By Donald Senior, C.P.
The Cross of Jesus stands at the heart of St. Paul's theology and his apostolic message to his communities. Virtually all aspects of Paul's reflections on the Christian life make their way ultimately to Jesus Crucified.
It is important to remember that Paul's first encounter with Jesus was as the resurrected Christ. Whether we take Luke's dramatic account of the young Paul's encounter with the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus or Paul's own autobiographical reflections later in his life when writing to the Galatians, the testimony is the same: Paul had a profound encounter, a vision, of the Risen Christ (Acts 9:1-22; Gal 1:11-24). The realization that the Christ who was risen was also the Jesus of Nazareth who had been crucified made an explosive impact on Paul's entire way of understanding reality.
The truth of these visionary experiences for Paul could only mean that God had raised from the dead one who had been crucified and one who in the eyes of the Mosaic Law should have been accursed. The notion that someone executed as a common criminal in such a heinous form of capital punishment, reserved by Roman authorities for slaves and rebels, was claimed by the early Christian community to be the beloved Son of God and Messiah of Israel was the offense that had set Paul so fiercely against the Christian movement.
Now, in an experience he could not deny, Paul realized that his persecution of the Church had been terribly wrong. From that moment on, Paul had to rethink in a radically new way his Jewish faith, his own life and his view of the world.
Paul was thoroughly in love with his Jewish heritage and would, in fact, never abandon it. He speaks confidently of his Jewish experience: ''circumcised on the eighth day, of the race of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrew parentage, in observance of the law a Pharisee, in zeal I persecuted the church, in righteousness based on the law, I was blameless'' (Phil 3:5-6).
But the realization that God was saving Israel and the world through a Crucified Messiah caused Paul to rethink his Jewish heritage. In the reality of the Cross, the God of Israel and the God of Jesus Christ had defied human logic.
This is Paul's point in the opening section of his letter to the Corinthians. Paul alerts the Corinthians that he was sent to ''preach the gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the Cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning'' (1 Cor 1:17).
God's wisdom, Paul realizes, runs counter to human wisdom. ''For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ Crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God'' (1 Cor 1:22-25).
The fact that God had chosen to save the world through a Crucified Christ, a condemned human being the world would despise, revealed to Paul a theology of ''weakness'' -- a key intuition of Paul's entire perspective. To demonstrate that the power came from God and not from human prowess alone, God chose the ''weak'' and the ''powerless'' as vessels of His grace.
As stated in the beautiful hymn Paul cites in his letter to the Philippians, Jesus stripped himself of His divine status to become a servant of all, even dying on a cross, and therefore all who would follow in the footsteps of Jesus must be willing to do the same (Phil 2:5-11). This is precisely Paul's point in pleading with his beloved Philippians to put aside their differences and to take on the ''same attitude'' as that of Christ Jesus himself.
Here Paul's theology retrieves a fundamental motif of the Jewish Scriptures that may have been eclipsed for the pre-Christian Paul. Namely, that the God of the Scriptures, in fact the God of Israel, is the God of the poor who cares for the weak of the world: the widow, the orphan, the stranger.
Jesus himself embodied this spirit of compassion and justice in His own ministry. Here, too, Paul could find the rationale for his mission to the Gentiles -- even though outside the realm of God's chosen people, the Gentiles, too, were called to salvation. The God of Abraham was also the God of the Gentiles.
For Paul the death and resurrection of Jesus was the fundamental pattern of human salvation. God's love for us is embodied in the death and resurrection of Jesus. While we were still sinners, Paul insists, Christ died for us out of love (Rom 5:8). Therefore the experience of Jesus, crucified and risen, becomes the way to salvation for all humanity. Paul, along with all of early Christianity, viewed Jesus as the representative human being, the new Adam, the one in whom all of humanity and human destiny were bound. What happened to Jesus will happen to us.
As truly human, Jesus fully experiences the power of death. Like us he is mortal and subject to the withering power of death. Although Jesus himself is sinless, as a human being he must endure the human fate that death and sin have imposed on the human condition. But Jesus as the New Adam, the new human being, the new Creation, is not destroyed by death but, through the power of God working in him, Jesus breaks the terrible grip of death and is raised to new life.
Paul believed that this fundamental victory over death now belongs to all who believe in Jesus. Drawing on the story of Adam and Eve, Paul notes that just as through one man (Adam) ''death came to reign...how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one person Jesus Christ'' (Rom 5:17).
Through baptism the Christian is immersed in the life-giving and saving experience of Christ. Now the Christian, too, dies to sin and becomes alive for God. Paul says this passionately to his Galatian Christians: ''I have been crucified with Christ, yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me'' (Gal 2:20). He urges the Roman Christians to think in the same way: ''...you too must think of yourselves as being dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus'' (Rom 6:11).
For Paul the experience of salvation was a matter of ''power.'' As part of the human condition we are all trapped in the power of death -- subject to suffering and death, yearning to do good but often choosing evil, striving to love but clinging to selfishness. In an eloquent soliloquy Paul reflects on this human plight in chapter 7 of his letter to the Romans:
''For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.... So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand. For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body?'' (Rom 7:19-24).
God alone had the power to break this grip of death on the beauty of creation and the human person. Through his death and resurrection Jesus Christ had radically broken the pattern of death and given humanity the power to be fully alive, as God had intended.
As generations of Christians would do through the ages, Paul found meaning in his own weakness and suffering in the light of the Cross of Jesus. Paul suffered greatly from his ministry, at the same time it was the consuming passion of his life. For example, Paul apparently fully expected that most of his fellow Jews -- whom he loved -- would also be inflamed by faith in Jesus as he was. But that apostolic hope ran headlong into unyielding reality.
The apparent failure of most Israelites to accept Jesus as the Christ broke Paul's heart; the passage in Romans 9 is one of the most poignant and autobiographical passages in all of his writings: ''I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying; my conscience bears witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kin by race. They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh is the Christ. God who is over all be blessed for ever. Amen.''
Paul's heart was broken not just by the dreams that never took flesh but by the constant drumfire against the few things he had been able to build. I think that Paul never saw his vision of a law-free Gospel for the Gentiles fully accepted. Truth squads from the Jewish-Christian faction of the Church seemed to have stalked his steps, questioning his orthodoxy, turning the heads of his converts to a different understanding of the Church, planting doubts about his apostolic authority.
Paul's anguish and frustration come to a rolling boil in a famous passage from 2 Corinthians 11. As if on some blue Monday, Paul's button is pushed and out comes a torrent of frustration, and pain -- directed not at the leaders of the synagogue, or at the threats of Roman officials, but at his own fellow apostles and the leaders of the community:
''Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am talking like a madman -- I am a better one, with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the 40 lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?''
Paul was no ''plaster of Paris saint''; no abstract role model. He lived at a time when his vision of the Church was very much in doubt; I don't think he ever lived to see it secured. And there must have been nights in Corinth or Thessaloniki or Ephesus -- surely in Jerusalem or house arrest in Rome -- when he wondered if he was on the wrong track after all.
But, at the same time, Paul managed what every great pastoral leader has done. Paul held tightly to his hope, a hope rooted in the unquenchable love of God manifested in the cross of Jesus. Paul never let go of his foundational experience of faith: the love of the Crucified Christ for him was the pledge of God's unbreakable covenant, of God's unceasing redemptive love for the world: ''Can anything separate us from the love of God?'' Paul asks.
It is a question wrung from the heart of a minister of the Gospel, one who has lived in the Church from the inside, one who knows suffering and yet nourishes great hopes.
''Nothing,'' he says in the most soaring passage of his letters, ''nothing, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus'' (Rom 9:38-39).
Because of Jesus, the Cross was no longer a sign of death but a pledge of life. TP
FATHER SENIOR, C.P., is the president of Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, Ill., where he has been a professor of New Testament since 1972. A member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission he is general editor of the Catholic Study Bible and author of the four-volume The Passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.
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