You remember the great world-changing story of the conversion of St. Paul. On the road to Damascus, he saw a light and heard the Lord Jesus call him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He did one of the most impressive and difficult things a person can do: he admitted he was wrong. Not excusably or understandably wrong, not just a little off track, but wrong in a profound and terrible way. But he encountered the Lord of mercy and knew that the strength of Jesus would shine all the brighter in the weakness of Paul. Best of all, he knew that the Lord’s death and Resurrection had won for him mercy and redemption.
So Paul is now a converted Christian, with a relationship with Jesus Christ and a calling in the Church. But here at the end of Acts 9, we run into the proverbial rest of the story. What about Paul’s relationships with the Church? These will include people he has personally hurt, people who have lived in fear of him and others like him, people who have had their families disrupted and people they love the most hurt or possibly even killed by the man who is now showing up for the church potluck or whatever.
This is not so easy. Conversion is one thing. Repairing our damage is another.
The trust wasn’t there at first. Paul went to Jerusalem and they didn’t believe in his conversion. They were afraid of him. That’s all Luke reports, but it’s easy to read between the lines and imagine some of the ways that could have played out. And it’s certainly very easy to understand where they’re coming from.
So we have here an example of the toughest kind of reconciliation. Reconciliation is a Gospel mandate, and presumably they all knew that. We are, after all, followers of the Lord who came back to his betrayers and abandoners saying “peace be with you.”
Still today, Christians understand this mandate. Jesus was so incredibly clear about this: We must forgive, and we must work for unity in the church. Reconciliation between people is at the heart of our calling.
And still today, Christians struggle with this. Priests get this request so often: ‘help me forgive, tell me how.’ ‘I don’t want this bitterness in my heart.’
In the terrible divide between Paul and the Jerusalem Christians, both have an obligation and a job to do. On the part of Paul, he has to first of all admit he was wrong and in need of forgiveness. I can’t think of a single word in all Paul’s writings that could be construed as an excuse for his past, or as downplaying or justifying it. He totally owns it. He even emphasizes it, because he’s preaching the mercy of God and he’s eager to show the witness of his own life.
But other people in the church are not so quick to accept and believe in him. And maybe this is the hardest part: Paul just has to be patient. Yes, they are called to reconciliation and forgiveness and it should be expected of them as Christians. But that doesn’t mean any enemy agent can walk in the door, claim to have converted, and be immediately trusted with the kind of access that would let him round up all the people he hadn’t got already. That wouldn’t be mercy, it would be stupidity.
It’s a hard position, it feels terrible, to have repented, to have really changed, but to have the people you’ve hurt not be ready to believe that. It’s going to take time. There’s a part of you that understands and accepts that it will take time, that trust has to be built, but there’s another part of you that is impatient and frustrated. “It’s my fault, I know it’s my fault, but how long am I going to have to pay for this? How long before we can move on? I can’t go on like this forever.”
And that’s true. No one can go on like that forever. And the people who are struggling to trust the repentant one have to do whatever they can to move on. It takes time, sure. But there’s time taken while we’re making progress and there’s time taken because we’re stalling and resisting and clinging to our victimhood and grievances. We can even become really wrapped up in the idea of ourselves as aggrieved victims. It’s a perverse thing but you see it all the time. There’s a certain perversely good feeling about being the aggrieved one, a kind of weak superiority. But clinging to that is spiritually deadly, and if we find ourselves doing it, we have to let go.
I really think that sometimes when people say they’re struggling to forgive, the hardest part isn’t letting go of the idea of the other person as their enemy. What’s hardest is letting go of the idea of themselves as the wronged victim.
There is a time for caution and verification. The Jerusalem Christians are right not to trust Paul simply because he claims to have converted. They have loved ones to protect. He could be a real danger. Situations like that still show up sometimes today. But like them, we are people ordered to reconciliation. Whatever needs to happen to build trust, we should be ready to get started. Whenever someone says they’re sorry, we should be ready to begin down that road.
I wonder, did the Jerusalem Church lose anyone because they refused to be in the same church as Paul? There’s no telling, but I wouldn’t be surprised. And what a tragedy! But we see it all the time. Every community has wounds and factions and grudges and we are called to rise above them and get past them. Because in the end we really do all want to be in the same place.
That passage ends with this: “The church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria was at peace. It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord, and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers.” That’s Luke’s long perspective view of the church growing and being built up, like we always want to happen. But that long perspective follows a very closeup and very personal story about how it happens. Person to person, with forgiveness and forbearance, going through the very messy and time-taking work of reconciliation and building trust and relationships. Person to person. That’s the only way it happens, the only way the Church is built up. What reaching out are you being called to today?