Saint Paul and the Pagans – My October Column – Full Text

Statue of Paul

Paul’s Mission to the Pagans

Last month we saw how the Apostles came to understand that the Good News of the Gospel was meant for all mankind, not just for the Jews. Now Saul, or Paul as he is now being called, set off with Barnabas to bring the word to the pagans. On their journey they reached Antioch. On the Sabbath they went to the synagogue and after the lesson had been read they were invited to address the congregation with some “words of encouragement”. Paul’s address to the congregation was a complete explanation of how Jesus was the fulfilment of God’s promise to the Jews. So impressed were the congregation that Paul was invited to return the next Sabbath to give another talk.

The following week almost the whole town turned out to hear Paul, pagans as well as Jews. Seeing the large crowds and being jealous of his popularity, the Jews contradicted Paul, shouting him down. Paul replied that, as a Jew, he had wanted to proclaim the word to the Jews first but as they had rejected it and so he would now go on to proclaim the word to the pagans as Jesus had commanded when he said

“I have made you a light for the nations, so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

This made the pagans happy but it did not go down well with the leading men of the city. Paul and Barnabas were expelled from the territory. They shook the dust from their feet and moved on.

It is worth remembering that the early Christians were also Jews. They attended the synagogue before their meetings to break bread together. They didn’t think of themselves as a separate religion. It is not surprising that some of these early Christians were unhappy about Paul’s conversion of pagans. Some of them who were Pharisees objected. Paul had to convince them that this was part of God’s plan that all mankind were to be saved.

Paul’s mission was now one of bringing the Gospel message to the pagans. He travelled across what we now know as the Middle East, preaching to the Jews there but also converting pagans. He met with opposition from Jews and from pagans but pressed on.

Paul made journeys of hundreds of miles. Most of these distances he travelled were on foot. There was no transport system other than boats. Even journeys by sea must have been very dangerous undertakings. Paul’s life had become a journey, a journey to bring the Gospel to the world. I can’t help thinking that this is a kind of model for our own lives. Our lives are a journey, a spiritual journey. We walk, not along the dusty roads of Syria and Greece as Paul did, but in the everyday tasks we perform in our lives. Paul walked in barren wilderness. We often walk in a spiritual wilderness where Gospel values are not upheld.

Paul often found himself arguing with Jews and pagans who could not accept his teaching. He put himself in danger, angering powerful people. There are many stories of Paul escaping who opposed him. We don’t often find ourselves standing in the marketplace preaching the Gospel. We still have to bring the Gospel message into our society by the way we live. By living the Gospel we keep the message alive for others to find.

I remember being told by a missionary in Africa that the missionaries did not bring God to Africa. God was already there, the missionaries brought the Gospel. We see that in the stories of Paul’s travels. He would speak to people in a market place or a synagogue and some people were filled with the Holy Spirit and believed. Others did not have the Spirit. I’m not sure whether that is because some are chosen and others not or because some people are just not open to receiving the Spirit.

Whatever the danger he put himself in, Paul always argued his point and because he was guided by the Holy Spirit he was an eloquent debater. Often those who could not beat him in debate were frustrated and resorted to other means to defeat him. Despite the danger he put himself in Paul never wavered from his course.

That should be a model for us. In our ordinary lives we find our Gospel values being challenged. Like Paul, we must argue our cause. It is becoming increasingly unfashionable to hold Christian values and we have to accept that. As a bishop once told me, we are being told that the basic human value is equality. If we don’t believe that everyone is equal and all ideas are equal we are at fault. He insisted that the real basic value is truth. Some ideas are not true. We must be defenders of the truth.

As European Christians we could be regarded as followers of Paul. It was Paul who took the Faith to the pagans and we are the spiritual descendants of those pagans who converted. The Christians who are the descendants of the early church are those in the Middle East such as the Coptic Church. These Christians are the ones who are facing the same dangers that Paul faced. They are keeping their faith alive in the face of death threats.

