My apologies for the long absence. My homily for today will give you some sense of why. Also had a death in the family, beginning of school, etc. Posts will be less frequent until I get a couple of things finished. Hope you are having a blessed new year!
I have two major projects that I’m working on these days, both of which I promised to finish, both of which are almost done, and both of which are now seriously overdue. I have become identified in my mind, and in the mind of some others, as the guy who hasn’t finished. And it really doesn’t make sense that these things have been so hard to finish. And I know that my life would be a lot more stress-free if they were done. Yet I realized recently that one of the problems is that now I’m so used to being the guy who hasn’t finished those things, it’s becoming harder for me to imagine myself as the guy who has. Yet, if I really want to move on in my life, I know that at some point—some time soon—I have to stop being that guy.
Today we celebrate the feast of the conversion of St. Paul. And what I have just described is a dynamic in life which many of us experience. The difficulty of leaving behind the person who we are now in order to become the person that we want to be. In a word, conversion. It might not be so apparent in Paul’s case that this is what he wanted to be. He was persecuting Christians, so how can we say that he wanted to become one. It wasn’t as if he had a secret desire to be like the people he was persecuting. It was rather that he was someone who desired to serve God with great zeal. This is why God chose him. But in order to serve God as he was chosen to, he first needed to meet Christ, as Scripture tells us he did on the road to Damascus. He realized in that encounter that he could no longer be the person he was, that God was calling him to be somebody new, a change symbolized by the changing of his name from Saul to Paul. When we encounter Christ, as we do in our worship today, we should expect that we’ll have a similar experience.
But how do we discover what God wants us to be? And how do we find the strength to become somebody new, barring a mystical experience at the road side? It can be so much easier to stay who we are, even if we know it’s not who we want to be. However, if we look at today’s readings we see people willing to change radically, to upend their lives, and become somebody new. But what does it take to get them to change? For the Ninevhites, it takes a prophet screaming in their streets promises of death and destruction from God. This, we know from Scripture, is a pretty effective way to bring about transformation. It didn’t take long for the Ninevhites to repent. But, for most of us these days, threats of divine destruction are difficult to be motivated by, and the hope of heaven tends to be more persuasive than the threat of Hell, even though a healthy fear of the loss of heaven might not be such a bad thing to have. For Simon, Andrew, James and John, the motivation seems to come easy, just meeting Jesus seems to be motivation enough to leave everything behind and to follow him. But we seem a bit lacking in credible prophets of heavenly doom these days. And Jesus isn’t walking the streets and inviting us to come along. So, where do we find the inspiration to shed that person we have been for too long, and to become the person God wants us to be?
Saint Paul is a pretty good guide for such things. It’s worth taking the time to sit down with your Bible and read his letters. He’s writing to real people in real life situations, like us. In his writings we find down to earth assessments of the challenges of being human—“Why don’t I do the things I want to, and do the things I don’t want,” he asks, for example. And, unlike the other Apostles, who had the benefit of knowing Christ during his lifetime, his is a post-resurrection perspective like ours. He invites us to be made strong in weakness by not trying to do everything by our own power, but instead seeking the help of God’s grace, and the grace of the Holy Spirit. And in today’s reading from his letter to the Corinthians, he speaks with urgency, and advises things which might strike us as rather odd. How and why would those with spouses act as if they didn’t have them? He isn’t telling those who are married to embrace the single life again. What he’s saying, rather, is what he discovered on the road to Damascus, that having come to know Christ and the truth about how Christ saved us, one can never again primarily identify him or herself as somebody’s wife or husband, child or friend. One no longer be the person who is always sad, or always happy. Instead, Christ calls us to give these things second place to the new identities we must embrace. The change that is required is seeing ourselves primarily as the person who is saved by and follows Christ and who, putting aside the comfortable and familiar, risks the unknown demands of our new lives.
So, as we continue our prayer today, I invite you to ask yourselves. Have you, like me, become too comfortable with being that person, the person hasn’t finished things, the person I’ve been for thirty years, the person everybody else expects me to be. If so, let us together pray for the help of the Holy Spirit to put those behind us, put Christ first in our lives, and be what we are called to be—disciples like Simon, Andrew, James, John and Paul.