In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“You will be hated by all men for my Name’s sake.” That’s not something most churches are willing to talk about, but our Lord did. And as we celebrate the conversion of the blessed Apostle St. Paul today, we see how this truth plays out in his life.
What’s so ironic about Paul is that when he was the Pharisee named Saul, he lived to kill Christians. For contrary to what he believed, that salvation came by Moses, that is to say, through strict observance of the ceremonial laws God had given Israel at Mt. Sinai through Moses, Christians believed and confessed that salvation is from Christ alone and that these ceremonial laws, which were intended only to be shadows that pointed ahead to Christ, were no longer in effect now that Christ had come. Now if they would succeed in spreading their message, then the church, as Saul grew up to know it, would cease to exist. So this most zealous Pharisee did the only thing he could to prevent that. He killed those who confessed Christ.
This is not really all that unlike what certain ministers in the Church do today who portray Christ to others more as an example to emulate than a Savior to embrace, who rip him out of his Word by adamantly denying that it all and everywhere testifies of him, who despise his holy Sacrament either by denying his true presence in it or by limiting the celebration of it, as if it really isn’t all that necessary, and who gut, even abandon the liturgy that so beautifully confesses his Name both in word and in deed, as they foolishly perceive it strange and a hindrance to growth. Yes, whether consciously or unconsciously, whether violently as did Saul or through more subtle means, these hypocrites also seek to keep Christ out of the equation as much as possible.
But to return now to Saul, God had different plans for this man. Rather than to wipe out his name in all the world, he was to become, in the words of Jesus, “a chosen vessel of Mine to bear my Name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel.” What grace for the Lord to convert one who had so furiously raged against him and his church! Notice how he accomplished this. Jesus brought this proud, arrogant man down to his knees, blinding him for three days, crushing his spirit completely, until he crawls to the font and is baptized. Think of it. The man who once struck terror in the hearts of so many is now himself a terrified beggar, throwing himself at the mercy of Jesus whom he persecuted for the forgiveness of sins that he perish not but live!
And that grace Christ has also shown to you. After all, what, if anything, is different about you and your life? You too were born in the darkness of unbelief and would have lived in this darkness for all eternity, indeed, you should have, save for the grace of God in Jesus Christ, who also came to you and stopped you right in your tracks, even as he did Saul. Yes, the circumstances themselves were much different for you than they were for this Pharisee. Nevertheless, what happened to him on the road to Damascus that day also happened to you. By the grace of God in Jesus Christ you too were called out of darkness and into his marvelous light, which means that those who remain in darkness oppose you.
Our Lord made that very clear in regard to St. Paul when he told Ananias, “I will show him how many things he must suffer for my Name’s sake.” Our Lord has also made this point very clear in today’s Gospel. Listen again to what he had to say, “They will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons… You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. And you will be hated by all men for my Name’s sake.”
Make no mistake about it. These are not empty words, nor do they apply only to those who lived in Biblical times. If you are in the Light, then you too will suffer, as did St. Paul, for you will be hated by those in darkness, as was St. Paul. Indeed, this is the evidence that you have been called out of darkness and into the Light: people now hate you, are intimidated by you, and so are attempting to do everything within their power to silence you and your confession.
And what does our Lord have to say about this? “It will turn out for you as an occasion for testimony.” As if our Lord didn’t show us the abundance of his grace when he called us into his light, he now also shows us this grace that we, like Paul, have the opportunity to testify of him through the disgrace, hardship, maybe even through the martyrdom we get to suffer for his Name’s sake. To be sure, this is neither easy nor pleasant. The cross was after all a bloody, ugly, most repulsive instrument of torture. So we who get to carry the cross for Christ will at times struggle with this. There will be those moments when we will even want to, if not fully reject, then at the very least distance ourselves from Christ so that the pressure lets up.
But rest assured, my Christian friends, your Lord, who called you into his light and so does not want you to fall back into darkness, has given you in preaching and the Sacrament the very means, by which you remain strong and courageous in him, and that too is grace. That the Christ, who called you into his light and gives you the honor to testify of him through the suffering you get to endure for him, gives you preaching and the Sacrament together with faithful ministers, like St. Paul, who are willing to suffer many things to preach Christ and to feed you the Body and Blood of Christ, so that rather than fall back into the darkness, you, having endured faithfully to the end, having fought the good fight, having finished the race, will in the fashion of St. Paul receive the crown of life.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. §