St. Paul Logo Graphic

December 15, 2008
GERARD MCLARNEY
SPECIAL TO THE WCR

St. Paul's renown largely centres on his conversion and mission to Gentiles — and rightfully so. Few conversions have been so dramatic, and a Pharisee proclaiming God's salvation beyond Israel is nothing short of revolutionary.

This, of course, is not to say the years between Paul's conversion and missionary life were uneventful.

Our last segment explored Paul's early preaching efforts, his providential escape from death in Damascus and his first return to Jerusalem as a Christian.

As a long-time resident and notable Pharisee, returning to the streets of the holy city would have been disorienting. Everything from the Temple to Mount Calvary is now viewed in a new light, that of the cross and resurrection.

At one level, Paul's loss of status as a respected teacher and the hesitancy of Jewish Christians to receive him, meant isolation. At another, fellowship with Jesus Christ meant an incomparable gain (see Philippians 3:8).

Paul is brought into full fellowship with the Church in Judea when Barnabas brings Paul face-to-face with St. Peter.

THE IMAGINATION SOARS

One can only speculate on the nature of their conversation; more than likely Paul pressed him for details on Christ's life. Not long after, the decision is made to send Paul to a safer place outside of Palestine.

These events, as well as Paul's conversion, are all related in Acts 9. St. Luke does not weave Paul back into the narrative until Peter's conversion of Cornelius, and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Gentile believers in Acts 10.

While readers might be tempted to pass over the details of this chapter, the reception of Gentiles into life with God through the New Covenant is a momentous event in salvation history.

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After his conversion, St. Paul viewed everything in terms of Christ's cross and resurrection.

Without it and Paul's tenacious loyalty to the Spirit's embrace of non-Jews, we wouldn't have Bibles in our houses today or pray in Christ to the Father.

Christianity would be markedly different, to say the least.

Fittingly, St. Luke's narrative pans from the scene of Peter telling those in Judea of the Spirit's adoption of Gentiles, to the vibrant life of the Church in Antioch of Syria. The devotion and charity among believers in Antioch was such that here they first earned the name "Christian."

Some of the leaders in Antioch, such as Barnabas, Symeon, Lucius, Manaen and Paul are explicitly mentioned.

During a period of fasting and praying, the Holy Spirit speaks to them: "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them" (13:2).

The risen Christ has called Paul, and in these few short words, the Spirit inaugurates a new phase in his life. The cleansing graces of fasting and prayer enable Paul and the community to respond.

Hands are laid upon the duo, not unlike ordination ceremonies today, and they are commissioned to do the work of the Spirit.

The Spirit is short on details. Where should they go? Who should they see? How long might they be gone?

We are not told.

The decision to sail to Cyprus, notably, demonstrates Barnabas and Paul have not renounced common sense in their decision to follow Christ. Cyprus is where Barnabas is from; he knows the land, the people and places to go.

Their first stop, a synagogue on the east coast, is also an obvious choice. Synagogues were places of worship, where Scripture is read, reflected upon and interpreted. A natural place to share the Good News.

SYNAGOGUES AS SOCIAL CENTRES

Synagogues were also important social centres, almost like a YMCA or Second Cup of the ancient world. According to archaeological finds, some had hostels for travellers from abroad.

The missionaries from Antioch proclaim the "word of God in the synagogues" as they make their way across the island (13:5).

At this point, Luke also mentions John-Mark is with Barnabas and Paul, serving as an assistant.

The journey, over 175-km long, culminates in Pathos, with an audience before the Roman governor, a proconsul named Sergius Paulus.

We are also told of a striking Jewish magician, who attempts to thwart the proclamation of the faith. In contrast to Paul, who is filled with the Holy Spirit (13:9), the magician is filled with deceit.

INVOKING BLINDNESS

Taking the initiative, Paul calls upon the Lord to bring a temporary blindness over Bar-Jesus. Not unlike Paul at his conversion, he gropes in the darkness for help. The importance of the encounter, of course, is that Sergius' faith is confirmed.

He is the first convert to the Lord by the hands of Paul.

The missionary journey could have ended with this astonishing success. Imagine, if you will, the temptation to stay on the island. Paul and Barnabas, not to mention Barnabas' family, could enjoy the favour of the state while further deepening Serigus' faith and establishing churches across Cyprus. This seemly "smart" choice is easily entertained.

Whatever the decision process, they leave for Asia Minor — although John-Mark, perhaps out of frustration, instead retreats to Jerusalem.

Undeterred, Paul and Barnabas continue on this first missionary journey, proclaiming the word of the Lord to the world.

The success of the Gospel, as we shall see, also brings about resistance and stringent opposition.