Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
IN EVERY AGE there are people who have made dramatic turn-arounds in their life, going from one religion – or no religion – to another. These conversions often lead to a person making a significant contribution to the religious life of their age. One convert who has touched every successive age is St Paul the Apostle.

The story of St Paul’s conversion is described three times in the New Testament – twice in the Acts of the Apostles and once in St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. The story is basically the same, although there are a few variations we can note. The basic story, told largely in his own words, is as follows:

Paul’s Background – When he was attacked by Jews in Jerusalem and accused of defiling the temple Paul began his defense by speaking of his upbringing: “I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ Law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today” (Acts 22:3). He described his religiousity in his Epistle to the Philippians. He tells how he was “… circumcised on the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the Law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the Church; concerning the righteousness which is of the Law, blameless” ( Philippians 3:5, 6). At this time Paul was still known as Saul of Tarsus. The name Paul was given to him upon his conversion. Paul’s teacher, Gamaliel (+ad 52) was an important member of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. He is described in the New Testament as “a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law held in respect by all the people” (Acts 5:34) and a voice of moderation in their council. When the Sanhedrin was considering how to kill Peter and the other apostles, Gamaliel calmed them, saying “…if this plan or this work [preaching Christ] is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God” (Acts 5:38, 39).

We do not know why Saul did not adopt Gamaliel’s wait-and-see approach to the followers of Jesus, but he describes his own attitude to them like this: “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women, as also the high priest bears me witness, and all the council of the elders, from whom I also received letters to the brethren…” (Acts 22:4, 5).

We may have a clue to Saul’s thinking in what he wrote to believers in Galatia, St Paul described his religious convictions this way: “And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14). He had been, after all, a participant in the stoning of the protomartyr, St Stephen. The Commission to Damascus – There was a large Jewish community – some say it numbered 10,000 – in Damascus in the first century ad. This community, which traced its origin to the time of King David, some 1000 years earlier, was so prominent that it was ruled by its own ethnarch in Roman times. Some 130 miles from Jerusalem, Damascus was one of the first destinations to which Jewish believers in Jesus brought their message. Their impact on the Jews of Damascus was so great that news of it reached Jerusalem. Saul “went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1).

What happened on Saul’s journey to Syria is well known. Years later Paul described it for his accusers in Jerusalem with these words: “Now it happened, as I journeyed and came near Damascus at about noon, suddenly a great light from heaven shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ So I answered, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’

“And those who were with me indeed saw the light and were afraid, but they did not hear the voice of Him who spoke to me. So I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Arise and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all things which are appointed for you to do.’ And since I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of those who were with me, I came into Damascus” (Acts 22:6-21).

Many English-speaking commentators have pointed out an apparent contradiction between the two stories of this event in Acts. In chapter 9 we are told that “the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one” (Acts 9:7). Paul, however, says that “those who were with me indeed saw the light and were afraid, but they did not hear the voice of Him who spoke to me” (Acts 22:9).

The word in chapter 22 translated as hear may also be translated as understand. In other Scriptural passages it is rendered in just that way. So this verse may mean that Saul’s companions heard a sound but did not understand it as speech. It may also mean that they heard speaking but may not have understood the words. Saul’s Baptism – Saul was led into the city by the hand, “And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:9). Then, we are told, the following took place: “Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and to him the Lord said in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ And he said, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ So the Lord said to him, ‘Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight.’

“Then Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.’


And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized. So when he had received food, he was strengthened. Then Saul spent some days with the disciples at Damascus.” Paul Preaches Christ – As a result of Saul’s experience on the road, “Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. Then all who heard were amazed, and said, ‘Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?’ But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ. Now after many days were past, the Jews plotted to kill him. But their plot became known to Saul. And they watched the gates day and night, to kill him. Then the disciples took him by night and let him down through the wall in a large basket” (Acts 9:19-25).

In 1885 the Melkite Patriarch Gregory II purchased a dilapidated mosque in the old city wall of Damascus. A former church, it had been long revered as the site of St Paul’s escape. It is now a church again.
 
THE MINISTRY OF THE LORD JESUS BEGINS with instances of physical healing. The Gospels present this as fulfilling a well-attested messianic prophecy. In Luke 4:16 and following we read how Jesus read such a prophecy from Isaiah in the synagogue service at Nazareth. He then sat down, we are told, and said “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21). Later, when John the Baptist sent people to ask Jesus if He was the Messiah, the Lord told them to inform John of what they had seen: the healings which were an expected sign of the messianic age (see Matthew 7:19-23). He was indicating that these miracles illustrated that He was in fact the Messiah. The physical healings foretold by the prophets would be accomplished by Christ, but they would also be exceeded by Him in ways the prophets could not imagine. The healings performed by Christ on the bodies of the blind, the lame, and the deaf were temporal, destined to disappear with those same bodies in death. But Christ’s healings, besides pointing back to the prophets, also pointed ahead. He who was the physician of bodies would also heal the souls of those who believed in Him: healings that would last unto eternity. The New Testament portrays baptism as the Church’s “healing moment” for believers in Christ. In the first years of the Church, and for several centuries afterwards, baptism was chiefly administered to adults who were ready to commit their lives to Christ. Their baptism by immersion was a sign of union with the death of Christ, His defeat of sin and death; their rising from the water a sign of their union with Him in His resurrection unto eternal life. In their baptism they experienced Christ raising them from the dead. St Paul tells his Gentile converts at Colossae: “…you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses” (Colossians 2:13).

