Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, the Apostle, 2018.
That through the preaching of Saint Paul the Apostle, God has caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world—there can be no doubt. Roughly one quarter of the books of the New Testament were written by Paul, and it is likely that all of the letters were completed before the first Gospel was written, the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Then, he travelled around the known world preaching and teaching, exhorting and inviting—that all should repent and turn to God and perform deeds worthy of their repentance. In a very clear way, Saint Paul imitated Saint John the Baptist.
He both imitated and elaborated. Paul preached the Gospel of repentance—that is, how repentance, or turning toward God, lifting up our hearts to the Lord, is actually good news, because “gospel” means good news, good news that brings relief, brings release from captivity, brings direction in life, brings strength and security by God’s grace, and allows restless hearts to finally find rest and peace and comfort.
Of course, it is hard if not impossible to turn to something if you do not have an awareness of what that something is. Otherwise we might be turning to a projection of ourselves, which of course is not God but inevitably some kind of idol. The biblical pattern is “repent and be baptized,” in the teaching of Saint Peter at Pentecost, yet before Peter taught repentance, he preached and that glorious sermon made people aware of God and how He was pouring Himself into all people on that day through the Holy Spirit who reveals that the crucified Jesus of Nazareth was both the only-begotten before all creation and resurrected to the Right Hand of the Father. This “baptism of awareness” precedes “baptism of the body.” The same pattern replicates with Blessed Mary, who conceived Jesus in her mind and heart before she conceived Him in her womb.
And so Paul very much imitated John the Baptist by preaching repentance to invite in his listeners a “baptism of awareness” and so he invites us to do the same. Active ministry engaged in the world around us is a ministry taught by John the Baptist. Through our words and deeds, through how we love people and recognize their dignity and gifts, we preach a baptism of awareness that love is divine, and this, by the grace of God, leads those we serve to a baptism of the body through the baptismal rite of the Church, or if they are already baptized, invites them to claim their baptismal identity and renew their commitment to Jesus Christ.
Yet Paul also elaborated upon the teaching and example of John the Baptist. And by that I mean that he exhorted people who had repented, turned to God, lifted up their hearts to the Lord to not stop there, but to perform deeds worthy of their repentance, worthy of their baptism. He himself lived out that injunction—through all of his writings, to be sure; and also his church planting and nurturing of new Christian communities by visiting them, guiding them, and at times reproving them.
Also his deeds worthy of repentance were of the normal, every day variety—participating in the regular life of prayer through the Mass, daily Offices and devotion through biblical study and service to his fellow man. This regular life of prayer—which is made available to us through the Book of Common Prayer—is the means by which our lives become consecrated, set apart for God. It is how we live into Paul’s teaching of being a “living sacrifice” to God, and the regular, ordered life of prayer is how we take seriously his teaching that through baptism our bodies become temples of the Holy Spirit. And it is through the regular life of prayer that we our confidence grows that the Spirit of our Father speaks through us.
That our lives make others aware of the presence of Jesus Christ, that they turn to God to be baptized, and that we who are already baptized may deepen and increase our deeds worthy of our baptism as living sacrifices to God through a regular, ordered life of prayer—let us ask for the intercession of Saint Paul for us, that we, having his wonderful conversion in remembrance, may show ourselves thankful to God Almighty by following his holy teaching.
Saint Paul, apostle to the world, pray for us.