Ronald D. Witherup, S.S.
Most frequently, the figure of St. Paul evinces reflection upon his great theological contribution to the Christian faith. Scarcely a major teaching of the Church does not have some foundation in the letters of Paul. As important as this perspective is, there is much more to be learned from Paul than theology.
The goal of this article is to study Paul from the perspective of his activity and thought as a missionary. There is much to be learned both theologically and pastorally about his missionary activity. We begin with a brief note on method.
There are only two principal sources for the life and ministry of Paul, the Acts of the Apostles and his own letters preserved in the New Testament. Both have information on the topic at hand, but a caution is in order. When it comes to Acts, although it contains considerable historical reflection, we must remember that the author had his own theological interests, which at times led him to give emphases to certain events that might not reflect ''the way things were.''
Clearly, when it comes to the portrait of Paul, Acts highlights his activity as a missionary. This basic orientation coincides well with Paul's own self-understanding and his mission as it comes across in his letters. So we will use both sources for our analysis but keep an eye out for Lucan special interests.
In the New Testament, Paul is clearly the missionary par excellence. Even Acts, which concentrates primarily on Peter and Paul and supplements with some other missionary figures like Philip, Barnabas and Silas, makes Paul the main hero in terms of mission. His exploits cover more than half the book, and it is from Acts that we get the notion of three missionary journeys.
In order to get at the essentials of Paul's mission, I will focus on six aspects of Paul's ministry, covering both his thought on mission and his actual activity:
1) The Call of a Missionary;
3) Founding and Sustaining Faith Communities ;
4) The Content, Jesus Christ;
5) Hope in the Face of Suffering;
The first thing one notices about Paul as a missionary is that it is not a job. Paul is proud of being an ''apostle,'' someone sent on a mission, even though he was not one of the Twelve. Mission activity for Paul is not an occupation. It is a ministry, a sacred task given by the risen Lord Jesus himself to extend the Gospel message to the Gentiles.
As a missionary, Paul thus had to accept the call he received. Both Acts and Paul's letters indicate that this was not what Paul was expecting. God called him to the mission in a fashion that dramatically turned his life around, but Paul freely embraced it with the same fervent enthusiasm with which he had earlier persecuted the Church.
A second aspect of Paul's ministry is its universal scope. His acceptance of the call to be the apostle to the Gentiles, a title of which he is very proud and that Acts also acknowledges, indicates the scope of his mission (See Rom 11:13). In his understanding, in Christ Jesus even the Gentiles, whom Judaism defined as outside the bounds of God's chosen people, were now to be invited into the center of God's new family of faith.
In the context of Paul's day, the Gentile world was every one who was not a Jew! Thus there were virtually no limits to Paul's mission. Indeed, the extent of his missionary activity showed no boundaries. He began in areas that were familiar to him and closer to home (Asia Minor), but he also went wherever the Spirit of God led him.
Crossing over the European continent because of the vision of the man of Macedonia (See Acts 16:9), and even planning to go to Spain after his visit to Rome near the end of his life (See Rom 15:28), shows just how far and wide Paul was willing to go to spread his message. All people were to be issued the invitation of faith, even if not all would respond.
A third aspect of his missionary activity is that he both founded and tried to sustain the faith communities to which he attached himself. True, at times Paul encountered communities that had already been established (e.g., Colossae, Rome), but for the most part, he targeted areas where the Christian message had not yet arrived. Paul did not look for easy fields in which to sow the seed of faith.
He went wherever he thought God was leading him and wherever he hoped that his message would fall on open minds and hearts. Moreover, as a missionary he often found himself quite attached to the communities he founded, such as Philippi and Thessalonica, even sometimes after only a very short stay.
Yet in true missionary fashion Paul also recognized that his task required him to move on after a given time and to go further afield. When he did so, however, he was conscious of the need to assist his communities even from afar. Thus the letters!
Letter-writing back and forth provided a necessary means for ongoing contact and provided whatever direction or teaching was necessary in any given circumstance. At times, Paul would affirm the faith of a community and attempt to encourage them; at other times rather bold correction was called for and insistence that a community straighten itself out and not abandon his message.
