25 January – Feast of The Conversion of Saint Paul, Apostle
Paul’s entire life can be explained in terms of one experience—his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus. In an instant, he saw that all the zeal of his dynamic personality was being wasted, like the strength of a boxer swinging wildly. Perhaps he had never seen Jesus, who was only a few years older. But he had acquired a zealot’s hatred of all Jesus stood for, as he began to harass the Church: “…entering house after house and dragging out men and women, he handed them over for imprisonment” (Acts 8:3b). Now he himself was “entered,” possessed, all his energy harnessed to one goal—being a slave of Christ in the ministry of reconciliation, an instrument to help others experience the one Savior.
One sentence determined his theology: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5b). Jesus was mysteriously identified with people—the loving group of people Saul had been running down like criminals. Jesus, he saw, was the mysterious fulfilment of all he had been blindly pursuing.
So Paul’s great message to the world was: You are saved entirely by God, not by anything you can do. Saving faith is the gift of total, free, personal and loving commitment to Christ, a commitment that then bears fruit in more “works” than the Law could ever contemplate.
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.”’
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.’
I said: What am I to do, Lord? The Lord answered, “Stand up and go into Damascus…
Being in relationship with others is so tough. I am not only referring to the romantic kind. There are all kinds – friendship, professional relationships, and kinship. There are various difficulties in keeping good relations with the people around us. However, one of the simplest and commonest obstacles is honesty.
For some, the closer and more intimate the relationship, the harder it is to be vulnerable and honest. For others, it is hardest to be honest with their bosses and colleagues. Depending on the depth and intimacy of understanding we desire to cultivate with each person, we will decide how much of ourselves to reveal. Because honesty involves taking a huge risk.
We risk being rejected, ridiculed, and wounded. We can risk much more, trying to be honest – losing the relationships we cherish, or losing a job.
Before Saul became Paul, he was a religious zealot who not only knew the Law, but saw it as his true calling to persecute and imprison the ‘blaspheming’ followers of Christ. “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…” But Saul was struck down from his high horse on the way to Damascus, by a bright light – and the stunning voice of Jesus. In that brief conversation with Jesus (whom he could not see), a deep convicted conversion took place within Saul’s being.
Let’s not romanticise his conversion though. It took Saul time to reach Ananias who helped him regain his sight. He had to go through a baptism in the name of Jesus, to wash away his sins. He had to be taught the Law of Love (and not just the Law). This change of heart was not wrought by a stroke of lightning as his initial encounter suggests. Saul the Zealot became Paul the converted, who later became the Apostle over his entire lifetime. He is now a Saint for us because of his very virtue of honesty and humility.
By his honesty, we now have his account and admission of his past sins of bringing death to many innocent Christians, his struggles with his fleshly nature, his iniquities against God, the sensitive dynamics of Christian communities, the hardship of growing old, and numerous letters to the Corinthians, Philippians, Ephesians, etc. However for me, the most significant example of his honesty and humility was when he first confessed confusion and ignorance – I said: What am I to do, Lord?
These six words completely changed his life from a know-it-all faithful and law-abiding Jew to a humbled sinner. At that point, Saul became Paul in spirit. He surrendered his plans, will and intellect to Jesus and sought direction.
Christianity is not a club. Our faith is not membership, and the length of our faith journey does not count necessarily for seniority, maturity, wisdom, nor evangelising skill. None of these appearances matter when Christ calls out to us. I am reminded today that the mark of a true follower of Jesus, is the willingness with which we respond to Him “What am I to do, Lord?” instead of insisting to do things our way, our time, our vision. Honesty about our own abilities, helplessness and brokenness is the stepping stone to humility and deeper intimacy with Jesus and others. Only then will we be like Saint Paul, a most humble but fervent evangeliser.
(Today’s OXYGEN by Debbie Loo)
Prayer: Pray for us Saint Paul, that we will be more like you, willing to lay down our will and intellect if God so calls us to in each situation. Help us be honest and humble with ourselves.
Thanksgiving: I am grateful to all my friends and loved ones who have taken risks to be honest and vulnerable with me, even when we all fear being hurt or rejected.