Why Do You Persecute Me?

 

Caravaggio, Conversion on the Way to Damascus, 1601

One of the most compelling Scripture passages is found in chapter 9 of the Acts of the Apostles: the conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus. Among the many fascinating aspects of this narrative is the connection Jesus makes between Himself and His Church. His first words to Paul are, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” and when Paul asks who He is, Jesus replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Obviously, Paul was not literally persecuting Jesus, in that He had already ascended into Heaven. However, he was persecuting Jesus’ community of disciples, and so from Jesus’ words to Paul, we find a certain kind of identity between Jesus Himself and His Church, to such a degree that to attack the one (the community of disciples) is to attack the other (Jesus Himself).

This “secondary” aspect of St. Paul’s conversion clearly had a deep effect on his understanding of the Church, in that he is the primary Scripture writer who refers to the Church as the “Body of Christ”. We can rightly infer that this understanding of the Church derived from his conversion experience.

What this means for us is important: we cannot view the Church as some sort of “third thing” that comes between the disciple of Jesus and Jesus Himself. Rather, the Church is the very place wherein we encounter our Risen Lord, in that the Church is in some mysterious yet real sense the Body of Christ. We can no more be an authentic disciple of Jesus and exist outside the Church than an arm can continue to exist after it has been cut off from the body.

Furthermore, this also shows us that the Church is more than a “coming together” of disciples, that the Church does not come to be only when disciples gather. Rather, the Church – as the Body of Christ – in a certain sense “pre-exists” individual believers. So when someone is converted to Our Lord, they are “grafted into” His Body and become a living member thereof by joining the already-existing Church.

To me, this sort of thing shows the depth underlying Sacred Scripture. What seems fairly innocuous at first reveals great depth on closer inspection. As Pope St. Gregory the Great once said, Scripture is shallow enough for babes to swim in and deep enough for an elephant to drown in.

What about you? How do Jesus’ words to Saul on the road to Damascus — and what that means about the Church — strike you?

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