Christ Heals Today

The consequence of being healed of sin and death, Paul goes on to say, is that you live like someone dead to the world and to sin. Baptism brings about the death of the “old man,” who is confined, as it were, to the world. The “new man,” united to Christ in baptism is given the opportunity to transcend the confines of the world and to live in Christ, both now and in eternity. We are healed at baptism when our life as an “old man” ends; we are resurrected as a “new man,” alive with Christ in us. We have been changed through baptism in our spirit, the deepest part of our being. Over the years our inheritance as children of the earth, our environment and the direct actions of others have caused our spirit to be so covered over that we are out of touch with the new man in us. It is our lifelong task to “be what we have become,” in the words of St Gregory of Sinai: people who live from our renewed spirit instead of from the spirit of the world. This refocusing of our lives on being a “new man,” alive in Christ is the early Church’s understanding of repentance. It is the continual striving to center our lives on the unseen reality of Christ in us rather than on the visible but transitory and therefore unreal attractions of this world. Doing this we are renewed in the image of Christ, whom we have put on and who is Himself the image of the unseen Father. St Paul speaks frequently of the consequences of being a new man in Christ: we must strive to live like one. Put to death, he writes, “whatever in you is earthly” (Colossians 3:5): both actions (fornication, anger, blasphemy, etc.) and inner passions (such as evil desire and covetousness). Since we have put off the old man and put on the new in baptism, our daily life is to reflect in practice what we already are in spirit. We have been healed of sin and death: we must live in the light of that healing. A person who is healed from sin and death has died to the world. In this the Christian is “hidden with Christ in God” (v. 3). While this language was later adopted by monastics to describe their particular commitment to living for Christ, it was first applied to all the baptized. In the New Testament baptism, not monastic profession, is the believer’s death and resurrection in Christ. It is a believer’s re-creation “according to the image of Him who created him” (v. 10): the One who lives and will come again in glory (v. 4).

The Walls of Separation

Elsewhere we are told that one example of the healing brought about by Christ’s death and resurrection is that the dividing wall of separation, which had set the Jews as God’s People apart from the Gentiles (see Ephesians 2:13-14), has been demolished. Now all who are united to Christ through baptism are one in and with Him, whatever their background. And so the great sign put forth here of living the new life in Christ is the way we accept everyone on the basis of their baptism, not because they are of this nationality or social status, but because “Christ is all in all” (v. 11) Christians have become increasingly aware of the walls separating peoples in the name of God. The walls constructed between Catholics of various Churches or ethnic origins have largely been dismantled. In the early twentieth century Christians began looking at other Christians, not as enemies to be defeated but as brethren to be embraced and the ecumenical movement was born. Some of these contacts – such as between Catholics, both Eastern and Oriental Orthodox or the Church of the East – have born fruit. Dialogues with Protestants, which at first seemed more productive, have been largely derailed over issues of theological and moral relativism. And while there are still Christians who avoid any contacts with members of other Churches or communities, others have come to value what possibilities do exist for common witness, especially in secular or anti-Christian environments. While not based on any common faith in Christ, dialogues have developed with non-Christians as well. Encounters between Christians and Jews have been more cautious and easily stalled over questions of anti-Semitism and support for Israel. Interaction between Christians and Muslims has been overshadowed to a great degree by the anti-Christian activities of certain Islamic fundamentalists who see Western political intervention in the affairs of their countries as signs of Christian imperialism. Yet even here, people of good will can chip away at some walls of separation. In the wake of the New Year’s Day bombing at a Coptic Orthodox church in Alexandria, prominent Muslims, including arts and entertainment figures and the two sons of President Husni Mubarak, attended Coptic Christmas services. Millions of Egyptians changed their Facebook profile pictures to the image of a cross within a crescent, symbolizing “One Egypt for All”. Around the city, banners went up calling for unity, depicting mosques and churches, crosses and crescents, together as one. Through repentance, then, we continue to be healed today. When we put to death the old man in us we come to cherish the new life we have been given and to see in others that, known or unknown to them Christ is in them as their Source and final end.

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