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The Conversion of St. Paul

Saturday, January 25, 2014
Today we celebrate the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, an event that has such significance in the life of the Church that the book of Acts relates this incident three times: the reader first hears of how the persecutor Saul became the Christian Paul in chapter 9 from the perspective of Luke the narrator. In Acts 22 we hear the story a second time. On this occasion Paul himself is speaking in Hebrew to a Jewish audience after he is arrested in the Temple in Jerusalem. Finally, in chapter 26 of Acts, Paul again gives his testimony – presumably in Greek - before King Agrippa and the Governor Festus. So the story is told three times: once for us, that is, the readers and listeners; once in Hebrew for the Jews; and once in Greek for the Gentiles: the story of Paul’s conversion is universally relevant. 

Now it may be that this repetition of Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ in fact reflects Paul’s own preaching. The organizing principle that brings coherence to St. Paul’s life and work is his encounter with the Risen Christ, so it is plausible that this would be a theme he returned to time and time again with both Jewish and Christian audiences. The encounter with the Risen Christ was what the English Dominican Cornelius Ernst OP (1924 – 1977) might have called the ‘genetic moment’ of St. Paul’s faith: a personal encounter with Jesus that communicates the heart and life of the Gospel. We read that on the Road to Damascus the then Saul fell to the ground and heard a voice saying: 

“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 
 He said, “Who are you, Lord?” 
 The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting, but rise and enter the city, you will be told what you are to do” (Acts 9: 4 – 5). 

It is worth pointing out here that the earliest Christian creed is usually taken to be: ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’, a formula which provides answers to two questions which are especially relevant to establishing identity: ‘Who is Jesus?’ and ‘What is Jesus?’ Now in his encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus St. Paul almost receives this Creed from the mouth of Jesus himself. In a lifetime of reflection on this encounter he developed two key convictions: first, that in Jesus God had provided for the salvation of all who believe, and that these believers were so united with God through Christ that they had become members of his body. Second, that Paul himself was called to be Christ’s messenger, Christ’s Apostle to the Gentiles. 

This is why Paul’s conversion is relevant to us, why the Church celebrates this event with a feast. The ‘genetic moment’ of Paul’s faith when he accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord matured in time into an extraordinary missionary zeal that led him to spearhead the Church’s mission to the Empire. In the course of this mission he was obliged to reflect even more deeply on the grace he had received and so left us with a body of writings that makes up half of the New Testament. 

Cornelius Ernst argues that it is the testimony of the New Testament that the ‘genetic moment’ in Christian experience is capable of indefinite extension and renewal in the Holy Spirit, and that from this living centre the whole of human experience is reviewed and revivified. Paul’s influence is such that the Church has been stamped, conditioned, by Paul’s peculiarly intense and insightful experience of Jesus. The ‘genetic moment’ of Paul’s faith has shaped the mind of the Church to such an extent that our experience of Christ through His Body the Church is inevitably informed by Paul’s encounter on the Road to Damascus. In Paul, then, we find an inspired guide able to help us unlock the gift that we have received in Jesus, a guide able to help us see both who Jesus is more clearly, as well as ourselves more clearly in his light: In opening up to us his own experience of Jesus, Paul helps us to unlock what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ.

Nicholas Crowe OP


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