Acts 9:26-31; 1 John 3:18-24; John 15:1-8
The story of how the young man Saul became St Paul is the ultimate conversion story – not just because Saul was converted to Christ but also because he was converted to the church. Saul hated the church. And this was not the church of 2015, discredited by so many of its priests and bishops and cardinals as well as laity, this was the spotlessly innocent newborn baby church only a few months old.
Luke tells us that Saul set about ravaging the church. Did you hear that? To ravage means to devastate, to wreak havoc on, to destroy.
..By entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison (Acts 8:3). This man was not playing games; he was deadly serious.
A little later, breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord Saul went searching for them in Damascus, intending to bring them bound back to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1-2).
Fortunately God intervened. Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” This was Saul’s first lesson: if you persecute my church you persecute me!
Saul is already sufficiently impressed with the owner of this voice to call him ‘Lord’ and asks: Who are you , Lord? The voice replies: I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
Blinded by the light the now helpless Saul is led into Damascus where for three days he neither ate nor drank. Jesus sends Ananias, his disciple, a member of the church Saul set out to persecute, to go and lay hands on him so that he might regain his sight. Yes, the church heals.
Saul got up and, wonder of wonders, he was baptised, so that now has become a member of the very church he so vehemently hated.
We cannot properly say that he hated Christ. It is entirely probable that Saul had never met him. But it is abundantly clear that Saul hated his followers, the church, who constituted such a danger to the survival of Jewish faith.
Though the nature of Saul’s experience on the road will always remain a mystery for us we can see that by it Saul was entirely changed. This meeting with Jesus somehow captivated his heart and mind.
It actually reminds me of the conversion of Fr Lazarus, the Coptic hermit in Egypt. For forty years he was an atheist, a lecturer at a University in Tasmania. His head was full of all sorts of impressive, well-articulated intellectual objections to the notion that God may exist. But then one day, as a visitor to a monastery, he was invited to make a prostration before an icon of the Virgin Mary. He did it out of politeness but when he stood up again it was as a believer.
And all it took was a smile from the Virgin who, he relates, seemed to come out of the icon and gently offered to be his mother. All his clever arguments evaporated and he knew that the rest of his life belonged to her. He explained that the love which entered deep into his wounded heart from that motherly smile of the Virgin fulfilled all his longing.
What did Fr Lazarus do next? He did what the first reading today says that Paul did. He wanted to join the disciples. He became a member of the church.
There is today a terrible lie that people tell themselves when they stop coming to Mass. They say they have rejected the Church but not Jesus. This is simply not possible.
Jesus himself told the disciples: Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; and whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me.
The Church is the body of Christ of which he is the Head. We cannot be joined to the head if we are not joined to the body. To walk away from the Church, from the Mass and the Sacraments, is a fatal error.
To his disciples Jesus says: a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself but must remain part of the vine. To Paul he might say, “If you persecute my Church you persecute me.” To us he might say, “If you leave my Church you leave me.”