By Frank J. Matera
Preaching from the Pauline epistles can be challenging as well as exhilarating. It is challenging because most preachers are more familiar and comfortable with the Gospels than they are with Paul's letters. It is exhilarating because Paul's letters present preachers with new ways to proclaim the Gospel. This Pauline year, then, affords preachers an opportunity to revitalize their ministry by preaching the Gospel according to Paul.
In order to preach the Gospel according to Paul, however, preachers must ground themselves in the story of redemption that informs the Apostle's theology. To be sure, there is no one letter where Paul explicitly sets forth the whole story.
Nonetheless, his letters contain numerous indications of the narrative that undergirds his proclamation of the Gospel -- a narrative that ought to inform our preaching as well. In what follows, I outline Paul's story of redemption in five steps. After outlining that story, I suggest some ways in which this narrative can and should inform our preaching, even when we are not preaching from a Pauline text.
Paul's story begins with the conviction that humanity is in dire need of salvation, a plight that Paul describes in Rom 1:18-3:20. In this rhetorically powerful passage, he argues that no one will be justified before God on the basis of doing the works of the law (Rom 3:20), for all -- whether they know it or not -- are under the domination of a cosmic power that Paul calls ''Sin'' (Rom 3:9).
Adam introduced this power into the world by his transgression, and with Sin came yet another cosmic power called ''Death'' (Rom 5:12).
According to Paul's story, humanity finds itself in a predicament from which it cannot free itself. In Pauline language, humanity needs to be justified by, and reconciled to, God. Humanity needs to be redeemed from its slavery to Sin and saved from the power of Death that separates it from God.
The second step in Paul's story begins with the Apostle's call or conversion. In that extraordinary moment, God revealed his Son to Paul. In light of that revelation, Paul understood that the One whose followers he had persecuted was none other than the Son of God.
A Pharisee who hoped for the endtime resurrection of the dead, Paul now knew that the general resurrection of the dead had already begun in God's Messiah. In Christ the old age of Sin and Death had come to an end, and a new age of Grace and Life had begun.
Previous to his call and conversion, Paul lived according to the prescriptions of the Mosaic law. He could boast that at that time he was blameless ''in righteousness based on the law'' (Phil 3:6). But when he encountered the risen Lord, he understood that whatever righteousness he had attained through legal observance paled in comparison to the surpassing righteousness God graciously offered in Christ.
In light of his call and conversion, Paul understood that Christ was God's response to the human plight. Through Christ, God freely justified the many. In Christ, God reconciled the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19). Whereas Adam was the progenitor of a history of Sin and Death, Christ was the progenitor of a history of Grace and Life. In Christ, the first to rise from the dead, God had inaugurated a new creation.
The third step in Paul's story is the Church. Because Christ is the new Adam, the one in whom God inaugurates a new creation, salvation occurs in the body of Christ, which is the Church. It is not surprising, then, that the Church plays such a central role in Paul's story of redemption.
The Church is the sanctified community of those whom God has called and elected in Christ. The Church is the temple of the living God where God's own Spirit dwells. The Church is the body of Christ, in which each member plays a vital role. The Church is God's new humanity in which the differences of social status, race and gender are no longer of any account.
For Paul it is inconceivable that those who have been justified and reconciled by Christ should live apart from the community of the Church. The justified and reconciled live within a community of like-minded believers, members of one body, who witness to the salvation God has effected in Christ.
The fourth step in Paul's story has to do with the moral life of believers who live in the community of the Church. Although some mistakenly suppose that Paul's teaching on justification by faith leaves little or no room for the moral life, this is not true.
Paul's letters are filled with moral exhortation and guidance. For Paul the moral life is made possible by the power of God's indwelling Spirit. Whereas unredeemed humanity was unable to accomplish God's law because it dwelt in the realm of Sin and Death, those who are in Christ have been empowered by the Spirit to fulfill God's law through the love commandment.
For Paul, the moral life is the grateful response of the justified and redeemed to God's gracious act in Christ. The moral life is an act of worship.
The final step in Paul's story has not yet occurred. Consequently, I call it the hope of the redeemed. For, although the redeemed have already been justified and reconciled to God, they have not yet been saved. This, of course, will sound strange, given the claims of some Christians that they are already saved.
