On S. Stephen, pt 3

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Last Sunday after Trinity (Proper 29), 2020.

Saint Stephen, Deacon and holy-Martyr, gave his testimony in front of the high priest and the council. When he began to preach, we are told all looked upon him steadfastly, and saw his face as the face of an angel. But after he finished his testimony—and this is fifty verses long, which is remarkable also because in showing how Jesus is the Just One, the true Messiah, Stephen only uses Old Testament Scripture to do it—whether Stephen still remain as the face of an angel in their minds is not reported. But what is reported is that when they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. “Cut to the heart” is an image particular to Saint Luke, who wrote the Acts of the Apostles. Simeon, at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel account, uses the image in speaking to Blessed Mary—“a sword will pierce through your own soul also”—and Luke uses the image at the end of Saint Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost to describe to describe the reaction of Jerusalem—“Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart.” In both cases, this image is about revelation: the heart (or soul) is cut or pierced so that God’s can be revealed publicly.

And this is how Luke uses the image in the story of Stephen, as well. Stephen, who has imitated Peter in preaching how our Lord is the Crucified and Risen One as known by the opening of the Scriptures, speaks so powerfully and with such authority that this adversarial council is cut to the heart. They of course go on not to be Christians (well, not immediately, more on that in a moment), but to stone Stephen. So what was revealed by the council’s heart being cut? We learn in the next verse from Saint Luke: “Stephen, being full of the Holy Spirit” (just like Mary, just like Elizabeth and John Baptist, just like Simeon, all as described in Luke’s Gospel account) gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” What the heart cut open revealed was a vision of heaven, and it was perceived by Stephen. We know this because he then cried out, “Look! I see the heavens open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” He said this out loud, and someone heard him. After he said it, they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And as they stoned him, Stephen imitated Jesus perfectly in saying, “Lord, receive my spirit” and Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” To be perfect means to live every day with such humility before God that His grace perfects us, that is, transforms us to be pure in heart, so as to see God. Stephen, at the moment of his stoning, saw the glory of God. At the Ascension of Jesus, angels taught the Upper Room Church that Jesus will come in like manner as He was seen as going into heaven. And Jesus went into heaven as the icon of humility before the Father. Stephen, in this moment perfected before God, beheld Jesus, who because of Stephen’s humility, came to Stephen, for Jesus is always the Coming One, who comes to those who pray with humility to Him.

I said a moment ago that we know all this because someone heard Stephen. Who heard Stephen? Who heard and saw all this going on in Stephen that we know at all about this momentous episode? It is clear that the person who heard all this, who saw all this, is Paul. While all were cut to the heart by Stephen’s words and deeds, cut to the heart by Stephen taking up his cross completely, it was Paul who was cut most to the heart. And despite consenting to Stephen’s death, as we are told, the power of Christ shining in and through Stephen planted a seed in the heart of Paul, which led to his conversion and all of his writing that has guided the Church for ever more. And recall the words of Jesus at Paul’s conversion: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Part of what knocked Paul to the ground, blinded him, and after his baptism sent him for three years into the desert, was realizing that as Paul had done to one of the least of the brothers (that is, one of the most humble in his weakness), so had Paul done to Jesus. In killing Stephen who had taken up his cross and followed Jesus, Paul was responsible for persecuting Jesus Himself.

It took Paul, as I said, three years to come to grips with this reality: three years of prayer in the desert, of reinterpreting his whole life in a radically different way by the light of Christ’s passion. Three years or more until Paul finally told this to the person responsible for us knowing about all this: Paul told this to Luke, and Luke, himself taken up into the Christian life, relays the story with the proper spiritual sensitivity so that Stephen’s death—which to many onlookers would have looked simply as a man dying—instead reveals Christ to us. That Stephen’s death would reveal to us that Christ has destroyed the last enemy, which is death; that Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and giving life to those in the tomb.

Stephen’s example to us of what it means to be a Saint who gives witness to Christ in the world rests upon Paul’s perception and interpretation of the event and Stephen’s whole life, which in turns rests upon Luke’s perception and interpretation, which in turn rests upon our perception and interpretation—that we, along with Paul and along with Luke, can be cut to the heart. And that we, as we gaze ourselves upon Stephen, might behold the face of an angel—and that we, through the ears of Luke hearing himself through the ears of Paul, may also hear Stephen’s report of the vision of the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. And that we, through the spiritual eyes of Luke seeing himself through the eyes of Paul, may with Stephen, behold the glory of God.

Homily: “On the Conversion of Saint Paul”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle, 2019.

It is not always recognized that after Saint Paul saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining round him and those who journeyed with him; after he had fallen to the ground and heard a voice saying to him in the Hebrew language, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And after Paul learned that this was the voice of Jesus speaking—Jesus whom Paul was persecuting—and then heard Jesus bestow upon Paul his true vocation—to be one who opens the people’s eyes, that they may turned from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in Jesus—it is not always recognized that Paul spent three years in the Arabian desert trying to get a handle upon what just happened.

