This image is “Conversion on the Way to Damascus” by Carvaggio. People often picture this artwork when reading about Saul/Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ. However, there is no horse mentioned in scripture, and it wasn’t a conversion from Judaism to Christianity. Revelation may be a better word. For everything Paul knew and understood as a learned, Jewish man became fulfilled in Jesus. There was no “Christianity”. There was “The Way”. Paul had no goal of turning away from Judaism and starting a new religion. Instead, he saw Jesus as God’s continuously unfolding plan for Israel’s salvation. Jesus is the new covenant God is making with all people (U.S. News & World Report 4/5/99, “Reassessing an Apostle”, p. 54).
From NT Wright’s Paul, A Biography:
“For Paul, what mattered was that Israel’s God, the creator of the world, had done in Jesus the thing he had always promised, fulfilling the ancient narrative that went back to Abraham and David and breaking through ‘the Moses barrier,’ the long Jewish sense that Moses himself had warned of covenant failure and its consequences…At the heart of Paul’s message, teaching, and life was radical messianic eschatology.
Eschatology: God’s long-awaited new day has arrived.
Messianic: Jesus is the true son of David, announced as such in his resurrection, bringing to completion the purposes announced to Abraham and extended in the Psalms to embrace the world.
Radical: Nothing in Paul’s background had prepared him for this new state of affairs (p. .130).
But now the big question: Did one need to become a Jew first to become Christian? Jewish law required keeping the Sabbath, eating certain foods, being circumcised, etc. What are the Gentiles to do? This is what a lot of Paul’s letters deal with, and this caused great debate not only in these communities but also among the original disciples of Jesus.
Doctrine of Justification
Also by NT Wright: “God will put the whole world right at the last. He has accomplished the main work of that in Jesus and his death and resurrection. And, through gospel and spirit, God is now putting people right, so that they can be both examples of what the gospel does and agents of further transformation in God’s world. This is the heart of Paul’s doctrine of justification…It isn’t about a moralistic framework in which the only question that matters is whether we humans have behaved ourselves and so amassed a store of merit (“righteousness”) and, if not, where we can find such a store, amassed by someone else on our behalf. It is about the VOCATIONAL framework in which humans are called to reflect God’s image in the world and about the rescue operation whereby God has, through Jesus, set humans free to do exactly that, (p. 407-408).
Because of his own profound life experiences, Paul knew that he was not saved by the law or by his scrupulous, self-righteous fulfillment of the Law. He found in Jesus Christ a God who accepted him and called him while he was yet a sinner – and empowered him to live an entirely new life – a life in Christ Jesus. For Paul, faith is that response to this free gift offered to us by God. Like all gifts it cannot be forced. It is a matter of life for those who now live in Christ. It reconciles us with God by accepting his love and trusting it with our lives. And it empowers us to be reconciled to each other – and to be ambassadors of reconciliation for others.
2nd Reading – I Corinthians 10: 1-6, 10-12
Paul’s community in Corinth was under a great deal of pressure because of the temptations and lures of the culture’s religious and intellectual oddities. People were succumbing to pagan influences. The Corinthians, like their ancient counterparts, were beginning to take God’s gifts for granted. Some believed that baptism and eucharist were all that was necessary for salvation. Paul referred to the OT identifying story of exodus to set the record and beliefs straight. Sacramental grace cannot substitute for the believer’s cooperative efforts at good living and loving service (Birmingham, W&W, 143).
Paul’s statement about the “rock that was following them” (v.4) refers to the Jewish tradition that the rock that Moses struck (Exodus 17:1-6) became mobile and traveled with them furnishing a steady supply of life-giving water. (This was a widely known legend.) Paul, of course, sees this rock as Christ, our source of life-giving ‘water’ – grace. Yet, Paul also reminds us that God’s graces and gifts are not automatic assurances of salvation. Rather, God challenges and invites, but we need also to cooperate with God’s Spirit. It’s not magic(Celebration, March 2001).
God wants “spiritual fruit” not “religious nuts”! Each of us is asked to be a good steward of our own gifts and abilities. But it’s more than just doing works. In our zeal to do good works we may go “nuts” and overdo it. It’s not about how many committees, meetings and work parties we fit into our life. God seeks spiritual fruit from us. We are asked to discover the ‘buried treasure’ of God’s presence within us. We may need to slow-down – notice the burning bushes in our lives. Let us take time to touch Holy Ground and hear the voice that speaks from deep within the ‘burning bushes’ of our lives. This kind of prayer can cultivate and fertilize. Then, we will not be blinded by harsh daylight, and fail to see the God-light all around us. (Celebration, March 2004)