25 January, 2017. The Conversion of St. Paul

1st Reading: Acts 22:3-16

Paul’s account of his conversion, to his fellow-Jews, on the steps of the Temple

“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

What missionary apostles will achieve and endure, in the name of Christ

Jesus said to his disciples, “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.”


A Man Transformed

In his book: Paul, a Critical Life the late Fr. Jerome Murphy O’Connor o.p. shows what a reversal of values took place in the mind of Paul the Pharisee, once he recognises the divine mandate and authority of the risen Christ. As a young scholar in Jerusalem, Saul/Paul must have already known some of the facts about Jesus.”It is inconceivable that he should have persecuted Christians without learning something about the founder of the movement. He certainly was in a position to discover as much as Josephus did. We can safely assume that Paul knew that Jesus had been a teacher to whom marvels were ascribed; that he had been crucified under Pontius Pilate; and that his followers believed him to be the Messiah.” It is unlikely that Paul would have been content with such minimal details. Curiosity would have driven him to find out more. The Pharisees’ version of Jesus’ activities differed from that of Jesus’ followers. His powerful, unperturbed sense of non-hierarchical authority would have hinted that Jesus’ attitude towards the Law embodied a personal claim to speak on God’s behalf. Paul would have known that Jesus saw himself as empowered to articulate God’s will, that for him the Law was no longer the final authority.

While we cannot be sure if Saul/Paul ever knew Jesus in the flesh, there can be no doubt that he violently rejected the Christian claim that Jesus had risen. To his mind, it was ridiculous to maintain that God would intervene to raise from the dead a false teacher whose blasphemous claim to be Messiah was as offensive as his subverting the authority of the Law. Saul/Paul tried to turn Christians from their beliefs because he saw them as having been disastrously misled. Jesus, Saul was convinced, had died a fitting death by execution, and all that remained was to return his supporters to the fold of authentic Judaism. Later, the converted Paul states that Jesus took the initiative in the encounter that led to his conversion; there had been no preparation on his own part.

How then did Saul recognise Jesus, whom he had never seen in his life? It is likely that he had a mental image of Jesus…. but according to Luke’s several accounts in the Acts, Jesus has to identify himself to his former enemy (Acts 9:5; 22:8; 26:15). In any event, as Murphy-O’Connor put it, “the reality and the mental image fused and Paul’s world was turned upside down.”

Whatever happened on the Damascus road, Saul now knew with the deep conviction of direct experience that the Jesus who was crucified under Pontius Pilate was alive in a new way. The resurrection which he and all other Pharisees had dismissed out of hand was a fact, as undeniable as his own reality. Saul now knew that Jesus existed on another plane. This recognition was at the core of his conversion, and it completely transformed his value system. No longer were the claims of Jesus the blasphemous pretensions of a madman, but utter truth. Jesus, against all arguments to the contrary, was the promised Messiah.

Later, when he has changed his name from Saul to Paul, he could write, ‘I wand you to 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.’

Paul’s encounter with Christ revealed the truth of what he had once taken as falsehood by forcing a new assessment of what would become the core of his gospel. 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. And according to Paul, his conversion was for the sake of the Gentiles, ‘But when he who had set me apart from my mother’s womb, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his son to me, in order that I might preach him among the nations.’

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