We keep today the feast of the Conversion of St Paul, which is probably a feast you’ve never heard of before because we don’t normally keep it on a Sunday. But this year has been dedicated by Pope Benedict as the Year of St Paul, and so we’re celebrating the feast today.
St Paul is the most dramatic saint we find in the New Testament, and the saint who had the most effect in spreading the Gospel. If you were to take a cruise on a boat around the Mediterranean Sea you would find place after place were the people would claim that St Paul had been there, would claim that St Paul was the one who took the Gospel to them. From Turkey to Spain, with places like Malta and Cyprus in between. When we read in our first reading from Acts 22:15 that St Paul was “chosen... to bear witness before ALL mankind” –it hardly seems an exaggeration. He was great man of great effect.
But today, on the feast of his conversion, we recall how he began. How he started out as one who persecuted the Christians, and yet, God CHOSE him, chose him with a dramatic event, a light that threw him from his horse, then spoke to him from the heavens, blinded him and later miraculously cured him. And St Paul came to believe in the one he had not believed in, and came to preach what he had opposed.
Now, there are many points I could preach on in this regard, but there is one simple one I’m going to focus on: what was it that made St Paul “great”?
Because we might think it that dramatic miraculous event, or that he was a great preacher, or clever in his use of words.
And there are many things at a worldly level that make St Paul appear great:
He had religious greatness: “a Hebrew born of the Hebrews”(Phil 3:5).
He had worldly greatness: born of a wealthy family, a Roman citizen in the Roman Empire, he had been sent as youth from Tarsus to be a student of the great Gamaliel in Jerusalem.
But everything in St Paul’s life changed after he met Christ: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ”(Phil 3:7-9).
What made St Paul great was the fact that he knew Christ, and in this, there were many others who were greater than he was –even if they didn’t have as spectacular a conversion or as spectacular a life in the effects that God called forth from them.
For those of us who have known Christ for a long time, maybe known him since infancy, it is very easy to forget the importance of knowing him. We can treat him with a sort of casual indifference.
St Paul came to realise that “knowing Christ Jesus” was important because it meant knowing the key to life, knowing “a secret and hidden wisdom”(1 Cor 2:7), or rather, a wisdom that was secret and has now been made known, and that St Paul spent the rest of his life making known: the ‘secret’, the ‘mystery’ that there was a plan from the foundation of the world, a plan that called us IN CHRIST, to become sons in the Son, to be adopted as His own.
So that the value of any one of us does not lie in our education, or wealth, or accent (nice as these things might be for those who have them),
But our value lies in knowing Him who made us, who called us, and who values us simply on the basis of our fidelity to Him, a fidelity that can be measured simply by how much we love (c.f. 1 Cor 13:13).
The true greatness of St Paul’s conversion lies not in the miracle of blinding light, but in the fact that he changed what he valued in life, and what he valued in himself: that he ‘counted everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’, Christ who “shows that he loves us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us”)Rom 5:9).