From Saul to Paul
by Fr. Rufus Pereira
Luke's Gospel, the Good News of God's Word, Love and Power, the Acts of Jesus in his time, ends with Jesus reminding his apostles for the last time, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Scriptures: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead, and repentance and forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name by you his witnesses to all nations, and so I am going to send you what my Father has promised so that you will have been clothed with power from on high" (Lk 24:44-49).
The Acts of the Apostles, written also by Luke, the Good News for our time, begin in the same way: with Jesus commanding them to wait for what the Father had promised, so that they will be baptized with the Holy Spirit and receive his power to thus be his witnesses, even to the remotest part of the earth (Acts 1:4-9). That is what happened when the day of Pentecost came: they were all as one community filled with the Holy Spirit. That is also what happened to the three thousand who, in response to Peter's call to repent of their sins and to believe in Jesus, received too the gift of the Holy Spirit (2:1-4,37-39).
When Peter and John were questioned by the temple priests by what power or in whose name did they heal the crippled man, Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, pronounced unabashed that it was by the name of Jesus that this man stood before them healed, for salvation is found in no one else (Acts 4:12). When they were later threatened to stop their preaching and healing, it was in answer to their prayer to enable them to speak Jesus' word with great boldness and to heal and perform miracles in his name, that they were once again all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. When the Sanhedrin accused them of having filled Jerusalem with their teachings even though they had given them strict orders not to teach in this name, the Apostles countered that they must obey God rather than men, since they and the Holy Spirit were witnesses of these things. And so, day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.
But however effective the Apostles were in bringing about the Kingdom of God in Israel, Jesus was searching for a man who would bring that Kingdom to the whole known world, the great Roman Empire. This happened when the newly appointed deacon, Stephen, who, full of the Holy Spirit, proclaimed Jesus as Lord, was rushed at by the furious yelling Jews and dragged out of the city to be stoned to death. They laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul, who obviously approved what was happening - but Stephen prayed, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." It was on that very day that a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all the disciples were scattered. However they preached the word wherever they went, and there was great joy among the people who saw the miraculous signs of deliverance and healing. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.
Still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples, and armed with letters from the High Priest, he even went to Damascus, so that he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. But as he neared the town on his destructive journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him, he fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" "Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked. "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do." When he got up he realised he was blind. A nondescript disciple, named Ananias, was told by God to go and ask for Saul, for he was now praying. Ananias was understandably reluctant to do so, for, as he told God, he had heard many reports about all the harm this man had done to the disciples, and that he had even come up there to arrest them. But the Lord said that this very man was his chosen instrument to carry his name both before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel, - and that he will show him how much he must suffer for the Lord's name. Then Ananias went and, placing his hands on Saul, prayed for him to be healed of his physical and spiritual blindness and to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
At once Saul began to preach for several days in the synagogues of Damascus that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, "Isn't he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn't he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?" Saul however grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus, by proving that Jesus is the Christ, who then conspired to kill him. On the other hand, when he came to Jerusalem to join the disciples, they were all afraid of him, not believing that he had really become a disciple. But Barnabas took him to the apostles and told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him. Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, and it grew in numbers.
Now those who had been scattered by the persecution, in connection with Stephen, travelled telling the message only to Jews, but some of them began to speak to Greeks also, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. Barnabas a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, was therefore sent by the church at Jerusalem to Antioch to check, and he saw the evidence of the grace of God. Then he went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and he brought him to Antioch, where for a whole year these two taught great numbers of people, who then began to be called 'Christians'. It was also in the church at Antioch, that while the disciples were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. (13:1-4).
That was the beginning of the ministry of Saul, now called by his new name of Paul, who spent the rest of his life, journeying from country to country and from town to town, preaching the Gospel in season and out of season, healing the sick and delivering the oppressed, founding churches, i.e. ecclesial communities, everywhere, praying for all his disciples, encouraging and correcting his leaders, and ready to suffer for his Lord, for he now knew that it was not he any more that was living, but it was Christ, his one and only love, living in him, and that his only desire was "that the Word of God might spread rapidly and triumph" (2 Thess 3:1).
The story of Paul's Conversion, what he had been before his conversion, how he was converted, and what he became after his conversion, reminds me of a book, that was my favourite book in the very first year of my seminary life and training, 'Saints for Sinners', written by a former Archbishop of Bombay, Archbishop Alban Goodier, an English Jesuit. In his preface he writes that the word "Sinners" is to be taken in a broad sense. For beside the actual consciousness of sin, and the sense of weakness that comes of it, there is also a kindred consciousness of failure, and of being ineffectual, the realization of our utter nothingness, which were the lot of all the saints, that "virtue is made perfect in infirmity," and that the life of the Cross is an ideal above every other, however human nature may stumble or be scandalized.
The stories of these Sinners-become-Saints remind us that God's grace can conquer every human flaw. Christ came not to call saints but to make them - often out of weak, stupid, and sinful men. That's why the saints are not only models of holiness for us to imitate; they are reminders that God's grace can outshine every human flaw. Even the greatest saints had to battle the same stubborn vices, temptations of the flesh, and bouts of spiritual dryness that afflict you and me today. "But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; and the weak things of the world to shame the strong; and the base things of this world and the contemptible things - and the things that are not - to bring to nought the things that are, so that no one may boast before him" (I Cor 1:27-29).
It is that "God is wonderful in His saints"; that He "chooses whom He wills Himself"; that in His house "there are many mansions"; and that there is no condition of life to which His grace does not reach, none so low but He can make it worthy of Himself, that there is no one so sinful, weak, or desolate that God has not already raised another like him to the heights. Mary Magdalene, the prostitute, became the first evangelist; the criminal on the right of the crucified Lord became the first one to be canonised; Mathew, the hated tax collector, became the first Gospel writer; Peter, the shameful denier of his Master, became the first Pope; and Saul, sinner, persecutor and terrorist became Paul, saint, preacher and martyr.
Today indeed there are very many other Sauls, but, thank God, there are other Pauls too, like the one I met recently. I took a taxi to the airport in London and, as I always do, I sat in the front seat next to the cabman. Again, as I always do, I introduced myself, telling him that I hailed from Mumbai, India, and adding that I was a Christian and, as my collar showed, a priest. I then asked him his country of origin, since he seemed to be from Asia, and, excusing myself from being too inquisitive, his religious background. He told me his country of origin, which was noted for its religious fanaticism and even terrorism, and added that though he had been brought up in his original religious beliefs, he had encountered Jesus in such a life changing way, that he was now using all his resources and free time in distributing thousands of Bibles in his native country, knowing that his life was in danger, adding that hundreds of his fellow countrymen were accepting Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. For the rest of the journey of more than an hour, I spoke not a single word anymore but just listened in deep silence to his incredible and gripping testimony. When we reached the airport, he came out of his taxi, knelt in front of me and asked me to pray over him for greater zeal and evangelistic success - in full view of all the other air passengers!
E-mail this article to a friend
Copyright © Fr. Rufus Pereira. All rights reserved.