Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Conversion of St Paul

Caravaggio's "Conversion of St Paul", (1600)
at Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting"

"A Damascus Road experience." The expression has so become part of our language that we use it to describe any radical change of heart, be it the conversion of smokers into non-smokers, meat eaters into vegetarians, or the sudden exchange of one philosophy for another when (to use another metaphor) "the penny drops". Well, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus in AD 33 or 34, which we celebrate today, was certainly the original and most startling "Damascus Road experience" of all! So much so that most of the themes we find throughout the rest of his life and teaching can be understood as the logical consequence of his initial encounter with the risen Jesus.

Saul was born into a family of means and influence; they even had Roman citizenship. Nurtured in the Jewish tradition at his mother's knee, and then at the feet of Rabbi Gamaliel, he was also well versed in the Greek philosophies and religious cults of his day. As a young man he had become a zealous member of the Pharisee party.

While there are different views as to whether or not he might have met Jesus "in the flesh", we know that in the earliest days of the Church Saul passionately hated the Gospel, and had been given authority to direct the persecution of Christians - something he did with great thoroughness ". . . entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison" (Acts 8:3b). Indeed, the first time we come across him in Acts he is consenting to the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. (St Augustine remarked, "The Church owes Paul to the prayer of Stephen.")

This Saul was still "breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord" (Acts 9:1) when he gained approval to search for followers of Jesus at Damascus in order to "bring them bound to Jerusalem." Damascus is 217 kilometres northeast of Jerusalem, a distance that takes about six days on foot. Saul and his party set out, and in one of those "revelational leaps" of which our God is entirely capable, heaven was opened for a split second, and the dazzling light of the shekina - the manifest glory of God - blinded Saul and knocked him to the ground. In an instant, he knew that he had been completely wrong about the Christians.

Everything changed because when Saul bit the dust he saw the risen Jesus for himself. From then on, all he wanted was to be a slave of Jesus in the ministry of helping others experience the love, grace, forgiveness and healing power (the "salvation" or "wholeness") that only Jesus can bring (Romans 1:17).

Look at what the Voice from heaven said: "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting" (Acts 9:5b). It was the Church that Saul had been persecuting; clearly to persecute the Church was to persecute Jesus. Right from the beginning, then, Jesus and his people are identified in the closest possible way. We might say that Acts 9:5 shows just how "catholic" the Gospel has been from the start. Saul would develop this in his teaching that the Church is "the body of Christ" (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)

It is a fundamental point of Acts 9 that Saul's conversion entailed his becoming part of this Church, the community with which Jesus so closely identified himself, the people Saul had treated so badly. It was these people who, in their gathering to hear the Word proclaimed, to celebrate the Sacraments, especially the miracle of the Eucharist, and to support one another in their joys and sorrows, experienced all over again the love, power and healing presence of the risen Jesus. Notice that right from the Damascus Road, divine instruction made it clear that the only way Saul would fully know the risen Jesus was in the ongoing life of the Church community.

From then on, his work was "warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man mature in Christ. For this I toil, striving with all the energy which he mightily inspires within me" (Colossians 1:28b-29). "For our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction" (1 Thessalonians 1:5a).

St Paul preached and lived out the message of the Cross: that in baptism not only do we die to sin and are buried with Jesus, but that we also rise with him to newness of life, becoming a new creation, already sharing his victory, and destined someday literally to rise from the dead like him (Romans 6:1-3). Furthermore, that the Holy Spirit is given to us, prays in us, fills us, empowers us, enabling us to be one as we reach out to others with the Gospel.

St Paul organized his converts into local house churches, and constantly exhorted them in person and by letter to guard their communion with the Lord and his Church by remaining faithful to the teaching and tradition handed down from the apostles.

According to St Paul this "communion" or "shared life" has come about by God's grace. In Ephesians 2:8 he said, "By grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God." In other words, saving faith is a free, total, personal and loving commitment to Jesus and his Church, a relationship that bears fruit in so many more "good works" than could ever be envisaged by "the Law."

Tradition tells us that, although Saul of Tarsus was from a background of scholarship and social advantage, he was unprepossessing in his physical appearance, and he was not a very gifted public speaker. And we know from the Scriptures that his ministry was one of pain and anguish as well as joy. This passage from his second letter to the Corinthians says it all:
"We put no obstacle in any one's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, hunger; by purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything." (2 Corinthians 6:3-10)

When it was clear to St Paul that he was approaching the end of his life on earth, he wrote these words to his spiritual son, Timothy:
" . . . the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing." (2 Timothy 4:6-8)

O God,
who, through the preaching of the blessed Apostle Saint Paul,
hast caused the light of the Gospel
to shine throughout the world :
grant, we beseech thee, that we,
having his wonderful conversion in remembrance,
may shew forth our thankfulness unto thee for the same,
by following the holy doctrine which he taught.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who liveth and reigneth with thee
in the unity of the Holy Ghost,
ever one God,
world without end.

By the way: If you've wondered what significance there is behind "Saul" becoming "Paul", you're not alone. A number of theories exist. Acts 13:6 is where Saul is called Paul for the first time ("But Saul, who was also known as Paul, . . . ") I think those scholars are correct who say that when Saul is in a Jewish context his Jewish name was used, but when he is in a Greek and Roman context his Roman name "Paul" is used. Dr. David B. Capes Professor of Greek and New Testament Studies at Houston Baptist University says:
In Antioch where the Jewish population of Christ-believers was significant it made sense that he'd use his Jewish name. But during the Gentile mission, he encountered primarily, well . . . Gentiles. So he used his Roman name then. But there's another thing. When you take the Jewish name Saul and render it in Greek it sounds like this: Saulos. And the word saulos in Greek means "the sultry walk of a prostitute." No wonder Paul didn't want to be introduced like that!

Dr Cape's article is HERE.


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