December 1, 2008
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
Sacred Scripture offers two avenues by which we may be drawn into the faith world of St. Paul and come face-to-face with the truth and beauty of the Gospel he preached: the letters Paul wrote and Acts of the Apostles, penned by the evangelist Luke.
With its accessible narrative format, Acts has the benefit of situating Paul's life alongside the other apostles and the emergent Church. Not unlike the story of Christ in the third Gospel, Acts relates how the Holy Spirit begets, nourishes, and leads the Church from her inception in Jerusalem to the ends of the world (Acts 1:8).
This backdrop is crucial for understanding Paul's letters, which, as even St. Peter admits (2 Peter 3:16), can be hard to understand.
Accordingly, this article and subsequent installments, trace the story of Paul as told in Acts by St. Luke. A gifted writer in his own right, Luke served as a travelling companion and fellow missionary of the Apostle.
Luke-Acts itself encompasses a 60-year time frame and reveals a telling pattern: what happens to Christ happens to the Church from Baptism by the Spirit, to raising the dead, to martyrdom. The identity and mission of the Church, in turn, find meaning by being rooted in the story of Christ.
We pick up the narrative in chapter 9 following Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus. Specific attention is given to Paul's new mission, his Baptism and first sermon.
Paul, whose Hebrew name was Saul, was set on arresting members of the Way, the self-styled name of early Christians. Akin to the turning points in the lives of Abraham, Moses or Samuel, the Lord called upon Paul with a two-fold repetition, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" (Acts 9:5).
Blinded and bewildered, the once fierce Pharisee falls helpless to the ground, and has to be led by the hand, step by step, into the city.
The conversion of St. Paul engraved in 1870 by Gustave Dore
One can only imagine the terribly confusing and humiliating situation that suddenly set upon Paul. Stephen, and the others professing belief in a crucified Messiah, were speaking God's truth. All that the Law and prophets had pointed to came to fruition in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
For all this study of the Torah, Paul had not foreseen this. If anything, Christ's revelation dealt a shattering blow to Paul's previous understanding of God, Israel's covenants and salvation history.
Curiously, Luke does not speculate on Paul's interior state or emotions. He simply relates how he remained without sight or food for three days (9:9), and that he received a vision of his sight being restored (9:12).
Moreover, the full significance of this turn of events is told not to the humbled Paul, but to his reluctant baptizer, Ananias. In a vision, the Lord explains, "He is a chosen instrument of mine, to bear my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name" (9:15-16).
Without this reassurance Ananias might have been content to leave the former persecutor blind. Obediently, he visits the incapacitated Paul and addresses him with the distinction of fellow "brother" (9:17). Paul, undoubtedly exhausted and dejected at this point, is filled with the Holy Spirit, baptized and thus birthed into the family of Christ.
Strengthened by the Spirit, and with sight and health restored, Paul wastes no time in sharing the Good News in the synagogues of Damascus. Paul knew the Bible backwards and forwards and had heard other Christians, like Stephen, preach before.
Luke diligently tells of Paul's first, and perhaps shortest, sermon ever: "Jesus is the Son of God" (9:20). Despite its brevity, these words were clear enough for those familiar with the psalms. Jesus was not a pretender to the throne of David, but God's anointed, his chosen messiah (see Psalm 2:7).
From such a claim ensue the familiar glares, backlash and argumentation all of which Paul understood so well but now experiences firsthand. A more dramatic turn of events could hardly be imagined.
In the next segment we cover Paul's first brush with death and subsequent return to Jerusalem.
(Gerard McLarney is the archdiocesan coordinator of the Year of St. Paul and a lecturer at St. Joseph's College, University of Alberta.)