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Acts of the International Seminar
on "Jesus, the Master"
(Ariccia, October 14-24, 1996)

by Giovanni Helewa ocd



To bring the Apostle Paul close to the Master is seducing but problematic. Aside from the fact, certainly not casual, that Paul does not call Jesus by this title, an ample silence on the historical Jesus characterizes the Pauline letters. The events and situations, the miracles, the parables, the proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom and their explanation, the intimacy with the Twelve, the conflict with the official Judaism, the local changes of places, the ascent to Jerusalem, the articulated story of the passion – elements that form the narrative thread of a memory or of a proposal and which are the framework wherein Jesus appears to be "master" – all these seem extraneous to the perspective of the Apostle. One thing is certain: Paul is not a "disciple" of Jesus in the sense and in the manner whereby Peter and John were apostles. His was a different life and this excludes him from the historical sphere of a statement like this: "Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it" (Lk 10:23-24).

"Have I not seen Jesus Our Lord?" (1 Cor 9:1). "... He appeared to me" (1 Cor 15:8). Nonetheless, his encounter with Jesus took place with things that already happened. Not having been with those who were "with Jesus from the beginning" (cf. Jn 15:27; Acts 1:21-22; Lk 1:2; Mk 3:13-14), he could not make his own the typical declaration of the immediate witness: "what we have seen and heard, we proclaim to you" (1 Jn 1:3; cf. Acts 10:39; 13:30-31). Generally, this difference stands: although he was exhorting the believers to be imitators of Christ in love (Eph 5:2), he could not assume the magisterial exemplarity of a remembrance like that of the washing of the feet (Jn 13:12-15). "Rabboni," Mary Magdalene exclaims as she recognizes Jesus (Jn 20:16). Such a privilege was not Paul’s.

Is it legitimate then to speak of Jesus Master as regards Paul? The reply is in the affirmative, on condition that the specificity of the case is borne in mind. (return to summary)

1. From Christ Lord to Jesus of Nazareth

He confided to the Corinthians: "ourselves as your slaves for the sake of Jesus" (2 Cor 4:5; cf. 5:14). At least we have to recognize this from the very beginning: he did not learn from the school of the Master like the others, but the love which bound him to Jesus could not but stimulate in him the desire to know him as much as possible.

Besides, what he was preaching and teaching was a gospel that had to orient his mind and his heart towards that Jesus whom he did not have the chance to personally know. He was saying to the world the "word of faith" (Rom 10:8), the "word of Christ" (v. 17); and with it he proclaimed which Gospel of God, together and inseparably, "Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Cor 4:5) and "Jesus Christ crucified" (1 Cor 2:2; cf. 1:22). The "word of the cross" he proclaimed was not an abstraction (1:18). How could he be interested in the historical circumstances of Jesus or not be informed at least of the manner how his Lord was crucified and of the itinerary that brought him to Calvary? He reminds the Galatians, "Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?" (3:1). Paul, while teaching the death of Jesus, was certainly alluding to his oral catechesis: not only the event in its essential truth, but a narration more or less detailed, in a way, warm and involving, of the Passion like how he came to know from appropriate sources. It was a concrete story, a living portrait; and with this, an unexchangeable magisterium.

Certainly, what decisively counts now is faith in the gospel of God, the personal encounter with the actual Christ of the faith. No longer the Christ who was accessible by himself to the physical eye and ear (cf. 2 Cor 5:16) but the Christ in whom God works and says those things that "eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Cor 2:9), those things that only the Spirit of God knows and communicates to persons (vv. 10ff). Under such a perspective, which is typically Pauline, it is faith that leads the sight towards Jesus of history, eliciting the desire to listen to his words and to stop at the foot of the cross; and this seeking of Jesus presupposes that one contemplates in the face of the actual "Lord of glory" (v. 8), Christ who is actually the Gospel of God, who actually lives in persons (Gal 2:20; Col 3:4) as "wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption" (1 Cor 1:30), who actually sits at the right hand of God and intercedes for the believers (Rom 8:34).

