27 January, 2015

Homily for the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul 2015 - Being lovers of Community

Acts 9:1-22
‘Saul, why do you persecute me?’
He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’
The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’. (1:4-5)
Last week I have talked to you about the necessity of becoming courageous disciples and lovers of the Church in order to be credible in drawing others to Jesus. Today, I would like to expand the second point regarding the Church. I said that it is of primary importance for us to learn patiently how to put away the word “I” and to start using the word “We”, which means to stop putting ourselves before other people and to consider ourselves as part of a community. Perhaps, I could have paraphrased the common expression ‘There is no “I” in “Team”’ and said ‘There is no “I” in “Church”’, but this would have been misleading, because the Church community does recognise one “I” but one only; the “I” which makes us all one, and this “I” is Jesus Christ.

The Conversion of St. Paul by Francesco Ubertini
Today the liturgy invites us to celebrate the conversion of Paul, one of the fiercest persecutors of the early Church. In the story of this dramatic and truly life-changing event we encounter the “I” of Jesus Christ. Observe what Jesus says to Paul; He says, ‘Why do you persecute ME?’ and again, I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’. Our Lord does not ask, ‘Why did you persecute me?’ or ‘Why are you persecuting my disciples?’ Jesus asks, ‘Why do you persecute me?’ – Singular and present tense. This question must have come as surprise and as a big shock to Paul just as much as the divine light that shone around him. ‘Persecuting me?’ Paul was not at the crucifixion, he did not flog Jesus on Good Friday, and he did not nail him to the Cross. As far as Paul believed, Jesus was dead. In fact, Paul was intent on wiping out a community, a group of people spread over many, many miles. He was not after one single individual. Yet the first words Jesus speaks to Paul plant in him that seed of community that later Paul will express in his letters comparing the Church to the body of Christ, where all believers are part of the same living organism made one in Jesus.
In our reading Jesus identifies himself in a very intimate way with his Church, with the diverse community of his followers. Jesus alone is the great “I” that unifies the Church in one body, and “We”, his disciples, are inseparably part of him. Jesus alone is the great “I” and we must put away our single selves in order to become ever more fully part of him, and so fully part of his Church community.

However, when we think about it, to put away the word “I” and to start using the word “We” is not something easy to do. It is not easy to accept that our each individuality is only a little part of something much greater than us. But also, it is not easy because we may find difficult to understand that Jesus is truly at one with the Church. It is not easy because the Church at times can be very sinful; she may appear very confused and sometimes unwelcoming. In the end, we focus on the negatives and we struggle to see how Christ would want to be associated with her at all. And so the selfish temptation of going it alone can be very attractive. But we must beware of those who say, ‘I don’t need the Church to be a Christian’. Without the Church Christ is reduced to an ideology and the gospel to a sterile story containing outdated dos and don’ts.
Look at Paul. His dramatic encounter with Jesus is a very personal one, but this does not mean that he can be a Christian without being part of the Church. In our reading we see that from the very begging he is surrounded, helped and ministered to by other Christians. He receives back his sight through the ministry of others; he becomes officially part of the community by being baptised in the faith of the Church; he spends time with the believers in Damascus; he begins his preaching from among them; and he devotes the rest of his life to building up that body he once persecuted. Reading between the lines we see how Paul puts aside his individuality, his deeply held prejudices, his future plans, and his entire self in order to follow Jesus and to minister to his body the Church.

At the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity we should consider unity also within our Church of England too; Jesus’ question to Paul may be addressed to us, ‘Why do you persecute me?’
Every time we attack our brothers and sisters with uncharitable remarks and we foster divisions we strike the body of Christ with fresh blows; every time we slander our Church and break away from her we hammer the nails into the hands of Christ. Therefore Paul’s conversion must be our own conversion too. Being lovers of community means allowing other Christians, who do not necessarily think like us, to minister to us and to help us regain our sight; it means spending time with our brothers and sisters learning from one another; it means devoting our efforts for the building up of the Church; and it means realising that Jesus Christ is the one “I” in which all our differences can find reconciliation, the one “I” in which we are all one.

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