Our baptism awakens the grace that dwells within us — but it doesn't automatically make us compassionate, merciful, and just. That part of our faith takes practice. A lot of practice.
I Corinthians, 13:1-8
If I speak in the tongues
of mortals and of angels,
but do not have love,
I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
And if I have prophetic powers,
and understand all mysteries
and all knowledge,
and if I have all faith,
so as to remove mountains,
but do not have love,
I am nothing.
If I give away all my possessions,
and if I hand over my body
so that I may boast,
but do not have love,
I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful
or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.
Love never ends.
He's a confusing fellow, this Paul. He sometimes speaks of loving compassion with the voice of experience; other times he issues harsh condemnations and threats of eternal punishment. Is he a saint — worthy of imitation, or a sinner — worthy of condemnation?
Or is he, like most of us, a little bit of both?
Something dramatic happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. Whatever it was, it hit him like a bolt from the blue. From that moment on, he no longer hunted Christ-followers, but sought to join them.
And those mad, courageous Christians welcomed him. With love and forgiveness, they accepted into their community one who had shown them only "murderous rage."
That, to me, is a far more dramatic testimony of the power of Christ than any voice from heaven could ever be. That small band of faithful ones were living proof that "perfect love casts out fear." They accepted a repentant sinner into their community with compassion and joy. They had much to give, and much to teach. But that does not seem to be the way Paul saw it.
I wonder: Did he hear the Beloved's words, but miss the message?
In the gospels we are told that Jesus called His disciples with the words: "Come and see." This was the invitation to spend time in the Lord's presence: to learn to pray as He taught; to hear His words of forgiveness and peace; to see His healing works; to be touched by His generosity of Spirit, kindness of heart, and loving acceptance. And then to go forth — doing as He did.
Paul seems to have interpreted his call — not as an invitation to learn Christ's Way, but as a heavenly stamp of approval.
He did not recognize that his powerful spiritual awakening was just that — an awakening, that was intended to lead him toward a deepening knowledge of the Beloved. Instead, Paul appears to have considered himself a "finished product" after only a few days — and an authority on "what God wants."
It would be as if someone shook hands with Frank Sinatra and considered himself a singer from then on — without the need for study, or practice.... or talent. Just because I've sung along with my Ella Fitzgerald CD ... doesn't make me a jazz singer. Believe me.
As the popular saying has it: Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to McDonalds makes you a hamburger.
Meeting Christ is not sufficient to make us into Christians. Our baptism awakens the grace that dwells within us — but it doesn't automatically make us compassionate, merciful, and just. That part takes practice. A lot of practice.
It seems as if his "zeal for the Lord" outstripped Paul's understanding of Jesus' teachings. Filled with enthusiasm, he went out into the world telling people what he thought they should do, without having "examined the spirits" that were dwelling within his own heart.
Paul often confused his prejudices with "the word of God." Yet there were times when he must have recognized the opposition between the two — clearly, as we see in the magnificent passage that began this reflection.
Scholars have long puzzled over the "dichotomy" of Paul's theology; the nearly schizophrenic differences between his words of hope and those of condemnation. I believe there is a simple explanation. I believe that Paul recognized his errors, yet stubbornly refused to admit them. I believe it is his pride rather than madness that explains the confusion. I believe he preferred to follow a wrong path — and to lead others astray, rather than admit to be "mistaken."
It is a temptation to which all human persons are susceptible.
We will make up a thousand excuses rather than admit that we have made a mistake. We are able to develop elaborate rationales for why we do what we ought not to do. We can create a million justifications for our thoughts, words, and deeds. We do it in at the office, in school, at home, and in prayer.
But Jesus said: "when you pray, say ... forgive us our trespasses" — we are to ask for forgiveness for our sins, our mistakes, our failures and shortcomings. It sounds as if our Lord Christ believed that we all made mistakes and (get this!) that they would be forgiven.
That's the important part of his conversion experience that Paul appears to have missed: that he was loved and forgiven, and that the Way was open to him. If we admit our mistakes, and follow Christ's teachings, we will be led back to the Path of life.
But we will do harm to ourselves and others if our egos get in the way — if we refuse to admit our failures and our need for healing. We saw that sin in Paul early on. Remember how — instead of admitting his prejudices against women and distaste for his own body ran directly counter to what Jesus taught — Paul wished that God had designed all people to be "like himself"?
Which is easier: to compare our lives to the Lord Christ's, or to find an excuse for continuing to do what we've been doing?
More harmful yet is the temptation — to which Paul succumbed — to celebrate our sins: to develop rationales to convince ourselves and others that what is wrong is right. When we describe our lack of generosity as "frugality"; when we call our acts of vengeance "justice"; when we say we are "firm" when we are hard-hearted; when we say we "love God" while hating any of God's people ... the angels weep, our souls are diminished, and the light of Christ in the world is dimmed.
Each new day brings a multitude of choices. As Christians, we are called to hold ourselves accountable to the standard set by Jesus. We are obliged to evaluate everything in the light of the Gospel message of love and compassion — all that we hear, all that we believe, and all that we do.
Do not be afraid. We may stumble and fall short of the glory of God, yet the Beloved is faithful beyond our faithfulness, forgiving beyond our ability to forgive, and loving beyond our ability to imagine. For remember:
Who will bring any charge against us? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Jesus who died, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? ...
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ our Lord.
~ Paul's letter to the Romans 8:31-39
Sometimes Paul was absolutely right!
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,