25 January [Conversion of St Paul]
Jesus said, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptised will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.’
Jews look to Jerusalem, Muslims to Mecca, but Christians are not asked to regard any city as more sacred than another (Rome has quite a different meaning for Christians than has Jerusalem for Jews or Mecca for Muslims). Christians were sent out to the whole world and were not told to look back. We are free in many more ways than we want to know. There is a hymn that says, “Let us build the city of God....” Your own village is the city of God. The city of God is not made of stones but of people, “living stones,” St Peter said (1 Peter 2:5).
What are we to make of those “signs that will accompany those who believe”? St Augustine (354 – 430) gave a broad imaginative interpretation of them. “What else are hearing, reading and copiously depositing things in the memory, than several stages of drinking in thoughts? The Lord, however, foretold concerning his faithful followers, that even ‘if they should drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them.’” Then he adds that if they read with discrimination, even if what they read is false, it will not poison them. “Even if they commit to their memory heretical statements which are declared to be worthy of disapproval, they receive no harm from the poisonous and depraved nature of these sentences.” The implication is that they can go out not only to the whole geographical world but also to the whole intellectual and cultural world without fear.
Gregory the Great (540 - 604) was at pains to play down the importance of these signs. “Is it, my brethren, because we do not have these signs that you do not believe? These were needed at the church’s beginning. The new faith needed to be nourished by miracles to grow. When we plant a vineyard, we must water the plants till we see they have begun to grow in the earth, and when they have once taken root we cease to water them constantly…. But true life cannot be obtained by means of these outward signs by those who perform them. For although corporeal works of this kind sometimes do proclaim an inner holiness of life, they do not bring it about.”
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