The Christian population of the Middle East is falling rapidly as extremists kill some and others flee to safety. Even after fleeing Syria many Christians are unable to shelter in the refugee camps for fear of attack by other refugees.

We live in safety with no threat of violence for holding Christian beliefs. Some may suffer when the law of the land is changed in ways which contradict Christian teaching. The laws on abortion and same sex marriage bring some into conflict with the state. As we saw in the case of the midwives who did not want to have anything to do with abortion, standing by our beliefs can cost us dear.

The recent case of a Christian official in America who refused to licence same sex marriages and was jailed shows that sometimes we have to stand up for what we believe and put ourselves in danger. What would Paul have done? As we can see from his story he was jailed from time to time. He never allowed this to deflect him from his course.

Paul’s legal battles brought him to Rome eventually and brought the Gospel to the heart of the Roman Empire. It just goes to show that even when things look black and we think the fight is lost the tide can be turned. Paul never lost sight of the fact that it was the Holy Spirit who was leading him in his travels. Paul was just an instrument. So too, we are merely instruments in the Spirits work of evangelisation. We might not understand what is really happening but we know from the events in the early Church, the Spirit will not be diverted from his work. We must take Paul as our model and run the race to the end.

Keep the Faith.

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Saint Paul and the Pagans – My October Column

Statue of Paul

Why did Paul preach to the pagans? Why did he annoy so many people? Why did they want to kill him wherever he went? Given all that, is Paul a suitable model for us?

Read my article in this week’s Scottish Catholic Observer. Is the Truth there? Is the Truth important? If you can’t get a copy this week you can find the full text here next week.

My Windows 10 Problem – Sorted!

I was quick to register for the Windows10 upgrade, free from Microsoft. I waited and waited and eventually I got the go ahead to download and install. Exciting eh?

Unfortunately it failed. It worked ok on my old netbook and on my daughter’s laptop, but my desktop PC just failed, again and again. Now I’ve done quite a lot to the PC. The last addition was a solid state drive (SSD) to speed up booting. I checked out the web and found that I needed 300mb system reserved space and I only had 100mb. That didn’t sound to difficult.

Wrong again! I had the devil’s own job moving stuff about . I removed an old hard drive, bought partition managing software -eventually I managed to inclease the space. I tried the update again – FAILED!

This morning I had another browse and found a suggested solution. I was in command prompt as an administrator poking in code – no success. I was about to give up when I noticed a small suggestion on the forum. If you have installed an SSD the drive may not have been set to Active.

I checked – that was the case. I sorted that with a couple of clicks and BINGO – I was installing 10.

My installation failed because of a corrupted file but that was soon sorted out with windows repair. Installed again and here I am. There are still a couple of issues but it works and I’m sure to sort out the issues soon.

Do you have this problem? Check out the posts here

 

My September Column – Full Text

September’s column from the Scottish Catholic Observer.

Peter

 

So far in this series about the early Church we have heard about the Apostles and Saul. We learned about Stephen and his martyrdom. But what about Peter; Jesus made him the head of the Church. What was he up to and what can we learn from that?

Apparently Peter was travelling round the country, from one place to the next, preaching the good news. He arrived in Lydda and found a man named Aeneas, paralysed and bedridden for eight years. Peter commanded him in the name of Jesus to get up, he was cured. Sure enough the man got up and everyone was amazed. They were all converted to Jesus.

At that time there was a woman in Jaffa nearby. Tabitha, as she was called, was renowned for her good works. She became ill and died. There were disciples in Jaffa and when they heard Peter was close by they sent to Lydda for him. Peter went straight to Jaffa and went to the room where Tabitha lay. The room was full of mourners and Peter sent them away. He knelt and prayed and then spoke to Tabitha and told her to stand up. The woman opened her eyes and got up. Peter called the mourners in and showed them that Tabitha was alive. Many converts were made in Jaffa and Peter stayed there for some time.

Why did Peter bring the woman back to life? If she had been a good woman then presumably she would have been received by God. This is something that has puzzled me for a while. The woman he raised from back to life must have died again at some later time; either that or she is still alive somewhere. If our aim is to enter this new life after death why bring the woman back?

