Preaching St. Paul
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
Think for a moment of the way that the apostle Paul's words have worked their way into the fabric of our English language 2,000 years later and an ocean away from his place of birth in Tarsus. How many times in a week do we hear or say something uniquely Pauline and not even realize it? Consider for instance these well-known phrases:
"A thorn in the flesh" (2 Cor 12:7).
"The letter of the law" (2 Cor 3:6).
"The twinkling of an eye" (1 Cor 15:52).
"The wages of sin" (Rom 6:23).
"The powers that be" (Rom 13:1).
"All things to all people" (1 Cor 9:22).
"Fallen from grace" (Gal 5:4).
"Fight the good fight" (1 Tm 6:12).
"Labor of love" (1 Thes 1:3).
"Bear with fools gladly" (2 Cor 11:19).
"A thief in the night" (1 Thes 5:4).
"The root of all evil" (1 Tm 6:10).
"Old wives' tales" (1 Tm 4:7).
St. Paul has left his lasting mark on the language of us gentiles even in these parts of the world where he never set foot. And this is a very superficial means of gauging his influence. Let’s take a very brief look
at four of Paul’s letters and ask if they have any relevance for our lives today?
Let’s look at Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul was the first to preach the Gospel to the Galatians. Since they were Gentiles, he did not require them to be circumcised or to follow the Mosaic Law. He preached that it was sufficient to believe in Christ in order to share in the blessings of Israel. God had provided another way to salvation, a way which made the Law of Moses obsolete.
Paul’s mission to the Galatians was highly successful. They received the Spirit and welcomed Paul as if he were an angel of God. But after he left, other Christian missionaries, probably Jewish Christians from Jerusalem, came to Galatia and preached a different version of the Gospel. They argued that Paul had not communicated the full Gospel to the Galatians. They contended that since Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, the Galatians must accept circumcision and follow the prescriptions of the Mosaic Law if they wished to share in the full benefits of the messianic age. In other words, the Galatians had to become Jews before they could become Christians.
The problems Paul faced at Galatia are not our problems. Nonetheless, in the Christian life analogous situations arise. In American society the important question is “what do you do”? We are judged in our society by success, initiative, and achievement. We measure ourselves and others by what we accomplish.
Just as the Galatians were tempted to add the Mosaic Law to what Christ had done, so contemporary Christians are enticed to add something to what God has done in his Christ. It may not be the Law of Moses, but it may be the Law of Success or Achievement. The Gospel message Paul proclaimed to the Galatians must be announced from generation to generation.
On first reading Paul’s letter to the Romans appears to be a longer version of Galatians but Romans is not just a longer, more systematic version of Galatians, but a letter in its own right.
In Romans the audience and situation are different. Paul now writes to a mixed congregation of Gentiles and Jews. Moreover, the problems come from within the community rather than from outside. It now appears that the Gentile Christians have the upper hand, and there is a danger that they will abuse their newfound power at the expense of the Jewish Christians.
Paul faces a serious theological issue rooted in a social problem. The social problem concerned the relationship of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. How should they relate to each other within the Church? Is it possible for them to associate with each other on a basis of equality, or must one group dominate?
What is Israel’s role in salvation history? What was the purpose of the Law? Has God been faithful to Israel, or has God abandoned Israel? In Romans the very faithfulness of God is at stake.
While it may appear that the problem Paul faced in Romans has little relationship to our situation. In our day Judaism and Christianity form two distinct faiths. We do not have communities of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians struggling to live together. Is Romans hopelessly dated?
Because of what God has done in Jesus Christ, everyone has the possibility of standing in the proper relationship to God. Whereas Paul spoke of the unity between Jew and Gentile, we might proclaim the unity between Anglo and Hispanic, Black and White. Faith in Christ puts us on an equal footing before God. There are no other “entrance requirements” such as social class or privilege.
Paul stresses the profound need for salvation (Rom. 1-3); the nature of this salvation (Rom. 5-8); the faithfulness of God to his people (Rom. 9-11); and the challenge of community living (Rom. 12-15). Romans responds that God’s ways have not changed. God has always dealt with people on the basis of faith. God deals with us in the same way today. The concrete situation has changed, but the deeper issues remain.
No church provided Paul with more occasions for correspondence than that of Corinth. The questions he answered and the problems he encountered suggest that the Corinthian community was a lively church with a mind of its own. Although Paul was its founder it often opposed him.
Second Corinthians is not so easy to describe. It appears that First Corinthians did not solve the many problems at Corinth. In fact the situation deteriorated to such a point that Paul had to visit Corinth. The visit ended in humiliation for him (Paul’s “painful visit” mentioned in 2:1).
The Corinthians did not make the proper Pauline distinction between “already” and “not yet.” They were infatuated by the charismatic gifts they received with the coming of the Spirit. They reveled in their new knowledge and wisdom. They believed that they were already living in the eschaton. There was little if anything to anticipate. Consequently, they attached themselves to particular apostles whom they believed possessed special wisdom. They believed they were immune from the temptations of the flesh. They saw no danger from participating in pagan idol worship. They viewed the Eucharist as if it were a celebration of the eschaton. They overvalued ecstatic gifts such as tongues. They saw no need for a future resurrection. They were infatuated with the Superlative Apostles.
Paul’s response to the Corinthians was to proclaim the scandal of the cross: “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles”. He reminded them that the Eucharist is a proclamation of “the Lord’s death until he comes”. Most importantly, he emphasized his own share in Christ’s sufferings as the sign which authenticates his own apostleship: “we are afflicted in every way, . . . always carrying in the body the death of Jesus”. Paul opposed the Corinthians’ Theology of Glory by his Theology of the Cross. Ever so realistic, he argued that resurrection glory is a future hope, it has not yet been attained. In the meantime, Christians must share in Christ’s sufferings if they hope to attain his resurrection.
Every generation of Christians is easily seduced by a Theology of Glory which would ignore or even pass over the cross. In a consumer society there is an ever-present danger that Christians will mistake the good life for the fullness of life. In an affluent culture there is the temptation to live as though the fulness of salvation had already arrived. The basic problem Paul encountered is ours, and his solution remains as valid now as it was nearly two thousand years ago. The Christian life must pass by way of the cross before it can attain resurrection glory.
Pauline letters present answers. Our task is to raise the contemporary questions to which the answers apply.