|The Rev. Marc Eames
The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul
Christianity has always had a different relationship to villains than other faiths and ethical systems. Firstly, I do not wish to overstate my case. Christians certainly pray for the defeat of evil. We seek justice. But there is a strong counter-narrative that in very unusual in world literature, ethical thought, and religion. It is the idea of the vital importance of saving the villain. Christians are told to pray for our enemies. We are taught to pray for those who persecute us. What is the ultimate goal of these prayers? It is that our enemies will become good guys. We pray that these villains will have a change of heart.
From the earliest of times, Christianity has contained a lot of self-reflection. One of the earliest prayers that is still prayed today is the Jesus prayer. “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy upon me a sinner.” This is taken from the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector from the Gospel of Luke. The Pharisee in his self-righteousness thanks God that he is not like other men, like this tax collector. The tax collector in his humility simply says, “Lord, have mercy upon me a sinner.”
You all understand your imperfections, don’t you? Do you think you are always right? I didn’t think I was always right as a child. That doesn’t mean that I always did right, but I knew that I wasn’t always right. When I was a child, my sister and I did not get along very well. She aggravated me, and on occasion I lost my temper. On a few occasions I went up to her, kicked her in the shin and put myself into time out. I would occasionally even grab the egg timer and bring it into my room to make sure that the timing was accurate. My mother once came into my room and just looked at me cockeyed and said, “I am not sure that you need me.” That is a different sermon. We might not always be able to do right, but most of us, most of the time, know what the right thing to do is.
This realization that sometimes we can’t help but not do the right thing, can make us a little more sympathetic to the plight of the villain. Maybe that villain just can’t manage to do the right thing. Maybe they are like us, only a little worse at life. Maybe that villain can be turned. Maybe that villain can change. Anglicans and Roman Catholics both have the tradition of praying the rosary, but, about 70 years ago, the Roman Catholics added a lovely prayer to the rosary known as the Fatima prayer. It goes like this, “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of your Mercy. Amen.” The prayer lets us know that we are to root for everyone. We are to pray and hope that everyone ends up in heaven, and all people will be faithful and good. We pray for those who are most in need of God’s mercy. We pray for the villains, for the bad guys, for those who are enemies of God and God’s people. We pray that they will change. It is part of our prayer life and it is part of our work.
Long before I became a Christian, I fell in love with the Star Wars saga. I loved Darth Vader, I thought he was so cool, and the story of the villain becoming a good guy stayed with me. He wanted order and peace, he just wanted to run things. He wanted to be the boss and ruler. When he gave that up. When he stopped trying to control everything, it revealed something different. When he stopped trying to control all creation, or, from a Christian perspective, placing himself in place of God, he was a good guy. When we stop trying to control everything and everyone, we aren’t so bad. Could it be that what makes us villains is this deep desire for control? For us to be in charge, and if we are able to give this up, then we will be good guys. If we allow God’s story of mercy to replace our own narrative of judgment and control, will that make us good? We, as Christians, hold up our enemies as still being valued human beings. It is possible that they can be converted to good. They can change. We ever hold out hope.
We are always on the side of rooting for people, not against. I know that can be hard. Before 2004, one of my greatest baseball memories was when the Diamondbacks came back on the Yankees in the 2001 World Series. I loved it. Like every Red Sox fan, I have two favorite teams, the Red Sox, and whoever is playing the Yankees. I realize this. It can be really fun to root against people, but, ultimately, it is not in the Christian life. We don’t root against people. We root for people. We root for the good guys to succeed, and we root for the bad guys to be converted.
St. Paul was a bad guy. He was one of the earliest enemies of Christianity. He persecuted Christians, and seemed to delight in it. Saul of Tarsus, as he was known, thought that he had adequately tormented Christians in Jerusalem, so he went to Damascus to find more, and on his way he had a life changing vision. Jesus came to him as a light and told him to stop persecuting him. Jesus always identifies personally with the afflicted. He commanded Saul to follow him, to be a witness to the love of God in the world. Saul went to Damascus, met a Christian named Ananias, and he was baptized. Saul became Paul. The great villain became the great hero. Paul wrote more of the New Testament than any other single person. Originally, he only knew the disciples as enemies, yet God chose this man to become a great leader. He went from villain to hero. He changed. He found the mercy of God, and he never let it go.
We are all called to be good. To be witnesses of God and his power. To be witnesses to the mercy of God. We are all called to help our enemies. We hope that they will change. That they will see the light. Christians don’t root against anyone. We know as the German scholar Johann Peter Lange once said, there is "no fall so deep that grace cannot descend to it”. None of us are beyond salvation. Not us and not our enemies.