This is the fourth week of an Easter series on the Resurrection. This week, we encounter the Risen Jesus from the perspective of Saint Paul.
By: Rev. Robert Wagner, Secretary to Bishop Loverde
Each encounter with the Risen Lord we hear in the Gospels includes one of the followers of Jesus. Saint Paul, or Saul as he was called before his conversion, offers a complete contrast. In the Acts of the Apostles, he was “breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord,” persecuting them on behalf of the high priests and elders of the Jewish faith (Acts 9:1-2; 22:4-5). Paul was a faithful and educated Jew who heard the preaching of the early Christians with a hardened heart. Instead of believing the gospel they taught, he heard only heresy in their words, and sought to put an end to their existence. Our Lord had a different plan.
Paul’s encounter with the Risen Lord was so pivotal in the life of the early Church that Saint Luke included it three times in the Acts of the Apostles (9:1-19; 22:3-16; 26:2-18). Saul was traveling to Damascus to arrest Christians when he “saw a light from the sky, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my traveling companions.” Immediately he and the others fell to the ground and he heard a voice speak to him: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul asked who he was speaking to, and the voice replied, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (9:5; 22:8; 26:15).
In that moment, Paul’s understanding of Jesus and the Church was made anew. It is unclear to what extent Paul received understanding of the faith in this moment, but we see that the power and glory he experienced in the encounter drew him to believe that Jesus Christ was speaking to Him and that he must stop persecuting the Jesus through His Mystical Body, the Church. Immediately, Paul was a changed man, no longer persecuting the Christians, but joining them as one of their members and leaders.
Speaking of Paul’s conversion, John Henry Newman offers that Paul’s life opposing the Christians made him a uniquely fit instrument to convert others. Because he held false beliefs that turned him against Jesus Christ and His Church, Paul was more adept at turning others from their errors and leading them to see the truth with the eyes of faith. His conversion from darkness to light allowed him to lead the Gentiles to believe in the Gospel.
Our Lord often works in this way — the greatest of sinners become the most convincing of evangelists, in part because of the experience of their sins. Each of us fail to love God perfectly, and we give thanks to God that He offers us forgiveness through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Too often, however, we waste time despairing about past sins Our Lord has already forgiven. The evil one uses this despair to separate us from God, for we think that even though forgiven, we are too defiled still for God to work in us and through us. Yet, those sins of our past can offer us a perspective that can bring others to Jesus. We can then lead those who struggle as we did to see the error of their ways and the freedom and forgiveness that lies ahead with Our Lord.
From another perspective, we may be tempted to see that Paul’s instant conversion from zealous denial of Jesus to zealous belief as unfair, since the rest of us struggle to grow in faith and sanctity bit by bit. Who would not want to be swept up into understanding and holiness in an instant?! However, let us praise the Lord for bringing about that conversion in Paul, for through his gifts and his efforts the Gospel was spread throughout the world. Let us also marvel at the power of the Holy Spirit to bring about such enlightenment in an instant, and how convincing the glory of the truth is, revealed to us through the conversion of Saint Paul. Finally, we place our trust in God as we continue on our path to conversion: praying daily, receiving the sacraments regularly, and dwelling on the truths contained in the Scriptures, Church teaching, and the writings of the great spiritual writers who have blessed the history of our Catholic faith. God has a plan for each one of us, and He guides our efforts toward conversion, at times even jump-starting them as He did with Saint Paul, that we may become the saints He has created us to be.