Trinity, Iowa City — 7:45 am
RCL: 1 Kings 17:8-24 Ps 146 Gal 1:11-24 Luke 7:11-17
(c) 2007 William S. J. Moorhead
He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.
One of the things about St Paul which emerges both in St Luke’s tracing of his missionary work in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, and in the letters which Paul himself wrote as he went about that work, is Paul’s constant awareness that he had once been a persecutor of the Church of God. Paul was not some nobody who somehow rose to prominence in this new Christian movement. Paul (or Saul, to use the Hebrew name by which he was known in the land of Israel) was a brilliant young scholar, a person of note in religious and academic circles in Jerusalem, a rising star destined to take a place among the powerful in the religious establishment of Judaea. In his detestation of this new sect, this cult, that had the unimaginably blasphemous effrontery to claim that a crucified Galilean carpenter was God’s Messiah, Saul knew no equal. He held the jackets for those who killed one of the young Christian leaders, one Stephen, by battering him to death with stones. Saul not only rounded up all the known followers of this Jesus in Jerusalem, but he got extradition warrants to bring them back from as far as Damascus. Saul of Tarsus was gung ho.
What an incredible story it must have seemed at first when it got around that Saul — having had some sort of shattering vision while on the journey — had not arrested the Christians in Damascus, but had joined them. The great persecutor is now to become the great apostle.
And yet maybe it isn’t quite so surprising after all. I’m not sure that Paul’s conversion experience (which we heard about a few weeks ago, in the reading from Acts on the 3rd Sunday of Easter) hadn’t been brewing for a long time in the back of his mind—the realization that God’s grace is a free gift and not an earned reward. But on the Damascus Road it finally boiled over, when the risen Jesus confronted him: “Why do you keep kicking against the goads?” Still, this marked a reversal of the highest magnitude. The Christian Gospel’s greatest foe became its greatest advocate.
And yet that happens over and over again. How often is it that God takes the greatest saints, not from the nobodies, the genial wimps, but from the great sinners. Augustine of Hippo, an ambitious, worldly, self-indulgent professor and would-be politician who gave up the imperial courts for an obscure bishopric—and became the greatest theologian of the western Church. Thomas Becket, a career bureaucrat whose early loyalty to the King of England was exceeded only by his later loyalty to the Kingdom of God. Francis of Assisi, a dissolute young wastrel who became for God’s sake the poor brother of the whole world. John Newton, a successful slave-trader whose once-blind heart was opened by amazing grace to the service of God. God can do something with greatness, even if it first appears in the form of great pride, even great wickedness. What even God has trouble getting much out of is mediocrity.
The greatest evils of the world are notable for their stupefying banality. Hitler was a tawdry, petty, miserable little man. He was not great. And yet he caused so much evil. Yet that’s how evil is—often dull and petty — and that’s when it is most dangerous. Evil ultimately cares only about itself, and inevitably collapses in upon itself and destroys itself; but it can take much with it into its downward swirl into nothingness. Greatness, even perverse greatness, cares about something outside itself, and that’s the raw material of love. Saul of Tarsus really did love God, even when he did not yet understand Christ’s Gospel; and so when the light finally broke for him, he had the right stuff for heroic Christian sanctity.
We settle for so little. We’re willing to be so mediocre. That may be more dangerous than we realize. To most of us it does not fall to become famous, but that does not mean we cannot have a certain greatness of soul within our own worlds, if we will not cling fearfully to mediocrity, if we will take some risks for God’s Kingdom, if we will take a chance on love, if we will take the gamble that we may be closer to God when we’re passionately wrong than when we’re boringly safe.