25 January, 2013. (Friday). The Conversion of St Paul, Apostle. Feast
Acts 22:2-16. Paul describes his change from zealous persecutor of Christians to becoming a follower and missionary of the crucified and risen Christ.
Mark 16:15-18. Mark lists various “signs” that will accompany those who believe – signs that are well illustrated in Paul’s travels as a Christian missionary.
First Reading: Acts 22:2-16.
[The audience] became even more quiet when Paul addressed them in Hebrew. Then he said: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today. I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me. From them I also received letters to the brothers in Damascus, and I went there in order to bind those who were there and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment.
“While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Then he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’ Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. I asked, ‘What am I to do, Lord?’ The Lord said to me, ‘Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do.’ Since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, those who were with me took my hand and led me to Damascus.
“A certain Ananias, who was a devout man according to the law and well spoken of by all the Jews living there, came to me; and standing beside me, he said, ‘Brother Saul, regain your sight!’ In that very hour I regained my sight and saw him. Then he said, ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear his own voice; for you will be his witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you delay? Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.’
Gospel: Mark 16:15-18.
Jesus said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
Paul, a Man Transformed
As background for a homily, here are some of the points made by Jerome Murphy O’Connor, (in Paul, a Critical Life) about St Paul’s conversion, showing what a reversal of values took place in the mind of the zealous young Pharisee, on recognising the truth of the risen Christ. It is hard to imagine that Saul would have persecuted Christians without knowing about the founder of the movement. “We can safely assume that he knew Jesus had been a teacher to whom wonders were ascribed; that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate as the result of Jewish charges; and that his followers thought of him as the Messiah.” The Pharisees would resent the fact that Jesus had disciples whom he taught, which threatened their monopoly of teaching authority among the Jewish people. The natural response was to challenge what Jesus said, particularly in areas like sabbath observance. “They would be offended by his attitude of unperturbed authority, showing an attitude of relativization towards the Law. The implication of assertions such as ‘It was said to those of old [in the Law] … but I say to you …’ was that Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah empowered to articulate God’s will; the Mosaic Law was no longer the sole or final authority.”
What did Saul the Pharisee think of Christian claims? “To him it was ridiculous to maintain that God had intervened to raise from the dead a false teacher whose blasphemous claim to be the Messiah went hand in hand with deliberate subversion of the authority of the Law. He tried to turn Christians from their beliefs on the basis that they had been disastrously misled. He was convinced that Jesus had died a fitting death, and all that remained was to return his supporters to the fold of authentic Judaism.”
What then happened to Paul, to so radically change his mind about Jesus. Apart from the graphic account by Luke (in Acts) about the encounter on the road to Damascus, we have several clues in Paul’s letters, as to how he personally experienced it. ‘[God] was pleased … to reveal his son to me’ (Gal. 1:16); ‘I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus’ (Ph. 3:12); and ‘Did I not see the Lord?’ (1 Cor. 9:1).
Murphy-O’Connor admits that in the appearance story “the most difficult element to account for is the recognition of Jesus’ identity because, by contrast to Jesus’ disciples, Paul had not met Jesus during his earthly ministry.” He surmises that “Paul had a mental image of Jesus. If simple interest can produce such images, then the intense anger which Paul directed against the one who had led Jews astray was capable of the same effect. The stress under which Paul was operating would have heightened his susceptibility to anyone or anything associated with the focus of his emotion. In any event, the reality and the mental image fused and Paul’s world was turned upside down.”
Whatever Paul had seen, he now held with the conviction of direct experience that the Jesus who had been crucified under Pontius Pilate was alive. “The resurrection which he had contemptuously dismissed was a fact, as undeniable as his own reality. He knew that Jesus now existed on another plane. This recognition is all that was necessary to his conversion, because it completely transformed his value system.” He became convinced that Jesus was what his disciples claimed he was, namely, the Messiah, the Saviour of God’s people. Equally he must now accept that the attitude of Jesus towards the Law was correct; the Law was not the definitive expression of God’s will, but a provisional code to guide God’s people until the coming of the Messiah. A new era of grace and a new access to God’s Spirit had opened up – and Paul, despite his previous efforts to thwart the message of Jesus, would be God’s agent to open up this grace to those whom the Mosaic Law had excluded.
Paul’s conversion “consisted essentially in the revaluation of ideas which he already possessed.” And this strong reassessment was a grace that lay at the core of his future mission. To the Galatians he can write, ‘I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel preached by me is not according to man, for I did not receive it from man nor was I taught it but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ’ (Gal. 1:11-12). His encounter with Christ revealed the truth of what he had once vilified – that Christ was the new Adam, the embodiment of authentic humanity. The Law was no longer an obstacle to the salvation of Gentiles; they could be saved without becoming Jews.
His sense of mission was like that of the Jeremiah who described his own vocation as “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you came forth from [your] mother I hallowed you. I appointed you a prophet for [the] nations” (Jer. 1:5). Later Paul understood his conversion as meant primarily to bring Christ to the Gentiles, for he says, “When he who had set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his son to me, in order that I might preach him among the nations’, (Gal. 1:15).
Because of the overwhelming force of his conversion experience, St. Paul always kept an attitude of critical distance towards any claims by the original apostles to authoritatively dictate how the Gospel should be preached. He would proclaim it “in season and out of season,” and was ready to openly criticise even Peter and Barnabas, when he saw how their yielding to conservatism would pose a grave obstacle to spreading the Christian message (Gal 2:1-10). As we honour the great apostolic energy Paul brought to early Christianity, we also pray that his creative zeal and his openness to seeing things with fresh eyes will not be lost in our Church leadership of today