But the reality is that the redeemed still wait in hope for their final salvation, which will occur when the Lord returns and the dead are raised incorruptible. The general resurrection of the dead will be the completion of God's redemptive work because then, and only then, will the last enemy -- Death -- be destroyed (1 Cor 15:26).
In the time between Christ's resurrection and parousia, the community of the sanctified (the Church) waits in hope for that moment when it will share in Christ's resurrection.
Paul's story can be summarized in this way. Under the powers of Sin and Death, humanity found itself in a predicament from which it could not extricate itself. But God graciously justified and reconciled humanity through Christ. The redeemed now live in the community of the Church where, empowered by the Spirit, they lead a morally good life as they wait for the fullness of their redemption that will occur at the general resurrection of the dead.
Preachers acquainted with Paul's redemptive story will find their preaching invigorated by the Gospel according to Paul, even when they are not preaching from a Pauline text. Allow me to return to Paul's story to illustrate how it can inform our preaching today.
First, since humanity has been rescued from a predicament from which it could not free itself, it is important for preachers to remind their congregations of the human situation apart from Christ. Left to itself, humanity is under the domination of Sin and Death.
These powers, which Paul personifies, manifest themselves in a multitude of ways: consumerism, materialism, excessive capitalism, and addictions of all kinds. The challenge of Pauline preaching is to expose and reveal how these ''accomplices'' of Sin and Death rule the world today and threaten the life of the sanctified.
Second, if Christ's death and resurrection is God's response to the powers of Sin and Death, our preaching needs to focus on this central redemptive act. Aware that there is no single adequate way to explain God's work in Christ, Paul employed a variety of metaphors to describe what God has done: justification, reconciliation, the forgiveness of sins, redemption, sanctification, the new creation, freedom, etc.
Making use of these and other metaphors, Pauline preaching should focus on the cross as the locus of God's power, and on the resurrection as the promise of God's new creation. It should not talk about trivialities but about what truly matters -- God's redemptive work in Christ.
Third, since the Church is the body of Christ, the temple of God's Spirit, the community of the sanctified, Pauline preaching is ecclesial in nature. It shows the relationship between God's work in Christ and the community of believers. It reminds the redeemed that they have been incorporated into the new Adam, the progenitor of a renewed humanity.
Pauline preaching draws attention to the community rather than to the individual by reminding believers that they have been gathered into the Church, ''the Israel of God'' (Gal 5:16), God's own people. Such preaching speaks of ''us'' rather than of ''me.''
Fourth, Pauline preaching exhorts the congregation to live a morally good life in Christ. In doing so, however, preachers must not become moralists who merely present their congregations with lists of ''dos'' and ''don'ts.'' Pauline moral exhortation reminds the congregation of its dignity in Christ. It reminds the congregation that it is a sanctified community that God has graciously and freely redeemed.
Consequently, the congregation should live in accordance with the gift that has been bestowed upon it. Put another way, preachers will exhort their congregations to live as the new creation they are in Christ. Thus the moral imperative -- what we ought to do -- will be grounded in the indicative of salvation -- what God has done for us in Christ.
Finally, Pauline preaching reminds the congregation of its hope in Christ. Pauline preaching affirms that the final act of God's redemptive work is not yet complete. In a way and at a time known only to God, Christ will come again. When he does, the last and greatest enemy -- Death -- will be destroyed.
The proclamation of Christ's death and resurrection, then, must include the neglected doctrine of the general resurrection of the dead. For it is at the general resurrection of the dead that we will be conformed to Christ's resurrection and our salvation will be complete.
Preaching the Gospel according to Paul requires time to become familiar with the Apostle's story of redemption. Those who take the time will renew their preaching. In doing so, they will proclaim what their congregation and the world needs to hear. TP
FATHER MATERA is the Andrews-Kelly-Ryan Professor of Biblical Studies at The Catholic University of America. A past president of the Catholic Biblical Association of America and a priest of the Archdiocese of Hartford, he was ordained in 1968 and received his Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va., in 1981. Father Matera is a specialist in Pauline Literature and New Testament Theology. Among his recent writings are three works on New Testament Theology (New Testament Ethics: the Legacies of Jesus and Paul; New Testament Christology, and New Testament Theology: Exploring Diversity and Unity). He is also the author of commentaries on Galatians and Second Corinthians. He is now working on a commentary on Romans.