The Epistle. I Corinthians xv. 1
Moreover brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand. By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures: and that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve; after that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God. But by the Grace of God, I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the Grace of God which was with me. Therefore whether it were I or they, so we preach, and so ye believed.
As some of you know, just nine years ago Catherine and I were living a very different life than the one we have today. At that time, I was still employed as a Project Manager at the World Headquarters of the Amway Corporation; making a decent living and providing for the needs of our house and our dogs. But as you also may know, very shortly thereafter, Catherine and I packed up all our worldly belongings and moved to Indianapolis where I served as the Chief Curate of the Cathedral for six years.
The changes were significant. A new house. A new Rector. New friends. And of course, there was the “Hoosier culture”. We also had to deal with a leaky basement, almost weekly thunder storms and tornados, and the adjustment to a Curate’s stipend (which I can assure you was not as good as the salary of a Project Manager).
But I do not relate all this with the intention of making you feel sorry for us. And please do not think that I am trying to hype myself up as some sort of “martyr” who has made a huge sacrifice. You see, the reason that we moved to Indianapolis had nothing to do with personal motives; rather, we simply felt that God had indeed called us to St. Edward’s, just as He had called me to the priesthood. Once I heard that call, I really had no choice but to humbly accept God’s Will and to answer Him.
The life of St. Paul is all about the sacrifice of personal will to the Will of God. It is one of singular focus; the preaching of the Gospel. It is one of consistency from the standpoint of faith; that Jesus Christ died for our sins, that he Rose from the dead on the third day; that he walked the earth in his Risen body; and that he also Ascended into Heaven.
But outside of the story of St. Paul’s conversion, we tend to forget about the first part of his life. To be sure, we know that he grew up in a town called Tarsus. But do we know what that experience was like? Tarsus was a rather diverse city; a place of trade and so a gathering point for many different cultures and religions. At a young age, Paul would have been exposed to much that would later influence his thought and his ministry.
Of course we also know that St. Paul was a Jew; and more, he was a Pharisee. But do we also recall that Paul’s ancestors where likely among those Jews who were carried off and dispersed when Babylon conquered Juda? As a result, these people became very insular in that they were more strict than usual when it came to protecting themselves from those outside the Jewish faith.
On top of all that, St. Paul was exceedingly bright, even studying under the foremost teacher of his, or any other, time; a Pharisee named Gamaliel. Paul was an “up and comer”; a young man who had a bright future; almost certainly assured of a seat on the Sanhedrin some day.
But then, as we know, Paul’s “career” came to a crashing halt on the road to Damascus. He was presented with a picture of what his life had really been about to that point, and the terrible effect of his actions. And he was made to realize that he had allowed his thoughts and actions to be governed by his own will; the will of man. He then was brought to the realization that it was time for him to submit to doing the Will of God.
Now, as dramatic as it was, St. Paul’s conversion didn’t suddenly imbue him with intelligence or the ability to speak in public; he already possessed those gifts. It didn’t grant him a sudden knowledge of the Scriptures; as a Pharisee, he likely already knew them all by heart. But what Paul’s conversion did do was to open his mind and heart to his true purpose in life. It also allowed him to accept who and what he really was; to acknowledge the God-given gift’s bestowed upon him, and to further acknowledge that he had to use those gifts to the Glory of God.
What this conversion brought to St. Paul was humility; the humility that comes with the realization that God has revealed Himself to us. No doubt Paul had heard all the stories about this Jesus appearing to people after he was supposedly dead; and as a Pharisee he had scoffed at the notion. But then, Jesus appeared to him!
Put these thoughts together; For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God. Not only has Paul seen the Risen Lord, but he now realizes that HE HAS BEEN PERSUCUTING GOD! The guilt that this must have caused would have been awful indeed; and it would have been intensified by the fact that Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, had seen fit to speak directly to him about it. And yet, in spite of his guilt, St. Paul was still called to be an Apostle.
What would we do in a similar situation? How would we react if Jesus Christ himself appeared to us and told us that, in spite of our best intentions, we were actually doing harm to God’s Kingdom? How would we feel knowing that we had been working toward the wrong goal? Paul had to go away for a few years and figure out what to do next. But, as we know, he also came back; would we?
Of course, comparing ourselves to St. Paul may seem to be a bit of a stretch; after all, none of us have been persecuting the Church or denying that Jesus is the Son of God; so Paul is a bit of an extreme case. But again, the message here is not about extreme conversions, neither is it about making life changes that are so drastic that you begin a traveling ministry, or move to a different city; the message is about humility.
St. Paul’s conversion made him understand that everything that “he” had “accomplished”, had been worth nothing. It made him understand further that the qualities and characteristics that he had used to start his climb up the “career ladder”, his talents if you will, where all gifts from God. And he knew that he had abused and wasted those gifts.
But rather than go into a deep depression over his guilt, St. Paul instead did something fairly remarkable; he accepted his guilt and moved on. Having seen Christ, Paul knew that he was not worthy of God’s Grace; but he also knew that he had received that Grace nonetheless and that going forward it would be a greater sin not to use it properly. He declares his acceptance along with the determination that he will not allow God’s gift to be futile; But by the Grace of God, I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; He won’t violate that trust.
And so he moves out, preaching the Word, winning converts, writing prolifically, suffering constantly. At the point in time in which he writes his First letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul might have been justified in feeling a little bit proud of himself; he has indeed worked harder, traveled farther than all the other Apostles. Certainly he’s better educated and likely more articulate than the rest. But, then comes that humility again. Paul knows that all the work he has done, all the success that he has had preaching the Gospel and winning converts, has not been the result of his will or ambition; yet not I, but the Grace of God which was with me.
This is where comparing ourselves to St. Paul is not a stretch. To be sure we have all worked hard in our lives. Whether it was as a Project Manager, or a factory worker, or a police officer, or a teacher or a doctor, or a housewife; we all try to live our lives as well as possible; we try to faithfully attend Church, knowing that it is here that we can hear the truth of the Gospel and receive the Grace of God through the Blessed Sacrament. But where is our humility?
Do we accept that all that we have has been given to us by the Grace of God? Do we realize that we all have God-given gifts and talents that we are supposed to use for the expansion of His Kingdom? Do we put the same amount of effort into witnessing our Faith to others as we do anything else? Do we acknowledge that we have likely wasted those God-given gifts and use that knowledge to inspire us to greater things in the future?
Of course, humility is about recognizing that God has given us His Grace and that we have done nothing to deserve it; “Lord I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof”. But we must likewise remember that we have been given that Grace nonetheless; “but speak the word only, and my soul shall be healed”.
And so, some action on our part is required. Humility is also about accepting that the Grace and gifts that have been given to us comes with a responsibility; the responsibility to preach the Word; the responsibility to live our lives as an example of who and what a Christian should be; the responsibility to use the gift of God’s Grace to the furtherance of His Will and the Glory of His Kingdom; the responsibility that comes with submitting ourselves to the Will of God.
But by the Grace of God, I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain