The Holy Apostle Paul often faced criticism and slander during his missionary travels. There were those among the heathen who claimed that he was an atheist and a revolutionary; the Jews saw him as traitor who had turned his back on the Law of Moses and even among the Christians there were those who were envious of his influence and success and they denied that he was an apostle who only preached that which he had learned from the twelve. Frequently in his letters, the Apostle Paul would have to answer these charges before he could get to the core issues. Today in the epistle, we heard one such defense.
Paul noted here his zealous adherence to the Law, even to the point of aggressively persecuting the Christians. After his conversion he did not abandon his adherence to the Law, but rather he recognized that the Law was not an end to itself, but was simply the means by which a man was prepared to receive and utilize the grace of the Holy Spirit. Nor was he taught his doctrine by any of the other apostles, but he received it from the Lord Jesus Christ Himself Who had appeared to Paul in a vision of the Divine Light on the road to Damascus. After Paul embraced Christ, he did not go to Jerusalem or enter into dialogue with other men, but he retired to the Syrian desert where he was taught the Gospel by a series of divine visions. Although the Apostle out of humility rarely spoke directly about this time in his life, there are a few references scattered throughout his epistles such as this one we heard today and probably the one most well recognized in his epistle to the Corinthians (2Cor 12:2) where he speaks of a man who was “caught up to the third heaven”. Only after this divine instruction did he travel to Jerusalem for the brief period of 15 days and there spoke only with the Apostle Peter and met James the Brother of the Lord. With this account he sets aside the accusation that he was not genuinely an apostle.
How is it that the Apostle Paul, a newly baptized convert to the Christian faith, was counted worthy of the vision of Divine Light (even before his baptism) – something that only Peter, James and John among the Apostles had experienced on Mount Tabor during the life of Christ? How is it that the Apostle Paul who had persecuted the Church was counted worthy to be caught up into the third heaven and there to be taught by Jesus Christ Himself? The answer is found in the preparation of the Apostle during his life leading up to these experiences. Prior to his conversion, the Apostle Paul was a zealous and fervent follower of the Law of Moses. The Law prescribed a way of life that prepared a person to receive immediately the divine grace when it was bestowed upon him. The Law prepared David the King, Joseph the Betrothed and James the Brother of the Lord; the Law prepared Zachariah and Elizabeth, the Forerunner John the Baptist, Joachim and Anna and of course the Most Holy Birthgiver of God and Ever-Virgin Mary. The Law prepared the Elijah and the whole host of prophets, and the host of the righteous who acted by faith, of whom we heard last week. This was the purpose of the Law – to prepare the people of God to receive the grace of God when it was bestowed upon them. In the same way, by zealously following the Law, the Apostle Paul was prepared to receive the grace of God and to be transformed by it.
This same grace is poured out upon all of us in the Church as well. How is it that we do not have the same experience as the Apostle Paul? The simple answer is that we can have this experience and we are being prepared by it. No longer is it the Law of Moses that is the means by which we are prepared to receive and be transformed by the grace of God; now it is the Tradition of the Church. This life which we are given by the Church is the means by which we are prepared for the action of divine grace. We see as evidence the many saints and in our own time the Spirit-filled righteous ones. Here are men and women who, by conforming to and following the life and tradition of the Church have made themselves sympathetic to the working of divine grace in themselves. Some have been granted that same vision of the Divine Light, perceiving the Divine Energies directly; to some have been granted divine visions, prophesies, miracles, healings and other great gifts of the Holy Spirit. They are able to manifest these gifts of grace because they have been prepared through the life of the Church to accept and conform to the action of divine grace in them.
Now it comes down to us. We have all received in the sacraments that same divine grace. We are in the same place as those great saints of whom we just spoke. They labored to work out their salvation – in other words they adopted the life of the Church as their own and adapted themselves to the traditions of the Church – and in so doing, over the time of their lives, were transformed into the likeness of Christ. This is also our calling. We know from the words of St Seraphim that by our righteous lives we accumulate that divine grace in our lives. As we live “by faith” acting on our belief in One God: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and on our belief in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, we prepare ourselves to be affected by this same grace. It is not sufficient to simply possess this grace, but we must also use it profitably – and the means for doing so is given to us in the life of the Church. By taking on this life as our own we are transformed into the likeness of Christ.
Today, by living the life of the Church, by conforming ourselves to the tradition of the Church and by living in righteousness, we receive the grace of God and are transformed by it. We are changed into the likeness of Christ; we make real in ourselves the incarnation of God. By this grace we are united to the God/man Jesus Christ, we become His brothers and sisters and are molded into the Body of Christ. Just as the Holy Apostle Paul, along with all the other Apostles and the Holy Forefathers of Christ were prepared by the Law of Moses; just as all the Saints and Holy ones were prepared by the life of the Church, so also we are prepared by adapting our lives and living according to the traditions of the Church. In this way, we are all ready to receive the grace of God and to be transformed by it – being united to one another and to our Lord Jesus Christ that we might live in union and communion with Him throughout eternity.