25 January 2021

Inspiration for Church
unity on the feast of the
conversion of Saint Paul

The Conversion of Saint Paul … a modern icon

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul [25 January]. Because I was born a day later, my mother wanted to call me Paul. Those who brought me to baptised had other ideas, but my mother often continued to call me Paul, and while I am more than comfortable with the name Patrick, there is a way in these two days come together for me as one celebration.

The Apostle Paul’s entire life is explained in terms of one experience – his meeting with Christ on the road to Damascus. Although he had a zealot’s hatred for Christ, who was just a few years older than him, Saint Paul probably never saw Jesus before the Ascension. Yet he was determined in chasing down the followers of Christ: ‘entering house after house and dragging out men and women, he handed them over for imprisonment’ (Acts 8: 3b).

But, on the road to Damascus, Christ enters Saint Paul’s own inner home, seizes possession of him, takes command of all his energy, and harnesses it so that Paul becomes a slave of Christ in the ministry of reconciliation as a consequence of that one simple sentence: ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’ (Acts 9: 5b).

Saint Paul, who was blind in his prejudice, is blinded so that he can have a new vision. He is imprisoned so that he can bring his great message to the world. And the magnitude of his sins, including his attempts to wipe out Christianity completely, show us clearly that no matter how terrible the sin may be any sinner may be forgiven.

In the same way, the Apostle Peter’s denial of Christ – three times during his Passion – did not put him beyond the forgiveness and love of Christ. Saint Peter too, in an effort to save his own skin, denied he knew the prisoner, but became a prisoner himself and a martyr for Christ.

No matter what our failings and our weaknesses, no matter where our blind spots may be, Christ calls us – not once but constantly – to turn around, to turn towards him, to turn our lives around, to turn them over to him.

Instead of his persecution, Saint Paul is remembered as the first and greatest missionary.

Instead of his three denials, Saint Peter is remembered for his confession of faith, his acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah or the Christ, recorded in the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew 16: 13-20; Mark 8: 13-20; Luke 9: 18-20). That Confession of Saint Peter was marked many Church calendars last Monday [18 January 2021].

Today, the Conversion of Saint Paul is celebrated throughout the Church – in the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Orthodox traditions. This day also marks the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity – or rather, the Octave of Christian Unity – from 18 to 25 January, linking those two feasts, was first suggested in 1908 by an American Episcopalian or Anglican monk, Father Paul Wattson, who was the superior of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, and who reintroduced Franciscan life to the Anglican Communion.

Appropriately, the icon of Christian Unity in the Eastern Orthodox tradition shows Peter and Paul embracing – almost wrestling – arms around each other, beards so close they are almost inter-twining. Every time I see this icon, I think of Psalm 133:

How very good and pleasant it is
when [brothers] live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing,
life for evermore.

So, despite many readings of the New Testament, especially the Acts of the Apostles, that see Saint Peter and Saint Paul in conflict with each other rather than complementing each other, they can be models for Church Unity.

Without that unity in the Early Church, its mission would have been hamstrung and hampered. For without unity there can be no effective mission, as the great Edinburgh Missionary Conference realised in 1910. And so the modern ecumenical movement has real roots in the mission of the Church.

As we come to the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I pray that we may rejoice in the fact that differences can complement each other, and that we will see the diversity and unity that Saint Peter and Saint Paul wrestled with but eventually rejoiced in as models for our own unity today and in times to come.

The Apostle Peter and the Apostle Paul holding the church in unity … an early 18th century icon in the Museum of Christian Art in Iraklion, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Readings: Jeremiah 1: 4-10; Psalm 67; Acts 9: 1-22; Matthew 19: 27-30.


O God,
who caused the light of the Gospel
to shine throughout the world
through the preaching of tour servant Saint Paul:
Grant that we who celebrate his wonderful conversion
may follow him in bearing witness to your truth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Gracious God,
you filled your apostle Paul with love for all the churches.
May this sacrament which we have received
foster love and unity among your people.
This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Saint Paul in a stained glass window in Saint Martin within Ludgate, London … the church is in the patronage of the Chapter of Saint Paul’s Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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