Whatever the need, as a missionary Paul viewed himself as a kind of parent who needed to both love and discipline his children, whether he was present in the flesh or by means of his powerful written word (See 1 Thes 2:7-12 for images of Paul as a mother and father).
As a missionary Paul was also single-minded in providing a uniform content to his message. This is the fourth aspect of his missionary activity. It was all about proclaiming the ''Gospel of God'' or the ''Gospel of Christ.'' Christ was clearly at the center of his preaching, teaching and catechizing. In fact, the word ''gospel,'' which for the first time appears in Christian writings in the letters of Paul, represents the sum and total of what scholars now call ''the Christ event.''
In short, the Gospel was about the salvation that has come in Jesus Christ, God's Son, who by His life and ministry, but even more by His ignominious death on a cross and subsequent vindication in the resurrection, has given the world salvation, redemption, and reconciliation.
Paul's message was thus not something of his own invention. He insists it came to him by divine means (revelation) and was thus not a mere human message but divine in origin (See Gal 1:11-12). The reason he takes the Galatians to task so strongly is precisely because he believes that they have abandoned his Gospel message and gone after another, opposing, message (See Gal 1:6-9). Nothing made Paul more justifiably angry than such a betrayal of his message.
A fifth characteristic concerns suffering. Paul is not bashful about recounting the kinds of physical and emotional hardships encountered in his mission to the Gentiles. He famously catalogues such events primarily in the context of the defense of his apostleship.
The longest example is in Second Corinthians, where he categorizes his missionary ''sufferings'' in a manner that highlights the extreme hazards encountered by missionaries of his day: imprisonments and beatings, shipwreck, robbers, rejection by Jews and Gentiles, hunger and thirst, insomnia, emotional concern for his churches, and so on (See 2 Cor 11:21-29).
Nonetheless Paul insists that such sufferings are a way of proving that one is indeed fulfilling the ministry entrusted to him. In fact, none of these experiences ultimately discourages him but strengthens his resolve. He retains his hope even in the midst of such trials, as he describes elsewhere in Second Corinthians:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies (2 Cor 4:8-10).
Such a hopeful attitude is requisite for the faithful missionary.
Finally, another characteristic of Paul's missionary practice is his adaptability. Acts recounts an ingenious situation when Paul, on the Areopagus in Athens. When he sees the Athenians worshiping at the altar of ''an Unknown God,'' Paul asserts that he knows to whom that shrine applies, none other than Jesus Christ (See Acts 17:22-32).
Of course, when he proceeds to describe the resurrection, some of the audience scoffed at him, and his mission in Athens was neither highly successful nor long. But he nevertheless showed an ability to adapt to the circumstances he encountered in such diverse settings.
Paul's adaptability appears in his own letters from another angle. In First Corinthians, for instance, he not only attempts to address thorny issues facing that community that have come to his attention by both personal report from colleagues and by letter from the Corinthians seeking advice, he shows that he is willing to address their issues forthrightly but with sensitivity.
At times he makes the distinction between what is (already) Christian tradition or what comes directly ''from the Lord'' and what he personally recommends (Cf. 1 Cor 7:25 with 11:23), such as when he recognizes that marriage to an unbeliever might in some instances fail (1 Cor 7:15).
In this month dedicated to mission and missionaries, Paul offers us a substantive model to emulate. The six aspects outlined in this article do not encompass totally Paul's mission activity, but they enumerate some essentials. One need not be a foreign missionary to participate in the Church's mission to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The late Pope John Paul II, and his successor Benedict XVI, have repeatedly and eloquently invoked the need for a ''new evangelization.'' Evangelization can fruitfully be directed outwardly to the non-believing world and inwardly to the faithful in need of perpetual reform. But in either case, the mission is carrying Christ forth as a light to the world.
My hunch is that every priest at ordination feels the call to mission, whether it is in the formal sense of becoming a missionary to foreign peoples, or just serving the needs of the local church. In reality, each of us possesses a missionary calling that goes hand in hand with priestly ordination. We are all sent on mission. In this Year of Paul, perhaps we can be inspired once more to recapture some of his and his companions' initial missionary fervor as we continue to fulfill our ministry. TP
Father Ronald D. Witherup, S.S., recently became Superior General of the Sulpicians and is the author of, among other books, Stations of the Cross According to Saint Paul (Paulist Press, 2008).
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