By Paul Koch –
St. Paul’s world has been thrown completely upside down. I mean, think about it for a moment: think about where he came from. He was, in his own words, “circumcised on the eight day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” He was all in, he didn’t pull his punches, and he was going to do whatever was necessary to be a faithful son of the church. And then, on an unassuming afternoon riding into Damascus to continue his work, Jesus showed up. Well he didn’t just show up meek and mild on the side of the road. No, he appeared as a blinding light that brought this powerful man to his knees and changed his life forever.
Imagine how crushing that moment must have been. For in the light of Christ’s love, Paul sees that everything he has been doing, all his work, all his accomplishments, all his zealous desires amount to nothing. In fact they have been working against the kingdom of God. But it gets worse! Not only does he realize that his work has not secured salvation but he turns to see his church coming apart at the seams. Everything that they held dear, everything that they were preaching in their synagogues, the mandates of the law, the structures of what to eat and what to wear, all of it was withering and dying in the grace of Christ.
In fact, the Gentiles were coming into the church in great droves. These were the ones who had never worried about clean and unclean foods, those who were not circumcised, and didn’t know the decrees of the Law. As Paul takes in the scene before him his emotions run wild. He weeps for Israel and yet rejoices in God’s mercy. Paul summarizes what has happened by saying that they have stumbled over the stumbling stone. He even quotes the prophet Isaiah saying,
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
I used to imagine that the image of a stumbling stone was like a loose stone in a walkway or a cobble stone that is raised a little too high, causing a passerby to trip. But when I listen, here, to Paul describing what is happening both to him and to those he loves, I think it is something much more. It’s not some misplaced stepping stone; it’s more like a giant boulder that has crashed into the middle of the road, stopping everything. Everyone will stumble upon it; business as usual cannot go on and it cannot be ignored.
This boulder standing in the way is Christ himself. He alone is the way, the truth and the life. There is no other way to everlasting life, no other means by which we can gain heaven. Our works count for nothing, our zeal falls short, our desire isn’t enough. There is Christ, and no other. Christ alone saves.
But mankind never ceases to try and find other paths around the boulder. We easily forget the horror and heartbreak that St. Paul felt as Christ turned his world upside down. The church that Paul knew and loved may have been broken by grace but it wouldn’t be the last time. Another example is the years leading up to the Reformation. Gone were the trappings of the ancient people of God, but they had developed new ways for the people to prove their worthiness and make sure their own salvation. Obedience to the church became crucial. The giving of taxes and the buying of indulgences were encouraged. Confession became a work of penance and adoration of church relics became means of grace. Man had rebuilt the Law that Christ ended.
Sure, the temple in Jerusalem had long since been forgotten but they had new beauties to draw and hold the people of God. They had beautiful cathedrals of Notre Dame in Paris and St. Peters in Rome. They were filled with awe inspiring stained glass windows and detailed woodwork by the greatest craftsmen of the age. The church had the paintings of Michelangelo and the stirring poetry of Dante. It was beautiful, devotional, and passionate, it was a fitting image of the church of Christ making its bold stand in this world.
But the people had begun to look to their own deeds, to their performance, their keeping of the sacramental system as assurance of their salvation. In the midst of all the beauty and wonder they had taken their eyes off of our Lord. They began to trust instead in the physical structures they had built and the complex system that fueled them with the production of mankind. So once more that great boulder came crashing in. The Reformation smashed and split the church as trust in popes and councils fell to the immovable grace of Christ. The outward unity of the church fractured and everything turned upside down once again.
We are tempted by our history to think that we have learned from such past stumbling. Certainly we will no longer seek ways around the boulder. Certainly we will not persist in believing that we might have a secret path that has not yet been explored. But the temptation has never left us. It starts anew in every age as we are given the gifts of Christ. We are set free from the demands of the Law; we are given his grace and declared to be his children. But we are anxious and busy creatures and we begin to work things backwards, and our ancient foe is always there to help.
Satan comes along side and whispers into your ears over and over again as he directs you back to yourself. You are free in Christ right? So how is your life going? Do you struggle, do you have difficulties, to you have regrets and sorrows? Sure you do. It must mean that there is some part of your life that you have kept hidden from your Lord, some part of yourself that you don’t want to give up. So here’s what you need to do: you need trust more, pray more, give more and love more. You need to let go and let Jesus. You need to examine yourself more diligently and then you might have the peace you long for. Perhaps if you didn’t drink or smoke or cuss so much; then again, maybe you just need to volunteer more and make sure you are being a true neighbor to those around you. There is some little piece that you can carry out, isn’t there?
Oh sure, we may not have the paintings of Michelangelo on our ceilings and we don’t have the dress code of the Israelites or their kosher dietary rules but we are not free from trying to secure our own way. We easily develop our own moral quest, our own virtuous path to secure our salvation. Some believe we need certain spiritual experiences, or we need to invite our Lord into our hearts. Some say we need to know the right things. But in the end, we are always left looking to our knowledge or our experiences or our morality for assurance of our salvation.
And right into the midst of it all, right into your quest for holiness, our Father in heaven slams His rock, His immovable boulder of stumbling. It shatters your pathway and stops your quest. There is no way around it, no way to eternity outside of the Rock of Christ alone.
Our efforts break upon it. The Rock declares that we could never do what the Law requires, even if we want just a little piece that is our doing, that little piece joined to the Law will terrorize us. Satan will use that piece to ignite our doubts and challenge our faith. So Christ crushes it all. He declares that you cannot do anything, so he has done everything for you. Everything: it is all done in Him. He became your sin, He paid its deadly price, He rose from the dead and now He doesn’t allow you any way around Him. He blocks your path.
And He says to you, “I forgive you, I love you, you are mine from now to eternity itself.”