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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