25 January, Thursday – Growing Pains

25 Jan – Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

St. Paul (3-65) was a Jewish Talmudic student and a Pharisee. He was a tent-maker by trade. Saul the Jew hated and persecuted Christians as heretical, even assisting at the stoning of St. Stephen the Martyr. On his way to Damascus to arrest another group of them, he was knocked to the ground, struck blind by a heavenly light, and given the message that in persecuting Christians, he was persecuting Christ. The experience had a profound spiritual effect on him, causing his conversion to Christianity. He was baptised, changed his name to Paul to reflect his new persona, and began travelling and preaching. He died a martyr for his faith.

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Acts 22:3-16

Paul said to the people, ‘I am a Jew and was born at Tarsus in Cilicia. I was brought up here in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was taught the exact observance of the Law of our ancestors. In fact, I was as full of duty towards God as you are today. I even persecuted this Way to the death, and sent women as well as men to prison in chains as the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify, since they even sent me with letters to their brothers in Damascus. When I set off it was with the intention of bringing prisoners back from there to Jerusalem for punishment.

‘I was on that journey and nearly at Damascus when about midday a bright light from heaven suddenly shone round me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” I answered: Who are you, Lord? and he said to me, “I am Jesus the Nazarene, and you are persecuting me.” The people with me saw the light but did not hear his voice as he spoke to me. I said: What am I to do, Lord? The Lord answered, “Stand up and go into Damascus, and there you will be told what you have been appointed to do.” The light had been so dazzling that I was blind and my companions had to take me by the hand; and so I came to Damascus.

‘Someone called Ananias, a devout follower of the Law and highly thought of by all the Jews living there, came to see me; he stood beside me and said, “Brother Saul, receive your sight.” Instantly my sight came back and I was able to see him. Then he said, “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will, to see the Just One and hear his own voice speaking, because you are to be his witness before all mankind, testifying to what you have seen and heard. And now why delay? It is time you were baptised and had your sins washed away while invoking his name.”’

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Mark 16:15-18

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News to all creation. He who believes and is baptised will be saved; he who does not believe will be condemned. These are the signs that will be associated with believers: in my name they will cast out devils; they will have the gift of tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and be unharmed should they drink deadly poison; they will lay their hands on the sick, who will recover.’

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“I am Jesus the Nazarene, and you are persecuting me.”

St Paul should be the most relatable of the Apostles to most of us, if time of his encounter with Jesus is our yardstick. The Apostle to the Gentiles, he is called, for he reached far and wide and challenged St Peter regarding who the message of Jesus was for, and because of that, the non-circumcised (non Jews), were welcomed to the table.

Therefore, like you and me, St Paul didn’t meet the living Jesus Christ, but was confronted by the Lord after His death and resurrection (of course we meet Him everyday in The Eucharist). From that encounter his life was changed, radically. From the most fervent persecutor of the church, to one of the most zealous evangelists. Today’s readings bring to mind two points I would like to share.

Firstly, that God allows suffering to bring about a greater good. God allowed the church to be persecuted, allowed many evils to happen to His very own body (like growing pains), His people, so that a greater good could come out of it. The distinction to make very clear here is that, God allowed it to happen; He didn’t cause it to happen. This is a common objection that atheists raise when talking about God, why would this all-powerful, all-loving God allow so much evil to take place. It can be said that the martyrs got a pretty good deal if you ask me — they are with God now, the wonder and majesty that we read about in the Book of Revelations is their current experience — not a bad reward for their suffering.

In our own lives too, let us trust that Christ will always bring about a greater glory out of all our sufferings. To people who have lost a loved one, the breadwinner who has lost a job, the outcasts who are constantly shunned and ridiculed, God has a plan and as St John Paul the Great used to say, take courage! God is with us all the way and he will never fail us if we trust in Him.

Secondly, it is significant that Jesus said “why are you persecuting me”. Saul never met Jesus in person. This reinforces for me the point made in St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians saying that we are the body of Christ and individual members of that same body. The analogy is very clear — if the body is hurt, Jesus feels it because we are his body. In our context, have we fallen short in our interactions with fellow members of Christ’s body? I am sure it is difficult to think of that when we are in the situation but let us pray for that grace, to see every person we meet as part of this body, in the way Christ would see them.

(Today’s OXYGEN by Daryl De Payva)

Prayer: Jesus I trust in you. Help me to see that you are walking with me, every single step of the way and my sufferings are part of your plan for your glory and ultimately, my reward will be great when I meet you. Grant us courage and strength in the face of trials so that the scales may fall off our eyes too.

Thanksgiving: Thank you Lord, for the conversion of St Paul, The Apostle to the Gentiles. Thank you for the faith being brought to us and for calling us your children and joining us to your body now and forever.

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