St. Paul and the Church of Mission

In his announcement of the Year of Paul on June 28, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI said that Paul’s success as an apostle was not due to “refined apologetic and missionary strategies” of salesmanship or philosophical wrangling. Instead, the Holy Father essentially said that Paul’s achievement was due to his extraordinary personal involvement springing from his total dedication to Christ, despite all obstacles.

In short, Paul really believed the Gospel. He acted exactly like a man who really had met the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus and was now perfectly convinced that Jesus had conquered death, forgiven his sins and laid upon him the charge to tell the world. Because he really believed, he was, in the words of Pope Benedict, willing to “pay in person for [his] fidelity to Christ in every circumstance.”

Benedict knew this because he’s read Paul, who bluntly states:

“When I came to you, brothers, proclaiming the mystery of God, I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive (words of) wisdom, but with a demonstration of spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (1 Cor 2:1-5).

Paul no more felt equal to the task of evangelism than you or I do, and that is why he is such a good model of the Church of Mission. His secret was not a technique, philosophy or theory. It was that Paul believed that if he trusted in the Spirit of Jesus to provide the power and the wisdom, the Spirit would come through.

What Paul knows

Paul is a Christian rabbi relying on Tradition. Though he did not know Jesus during his earthly ministry, Paul knows Jesus is a Jew of David’s line (Rom 1:3); that John the Baptist was his forerunner and had disavowed any claim to his own messiahship (Acts 13:24-25); that his chief disciples were Peter, James and John (Gal 2:9); that he had predicted his return “like a thief” (1 Thes 5:4); that he had instituted the Eucharist (1 Cor 11:23-25); that he had been rejected by the Jewish leaders (1 Thes 2:15); was tried under Pontius Pilate (1 Tm 6:13); that he was crucified for us (Gal 3:1); laid in a tomb (Acts 13:29); raised from the dead and seen by many witnesses (1 Cor 15:3-8); and ascended to the right hand of the Father (Eph 4:9-10).

How does he know all this? Because the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus makes clear to him that Christ the Head and his Body the Church are inseparable. That’s what “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” means. Everything Paul will preach from that day forward is an attempt to unpack the meaning of those seven words.

This is crucial to understanding Paul’s work as a missionary — and ours. Paul doesn’t become an apostle by riding off into the sunset. He is sent when the Church, in obedience to the Spirit, lays hands on him — the gesture of ordination (see Acts 13). His mission is distinct from that of the other apostles but still in union with them. That is why he has his message vetted by them (see Gal 2:1-10). He is not the Lone Ranger but emphatically a man of the Church.

Paul’s driving force

Paul lives by faith in Jesus, but he recognizes that faith empowers him to obey God, not excuses him from doing so. He doesn’t simply believe in salvation by faith. He believes in salvation by God the Father, through Jesus the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit (see Eph 1:1-9) through sacraments received in faith in union with the one Church (Jn 3; Rom 6) expressed by works of love (1 Cor 13), which bear fruit in a greater capacity for the Spirit (Gal 6:8). Get rid of any of that and you have something less than Paul preached and lived.

All Paul’s moral exhortation is likewise bound up with that understanding, which is why Paul exhorts us to become what we are.

He is patient because he knows that the Gospel is a treasure in a jar of clay. His faith is not shaken even when Peter messes up because he knows the Church is holy due, not to its members, but to the Holy Spirit who is its soul.

Paul (and the Church after him) describes himself as “all things to all” (1 Cor 9:22) in order that he might save as many as possible. To the Jews, Paul proclaims Jesus as the fulfillment “of which God spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old” (Acts 3:21). The New Covenant is really new, yet it is not a novelty or a perversion of the faith of Israel, but the fruit on the olive tree of the Old Covenant.

To the Gentiles, Jesus is, for Paul, the true God they have both longed for and long lost. He teaches that pagans “grope for [God]” (Acts 17:27), but have also been guilty of idolatry resulting in hardened hearts and darkened intellects. Sometimes, he is obliged to distinguish between the miraculous and the magical (not unlike our own need to distinguish between sacramental respect for creation and the worship of nature in the New Age). At times, Paul is engaged in spiritual warfare with lying spirits and lying men — blinding “Bar-Jesus,” for instance, and casting out demons from the slave girl in Philippi (see Acts 13:4-12; 16:16-18). In a curious way, she is a kind of satanic parody of an apostle. Her message is perfectly orthodox (“These people are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation”), yet the spirit behind it makes an embarrassing ruckus just as the demon-possessed people in the Gospel of Luke make a ruckus proclaiming the true identity of Jesus (4:33-35).

Also notable is the collision with economics, in Ephesus, in the intertwining of sheer commercial interest with “principalities and powers” in league against the Gospel. It will again be manifest when the silversmiths (who make big bucks selling shrines of the goddess Diana) recognize in Paul a threat to their business and cause a riot. Mammon and the Gospel are old enemies. At the same time, Ephesus will afford Paul great opportunities. When he is rejected at the synagogue, Paul will set up as an itinerant pagan philosopher would, teaching in the Hall of Tyrannus, again matching the message to the culture.

In Athens (Acts 17:16-33), confronted by a culture that values philosophy, poetry and “telling or hearing something new,” Paul appeals not to Scripture but to several Greek poets and the Athenians’ own forlorn sense of spiritual incompleteness attested by their monument “To an Unknown God.” Confusion arises from Paul’s stress on “Jesus and the Resurrection,” which the Greeks take for a new god and his queen consort.

Showing us the way

The Church of Mission has always lived in a multiplicity of cultures and ideas, some of them amenable to the Faith, some hostile, some seeking to “digest” the Faith and subsume it into the service of other agendas.

As Catholics, we have a peculiar freedom to “test everything; retain what is good” (1 Thes 5:21) as Paul retained whatever in Jewish and Greco-Roman culture was reflective of Christ.

At the same time, we must confront our culture with the claims of Christ and prophetically bear witness to his love and truth. The witness of Paul is not that this is easy, but that the Spirit who both began and sustains the Church can and will do it.

How? Because Paul did what he was commissioned to do by the Church, and God does not command us to do something without going ahead of us, helping us do it, and “carrying it through to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6).

Mark Shea writes from Washington.