St. Paul was a pious man: a man who knew his creeds, who said his prayers, a man who believed them: a man of faith.
St. Paul was an educated man: a man who wrote Greek in the morning, read Aramaic in the afternoon, and chanted Hebrew in the evening; a man fluent in the scriptures of his people and familiar with the philosophies of the Gentiles.
St. Paul was a trustworthy man: an ancient day bishop’s man, the kind of person authorities send in to clean up religious messes. He’s the guy you want on your side in any clerical council or theological debate.
And St. Paul was a good man: a man on his way to making a difference in the world. A man who painfully saw the misrecognition and misdirection of his people, and a man who was prepared to do whatever it took to aid God’s mission in the world.
Even if at the time, that mission included killing Christians.
Now none of us would admit to being murders I’m sure, but how many of us feel like we can relate to some other aspects of St. Paul? How many of us consider ourselves pious? How many of us are educated? How many of us would claim to be trustworthy? And how many of us see ourselves as good, as wanting to aid in God’s mission in the world?
Well clearly, St. Paul has some virtues that we can all relate to and celebrate. But we are not here to celebrate St. Paul. We are here to celebrate his conversion. We are not here to celebrate our service in God’s mission. We are here to celebrate the fact, that although we often get God’s mission wrong, God can turn on a light so bright it will knock us to the ground and cause us to reconsider what we thought we knew.
Remember, St. Paul was a very certain man. He was just as certain he was fighting for God before the Road to Damascus, as he was after. His certainty that he was participating in God’s mission never changed, his understanding of what that mission was, did.
In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel argues that human experience is often like this. As finite beings, as a particular and a peculiar people, we are always limited in our perspectives, and plagued by misrecognition. The truths we take to be self-evident and certain today are often overturned tomorrow. In the words of Karl Marx, “All that is solid melts into air and all that is holy is profaned.”
2000 years ago, St. Paul was certain God’s mission involved persecuting Christians.
1600 years ago, St. John Chrysostom was certain God’s mission involved persecuting Jews.
900 years ago, St. Bernard of Clairvaux was certain God’s mission involved preaching a Second Crusade.
550 years ago, the Reformers were certain God’s mission involved torturing Anabaptists.
60 years ago, our church was certain God’s mission involved running residential schools.
In each successive generation, we thought we knew what God’s mission in the world was. Often, we were wrong.
The risk and responsibility involved in exercising our Christian vocations is enormous. It cannot be overstated. Lives are at stake. And at any given moment, our understanding of our Christian identity and the ministries we are exercising might be wrong. There are no guarantees.
So friends, I ask all of us, what is it we are wrong about today? What have we misrecognized, where are we misdirected?When our children and our grandchildren look back upon us tomorrow, what criticisms will they have of us?
Like St. Paul, we might be pious, we might be educated, we might be trustworthy, and we might be good, but that doesn’t mean that we are right! Jesus himself warns us, trying to live a Christian life will never bring security: things are going to get messy. “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.”
This is why we celebrate the conversion of St. Paul: because St. Paul’s conversion gives us hope for our own conversions. For if a man as certain as St. Paul can be knocked off his high horse, can be forced to confront his misrecognitions, can be called to conversion, then the same must also be true of us.
Particularly and universally, individually and socially, personally and ecclesiastically, our conversion is always a possibility and it is never a final act.
So let us be attentive to those places in our faith and in our ministries that we take up with certainty. Let us as creedal Anglo-Catholics and Spirit filled evangelicals, as Christian socialists and free-market ministers, as Christian imperialists and post-Christendom privateers, let us all prepare ourselves to be knocked off our high horses with St. Paul on the Road to Damascus: let us prepare for an encounter with Christ.
Jeffrey Metcalfe is an ordinand in the Diocese of Quebec, and is presently pursuing a master of divinity degree at Trinity College, Toronto. He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.