Readings: Acts 22:3-16 / Acts 9:1-22; Psalm 117; Mark 16:15-18
For the first half of his life he was Saul and for the second part Paul. He became the apostle to the Gentiles, the founder of Churches, a travelling preacher and a writer of letters. At the end he witnessed to Christ by shedding his blood as a martyr for the faith at Rome. January 25th is the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, the moment he ceased to be Saul and became Paul. By God’s grace he was destined to be one of the greatest saints of the Church, a man whose life and writings continue to nourish the faith of millions.
Paul describes himself as ‘one untimely born’ (1 Corinthians 15), brought to birth as ‘the last and least’ of the apostles, those privileged to encounter the risen Lord. His life before that moment – his life as ‘Saul’, culminating in his persecution of the Church of God – does not count any more.
It is true that in 2 Corinthians 11, Philippians 3, and Romans 11 Paul gives us a lot of information about his life and times, about his ancestry and education, and about the events of his life before and after his conversion. The Acts of the Apostles fills in many gaps and there is more to be gleaned from other letters of the New Testament.
But if we are to take his own words seriously, then the significant life of Paul the Apostle is his preaching of the gospel and his establishment of churches. His life in Christ is the life that counts. There is nothing before or around that that is worthy of much attention. This is because for him ‘to live is Christ’ (Philippians 1.21) so that ‘it is no longer Paul who lives but Christ who lives in him’ (Galatians 2.20). The fate of Paul is now completely entwined with the fate of Christ and of his Body, the Church.
Paul belongs to the line of Israel’s prophets for whom a vision and vocation inaugurate a new life. Isaiah, for example, saw God’s glory in the temple at Jerusalem, felt his own unworthiness, had his lips burned clean with fire, and then entrusted himself to the grace that made him the bearer of God’s word (Isaiah 6). Amos the keeper of sycamore trees is also turned into a prophet (Amos 7). Jeremiah is called in spite of his feeling that he is too young for the responsibilities involved (Jeremiah 1).
We can use the words of Isaiah, describing the effects of God’s presence in the temple, to say that Paul’s experience of untimely birth meant the shaking of his foundations and the filling of his house with smoke. He was confused and blinded for some time until a representative of the Church, Ananias, came as the instrument of God’s Spirit and guided him to his new birth (Acts 9). Then in baptism, as he has taught the whole Church, Paul became a new creation (2 Corinthians 5.17).
And so his life begins. We cannot doubt that Paul’s personal experience of Jesus on the road to Damascus and in the days that followed deserves all the attention that has been lavished on it. The Acts of the Apostles tells the story three times. (Artists tend to paint the scene with Paul falling from a horse but in none of these accounts is there any reference to a horse!) His teaching and the energy with which he travelled back and forth across the Roman Empire were the result of that moment in which Paul met Jesus and was forever overwhelmed.
What did Saint Paul then do all day? He tells us that he burned himself out in his anxiety and care for the churches. There are hints that he continued to earn a living through his trade of tent making (1 Corinthians 9). But this would have been a tedious distraction from his heart’s passion, which was to preach the gospel of the crucified and risen Lord, to become all things to all people that he might somehow win some of them. He preached to Jews and Greeks, to tradesmen and philosophers, to prison guards and political leaders, to men and women.
As an instrument of the Spirit he achieved remarkable things. He established and strengthened Christian communities in many places. He brought the gospel to Europe. He ended his life by dying a martyr’s death in Rome. He was privileged to follow Christ in more than a figurative sense. With his physical blood Paul completed the outpouring of his heart’s passion, his love for Christ, that love from God that had been poured into his heart by the Holy Spirit. He lived always in faith and love, never for a moment forgetting the grace of God working in him in spite of many difficulties and personal weaknesses.
Saint Paul is one of the best-known personalities of the ancient world who continues to teach and inspire millions of disciples of Jesus. On January 25 we recall the wonderful things God did through him. Let us, in Paul’s own words, ‘give thanks to God who gave him the victory through our Lord, Jesus Christ’ (1 Corinthians 15.57).