It must have been hard to say! Like Blessed Mary’s annunciation from Gabriel, this was an annunciation to Paul—the power of the Most High also overshadowing Paul. Mary pondered in her heart the meaning of her Son, and the meaning of her vocation. Likewise Paul spent three years in the desert—three years, we can reasonably say, in a wilderness of prayer, a wilderness of mystery, a wilderness of what must have been profound existential crisis. To say that Paul’s whole world was flipped upside down does not begin to describe his situation. As he said, he who once persecuted the Church is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy. And then uncertainty of what to do next. How could he possibly know?

One of the open secrets upon praying with the Bible, and especially with the New Testament, is that when we come upon moments strangely void of description, we are not pass over them, but pray into them—pray with our faculties of imagination, within the fellowship of the living Church and its theological tradition, seeking to penetrate the mystery, to find life revealed amid the silence. Such is the case with the life of Jesus, completely undescribed from day 40 of His life through age 12, and then from age 12 to approximately age 30 at His baptism in the River Jordan. Such also is the case with the life of Mary, of whom the biblical writers of the New Testament report quite little. Another is the hours of prayer spent by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Bits are described, but what was His prayer like between the few words we are told? Another is the nine days in the Upper Room by Mary, the other women, the Apostles and disciples totally 120 people. We are told they with one accord devoted themselves to prayer. What did this prayer look like?

With Paul’s initial conversion moment, we have another such moment. Paul himself prayed into the silence and mystery of it for three years, and indeed the rest of his life. Perhaps the primary mystery is this voice he heard. Who is this voice? Paul himself immediately wondered. He identifies the voice as that of Lord, of someone he must respect. It is a voice that first identifies Himself through the question, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” This Lord is a persecuted Lord, one actively being persecuted. And the voice answers Paul’s question, “Who are you, Lord?” by saying, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”

Now the human mind attaches images to invisible things. What image would Paul attach to this voice of Jesus being persecuted? It is not clear that Paul ever saw Jesus in person, whether in Our Lord’s public ministry or as He hung, nailed upon the Cross. He would have heard of Jesus’ crucifixion, at the very least from the testimony of Saint Stephen before his stoning. He certainly heard enough from other sources to decide to actively persecute the early Church.

Yet the image that most likely came to Paul’s mind, whether in the moment or over the course of the subsequent three years, was Jesus on His Cross. The image of Jesus crucified, when He was most persecuted. And this fits as well when one considers the whole of Paul’s writing. There are two primary emphases in his writing as a body: take Baptism and the other Sacraments seriously (so much so that he teaches that healthy parish life is built upon stewardship of God’s sacraments; what the voice of Jesus means by “sanctified by faith in me”), and in all things face the cross. Face the cross—as a parish church in worship; face the cross—as a community in mission; face the cross—as a person seeking to work out your salvation with fear and trembling (that is, with adoration and humility).

The Cross for Paul is an inexhaustible image, the central icon of Christian life. For Paul, all leads to the Cross (as it did in his own life from birth to the road to Damascus), all come forth from the Cross (as he famously taught, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified,” and again, “We preach Christ Crucified”). Life for Paul is always a cross-shaped life.

And so how do we know that we are truly being taught by Paul? It is when we find ourselves through the Liturgy and through our prayer life, drawn into the mystery of the Cross—its horror, and its glory. That’s its horror humbles us, and its glory throws us into adoration, into praise, and into thankfulness.

Homily: “On the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle, 2017. Today we remember and in some sense experience ourselves the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle. And while everything we do in our liturgical life is always in solidarity with our fellow Christians in the Catholic and Anglican traditions, and of course those whose life is ordered by the Episcopal Church, today we have particular bonds of affection with those churches whose patron is Saint Paul. He is the patron of this Holy House, this church in Pekin, Illinois. Within our diocese we celebrate with the Cathedral of Saint Paul in Springfield, Saint Paul’s Church in Carlinville, and Saint Paul’s Church in Alton. And of course we feel an affection with churches outside of the Anglican tradition also named for this apostle, such as Saint Paul United Church of Christ in Pekin, and Saint Paul Lutheran and Saint Paul Baptist in Peoria. Thousands of churches around the planet owe their patronage to Saint Paul the Apostle. And indeed we pray that we, having his wonderful conversion in remembrance, may show ourselves thankful to God Almighty by following his holy teaching. It is quite fitting to reflect on Paul’s conversion in this season after Christmas and Epiphany. It is fitting because in Paul’s conversion we have strong echoes of the mystical experiences of Blessed Mary, Saint Joseph, the shepherds in Bethlehem, the Magi from the East, and Saint John the Baptist. In these instances were profound experiences of revelation. In these experiences was glory unspeakable, glory beyond words. In these experiences God’s revelation provided new direction, provided guidance, provided a deeper level of truth about God and a deeper level of truth about the purpose of the lives of each of these people—truth, direction and purpose revealed to Mary, Joseph, the shepherds watching their fields by night, to the Magi and to Saint John. An encounter with God always changes the direction of our life, and always shows to us something about our self either unknown or denied, and continues to lead us to the very purpose for our creation. Read more “Homily: “On the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle””