The year of St. Paul ends with the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29th, 2009. I think this year has been a tremendous gift for the Church, if only to draw considered attention to the man Paul and the many facets of his ministry. Certainly in my diocese, that of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the year has been marked by numerous talks, lecture series, concerts and even a one man play. This represents only the events held at the Cathedral, not the many smaller offerings found at local parishes. I am certain that even apart from major events in Rome, and Pope Benedict XVI’s many homilies and lectures which filter throughout the world, every diocese participated in some way. For one year, then, our attention was focused on Paul. So what should we have learned?
That is a difficult question to answer, and only because I think there are so many good and possible answers, but a few things rank high on my list, in no particular order:
1) Paul wrote his letters to respond to concrete problems and issues in his communities. He knew his communities, either from his time spent ministering in them or from word brought by friends and co-workers in person or by letter. As a result, Paul does practical theology, meeting his fellow Christians where they live, both literally (when possible) and figuratively (always). This is not theology imposed from above, but emerging from the life of the Church, which is not to imply that Paul writes and acts without apostolic authority.
2) Paul’s life is Christ-centered. His conversion shattered his previous convictions regarding Jesus and the nascent Christian communities. From the point of his conversion, his zeal would shift from the violent imposition of his will upon those with whom he disagreed to the acceptance of violence upon his person for the sake of the Gospel. He lives in imitation of Christ.
3) Paul spoke to the cultures of his day in the language of his day. Paul uses images from athletics, family life, the military, government, law, the business world, and Greco-Roman philosophy to speak to his congregations. Sometimes Paul’s language is salty and sharp (see Gal. 5:12), more even than makes translators feel comfortable (see Phil. 3:8: "rubbish" has an even earthier connotation), and yet it is clear that Paul, though well-educated, spoke to reach everyone. Capable of beautiful and lofty rhetoric (see Rom. 8 and 1 Cor. 13), however much he might protest (see 1 Cor. 2:1-4), Paul’s goal was not to impress but to open up channels of communication so that the Gospel of Jesus Christ could flow unimpeded and the Holy Spirit could do its work.
4) Paul understood that grace was operative in the salvation that Jesus brought; this was not a salvation that could be earned, though the responsibility to respond to God’s grace was essential. Paul constantly asks his fellow Christians to be holy, to grow in holiness, to grow in maturity and understanding.
5) Paul understood that all Christians were brothers and sisters in the Lord. Recent reading I have done on this language in Paul’s letters suggests that Paul is speaking "metaphorically" or "symbolically," but I do not think this is the case. Clearly he is not speaking biologically, but the language of family in Paul points to a reality of who we in the Church truly are. Since Jesus Christ has "adopted" us into his family, we are truly all members of the same family. We are members of the "household of God" (Eph. 2:19) and a part of the same politeuma (citizenship or commonwealth), which awaits us in heaven.
6) In Paul’s revelatory experience, Acts 9:5 says that Paul is told by Jesus himself that the persecution of Christians is a persecution of Jesus himself. The imagery and reality of the Church as The Body of Christ is implanted from his first encounter with the risen Lord.
7) Paul is willing to suffer for the Gospel, not because he desires suffering, but because he recognizes that Jesus alone is of surpassing and eternal value.
8) Finally, Jesus is the Lord. Paul’s commission to bring the Gospel to all is predicated on the reality of Jesus as Lord of all. Once Paul experienced the Lord, and was given his commission, he was bound to bring the truth to those who had no access to it.
Now, when I asked, "what should we have learned?", I was thinking primarily of intellectual operations: here is data that we can mine from Paul’s letters. Learning to enact Paul’s letters leads to a different but related set of questions:
1) Are those in authority, like the Apostle Paul, paying attention to the everyday lives of their fellow Christians? Do they know the struggles and problems of everyday life? Does theology emerge from the lives of Christians?
2) Is my life Christ-centered or wobbling off the axis, in somewhat near proximity to Christ?
3) How are we engaging with the culture(s) of our day in order to transform them?
4) Do we experience the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ in our daily lives?
5) Do I truly believe that the people I sit in Church with are my brothers and sisters or distant relations whom I would rather not get to know at best?
6) Do I experience the Church as the Body of Christ? What would it mean if I did?
7) What am I willing to sacrifice for the Gospel?
8) What does it mean to evangelize today?
These are some of my answers and questions as the year of St. Paul comes to a close. I would be interested to know what questions and answers have emerged for you throughout the Pauline year. Whatever they might be, I think we can agree that what Paul has to teach us is perennial in value for "brothers and sisters… the Gospel preached by me is not of human origin. For I did not receive it from a human being, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ" (Gal. 1:11-12). May we all know, experience and live the assurance that Paul has through Jesus Christ. There is no end to this hope.
John W. Martens