St. Paul witnessed to the Lord's resurrection by his words and his example
Last week, I wrote about St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. One of the great ironies of Christian history is the fact that Saul of Tarsus, who after his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus was to become "the first Christian theologian" and one of the Church's greatest missionaries, was present at the stoning of Stephen as an opponent of those who were followers of Jesus (cf. Acts 7:58).
Pope Benedict XVI has observed that as a zealous Jew, Saul held that the new "way" which placed the person of Jesus, crucified and risen, ahead of the Law of Moses was unacceptable, even scandalous. The Holy Father says that for this reason Saul felt it was his duty to the persecute Christ's followers in Jerusalem and beyond.
The Acts of the Apostles and the letters of St. Paul provide vivid descriptions of Saul's encounter with the risen Lord and his subsequent conversion to Christianity. Without Paul's eyewitness testimony and his tireless efforts to proclaim the Gospel -- especially to those who were not Jews -- our understanding of Jesus' teaching would be greatly diminished. Paul was not the only apostle who proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ to foreigners, but his collected writings and his frequent journeys throughout the Mediterranean region provide an intense, personal witness to the risen Lord.
Following his conversion, which Paul regarded as the result of an unforeseeable divine grace, all that he once considered important became "a loss" even "rubbish" (Philippians 3:8) compared to the gift he received through his personal encounter with the risen Lord. Pope Benedict says, "from that moment all of Paul's energy was placed at the exclusive service of Jesus Christ and His Gospel. His existence would become that of an Apostle who wants to become 'all things to all men' (1 Corinthians 9:22) without reserve."
Paul's witness to the resurrection of Jesus is one of the most powerful and instructive features of the New Testament. Not only do we have Paul's eloquent and insightful reflections on the meaning of Christ's life, death and resurrection. We also have a dramatic narrative that illustrates what it means, concretely, to sacrifice everything for the sake of the Gospel. As Paul himself writes:
Five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day on the deep; on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure. And apart from these things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).
Pope Benedict rightly asks, "How can one not admire a man like this? How can one not thank the Lord for having given us an Apostle of this stature?"
Paul would dismiss our praise and gratitude. He boasted only about things that showed his weakness -- and the Lord's ability to take something weak and make it an instrument of divine power, to take something paltry and sinful and make it a shining example of God's merciful love and goodness.
Paul taught that Christian faith must always be humble before God. We owe everything to God's grace alone. Since nothing and no one can replace God in our lives, it is vitally important that we pay homage to nothing and no one else. If we allow anything else, no matter how good or important, to replace God as our exclusive priority in life, we will lose our freedom as God's children and become slaves to "principalities and powers" that are infinitely less than God.
This Easter season, let's pay closer attention to St. Paul. Let's listen more carefully to his words, which proclaim Christ crucified and risen. And let's try harder to follow his example, to live as he lived -- no longer for ourselves but for the One who died and was raised for our sake (cf. 2 Corinthians 5: 14-15).
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