The Passion of St. Paul in Today’s World
Four Reflections by Terry Modica
The article referred to at the end of this video is below.
Called and Commissioned
In John 12:44-50, Jesus describes himself as the light of the world and explains why he came: “to keep anyone who believes in me from remaining in the dark.” In Acts 12:24 – 13:5, we see Barnabas and Saul (the Jewish name for Paul) being called by the Holy Spirit and commissioned by the community (the Church) to take the light of Christ into a dark world. Today, the Holy Spirit still calls and the Church still commissions: You and I (yes, you too!) are being sent into the darkness to share the light of Christ. It’s not just the ordained clergy who are commissioned; in the Vatican II document, the “Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity,” the bishops wrote: “The laity accomplish the Church’s mission in the world principally by that blending of conduct and faith which makes them the light of the world…” (para. 13). We spread the light of Jesus by conducting ourselves the way Jesus would – with love, forgiveness, patience, going the extra mile, etc. – and by speaking up to explain who it is we’re imitating and why. Jesus says elsewhere (see Matt. 5:14-16) that a light hidden under a basket is worthless. Faith becomes an occasion of sin if we limit it to a private experience. Faith is what forms us into the image of Christ who came to earth to bring others to the kingdom of God. If we have true faith, we are motivated to be like Jesus in our dealings with others so that they, too, experience God’s love. “The laity should, by the light of faith, try to find the higher motives that should govern their behavior in the home and in professional, cultural and social life; they should too, given the opportunity, let these motives be seen by others, conscious that by so doing they become cooperators with God the creator, redeemer and sanctifier, and give him glory” (para. 16). We can change the world, starting in our homes but also in the workplace and in social settings, when the reason for our kind, good, and loving behavior is clearly and visibly tied to our faith in Jesus. When problems arise, we are witnesses of the light of Christ if we, as this document points out, “learn … to see all things in the light of faith, to judge and act always in its light, to improve and perfect oneself by working with others [loving them generously no matter how difficult], and in this manner to enter actively into the service of the Church. Inasmuch as the human person is continuously developing and new problems are forever arising, this education should be steadily perfected” (para. 29). We are beacons of the light of Christ when we learn from our problems and grow from our trials. How bright is your light? Whose darkness is it illuminating?
Self-sufficient But Not Independent
In Acts 20:28-38, we get a glimpse of Saint Paul’s influence on business and community affairs. He transformed the town of Ephesus by living the Gospel. Although he was a powerful preacher of the truth, his words were backed up by the holiness of the Spirit of Truth that lived within him. If we are extraordinary homilists or religious education teachers or daily reflection writers, but we are not preaching the same message with our daily, person-to-person behavior, the gift of preaching is being used scandalously. It’s a terrible, far-reaching sin. It would be better to lose our voice than for souls to be wounded or lost on our account. Notice how Saint Paul did it. He could have rightfully asked the church community to finance his living expenses, but he worked as a tent-maker to take care of his own needs and to help his companions. Thus, he influenced the ethics of Ephesian society by showing that it’s important to be self-sufficient for the sake of “helping the weak.” He took care of his own needs to the extent that he could, not to be self-sufficient in an isolated sort of way, but to be generous toward others. Ever-vigilant, he noticed what was going on in the community. When they refused to accept his help, he cared about them to the point of tears. Self-sufficiency can feel like independence, and independence can easily lead to separation from community when we pridefully try to take care of all of our needs by ourselves. Living the Gospel means giving and receiving so that we have more to give. We cannot be true Christians — truly Christ-like — if we are not in community with other believers. This means more than going to Mass (although worshiping God with others is an important aspect of it). It means being in active relationships with other believers. Community means journeying together on the walk of faith. In 1 Thes. 2:1-8, look at how Saint Paul preached the Good News to the Thessalonians. “We were determined to share with you … our very selves.” While Paul and his evangelism team visited Thessalonica, they entered into relationships with the people. Paul lists what community is not (i.e., what’s contrary to Christian relationships). In true community, there’s no deceit or impure motives or trickery, no ear-tickling with polite or flattering words, no greed of any kind, no glory-seeking. If you have needs that are not being met, the misery you feel is a warning flag. Either you’re not availing yourself of what God wants to give you through others, or others are saying no to being used by God. As Saint Paul demonstrated, by receiving what we need and sharing what we have, we transform the world.
