Wednesday, January 21, 2009

25th January 2009 - Conversion of St Paul

People have occasionally thought I would be good at quizzes, perhaps because I know a lot of useless and irrelevant information. Unfortunately, the few occasions when I have taken part in a public quiz have not lived up to this expectation. Many years ago, for example, when I was still at school, I took part in a quiz between Church youth groups. I was asked the question “Who was the first missionary to set foot outside his own country?”. I hadn’t got a clue. What did I know of missionaries at the time? The person sitting next to me whispered in my ear. He was of course saying “St Paul”, but it wasn't very clear and I wasn’t at all sure what he said but I gave it my best shot: “Jim Ball” I confidently pronounced. I don’t remember whether the audience was filled with shock or hilarity - but either would have been appropriate.

In fact now, I’m not quite sure whether this was really a fair question nor whether ‘St Paul’ is even the right answer, but as we call Paul ‘apostle to the Gentiles’ - the missionary more than any other who took the Gospel to the non-Jewish world - I suppose it is reasonable. However, my ignorance then probably reflects the ignorance of many Christians now about St Paul. If I were to ask you what you know about him, my guess would be that you would be able to note down just a few points.

Most Christians probably know that he underwent a great conversion. They may also say that before the conversion he was Saul but afterwards became Paul. Some may say that at his conversion Jesus spoke to him and he fell off his horse. A few may know that he wrote a lot of letters. Some may know that was beheaded in Rome. Mostly correct - but not quite. There are four accounts of his conversion in the New Testament - not one mentions a horse! Nowhere does it mention that he changed his name, because he didn’t - Saul was the name he used mainly amongst Jews and Paul the name he was called by those who spoke Greek.

But even what we get right only begins to tell the story. The conversion story is a tremendous one - but of course it is only the beginning. Conversion is one thing - what you make of it is another. AS Jesus said ‘By After his conversion, Paul travelled extensively through the Roman empire, preaching in synagogues and market places, setting up networks of small Christian communities, moving on rapidly to the next town, keeping in touch with these new Churches by letters of such eloquence and beauty that the Churches read them again and again. In his letters he did not repeat the parables of Christ, and gave few references to his words, but explained carefully the meaning of Him who came as the promised One for the Jews but also the Saviour of all humanity. He dealt with controversies in the young Churches; he encouraged and he reprimanded; he inspired by philosophy and poetry.

And we take him so much for granted that even though we hear his words at almost every Mass we celebrate, we rarely give him the significance which is his due: yet it is he who took the Gospel out of his own country, he who founded so many Christian Churches, he who expounded and clarified this new faith.

We have Pope Benedict to thank for this Year of St Paul - may it help us to deepen our understanding of his teaching, strengthen our faith, and like him, Go Out to the Whole World and Proclaim the Good News.

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