Monday, January 25, 2010

The Conversion of St. Paul

Paul’s entire life can be explained in terms of one experience—his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus. In an instant, he saw that all the zeal of his dynamic personality was being wasted, like the strength of a boxer swinging wildly. Perhaps he had never seen Jesus, who was only a few years older. But he had acquired a zealot’s hatred of all Jesus stood for, as he began to harass the Church: “...entering house after house and dragging out men and women, he handed them over for imprisonment” (Acts 8:3b). Now he himself was “entered,” possessed, all his energy harnessed to one goal—being a slave of Christ in the ministry of reconciliation, an instrument to help others experience the one Saviour. One sentence determined his theology: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5b). Jesus was mysteriously identified with people—the loving group of people Saul had been running down like criminals. Jesus, he saw, was the mysterious fulfillment of all he had been blindly pursuing. From then on, his only work was to “present everyone perfect in Christ. For this I labour and struggle, in accord with the exercise of his power working within me” (Colossians 1:28b-29). “For our gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and [with] much conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:5a). Paul’s life became a tireless proclaiming and living out of the message of the cross: Christians die baptismally to sin and are buried with Christ; they are dead to all that is sinful and unredeemed in the world. They are made into a new creation, already sharing Christ’s victory and someday to rise from the dead like him. Through this risen Christ the Father pours out the Spirit on them, making them completely new. So Paul’s great message to the world was: You are saved entirely by God, not by anything you can do. Saving faith is the gift of total, free, personal and loving commitment to Christ, a commitment that then bears fruit in more “works” than the Law could ever contemplate.

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Mark (16:15-18)

Jesus said to them, Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.

St Paul
(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

I remember attending an address given by an Archbishop who happened to be a well qualified Scripture scholar with a pontifical Doctorate in Sacred Scripture from the Biblicum in Rome. His own speciality in Scripture had been, I think, the Gospel of St Luke, and he made the (tongue-in-cheek) observation that when he was eventually asked to teach the Letters of St Paul he discovered that he did not much like St Paul. He was joking, but I think he was saying that the image of St Paul that we can so easily have is of a person who was driven by his sense of mission and not notable for his humanity. But he quickly realized — as we all do — that St Paul had a tremendous heart. It is his love for people which is especially striking in his Letters. Love urged him along in his missionary life, a love which reflected the love of Christ. Moreover, when we think of St Paul, there is this to be remembered. I mentioned the Gospel of St Luke. St Luke’s writings occupy more space in the New Testament than any other author, closely followed by the writings of St Paul (if we allow that Hebrews did not have Paul for its author). Paul’s experience of Christ was of him as risen from the dead. He did not know him personally during his earthly sojourn. But he had Luke the historian for his friend and assistant in some of his missionary journeys. Luke carefully gathered and compiled much historical information about the birth and infancy of Christ, about Mary and Joseph, Christ’s years in Nazareth, his public ministry, his Passion and Death, and also the early history of parts of the infant Church. This material was becoming his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, and in his research he was guided by the Holy Spirit. I like to think of St Paul being filled with the facts of our Lord’s life and death by what his friend was compiling so successfully. On the feast of the conversion of St Paul when we think of his first encounter with Christ, let us also think of the influence of the companion who would have told him many of the facts about Jesus — Luke, the author of the Gospel and of the Acts of the Apostles.

But today we think of the occasion which began the story of the Apostle Paul. Paul had been, as we all know from the Acts of the Apostles and from the Letters of St Paul, a ruthless persecutor of the early disciples. There were other persecutors at the same time and before him. There had been persecutors at the time of our Lord himself, and some had succeeded in putting our Lord himself to death — but all under the Providence of God. Now, what became of these persecutors? They disappeared into the mists of history. They had been kicking against the goad, and to no ultimate effect. Now, for all Paul’s energy, he too would probably have disappeared into the obscurity of history, unknown to us if he had proceeded along that course. But that course changed and it was due to the intervention of Jesus Christ. Paul was, we might say, in full flight and he was brought down to the ground. There, like a bird shot in the wing, he struggled and limped along. He was blinded and the risen Jesus spoke to him. From that point everything changed. Paul was converted from implacable opposition to Christ to an unyielding love for him. It shows two things. Firstly, it shows the power of God’s grace. We ought never give up on what God can do. Time and again in the history of the Church there have been massive threats, but prayer and resolve have turned the tide. Even military battles have been won due the power of prayer — let us think of, say, the battle of Lepanto in 1571. Paul himself always looked on his own conversion as a signal sign of the power and the mercy of God. God can overcome sin and blindness. At the same time, as our Lord pointed out in his parable of the Sower going out to sow, there has to be good soil to receive the seed. For all his ferocity against the Church, Paul was acting sincerely according to his lights. That is to say, he was acting in accord with his conscience. Fundamentally he was striving to obey God. When the true light entered his life, he changed his course and followed that light. The Conversion of St Paul shows the power of God’s grace and the importance of fidelity to our sense of duty, even if it be temporarily mistaken.

Every day we ought begin anew in our love and service of Jesus Christ. Each of us has a mission in life, even if it appears modest indeed. Each of us has a place in the providence of God. Let us then do our best to fulfil the work that has been given to us. It will be our way of showing our love for God and for Christ, and of doing all we can to fulfil the saving work of God. Let us take St Paul for our example, and make the love of Christ the defining element in our daily life.

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