The man we come to know as the apostle Paul, founder of many churches and author of letters to the first Christians, was born around 5 AD – making him a few years younger than Jesus, whom he never met during his lifetime. He was born to a devout Jewish family in the city of Tarsus. As he says in today’s reading from the letter to the church in Philippi, he was “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews.”
Elsewhere he describes himself as “a Pharisee, born of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6) – meaning that both he and his parents were His family were Pharisees, members of a movement within Judaism to recommit to the faith practices of their ancestors. He was sent as a young child to study with Gamaliel, one of the greatest rabbis of the time – and could easily have become a rabbi himself.
In addition to his impeccable credentials as a faithful Jew, Paul was also apparently a Roman citizen by birth.The Roman Empire did not have birthright citizenship! If you weren’t actually Roman, citizenship was a privilege that you had to either buy or be given.
It was unusual but by no means impossible for a Jew to become a citizen. Paul’s parents might have been offered citizenship as a thanks for service to Rome or to gain their favor if they were people of influence. Their citizenship passed on to their son.
In short, the young Saul – his Hebrew name – or Paulus, his Roman name – had plenty of social and religious standing. Many paths and possibilities were open to him. The one he chose, in his early 30s, was to help stamp out a new religious movement that sounded to him like heresy. People who claimed to be Jews were saying that this rabble-rouser who had been crucified in Jerusalem was somehow God and had risen from the dead.
Paulus witnessed the stoning to death of a Christian convert named Stephen. He held people’s garments while they committed mob murder, so their clothes would not get bloody. And he approved of the killing. (Acts 8:1)
In fact, it seemed to inspire him to get involved in the persecution of Christians, raiding homes and dragging people off to prison. As he says about his former life in today’s reading: “As to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
When he ran out of people to arrest in Jerusalem, he asked the high priest for letters of introduction to the synagogues in the city of Damascus, so that he could hunt down Christians there too. Luke, the eloquent storyteller, describes Paul as “snorting out menaces and slaughter.” He gets his letters and sets out on his journey.
But as he’s approaching Damascus, a light flashes around him. He falls to the ground. A voice said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Paul stammers out, “Who are you, Lord?” The voice replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
Paul’s story unfolds from there. He becomes a Christian; he becomes a preacher and founder of churches. He is despised by those who see his teaching as heresy. He is imprisoned and beaten. He brings to bear all the privileges of his younger life on his new lifework of building the Jesus movement.
But this, the road to Damascus, is the pivot point. This is the moment when Christ Jesus makes Paul his own. The Greek is more forceful: when Christ seizes Paul, and sets him on a new road.
Some 11 centuries later, a baby boy was born to a prosperous silk merchant and his wife, in the Italian town of Assisi. The baby was baptized Giovanni, but early on was given the additional name Francesco, perhaps because his father’s business dealings in France were going so well.
Francis had money, status, and indulgent parents. As a young man he was handsome, popular, and fond of fancy clothes. He loved traveling musicians and performers, and lived a carefree life… until he joined a military expedition against a nearby town and was taken captive for a year.
This experience led to a sense of dissatisfaction and re-examination of his former life. He began to pray for spiritual enlightenment. One day as he knelt in the ruined chapel at San Damiano, gazing upon an icon of the crucified Christ, he heard a voice. It said, “Francis, Francis, go and rebuild my house.”
At first Francis thought this spiritual charge meant simply to have the chapel at San Damiano repaired. He stole some cloth from his father and sold it, and gave the money to the priest in charge of the chapel – who refused to take it. Legal and parental wrangling ensued – culminating with Francis renouncing his father and his inheritance, and stripping himself of all his fine garments, walking naked into a new way of life.
As Paul wrote, eleven centuries earlier, “For [Jesus’] sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as garbage, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”
Francis’ story unfolds from there. My favorite picture book about Francis, by Brian Wildsmith, the source of these images, sums it up well: “From then on, I sought out the poor. I sought out the sick. I repaired God’s ruined churches. I loved all God’s creatures and called them my sisters and brothers.”
Francis founded an order of men committed to holy poverty, peacemaking, and service to ordinary people in the name of Christ. He worked with his childhood friend Clare to create a sister order for women.
Francis died on October 3, 1226. His feast day is October 4. We honor and remember him today.
For both Paul and Francis, life turned on a dime when Jesus spoke to them. It’s an unusual, but by no means unique, shape for a Christian life. There have been many saints, both well-known and long-forgotten, whose life includes a sudden and dramatic call away from their former life and to a new way of living in God. Such experiences are sometimes called a “road to Damascus” moment. I guess “chapel of San Damiano moment” is too much of a mouthful?
We’re not, exactly, talking about conversion. Neither of these men abandoned the faith they held before their call. Francis was most certainly a Christian before San Damiano, though he may not have been the most devout. Paul’s relationship with the Judaism of his young life is more complex. In today’s text he claims to regard his ancestral faith identity as rubbish. But other passages suggest Paul continued to find value and meaning in his Jewish heritage. He sees Christianity as a new branch grafted onto Judaism, and grieves that his new faith separates him from many members of his first faith-family.
The lives of the saints – the ones with days on the calendar and portraits in stained glass windows – can inspire us. They may also make us feel small and inadequate. I have heard from God, at particular moments in my life, but I’ve never been thrown off my feet by a blinding light and the voice of Jesus.
I look at Paul, at Francis, at some of their kin among the communion of saints, and I see people driven by a crystal-clear sense of God-given purpose. My sense of God-given purpose is maybe 40% on a good day, and I’m pretty sure that even that puts me way at one end of the normal distribution.
Paul and Francis encourage me not because I expect my life to look like theirs… but because for them, it wasn’t all about them. Paul and Francis weren’t the kinds of saints who were called away from the world, to lives of discipline and purity, in a wilderness cave or compound. Instead, Paul and Francis were called INTO the world. Specifically, they were called to gather and form communities – communities oriented around a new, or renewed, understanding of God’s purposes for the world.
After Damascus, Paul committed the rest of his life to founding, teaching, encouraging (and sometimes rebuking) churches in cities all across the ancient world. Franciscans, followers of Francis, didn’t build monasteries; they traveled around, preaching, teaching, and serving.
My life may not be like Paul’s or like Francis’s, let alone like Jesus’. But I can aspire to be – across the millennia – one of the people they called and gathered, encouraged and taught.
Francis invites us to regard material possessions and wealth lightly; to strive for understanding and, where possible, peace, across differences; to see God in our fellow human beings, and to love God’s creation and creatures.
Paul invites us – well, he covers a lot of ground in his many letters. But fundamentally I think he calls us to stick with the work of figuring out what difference our faith makes in our lives… and to looking out for one another.
And both invite us to entrust ourselves to communities of faith… to find, and be, faithful companions for the challenging work of living this way – and of making this way of living make a difference, for our neighbors and the world.