I can think of two reasons for this. They both involve signs. It is good to remember that people in those times did not think in what we would regard as rational ways. Rational thinking is something we associate with scientists like Isaac Newton who made us associate cause and effect.

So what were the signs in raising someone from the dead? Well, firstly it was a sign that Jesus had power over life and death. It showed that this Gospel that Peter was preaching had unimaginable power. The second sign is a bit more subtle. It is a sign that becoming a true follower of Jesus involves us in taking on a new life. In baptism we die to our old life and rise to a new life, putting matters of the world in the background and putting Jesus in the foreground of our thinking.

Teaching that it is important to discard old ways and adopt new ones can be seen as dangerous talk. The authorities certainly thought this was dangerous talk as we shall see. Meanwhile a centurion called Cornelius, a devout, god-fearing man who prayed regularly, had a vision in which an angel told him to send to Jaffa for Peter. Cornelius was in Caesarea, some distance away from Jaffa so he sent two servants in search of Peter. While they were on their way Peter had a vision in which God showed him every sort of animal and told him to kill and eat them. Peter replied that he could not eat anything that was profane or unclean. God told him that he had no right to call anything God had made clean profane.

Peter was puzzled by this vision. No wonder, you might say; it is certainly strange. Soon the men came to fetch Peter and the Spirit told Peter to go with them because it was the spirit who sent them. Peter listened to the men and agreed to go with them. Next day they set off and reached Caesarea the following day. Peter talked with them and told them that it was forbidden for Jews to associate with people of another race. He told them God had made it clear to him that he must not call anyone profane or unclean. That was why he had come to bring the gospel to them.

The Holy Spirit must have enabled Peter to understand the meaning of his vision. Peter had realised for the first time the true nature of the Church. It was intended for all of humanity, not just for the Jews. Now he really understood that this was not just an extension of the Jewish religion, it was much bigger. Peter had to explain this to the Apostles who were surprised and said that God can grant “even the pagans” repentance that leads to life. I suppose that means us.

Round about this time Herod started persecuting the Christians. He had James, brother of John beheaded and this made him popular. He decided to do the same with Peter. During Passover week he had Peter arrested and imprisoned. The plan was to have a trial after Passover. Squads of guards were assigned to watch Peter in case of any attempt to escape. Meanwhile the small Christian community prayed night and day.

You will recall the story about how an angel appeared in Peter’s cell and released him from the chains that held him. He led Peter out through locked gates which opened by themselves and into the city. After walking the length one street the angel left and Peter was left alone, realising for the first time that this was not a dream.

This might seem unreal but what convinces me is what happened next. Peter went to a house where the Christians were gathered to pray for him. He knocked on the door and the servant recognised his voice and ran inside to tell the others. She forgot to let Peter in. No one believed her and while they were arguing Peter was left outside, still knocking to get in. You couldn’t make that up, could you?

This story is a difficult one for people to believe today. Believing in miracles is out of fashion. Why would God intervene in human affairs? Why work miracles for some and leave others alone? I think the lesson here is that God has a plan and it will not be thwarted. As we saw earlier, God had a role for Saul and intervened to set Saul on the right road. He had set Peter as head of the Church and was not about to see Peter executed; not until he had fulfilled his role at any rate. This is worth remembering when we hear people predicting the demise of the Church. We have survived far worse in the past.

Apart from the miracle there is something else in this story. You notice that all the impossible things were easily overcome. The chains were released, the guards avoided and the doors were opened. God did those things. The simple thing, opening the door to Peter when he knocked, was a problem. That was the human part.

I think the message here for me is that God is making great efforts to reach me but I’m too easily distracted to notice. Just like the servant girl I hear Him knocking and go running off before I open the door to Him. The question is, what am I going to do about it? I think the answer seems to be found in how the Christians responded to Peter’s arrest. They prayed constantly. Maybe I need to do more praying and more listening to what God is trying to tell me.

Joseph McGrath