By The Very Rev. Frank Alton
Last Friday, Pope Francis issued a document entitled Amoris Laetitia, Latin for “The Joy of Love.” In it, he calls for priests to be welcoming of single parents, gay people and unmarried straight couples who are living together. The vision Francis wants local bishops and priests to follow is one in which the church greets families with empathy and comfort rather than with unbending rules and rigid codes of conduct.
The manifesto evoked a wide variety of reactions. Some think it sacrifices too much church doctrine, which sets forth acceptable and unacceptable conduct. Others don’t think it goes far enough, since it didn’t address the social reality of same sex marriage. Some have used law and others have used life as the criterion for judging since the beginning of the Christian movement.
In an interesting twist of fate, on the same day a story broke about Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. A DNA test revealed that his biological father was not the whiskey salesman who had married his mother, but the man who had been the last private secretary for Sir Winston Churchill. If Justin had grown up in the Roman Catholic Church, knowing that fact, his mother would have been excluded from communion, and he might not have attended church. That outcome would be avoided under Pope Francis’ new approach.
In another twist of timing, Pope Francis’ document addresses the same point as this morning’s lectionary reading from Acts. He couldn’t have been more timely in addressing the matter of whether rules or life should determine the church’s response to people’s behavior. In the brief story of his conversion in the Book of Acts, we see Saul himself turn from being a rigid rule-keeper to a promoter of grace and faith. Saul wasn’t responding to a Papal encyclical. He was acting out of a personal encounter with the living God. Therein lays the key to a Christian way of being in the world: without a personal encounter, no amount of theology will make a difference.
Many of us have been taught that a particular view of God is correct; and that if we live by that God’s rules our lives will work out the way we hope. When we discover that is not the case, we don’t know how to ground ourselves any more. Some reject God altogether and live lives in reaction to a god who never really existed. Others reject themselves, since God couldn’t be wrong. Still others divide their lives into religious areas where it is safe to know the god they have always known, and the rest of life where that god doesn’t really make sense.
In Paul’s story, we find a man who persecuted Jesus’ followers because he considered them heretics who damaged the truth about God. He was fervent in his mission because he believed God’s reputation depended on it. But after a personal encounter with God, he could no longer pursue that path. Saul didn’t immediately understood everything in a new way. Rather he had been captured by God, and no longer knew as much as he thought he knew. He could no longer live by memorized answers; he could only dwell in a trusted relationship.
He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” If anyone was clear about whom God was it was Saul of Tarsus. With passion that only comes with deep conviction, Saul was on a crusade to eliminate the new sect called “The Way.” No one else saw as clearly as he did how dangerous it was for true believers. Even the high priest was too relaxed about the whole matter. So Saul asked for letters to the synagogues at Damascus so he could arrest any followers of the way there. It was not enough to eliminate them in Jerusalem. He had to rid the entire region of them. “Who are you, Lord?” For the first time in his life, Saul of Tarsus dared to think that he might not know who God was.
Saul was confronted by an experience that forced him to ask a question that had been previously unthinkable: “Who are you, Lord?” Saul knew God was speaking to him, but he didn’t know it was Jesus. So he responded, “Who are you, Lord?” And Jesus responded, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” The one who had always known who God was and what God was like had a new experience he could not deny. That experience opened him up to the possibility that until that moment he had been blind about who God was.
Have you ever experienced God like that? You didn’t have to fall off your horse. You just had a new awareness of God that made you realize that what you believed before was wrong, even if you couldn’t quite explain it. I remember such an experience 32 years ago in Peru. I was working with a Church on Sundays and a squatter community during the week. I kept experiencing the rigidness, lack of hospitality and judgmentalism of the church folks. At the same time I was being overwhelmed by the hospitality and generosity of the people in the squatter settlement. The church folks had strict rules about who was Christian and who was not. They were proud that the church had an “outreach” to the poor pagans that lived in such miserable conditions. But they had no doubts about where the truth was.
It took a while for me to challenge that, because their beliefs matched the ones I had been raised with. But my experience with the folks in the squatter community simply did not jive with that view. They looked more like the people Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount than the people in the church. That created a crisis for me. I had always believed that being a Christian with beliefs like mine made all the difference. Like Saul, I had to question everything I believed up to that point. Paul spent three years in the desert trying to figure out this new way. It took me a few years longer than that, but I too spent time in a spiritual desert.
The remarkable thing about Saul was that when the voice started ordering him around, he obeyed. “Get up and go into the city and you will be told what to do.” And Saul went. They were first words he had ever heard from Jesus and he obeyed them. Everything Saul knew and saw about God was called into question. The words of Jesus – his hated enemy – became the word of God for him. And with an ironic twist, the one who was sure he was seeing properly was blinded by the new insight!
Luke’s telling of the story shows that the early followers of Jesus – the very ones Saul was persecuting - were known as followers of “The Way.” What delicious irony: Saul travels great distances, traverses miles of road persecuting these followers of “The Way,” only to be struck down on the way to Damascus. Plus, Saul’s call will be characterized by a life on the road in his many journeys around the Mediterranean. “The Way” is a powerful metaphor for Christian identity. Instead of being identified by a set of beliefs, these faithful communities were known by their character as pilgrims in the world. Christian faith was a way of life that impelled individuals and communities to leave the safe confines of home and church to walk on the road God had set out. “The Way” suggests that faith is a living, active way of life.
Here are some questions for us to reflect on during this Eastertide, especially during this season when political passions run high in our country:
- Might our zeal for the thing we’re passionate about be misdirected, even destructive at times, like Saul’s?
- Might we have to learn to expect God to ask us to do difficult things and go to unexpected places”
- Who might be our supposed enemies we have to stop excluding from the work God might want to do in the world?