Finishing the Work Despite Hardships
If we could foresee the hardships that lay ahead of us on our paths of service in the kingdom of God, we’d come up with good excuses to sit down in a comfortable chair by the side of the road, and stay there, wouldn’t we? We prefer to keep doing what already works well. “Lord, don’t ask me to deliberately put myself into difficult situations and trials!” As we see in Acts 20:17-27, Saint Paul knew that going to Jerusalem would mean “chains and hardships”, so why did he go? Couldn’t he be just as useful to the Lord if he stayed where he was accepted and appreciated? Paul trusted God. Yet, he knew that he was not safe from those who would imprison him and eventually kill him for preaching the truth. What makes a person willing to say yes to God’s calling when it’s a certainty that it won’t always be easy and fun, when being safe in God does not mean being safe from persecution and hardships? Paul answered this question with: “I put no value on my life. I only value finishing the service that the Lord Jesus has assigned to me.” Think about this: Which matters more to you? Your life (your comfort, your security, your freedom from problems)? Or God’s work, which he gave you to accomplish and which no one else can do the way you can do it? We all have our assignments. You’re in the middle of a very important one right now. Recognize the worth of what you’re doing; notice how it glorifies God, how it makes a difference for his kingdom. Realize the value of your hardships: how they’re increasing your holiness, your compassion, and your ability to help others. Look at 2 Corinthians 11:18-30 to see how much Saint Paul suffered in his passion for serving the kingdom of God. And yet, he wasn’t feeling bleak, cynical, or discouraged. He wasn’t complaining. Why not? Because he knew that his work was valuable. He understood that eternal treasures come from pressing on through hardships and sacrifices and boldly facing danger for the sake of the salvation of others. He’s reminding us that instead of focusing on our hardships, we feel better when we keep our eyes on the goal — the finish line — and on the Lord for whom we’re doing this. If we quit before reaching the goal, we forfeit our souls to the world, where we are not safe at all. Only in God are we truly safe. He heals our wounds, kisses our hurting hearts, and raises us above the trials into his warm and gentle lap, where we are always safely loved. God gave us everything necessary to fulfill the purposes for which he created us. If there is any failure, or if there is any lack of activity, it’s because we’ve not sufficiently stirred up the flame of the Holy Spirit’s fire within us. Paul was filled with the fire of the Spirit. This was the source of his passion, his fiery energy to spread the Good News no matter what. We stir up this same fire by continually feeding our souls with the nourishment of scripture, Christ-centered friends, Church teachings, and faith formation events. The flame is stoked brighter and hotter by the frustrations that impassion us to get up and go out and make a difference in the Church and in the world.
Courageous Messenger Empowered by the Spirit
Are you a courageous messenger of the Gospel? It’s only possible with the Holy Spirit. Without this help from God, we fail due to our inadequacies and we miss great opportunities because we’re afraid of failing. Imagine how Saint Paul might have felt in Acts 25:13-21. We marvel at his courage as he continued serving the kingdom of God even during his trial and imprisonment. Could you do that? Could I? YES!!! But only thanks to the Holy Spirit. A little bit of courage is all God needs. Jesus multiplies it and the Holy Spirit provides the fullness. Paul always had a lot of courage, and he used it to persecute the Christians. But then the Holy Spirit provided him with an understanding of who Jesus really was and how to use his passionate courage to spread the truth. What do you need from the Holy Spirit so that you can be a courageous messenger of the Gospel? What do you need so you can serve God’s kingdom fearlessly? Courage comes from trust. Although it might feel like you don’t have what it takes to stand up to trouble and become victorious, that’s only because you’re moving beyond your comfort zone. If the situation were in your comfort zone, you wouldn’t need courage. The situation would feel safe. Trusting God means taking bold, scary steps into the unfamiliar. Whatever you need so you can experience more courage, remember this: God’s Spirit is reliable and will make it available to you exactly when you need it. If you don’t seem to have it now, it’s because you don’t need it yet. Trust that God will provide it when it’s time to use it! What are you afraid will happen? What fear is blocking God’s gift of courage? Ask the Holy Spirit to help you get beneath the surface of your life, into the depths of your heart, with genuine self-honesty, to find your answer. Then take your needs to Jesus and expect the Holy Spirit to provide whatever is lacking. The changes might come gradually afterward, but you will never be the same! To help this process, use Pope Saint John Paul the Great’s prayer to the Holy Spirit, from May 30, 1998: “Come, Holy Spirit, come and renew the face of the earth! Come with your seven gifts! Come, Spirit of Life, Spirit of Communion and Love! The Church and the world need you. Come, Holy Spirit, and make ever more fruitful the charisms you have bestowed on us. Give new strength and missionary zeal to these sons and daughters of yours…. Open their hearts; renew their Christian commitment to the world. Make them courageous messengers of the Gospel, witnesses to the risen Jesus Christ, the Redeemer and Savior. Strengthen their love and their fidelity to the Church.” Amen! In Romans 15:14-21, Saint Paul challenged Christians to reach beyond themselves in mission and ministry. At the same time, he explained the secret to his success: “In Christ Jesus, I have reason to boast in what pertains to God,” referring to the signs and wonders rendered by the power of the Spirit of God. Remember, God will give you the passion, like he did for Paul, and the strength and courage to do more than ever before for the kingdom of God. Note: If you like the spirituality of Saint Paul, live in North America, and think you might have a calling to the priesthood, consider becoming a Paulist Priest (The Missionary Society of St. Paul).
© 2014 by Terry A. Modica