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Sly as a Snake, Simple as a Dove

Lectionary Reflections for the Conversion of Saint Paul (A)

By C. Christopher Epting

 

Readings for the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, Year A, Jan. 25, 2005

Acts 26:9-21

Psalm 67

Galatians 1:11-24

Matthew 10:16-22

 

“You must be sly as a snake and simple as a dove!” So reads the second half of Matthew 10:16 as translated by the scholars of the Jesus Seminar. One of the reasons I enjoy much of their work is the fresh translation of New Testament texts which are often a little different, even shocking – just as they might have been when Jesus originally uttered them. This particular saying may have been a proverb in common use quoted by Jesus with a twinkle in his eye. There is certainly both humor and paradox here. For how can one adopt the posture of both the snake and the dove at the same time? ( The Five Gospels , Funk and Hoover).

Well, according to Robert Funk and the Fellows of the Seminar, the proverb probably had to do with both shrewdness and modesty, and with the need for the earliest Christians to have a little bit of both in the hostile environment into which they were sent.  Sheep thrown to packs of wolves, persecution and scourging, imprisonment and even death.  Christians in those early days had to confront all these and more. So they needed encouragement, not only to persevere, but to do so with confidence!

St. Paul, the festival of whose conversion we celebrate today, certainly knew how to be sly as a snake and simple as a dove! To be shrewd or modest as the situation demanded! He was sly as a snake toward the end of the Acts of the Apostles as he defended himself before councils of priests, Felix the Governor and even King Agrippa himself. But his testimony, in each case, was as simple as a dove as he described in vivid detail his life-changing encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus.

The feast of the Conversion of St. Paul concludes each year our celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Started in the Episcopal Church in 1908, it was originally called the “Church Unity Octave” since there were eight days between the two feasts of the Confession of St. Peter and the Conversion of St. Paul. Today, the themes and texts are prepared by an international group whose members are appointed by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and the week of prayer is observed around the world.

Some of us have observed this particular Week of Prayer for Christian Unity praying for unity within our own Anglican Communion.

Like the Windsor Report itself, the January meeting of the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops and its response to the Report probably didn't satisfy anyone completely. We live in a time of great turmoil in the church, and yet a lively sense of church history reminds us that it is not the first such time.

Like the Windsor Report itself, the January meeting of the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops and its response to the Report probably didn't satisfy anyone completely. We live in a time of great turmoil in the church, and yet a lively sense of church history reminds us that it is not the first such time.

Peter and Paul themselves argued over the Gentiles, the early church fathers and mothers debated what was heretical and what was not, politics and power every bit as much as theology caused the Great Schism between East and West, ditto the Reformation, and Anglicans' experience in the New World. Battles have waged over liturgical revision, civil rights, war and peace, the place of women, gays and lesbians in the church, and now questions of local and universal authority in the church's polity.

So, though few of us will be handed “over to councils . . . and flogged” [nor] dragged “before governors and kings” in the current church struggles, the advice to be both shrewd and modest, given to those early Christians, may be applicable to us as well.

Shrewdness is having keen awareness and a sense of the practical; modesty is being free from ostentation. Let us be keenly aware of the issues before us: what we are fighting about and what we are not. And let us practical about what is possible at any given point in time in the church and in the world. Let us also keep ourselves free from ostentation – from an exaggerated view of our own importance.

The church has been through conflict before. And yet God is still glorified, the Risen Christ proclaimed, and the life-giving Spirit still renewing the face of the earth. Through us. If we can just remember, like St. Paul, to be: Sly as serpents . . . simple as doves!

 

The Rt. Rev. C. Christopher Epting is the director of the national office of Interfaith and Ecumenical Relations for the Episcopal Church. The former diocesan bishop of the Diocese of Iowa, he is responsible for facilitating interdenominational and interfaith dialogue with countless religious bodies around the world. He may be reached by email at cepting@episcopalchurch.org .