Joy and Hope
May 9, 2009
We see the Lord in one another
Following is the homily I delivered to the priests of the Diocese of Sacramento on May 1, the closing day of our annual retreat.
During our days together on this retreat, we have heard proclaimed the dramatic stories of the death of Stephen, the first deacon (Acts. 7:51- 8:1) and the conversion of Paul (Acts. 9:1-20). Like two bookends, they have framed our time together as the presbyterate of Sacramento. What could these two tales tell us about our intentions to be a presbyterate?
The two stories are linked by the seemingly insignificant detail at the end of the narration of the martyrdom of Stephen: “The witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul.” Then a few verses later, “Now Saul was consenting to his execution.”
We do not know if Saul ever had any personal knowledge of Jesus during his earthly ministry. There is no indication that he did. We do know, by the accounts we have heard this week, that Saul was present for the martyrdom of Stephen. He was there for all the gory details of a death by stoning and he consented to it. This image of Stephen must have haunted Saul. Stephen’s words and Stephen’s blood got under Saul’s skin.
At that unforeseen juncture on the road to Damascus the fallen and confused Saul questions the voice that shook his soul. “Who are you, sir?” he said. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” was the response that came back. We know that this was the turning point in the life of Saul. From then on, he would walk as Paul, the faithful disciple and tireless apostle of the Lord Jesus.
Paul was already pursuing holiness. We know that he was a zealous member of the Pharisees. His subsequent preaching reveals how well versed he was in both the law and the prophets. On the road to Damascus, this journey to holiness turned into a pursuit to know, love and serve the Lord Jesus. Paul began the journey to Damascus to capture and bring back those who belonged to the “Way”. In a sudden flash, he begins to follow the One who is the way, the truth and the life.
This personal encounter with the Lord happened when he recognized the Lord in Stephen. It happened when one of those whom he had hoped to arrest, Ananias, comes up to him and says, “Saul, my brother.” These painful, poignant, personal encounters become powerful, prophet epiphanies that convert Saul into Paul.
Paul saw Christ in the battered body of Stephen. He heard the voice of Christ in the tender, fraternal greeting of Ananias. The answer to Paul’s question, “Who are you?” was discovered in the personal relationship of Paul with the disciples of the Lord Jesus. His search for the holiness of Christ, his journey with Christ was always in the company, the koinonia, of the disciples of the Lord.
We are all bonded together by that same question, “Who are you, Lord?” It is like the question of the two disciples in the Gospel of John who curiously creep up on Jesus and ask him, “Where do you live?” (Jn. 1:38) Our question begins here between us and the Lord Jesus will reveal himself here among us. He will speak to us through one another. Can we recognize his manner and hearken to his voice as Paul was stunned by Stephen and comforted by Ananias?
We have heard a lot about the promise of obedience in these days. I am grateful to Father Ron Knott for his direct, unvarnished manner of speaking about the plain truth about our fraternity. I know I have an important role to play in guiding us together on that common path to holiness but together we are bound to the one who is the way. We submit to the one who was obedient unto death. (Phil. 2:8) His obedience to the Father is a catalyst for our own.
We have committed ourselves to seek the Lord and serve him. We do that together and our relationship is cemented by a common love for the Lord. We hear the Lord in one another. We see the Lord in one another. Together with the Lord, we serve his people. This is how we can put aside our own ambitions, preferences and points of view to build together with Jesus the kingdom to come. This is a hard asceticism to practice. Do this well and one may not need of any other penance.
Like Paul we have chosen a relationship to Jesus as the road to holiness and salvation. For this relationship to be truly personal, it must begin by seeing the person of Jesus in our personal relationship with one another and with our people. Paul began with Stephen and Ananias. We can begin with one another. It is our fidelity to this fraternal and personal bond that promises to reveal to each of us what Paul discovered in his own journey with the Lord, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38-39)
Please remember to pray for priests of our diocese and for me, your bishop, so that together in communion with our Holy Father and all the church we may come to love the Lord and faithfully serve his people.