This said, let us remember the originality of the Pauline approach: there would not have been the actual Christ of the faith if there were no Jesus of history; and it is not possible to separate the "Lord of glory" from the individual who bore the name of Jesus of Nazareth, from the Master who spoke of the things of God and died on the cross in Jerusalem. We have to insist: everything predisposed Paul to go near that Jesus whom others, more fortunate than he, had personally known as Master. In fact, the gospel revealed by him concerns the Son of God (Gal 1:16; Rom 1:3; 1:9); but this Son, whose divine identity is eternal, intruded into his awareness clothed of a precise human and historical identity: it is "Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom 1:3-4). He is the Son, who, in the individual clothing of one Jesus, lived in the world of men "born of a woman, born under the law" (Gal 4:4), "descended from David according to the flesh" (Rom 1:3; cf. Gal 3:16), in everything similar to men (cf. Rom 8:3; 1 Tim 2:4-6) to the point of wanting for himself the condition of a "servant" (Phil 2:7), of a "poor" man (2 Cor 8:9), of a "weak" (1 Cor 1:25; 2 Cor 13:4) – a kenosis which from humility to humility brought him, obedient to God, to a death like that of the cross (Phil 2:8). And if this Son is now contemplated in his heavenly glory, Lord of all and living seat of all the strength of the Spirit (Rom 1:4; 1 Cor 15:45ff), he won such an exaltation by the manner with which he wanted to live and close his earthly existence (Phil 2:9). Is it not this the vision of a believer so fascinated by the glory of the Lord as to desire fixing his gaze on the "servant" who was Jesus?

To have transformed Paul into the believer-apostle we admire was certainly the "supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Phil 3:8), which was given him through "revelation" (Gal 1:16) and pure grace (1 Cor 15:10). But this same "knowing," the revelation of the gospel in his intimate self, was such that it had by force to orient him also to the past and open his mind to a magisterium, which he knew was part of the historical event, fulfilled on Calvary. And Paul did not live an abstract world: he had wide possibility of documenting himself, of being informed, either from the direct source of historical witnesses (cf. Gal 1:18-19; 2:1ff; 1 Cor 15:3ff; 11:23-25) or from the indirect one of tradition which was already taking shape in the churches. Why could one think that Paul was less interested than Luke in knowing the story of Jesus also in its details (cf. Lk 1:1-4)? Precisely because Jesus was already revealed to him as the Son of God, must we think of him to be more than just attentive to the story of Jesus to the things that were told him as lived and said by the Master?

Is it not that he himself suggests when he exhorts: "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (1 Cor 11:1)? One imitates an example of life worthy of being taken as model (2 Thess 3:9; Ti 2:7; 1 Pt 5:3), in the manner of a school of behavior (Jn 13:15), precisely along the line traced in Phil 4:9: "Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me." In practice, Paul wished that the faithful lived as his disciples precisely as he was living as disciple of Christ! In the two instances, the example is concrete and the model is noticeable; only that, in the second case, Paul heard and indirectly saw the exemplarity he "learned and received" from Christ. He was not a disciple of the Master like Peter, John and James or Andrew; but he became certainly as much as they were. (return to summary)

2. By the Cross with mind and heart

At this point Paul’s great silence on the historical Christ – that Jesus of whom he must have acquired broad and detailed information – can seem strange. Regarding this, we can do two clarifications.

The first is that the Letters, although rich with autobiographical data and they adequate document an articulated and coherent doctrine, do not speak entirely of Paul and of his catechesis. In particular, they leave under the shade a sector which we would want to know better: the living word of Paul when he was preaching the gospel to the non-believers and above while explaining to believers the gospel, he communicated to them the truth of Jesus Christ "for the progress and the joy of their faith" (Phil 1:25; cf. 1 Thess 3:10; 2 Cor 1:24). Not bound therefore by the limits of the means of letters, he could give free course to an extended, didactic and exhortative catechesis where the great themes of the gospel – the same as those that emerge in the Letters – came to be associated with a loving recall of the things that were known of Jesus, of the Jesus whom Paul himself tried to imitate and whom he himself could not but desire that also the believers imitated. Even in their being so limited, texts like Col 2:6-7 and Eph 4:20-21 open a breakthrough of light over a kind of discourse, at the same time doctrinal and practical, where the invitation to coherence to live a new life in Christ and according to Christ was strengthened by the remembrance of the supremely exemplary figure of Jesus.

