God’s Grace Can Change the Hardest of Hearts

Jan 21, 2018: Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalms 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
First Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

The dramatic encounter between Jesus Christ and His first Apostles in today’s Gospel shows us the power of God’s Word: it changed the direction of our lives completely.

Later this week, the Church will celebrate the annual commemoration of another powerful conversion, the conversion of St. Paul.

The conversion of St. Paul is one of the most dramatic events in the whole New Testament. Paul was an up-and-coming young rabbi zealously devoted to his idea of God’s plan for salvation. That idea did not include the incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So when he heard the Apostles preaching the Gospel, he became furious. They were simply obeying Christ’s last request, to “proclaim the Gospel to every creature.” Nevertheless, for the well-educated, popular, and arrogant Paul, that doctrine was blasphemous. Therefore, he put all his intelligence, willpower, and connections at the service of wiping out this new religion, even to the point of having Christians put to death. It is impossible to imagine someone more fully against Jesus Christ and His Church.

However, on the road to Damascus, in the middle of his fury and passion, all of that changed. Jesus Christ appeared to him. Jesus spoke a word to his heart and let a ray of His divine light shine into the darkness of Paul’s self-centered mind. From then on, things were different. From then on, Paul was gradually freed from the self-centered, self-indulgent ambitions that made him such a destructive force. From then on, Paul became an ambassador of God’s saving grace, a light of hope and mercy for sinners of all nations and races, a faithful messenger of God’s unconditional goodness. From then on, all of Paul’s natural, God-given gifts were put to use in building up Jesus Christ’s everlasting Kingdom, not in building up his own personal and perishable kingdom, which, as he wrote in today’s Second Reading, was part of “the world in its present form,” which is “passing away.”

This is the power of God’s grace; this is the power of the gospel: it really can transform lives, even the most unlikely ones.

Sometimes we don’t believe in this transforming power of God’s grace because we have the wrong idea of how it works.

We think it should work like a Hollywood movie, in which a horrible sinner can become a magnificent saint in just two hours.

However, God’s work in our soul usually takes more than two hours. St. Paul’s encounter with Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus was a real, powerful, and transforming experience, but it was only the beginning of a long spiritual journey. Certainly, he stopped persecuting Christians right away, but he did not become the wonder-working missionary preacher until ten years later. During that time, he spent three years in prayer and silence in the Arabian Desert. And then he spent another six years back in his hometown of Tarsus, practicing his trade of tent-making and studying the Bible in light of what he was coming to learn about Jesus Christ. Only after these years in which he allowed God’s grace to spread into every corner of his mind and heart did he receive his missionary call. That’s how God’s grace usually works. Look at the example of the Twelve Apostles. Jesus spent three years teaching and training them full time before He gave them the great commission to convert the world, which we heard in today’s Gospel passage.

The transforming power of God’s grace is real, but it takes time. Jesus told us this many times in His parables: God’s grace is like the seed that God plants in the soil of our hearts. That seed grows up gradually if we water it with prayer, give it the sunlight of the sacraments, and make sure to fertilize the soil with our own efforts to know, love, and follow Christ.

We need to be patient and persevering in these efforts, like a farmer tending his fields.

If we have not experienced the transforming power of the Gospel in our own lives, then maybe that’s because we have not wanted to.

God is always working in, through, and around us, but He leaves us free to pay attention or not.

Even in his dramatic encounter with St. Paul on the road to Damascus, Jesus did not actually give any instructions until Paul decided to listen. God made His presence known, but left Paul free to react positively or negatively. Paul reacted positively, he said to the Lord, “What do you want me to do, Lord?” He showed the Lord that he wanted to follow Him that He was willing to take the risk of following Jesus Christ, no matter what it might entail. In today’s Gospel encounter, the Apostles also reacted positively. They not only heard Christ’s call, but they left their boats and their nets — symbols of their own personal plans and hopes — and followed that call. In fact, St. John and St. James, the Gospel tells us, even “left their father” in order to heed God’s call in their lives.

In today’s Second Reading, Paul is encouraging us to react positively too. He reminds us that everything in the world is “passing away,” that “time is running out,” and so we must put our friendship with Christ in first place, and everything else in second place. We must look for happiness and fulfillment not in our bank accounts, hobbies, or popularity, but by striving to know, love, and follow Christ better each day. If we do that, the transforming power of His grace, the same power that changed Paul’s heart and the course of history, will be free to work in our lives and in the lives of those around us.

Today, as we continue with this holy Mass, let’s ask Jesus to shed the light of His grace into our minds, just as He did with St. Paul.

Let’s ask Him to show us how to cast aside any self-centered desire, plan, ambition, or habit that is cutting us off from the transforming power of His grace.

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