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The Perils of Paul(ine)
Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday, January 25th, 2015

In 1914, just before the First World War, a silent movie was issued in 20 episodes entitled “The Perils of Pauline”.

The heroine, played by Pearl White, survived a different threat to her life in each episode: assaulted by sundry melodramatic villains, tied to a railway track, hanging from a balloon, clutching a ticking bomb, attacked by pirates and “Native Americans”.

Viewed by thousands of soldiers on leave from the war, “The Perils of Pauline” became a legend. But what about the equally threatening perils of St Paul, whose Feast Day Conversion we celebrate today?

St Paul, then called Saul, who had persecuted the Christians, had a vision of the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus. He became blind, but a brave Christian called Ananias was sent to heal him.

The Lord said to Ananias: “Go, for Saul is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

It is to his credit that each time a new peril happened to Saul, now called Paul, he never turned back, but was strengthened in his resolve to carry the good news about Jesus right across the Roman Empire.

St Paul lists some of the things which had happened to him, when writing to his friends in Corinth.

Christians had come from Jerusalem claiming to be more important than Paul. They were dividing the Church by contradicting his teaching, and forcing his converts to follow Jewish customs before they could call themselves Christians. Paul claimed to be their equal, not from his achievements, but because of his sufferings:

“Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman – I am a better one: with far greater labours, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death.

Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.

In Damascus, the governor guarded the city in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.”

What an amazing story of “The Perils of St Pau!” And this was written before his arrest in Jerusalem, and another shipwreck at Malta on his way to death in Rome. They are comparable to the sufferings of saints and martyrs down the ages, and Christians today who are being persecuted in many countries.

Whipping people is, of course, not permitted here in Britain, but in St Paul’s day the whip was the cat-o-nine-tails”, with chips of bone or metal inserted through its strands.

The first lash would cut through the skin and cause profuse bleeding, and soon all the flesh on the back was hanging loose. Forty lashes would kill a man, so the limit was set at 39: it’s amazing that anyone survived this punishment even once, let alone five times. And still St Paul continued to preach the gospel; and it was because he did so, that the Christian faith came to our shores and we are Christians today.

When pain comes into our lives in the many different ways in which it can – physical, mental, emotional or whatever, we often complain that it’s unfair or unmerited. By contrast, St Paul, for whom we give thanks today, actually rejoiced in his suffering, because he saw it as a privilege to share the suffering of Christ crucified.

He underwent these tortures so that Christ’s divided Church might be one. Let us, then, appropriately at the end of this annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, thank God for Paul’s courage, and strive to be united, and brave when hard times come, as he was – and, in our daily witness to the Risen Lord, let us seek to be faithful ambassadors of the Gospel which has been entrusted to us.

Some words preached at the inauguration of the Province of Central Africa, before Bishop Kenneth Skelton’s episcopate, in 1955, by the Archbishop of Cape Town, Geoffrey Clayton, were these: “Socrates said he believed himself to be a gadfly fastened on the back of the Athenian people. They didn’t like it and they sentenced him to death. That might happen to you. It is not your duty to be popular. It is your duty to be faithful. It is your duty to give expression to the truth as taught by Christ.”

These potent and prophetic words also illuminate St Paul’s life, ministry and Apostleship, whose motivating force was “Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted”.

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