On January 25, 2016, feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, I had one of those insights that, when you get it, makes you suddenly see everything a bit differently. It’s an insight I’d already in some sense known before, but had never made this specific set of connections.
Orthodox theologian Fr. John Behr says that theology is the act of discovering in the “matrix of the Scriptures” the light that shines from the cross and resurrection of Jesus. That’s what this insight was for me. I wrote it down in my journal right after I read the account from Acts 9:1-19 of Saul’s encounter with the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. If you can take the time, look up the Scripture passages I include. Here’s my journal entry:
The first written Scripture of the New Testament was written at the command of Pontius Pilate: “What I have written [gegrapha] I have written [gegrapha]” (John 19:22).
The fullness of Truth was first written in mock of God’s Son. Divine revelation chose to use for its “tablet” the Cross, with a parchment declaring treason as the rationale for having executed God: “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews.” It was written in the sacred language of Hebrew and secular language of Greek, to Jew and Gentile. “What I have written” shares the same root word as Scripture, graphḗ – as in Matthew 4:10, “for it is written [gegraptai].”
My God, the first Scripture of the new covenant was written at the command of a Gentile, an enemy. Inscribed into the heart of the Gospel is the new commandment: “Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44). Sacred Writ inscribed on the Cross that tears down all dividing walls, reconciling all things by the bloodshed of the Son (Col. 1:20). No wonder the chief priests objected: “Do not write [graphe], ‘The King of the Jews’…” (John 19:21).
Again amazed. In this new covenant a strange divine economy unfolds, as men who cherish expediency, intending an innocent death to achieve their goals, unwittingly unveil the most profound mystery of God’s mercy (John 11:49-51; Gen. 50:20). Like the Centurion who thrust his spear into the Heart of God to ensure His death, only to unseal the fountain of life for all creation.
This is the heart of the mystery of mercy. My God.
How equally marvelous that Jesus would chose Saul, an enemy of the Way (Acts 9:4), to proclaim the Gospel of God’s mercy to the nations (cf 1 Tim. 1:16) and serve as the ambassador of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:20) whose core mission is to tear down the walls of hostility that stood between Jew and Gentile (cf. Eph 2:14).
How wonderful that God chose a blasphemer (1 Timothy 1:13) to serve as a vessel of inspiration for nearly half the New Testament, and a murderer (Acts 9:1) to proclaim the Gospel of life!
St. Paul’s revolutionary encounter with the Risen Jesus on the road seared in his mind the mind of Christ, who loves His enemies (cf Phil. 2:5-11). Who in fact reserved His sweetest display of love for those who spat in His face and brutalized His body (Luke 23:24; Rom. 12:20-21; Gal 3:13).
St. Paul was equipped in a singular way to proclaim the “word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18). In fact, the Cross emboldened him to articulate the most radical expression of selfless love found anywhere in Scripture. These words still make me shudder whenever I read them. Speaking of his fellow Jews who had rejected Jesus as he once had, Paul said in Romans 9:3:
For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race.
May Christ make me always gratefully aware that I also am, by Christ’s mercy, equally an enemy-made-friend (Romans 5:10). O Lord, fill me with the courage to live daily that same mercy toward my difficult neighbors. Amen.
But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. – Luke 6:27-28