On Saint Paul and the Opening of Scripture

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, the Apostle, 2020.

There can be no question that Saint Paul the Apostle is among the group of Saints whose life and intercession for us is most fundamental to Christian life. Alive in Christ’s resurrection along with the all the company of heaven, Saint Paul’s witness and martyrdom—which, it should be known, are two words that say the same thing: the word “martyr” means in Greek “witness”—is a perpetual icon of what it means to be a disciple of Christ, of following Our Jesus’ teaching to be sent out as sheep in the midst of wolves, wise as serpents and innocent as doves. His writings are inexhaustible, the significance of his life for us is inexhaustible, and of course being a Saint in heaven, in the Church Triumphant, his daily intercession and prayer for us and on our behalf is inexhaustible. To be a Saint means that one’s whole existence is so taken up into Christ that all their words and deeds—everything about them—is Christ and leads to Christ. As I have said, it is not theologians or clergy who are the most reliable interpreters of scripture, but rather the Saints: because their lives live-out the Gospel, and the Spirit of the Father speaks through them.

In our Collect we ask God that we, having Paul’s wonderful conversion in remembrance, may show forth our thankfulness unto God for his conversion by following the holy doctrine he taught. And if we set out to consider all the holy doctrine he taught, we would have a very long list indeed. The doctrine of being a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto God comes from Paul and is derived from his doctrine of the Cross. He is known as well for doctrine about justification, predestination, the Sacraments especially Baptism and Eucharist, and even what might be called “doctrine of the parish,” of what it means theologically to be a parish, and what being part of a parish demands of us. And Paul is the articulator of yet more holy doctrine I have not mentioned. He is the teacher of glory beyond words, after all.

It was in reflecting upon the speech captured by Saint Luke that Paul made to King Agrippa that I was struck by yet another doctrine taught by Paul, although not taught through his words themselves but taught by his life: taught not explicitly, but implicitly. It is his doctrine of holy scripture (commonly called the Old Testament). Paul said to the king, “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” What convinced him was the interpretation of scripture that he had come to have and live-out through the education he received from the rabbi Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of his fathers, being, Paul also tells us, himself extremely zealous for the tradition of his fathers. According to the interpretation of scripture that he had, in looking upon the man Jesus of Nazareth, Paul saw not savior but blasphemer. According to his scriptural interpretation of what is commonly called the Old Testament, in Jesus Paul saw not Son of God but Son of Satan. And because of this, Paul not only shut up many of the saints (that is, shut up many of the baptized Christians) in prison, but when they were put to death Paul case his vote against them. He had a raging fury against Christians, and he persecuted them even in foreign cities. He was infamous.

It was having set out to do so in the foreign city of Damascus that the direction of Paul’s life changed. Like the Magi who after their encounter with Jesus Christ through Mary His Mother set out for home by a different direction than by which they came—the direction of Paul’s life was permanently altered when he encountered Christ on the road to Damascus. Christ shown through a bright light from heaven, brighter than the sun because Christ is the icon of the invisible God, and He spoke to Paul the words, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Speaking to Paul was Christ Crucified and Resurrected, persecuted by Saul and so therefore Christ spoke to Paul from His Cross, still nailed to the Cross upon which Christ was persecuted.

And it was from this moment that Paul’s whole interpretation of scripture changed, although the transformation took three years to begin to fully mature. Before this, Jesus was just a man, Paul was not fallen through original sin, and a great many of the words of the Prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the rest—made no sense whatsoever. But now, through his conversation, with the eyes of his heart enlightened, the scriptures broke open like never before. The scriptures now opened, and soon the bread broken, everything central to the interpretation of scriptures is changed. Jesus is a man, sure; but with the eyes of scriptural faith even more so He is the image of the invisible God. Paul himself is not only fallen from sin, but all his flesh is corrupt and disordered except insofar as Christ lives in him. According to the old interpretation, Paul could not live with himself without the death of Christ’s followers; now, with eyes of scriptural faith, he cannot live at all without being incorporated into Christ’s body along with the rest of His followers. And even more: in a wonder to him and all the apostles of the early Church, the strange and confusing words of the prophets become clear windows to heaven, for the prophets describe Christ and His presence among the prophets and among us, starting with the words of Isaiah 7:14: “the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman′u-el.” These words were an utter mystery to Jewish rabbis, but with the scriptures opened and the bread broken, the perfectly speak of Christ—and show that Christ Himself was present to Isaiah, and always present to us as we pray upon this verse with our eyes of faith.

And so, brothers and sisters, let us continue to follow the holy doctrine taught by this great Saint. It is through the Cross that the scriptures are opened. It is through the Cross that the bread is broken. Let us glory in what Paul gloried in, and all the Church: it is in the scriptures that we find Christ. It is in the scriptures that Christ is described. With the scriptures finally opened, the bread can be broken: and for Paul, and for us, Christ is truly and really present among us. Saint Paul, apostle to the Gentiles, pray for us.