Each of us a different part
Conversión de Saulo (Reni) circa 1615-1620
Each of us a different part
On Wednesday this coming week the church celebrates the conversion of St. Paul. This is different to his feast day on June 29 when he is honoured with St. Peter.
No conversion has been more consequential than Paul’s as he had previously persecuted the church, even taking part in the stoning of St. Stephen. He was determined to wipe out the new Christian church. Acts 9:1 says that Paul was “still breathing out threats to slaughter the Lord’s disciples.” He had gone to the high priest and asked for letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus authorising him to arrest any followers of Jesus in the city. But God changed his views on that journey to Damascus and the details of this are well known. While fallen on the ground Paul heard the voice of Jesus: “Why are you persecuting me?”
In view of the events at the time, we might have thought it more relevant for Jesus to ask why Paul was persecuting Christ’s followers like Stephen. The answer is clear from a letter later written by Paul to the Corinthians (Cor.1 12:12-30). Anyone who persecutes the Christian church is persecuting Christ himself and vica versa. Jesus is the head and the Church is His body. If one part is hurt, all parts are hurt with it. If one part is given special honour, all parts enjoy it. “Now you together are Christ’s body; but each of you is a different part of it.” The Church is not just a means of conveying God’s revelation. The Church is actually part of God’s revelation. Jesus and the Church are clearly one.
Paul became the most determined of the apostles, suffering brutal physical pain, persecution and finally martyrdom. He revealed in his letter to the Philippians (4:13) how he endured his remaining life of hardship: “There is nothing I cannot do with the help of Christ who gives me strength.” Paul possessed good credentials to be an evangelist: He was versed in Jewish culture and language, his upbringing in Tarsus gave him familiarity with the Greek language and culture, his training in Jewish theology helped him connect the Old Testament with the gospel, and as a skilled tentmaker he could support himself on his travels.
Christianity was changed on that desert road by this important event. We might reflect on the extent of change by pondering what our church might be like today if St. Paul had remained Saul of Tarsus, a Roman citizen and zealous Jew. What if he had never converted or written his many teaching letters or sailed the seas on missionary voyages? Might the church have been confined to Palestine for longer? Paul’s conversion showed that Jesus himself wanted the gospel message to reach the Gentiles and beyond, quashing any argument from the early Jewish Christians that the gospel was only for the Jews.
Through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, a contrite person’s past does not matter to Christ as much as the person’s future. Even though Saul had been one of Jesus’ most cruel enemies, he became one of his closest friends. What could Jesus do through you if you surrendered as Paul did and gave him complete control of your life?
(The story of Paul’s conversion is told in Acts 9:1-19 (most likely written by St. Luke) and, because Luke probably travelled with Paul for a while, is retold by Paul in Acts 22:6-21 and Acts 26:12-18.)
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