Today I would like to tell you the extraordinary story of a religious extremist who was converted to Christianity. He was Jewish, an expert in everything to do with Judaism and he had made it his goal to wipe out any Christians he could get his hands on. Then, out of the blue, Jesus appeared to him and he converted overnight. But because he had been such a persecutor of Christians, many people were still afraid of him and doubted if this could have really happened. His name was Paul of Tarsus.
We talk about him all the time, but I think we often forget just what an amazing conversion he had. Overnight he went from trying to imprison and kill Christians, to preaching about Jesus and about all that he had done. Jesus appeared to him many other times as well, teaching him the same things that he had taught the other Apostles. It says that after he came to believe in Jesus, he went away for three years and only then did he go to check with the other Apostles if what Jesus had taught him, was the same as what Jesus had taught them and it was.
To me, one of the funniest lines in the Bible is just after Paul has seen Jesus for the first time, Jesus then appears to another man called Ananias and tells him to go and pray with Paul. But Ananias is well aware of who Paul is—a religious extremist, intent on killing Christians—and he says to Jesus, ‘But Lord, do you realize who this guy is?!’ as if the Lord isn’t aware of who he is. What is also amazing about St. Paul’s conversion, is simply that God would use someone who was so zealous to wipe out Christianity, to be one of its boldest preachers. Jesus also chose Peter as the first pope, even though Peter had publicly sworn three times that he didn’t know who Jesus was.
What does this tell us? It tells us that God is quite happy to use ordinary people and even very sinful people. Moses, who led the people of Israel to freedom, had murdered a man when he was young and then fled the country when he realized they knew he was the murderer. They are not the kind of people we would pick to preach the Gospel, but they are the kind of people that God is happy to pick. That also tells us that our sinfulness is not an obstacle to God working through us, even in extraordinary ways. I think often we have the impression that we have to be quite holy before God would work through us, but that is not what the Scriptures show us; in fact the opposite. All God needs from us is an open heart.
After Paul was converted, many people were converted through his preaching and he worked many extraordinary miracles and Jesus appeared to him several other times as well. Now you would think that he is now living a holy life and no longer struggling with his own weaknesses, but what he says about his own struggles is quite surprising. He seems to have struggled with some weakness in particular, although he doesn’t say what it was, but this is what he writes about it:
Even though I have received such wonderful revelations from God. In order to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, "My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness." So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. (2 Cor 12:7-9).
God is not put off by our weaknesses and in fact they serve a purpose. As long as we are struggling we are aware of how much we need God’s help and so, frustrating as they are, the Lord allows us to have them, so that He can go on working through us. This should help us never to become discouraged. The Lord is not bothered by the fact that we struggle and in fact our struggles are the very things that can help us to grow and stay close to God.
There is one other thing that St. Paul says in his writings which I think is amazing. When he talks about what he learnt about the mass, he begins with the words, ‘This is what I received from the Lord, and in turn pass on to you: that on the night he was betrayed…’ (1 Cor 11:23). He is saying that what we do here in the mass does not come from human beings. He didn't learn about this from the other Apostles, but directly from Jesus. It comes from God. Jesus revealed this to Paul in another vision. This teaching does not come from human beings, but from God and that is why we keep doing it, because the Lord told us to.
'This is what I received from the Lord, and in turn pass on to you...'