Democrat or Republican, Labor or Likud, Call to Action or Catholics United for the Faith—one need only name some of the groups that shape the contours of the social life of this world, and emotions begin to stir. We get a sense of who we are and what we are about from the groups to which we belong. That helps us appreciate a paradox of Jesus' life: although his own action and teaching reached beyond all subgroup solidarities and the consequent divisions—whether Pharisee versus Sadducee, clean versus unclean, Jew versus Samaritan, rich versus poor—that very inclusive way of being and acting provoked division among all that he met.
It is not hard to understand why Paul, a professional teacher of the Law, felt it necessary to stamp out this new movement (much as Senator Joseph McCarthy felt obliged to root out what he suspected to be the incipient virus of Communism in the United States during the 1950s). Then comes the event that turned this good zealot around entirely. Armed with search warrants from the Jerusalem authorities, he is on his way to Damascus to arrest some of these dangerous “Jesus freaks” who have begun to spread this aberration in that urban center to the north. On the road, he has the famous vision: a theophany of light out of which a voice says, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” For the Pharisee Saul of Tarsus, this is the Big Bang that contains, in germ, the insight that will drive the rest of his life and work. Jesus of Nazareth is alive, not simply resuscitated but glorified; he is indeed the fullness of God's revelation, what the Law and the Prophets have been pointing to all along. In addition, the group Saul has been persecuting is intimately identified with this risen Jesus, whom they confidently call by the divine name Lord.
In a matter of days, this arch-persecutor of the young Church becomes one of its star promoters—a startling phenomenon, which brings about the situation described in this Sunday's First Reading, where the Jerusalem disciples require some vigorous convincing before they can accept Saul as a fellow Christian.
Saul’s embrace of the Christian faith will plunge him into the paradox of Jesus’ own life and work. His sense of the Christian mission is that the Church is to embody Israel's vocation to be a light to the nations. His urgent sense that this “new creation” is meant to grow beyond the boundaries of the people of Israel will provoke division, even as he works for unity.We are Saul/Paul’s heirs and debtors. In his letters, this ex-Pharisee became the theologian of Christian solidarity. The unity that Jesus described in terms of vine and branches, Paul developed with the images of Temple and body. The Church of the risen Lord Jesus is a body meant to be a sign of God's love. The love that its members show one another is to empower that body to serve the rest of the world. Since that way of being counters the way most of this world is run, resistance and division are inevitable. The life of the body of Christ stands for an attitude—toward the poor, the unborn, the aging, the marginal, the use of the earth's gifts for the good of all—that is rejected by many if not most. Paul demonstrated in his life and work that the Easter paradox of Jesus (the rejected stone becomes the capstone) is still the touchstone of the Church's solidarity today.