I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision." Acts 26:19.
We have met here on this saint's day, when the Church commemorates the conversion of Paul the apostle, to celebrate the memory of a brother and colleague, Paul Riedel. Above and beyond the personal feelings and shock, too deep for words and too tender for tears, is the gratitude we bear for the way he was able to unite faith and scholarship in what may perhaps be best described by the words of this text as a "heavenly vision." It seems fitting in this place—the chapel where he was ordained, on the campus where he was trained—to ponder that vision and the faithfulness with which our brother Paul obeyed and sought it.
These words are taken from the third and last time that the Book of the Acts describes the event commemorated today. And the "heavenly vision" to which they refer is, first of all, the command of our Lord to His apostle recounted in the verses immediately preceding; "I send you to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in Me." How St. Paul obeyed that command is the story of the mission and expansion of Christianity in the first century. For the coming of the heavenly vision meant the transformation of the man, the message, and the mission.
Paul the man was transformed by the heavenly vision into Paul the apostle, the witness of the resurrection; for as one born out of due time, he had been privileged to see the risen Lord. Despite his training under Gamaliel, he now found himself obedient to the heavenly vision in the message he preached on the basis of the Old Testament Scriptures. And whatever other plans he may have had for himself, he soon learned that obedience to the heavenly vision meant the transformation of his career into a mission in the name of the Lord who had come to him in the vision. Like his namesake, our brother Paul was also transformed by the heavenly vision. It affected the man, the message, and the mission. The career of Paul Riedel as a parish pastor was the obedience he yielded to the heavenly vision. What man's vision had strained to see but could not, what eye had not seen and ear had not heard—that was the unearned gift of the heavenly vision in Christ. And for our brother Paul the gift of that vision was a responsibility, Gabe became Aufgabe. The vision was dynamic, intended not only for contemplation but for communication.
"I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision," St. Paul could say, and point to his bonds as proof of how far his obedience went. The freedom he had come to know in the Christ of the Damascus vision was an obedient freedom that made even his bonds irrelevant. One of the things I shall always treasure in my personal memory of our sainted brother Paul is the calm way he could view the things that disconcerted others, not because he did not care, and deeply, how they felt, but because he had been granted a singular measure of that rest and quietness for which we pray in the Collect for Peace, granted it in the heavenly vision. For him obedience to the heavenly vision meant a realization that the God who had raised our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead is a God whose ways no human excitement or malice will thwart.
But in the life of St. Paul the "heavenly vision" meant even more than the transformation of the man, the message, and the mission. It meant the glimpses he was afforded into a unity that shimmered above the darkling plain, as we have these glimpses documented in the first chapters of Ephesians and Colossians. For here St. Paul goes beyond the declarations of Romans and Galatians about the priority of the Gospel over the Law to the insight that what God has done in Christ is the key to the deepest mysteries of reality itself; for "in Him all things consist." This whole vision of a cosmic dimension to the work of God in Christ meant for St. Paul that the unity of the body of Christ, the Church, was a sort of microcosm of the unity of the world in Christ. And it would appear to be more than mere speculation when the Church found in the blessed Sacrament the link it needed between the two, the means by which the Church is incorporated into Him who holds all things together.
Thus the heavenly vision granted to St. Paul on the road meant, after many years and journeyings often, the unification of all his faith, thought, and experience in the vision of the heavenly Christ. And so it was for our brother Paul as well. His own profoundly sacramental piety was joined with his keen and well trained mind in the quest for the ultimate implications of the heavenly vision. He was too humble and too well disciplined ever to settle for some facile caricature of the vision, and he knew that we see even the heavenly vision through a glass darkly. But he was convinced that obedience to the heavenly vision necessarily involved bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. It meant obediently—and therefore boldly!—moving from Romans 3 to Romans 8 to Ephesians 1 to Colossians 1, from justification by faith to the vision of the groaning creation to the Church as the elect body of the risen Lord to the unity of the Church in Christ as the key to the cosmos.
It is noteworthy that when he died our sainted brother was engaged in the task of helping theological students to grasp the implications of the heavenly vision not only for their personal lives and their message and mission, but for their view of the world and their intuitions of its fundamental meaning. What he had glimpsed by. faith in the heavenly vision, what he had been given to see from time to time in proclamation of the Word and in the reception of the body and blood of Christ—that he has now been granted. And we who still must walk by faith rather than by sight will walk the more confidently for having walked with him, knowing that the divine Light that flashed in the Damascus vision upon the first Paul has now illumined the second Paul as well.
Requiescat ergo in pace, et lux perpetua luceat ei!