Let the Scriptures Speak
Persecutor Turned Promoter
[The church] was being built up and walked
in the fear of the Lord,
and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit
it grew in numbers.(Acts 9:31)
Democrat or Republican, Labor or Likud, Call to Action or Catholics United for the Faith—one need only name some of the groups that shape the contours of the social life of this world, and emotions begin to stir. We get a sense of who we are and what we are about from the groups to which we belong. That helps us appreciate a paradox of Jesus' life: although his own action and teaching reached beyond all subgroup solidarities and the consequent divisions—whether Pharisee versus Sadducee, clean versus unclean, Jew versus Samaritan, rich versus poor—that very inclusive way of being and acting provoked division among all that he met.
No one experienced this paradox more deeply than Saul of Tarsus. Put yourself in his sandals. You are a Pharisee, one whose whole purpose in life is to study and teach the Word of God as mediated by the Law of Moses. Your joy is to help the people of God live the Torah in their daily lives. You are a tolerant person at home in a society with a variety of ways of being Jewish—Sadducee, Pharisee, Essene—to name just a few. Into this mix comes a group of Jews who call themselves people of “the Way.” They claim that a craftsman from Nazareth, one Jesus, recently executed by the Romans, is the long-awaited Anointed One. What is more, they claim that this Jesus has already entered the end-time experience of being raised from the dead. Even more startling, these upstart “Jews for Jesus” have made the Galilean into a replacement of the Torah itself. They proclaim that his resurrection from the dead certifies him as the ultimate Word of God to God's people, the capstone of revelation. That makes his teaching tantamount to a new Torah. In effect, this Jewish Christian movement is challenging the centerpiece of Judaism.
It is not hard to understand why Paul, a professional teacher of the Law, felt it necessary to stamp out this new movement (much as Senator Joseph McCarthy felt obliged to root out what he suspected to be the incipient virus of Communism in the United States during the 1950s). Then comes the event that turned this good zealot around entirely. Armed with search warrants from the Jerusalem authorities, he is on his way to Damascus to arrest some of these dangerous “Jesus freaks” who have begun to spread this aberration in that urban center to the north. On the road, he has the famous vision: a theophany of light out of which a voice says, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” For the Pharisee Saul of Tarsus, this is the Big Bang that contains, in germ, the insight that will drive the rest of his life and work. Jesus of Nazareth is alive, not simply resuscitated but glorified; he is indeed the fullness of God's revelation, what the Law and the Prophets have been pointing to all along. In addition, the group Saul has been persecuting is intimately identified with this risen Jesus, whom they confidently call by the divine name Lord.
In a matter of days, this arch-persecutor of the young Church becomes one of its star promoters—a startling phenomenon, which brings about the situation described in this Sunday's First Reading, where the Jerusalem disciples require some vigorous convincing before they can accept Saul as a fellow Christian.
Saul’s embrace of the Christian faith will plunge him into the paradox of Jesus’ own life and work. His sense of the Christian mission is that the Church is to embody Israel's vocation to be a light to the nations. His urgent sense that this “new creation” is meant to grow beyond the boundaries of the people of Israel will provoke division, even as he works for unity.
We are Saul/Paul’s heirs and debtors. In his letters, this ex-Pharisee became the theologian of Christian solidarity. The unity that Jesus described in terms of vine and branches, Paul developed with the images of Temple and body. The Church of the risen Lord Jesus is a body meant to be a sign of God's love. The love that its members show one another is to empower that body to serve the rest of the world. Since that way of being counters the way most of this world is run, resistance and division are inevitable. The life of the body of Christ stands for an attitude—toward the poor, the unborn, the aging, the marginal, the use of the earth's gifts for the good of all—that is rejected by many if not most. Paul demonstrated in his life and work that the Easter paradox of Jesus (the rejected stone becomes the capstone) is still the touchstone of the Church's solidarity today.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
**From Saint Louis University