This year marks the two-thousandth anniversary of the birth of Saint Paul, the apostle to the nations. In commemoration, Pope Benedict XVI has declared this to be the Pauline Year and has invited all Christians to spend it in prayerful study of his teachings and writings.
Saint Paul was a Roman citizen and a scrupulously faithful Jew. He studied the Law under one of the most prestigious rabbis of his day, Gamaliel. Because of his zeal for his Jewish heritage, he went so far as to persecute and conspire to kill the followers of Jesus.
But all that changed one day on the road to Damascus. Paul was on his way there to find followers of Jesus so that he could bring them back to Jerusalem for trial and imprisonment. On the way, Jesus appeared to him in a flash of intense light which left Paul blind for three days. Jesus asked Paul, "Why do you persecute me?", and revealed himself to be the risen Messiah.
After that powerful intervention by Christ, Paul was baptized and became one of the greatest preachers of the gospel. In his many missionary journeys, he brought the good news all along the Mediterranean helping to establish churches in such places as Corinth, Ephesus and Thessalonica. During those years, he also penned letters to believers which became part of the New Testament. Finally, when his work on earth was completed, he was beheaded outside the city of Rome, giving his last breath in witness to the truth of the gospel he had once fought so hard to silence.
This great apostle wrote and taught far more than we could ever cover during one Sunday homily. But I would like to focus today on two important passages from Saint Paul's letters which represent much of what the gospel has to teach us.
The first is taken from Saint Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, verse 23. He writes, "...we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." Paul's words powerfully remind us of what we are about as followers of Christ. At the center of our lives as believers stands the cross of Jesus. Without the cross, our preaching and our worship are just pious platitudes. But with his cross ever before us, our worship reaches the God of our salvation, and we are truly forgiven of our sins by the blood Jesus spilled to save each one of us.
The cross is foolishness to a generation such as ours which lives only for pleasure and the accumulation of material possessions. We who believe have a whole other set of values and goals which center around not what we can accomplish but what God has accomplished - namely, salvation of the world and the promise of everlasting life through Jesus' death and resurrection.
The second message is closely tied to the first. It is taken from Paul's letter to the Galatians, chapter 2, verse 20: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." With these words Saint Paul explains to us how he found the power to work so tirelessly in service of the gospel. It was not by his own skill and his own initiative that he could convince people that Jesus was the Son of God and the Messiah. Rather it was the power of Christ at work in him which accomplished all that he did. In fact, Saint Paul experienced this so strongly in his life that he could say that it was actually Christ living his life in him. He had been taken over by Christ. Because he had so completely abandoned himself to God and to his will, Christ was able to work in a miraculous way through his life.
For us who strive to follow Christ, the same is true. If we were to rely on our own strength to forgive our enemies and to endure ridicule for the way of life we live, we would soon falter. Instead we draw on the power of God at work in us through faith and baptism. We lean on God to be loving and attentive mothers, fathers and children. We call upon God's strength so that we may act with justice in our places of work. No matter what it is we do, Christ lives in us accomplishing his work through us.
For two thousand years now the teachings and the writings of Saint Paul have inspired and encouraged people to give their lives to Jesus and to experience a new power through faith and baptism. It begins with the forgiveness of sins through Christ's cross and continues with the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in believers. Paul experienced it in his life and ministry and left it as an example to us who study his teaching today.
I would challenge all of us to follow the request of our Holy Father and spend some time every day prayerfully reading through the letters of Saint Paul. It is a good idea as we read along to use a pencil to underline and circle the words or phrases which have a special meaning to us. Another good practise is to memorize those verses that touch us so that we can draw on them in times of temptation and to enrich our prayer life.
Jesus worked powerfully through the life of Saint Paul. And we still have much to learn from this apostle to the nations.