution (sadly, even the church at times) seems to run on ungrace—and its insistence that we earn our way. Justice departments, airline frequent-flyer programs, SATs and mortgage companies—these institutions cannot operate by grace. Government hardly knows the word. A sports franchise rewards those who complete passes, throw strikes, or make baskets, and has no place for those who fail. Fortune magazine annually lists the five hundred richest people; no one knows the names of the five hundred poorest. (Philip Yancy What’s So Amazing About Grace pp. 56-57)
Other societies have refined the art of ungrace through other means. A while back the New York Times ran a series on crime in modern Japan. Why is it, they asked, that for every 100,000 citizens the United States imprisons 519 whereas Japan only imprisons 37? Before you decide this is where you want to live, consider this: In search of answers, the Times reporter interviewed a Japanese man who had just served a sentence for murder. In the fifteen years he spent in prison, he did not receive a single visitor. After his release, his wife and son met with him, only to tell him never to return to their village. His three daughters, now married, refuse to see him. “I have four grandchildren, I think,” the man said sadly; he has never even seen pictures of them. Japanese society has found a way to harness the power of ungrace. A culture that values “saving face” has no room for those who bring disgrace.” (Philip Yancy What’s So Amazing About Grace p 37) It’ also worth noting that the overall suicide rate in Japan is 60% higher than the global average. That is ungrace at work. However, I don’t want to appear to be picking on Japan. I should point out that Japan doesn’t rank first in place for numbers of suicides. That tragic spot is reserved for Shri Lanka, South Korea, China and Russia, all of whom outrank Japan in numbers of suicides per year. (WorldAtlas.com)
Paul’s message was as radical for his own day as it is in ours. What he says is this: Grace has nothing to do with you—who you are, what you have done (or left undone), which side of the tracks you live on, your ancestry, your job (or lack thereof), your education, the clothes you wear, the color of your hair, the whiteness of your teeth, the car you drive, or the current state of your 401K. God could care less. Each of us has been handed a gift. All that matters is whether you reach out to accept it—or not. So, give up the illusion that you are worthy—because you are not, at least, not on your own. None of us are. Or, rather—all of us are—not because of anything we did—but because of what Christ did—for us, on the cross. That gift is salvation. And it means everything. The world—it might have its own rules for how things get judged—but those rules mean nothing in the kingdom of heaven. Nothing at all.
Now ponder this: If you can begin to accept Paul’s version of grace: that God’s love is freely offered—that it is entirely dependent on who God is—not on who we are and what we have done. Perhaps that might free us from the struggle to rise to an impossible ideal. And being freed from that, we might find it easier to judge ourselves less harshly—to be kinder to ourselves. And if we are kinder to ourselves, perhaps this might allow us to be more gentle with our family members and neighbors as well. And, if this is the case, well, then our corner of the kingdom of God will indeed be a more joyful place to reside—one where the fruits of the spirit (which, by the way, Paul talks about in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Galatians) where they have a place to grow. Think of it—our portion of the kingdom of God can be a place where love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control win the day—now, isn’t that worth celebrating. In Jesus’ name. Amen.