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Educated Zeal: Weekly Message for 1-23-18
Dear Friends in Christ,
In two days we celebrate the Conversion of St. Paul. Paul’s conversion story helps us understand that conversion is a life-long process. Paul considered himself “called to be an apostle” (Romans 1:1), set apart before birth by God and called through Christ (Galatians 1:1,15), but he didn’t start out among the Lord’s disciples.
At first he was spiritually committed, but lacked the big picture: He considered himself a Pharisee and approved of St. Stephen’s murder (cf. Acts 7:58; 8:1, Acts 9:14). God’s call to holiness, a call we all share, does not always proceed linearly and includes and permits human mistakes. We can be very zealous, but if we don’t educate that zeal it can quickly go off track.
When “Saul” met Jesus on the road to Damascus the experience not only knocked him off his feet literally, but spiritually. Conquered by Christ’s love, Paul later said: “…whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…” (Phil 3:7-9).
If Paul’s encounter with Our Lord on the road to Damascus captivated his heart and zeal, his grasp of the mission to which he was called still required more time. In the Acts of the Apostles Paul recalls his conversion story three times (9:1-20, 22:5-16, 26:9-18), and each shows a progressive understanding of his mission. His first description is not much different from the call of every disciple: he felt called to bear the name of Jesus before the nations and suffer for Jesus’ name.
In his second description he starts to see his vocation and history as a part of salvation history: through the expression “the God of our fathers” Paul reconnects with his religious past and, through seeing and hearing Our Lord, the “Just One,” he establishes a personal relationship with Christ and discovers a new vocation. We build on past successes and learn from past failures, and our faith journey is no different.
Despite a growing understanding of his mission Paul just preached at first to the Jews and saw himself as the most qualified to do it, given his past. Our Lord had other plans: “Depart; for I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:21). Paul doesn’t get it and continues preaching to the Jews until they try to kill him. The community of Jerusalem sends him to Tarsus (Acts 9:29f.), probably for his own safety. Paul gradually realized that his expectations for his mission were not the same as Our Lord’s, but it took time for this realization to take root.
In his third description his mission finally becomes clear and explicit: in meeting Jesus Paul became his apostle and his witness who would bringing the Gospel to the pagans (Acts 14:4,14; Galatians 2:9). As apostle he’d received a special call from Our Lord, and in the call to evangelize the pagans he received mission that even the Twelve had not yet fully understood or undertaken.
Paul had an intense spiritual experience on the road to Damascus, but it took him a long time to unpack all its ramifications. You may not realize it, but you too have had an intense spiritual experience of Christ: at Baptism. Perhaps you’ve had an intense moment of conversion after Baptism. We too need time and guidance from Our Lord to unpack all that implies in our lives. In doing so you may regret past decisions and mistakes, but Our Lord keeps forgiving us and teaching us as long as we keep trying. If you want to explore this in prayer for your own faith journey you might want to do our retreat Messenger of Mercy: A Retreat Guide on St. Paul.
May Our Lord’s grace and Paul’s example help you progress on your own faith journey this week.