The second clarification regards the Pauline charism. Although he may have had it, Paul could not have woven a narrative of the historical events of Jesus with the authority of a witness. And he knew that this was not a charism granted him. "The gospel preached by me... I did not receive it from a human being... but came to me through a revelation of Jesus Christ" (Gal 1:11). "[God] was pleased to reveal His Son to me so that I may proclaim him to the Gentiles..." (1:16). His life in the faith and his apostolate remain conditioned by this genetic encounter with Christ – Christ alive revealed to him as the living gospel, which he had to proclaim. It is of this Christ, the Son and the Lord, of whom Paul had, we can say, an immediate knowledge; and it is this same knowledge that enables him, to his own eyes, to be also an authentic apostle of Christ, although the last and as if an abortion (1 Cor 9:1; 15:8). "Immediately, without consulting anyone nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, I went to Arabia…" (Gal 1:16,17). For him it was enough the revelation in his intimate, and "supreme knowledge of Christ Jesus, his Lord" (Phil 3:8), in order to know himself as an apostle and to dedicate himself to preaching the gospel "among the Gentiles" (Gal 1:16). The conviction of having to know Jesus of Nazareth would mature and he would have the time and the possibility to be informed; but his itinerary is established: to transmit the gospel revealed to him, to cast the light made to shine in his heart (2 Cor 4:6), to diffuse in the world the "perfume" of Christ who lives in him (2 Cor 2:14-16).

Meanwhile let us understand the difference of Paul with regards to those who were apostles before him (Gal 1:17), to the witnesses, historical that is, of Jesus: his could not be the narrative language of a remembrance; and if the gospel itself oriented him towards the historical circumstances of Jesus, of these circumstances he was inclined to favor, especially in the limited space of the Letters, those elements which directly and structurally belonged to the Christian novelty: who was Jesus (his divine-eternal and human-historical identity) and how he became the actual Christ-Lord, for always and for all, the living gospel of God (above all the supreme and most rich Paschal event).

We have in fact to recognize that in the Letters, the figure of Jesus of Nazareth is made present within the barest essentials. Often that figure is remembered because it fell in the truth of the gospel; but the approach remains very selective. Paul contemplated Jesus with the ardor of a most grateful love, the penetration of a unique intelligence and the readiness of the disciple desirous to follow in his footsteps; but it is easy to notice, while reading him, that for him Jesus was above all crucified, the Son of God who loved him and had given himself for him (Gal 2:20), the servant who became obedient unto death, even to death of the cross (Phil 2:8).

For its sublimity, the knowledge of Christ his Lord made Paul understand, with the impact of a lightning, the vanity of all that once made up his personal boast. His boast and the whole of his aspiration are now Christ. All the rest is rubbish (Phil 3:4-6,7-8). He is "vanquished" like a treasure that has magnetized his heart detaching it from all the rest (Phil 3:12; cf. Lk 12:34). This treasure and the only boast of his, however, appealed to him continuously and he allowed himself to be vanquished by it more and more. How? By locating himself, in his shadow, at the foot of the cross and fixing the gaze of his heart on the Lord while he died for him and for all. How could we understand if not in this sense Gal 6:14: "But may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world"? The possible exegesis of this passage is rich; but his profound inspiration is linear: a sense of identity and of dignity, a freedom and a belonging, a total detachment and security of a very rich boast; and such vision by itself, a reflection of a meditated religiosity, Paul consciously draws from the thought of the Cross, learning in the school of the Crucified the very truth in Christ and in the gaze of God. All this allows us to hold that Paul, like the other apostles as well as different from them, welcomed in Jesus his Master (see above); but everything brings to clarify that the magisterium that he drew from, so many sources was primarily that of the "word of the cross" which he transmitted as well and explained as the truth of Christ-Gospel (cf. 1 Cor 1:18; 2:2). (return to summary)

3. At the school of the Crucified

What did Paul learn from Jesus Crucified? It is enough to remember that the gospel itself is defined by him as the "word of the cross" for us to understand that the answer could involve, directly and indirectly, his entire experience and the whole of his message. We shall remain then on a threefold line where we could gather with particular clarity some of his most personal and more apostolically fruitful certainties: the initiative of the great love; the primacy of grace and of faith; the transcendence of a wisdom and of power worthy of God. (return to summary)

a) The initiative and the demonstration of the great love

Of the "Servant of God" it was said: "he surrendered himself to death" (Is 53:12); and of Christ of the passion, Paul loves to say: "He gave himself" (Gal 1:4; 2:20; Eph 5:2; 5:25; 1 Tim 2:6; Ti 2:14). The formula expresses the full willingness of an act accomplished as an offering of self (Eph 5:2). It is clearly stated that Jesus "gave himself... in accord with the will of our God and Father" (Gal 1:4): what God willed, Christ accomplished at the moment when he gave himself up; he did the offering of self consciously and with the desire to adhere up to the end to the divine will as with a norm that concerned him. In this manner, allusion is made to that "obedience" which brought the servant Jesus to death on the cross (Phil 2:8) as "obedience" which had over-abundantly compensated for the sin of Adam and had opened to all the treasures of divine grace (Rom 5:18-19).

In fact, it was "for our sins" that Jesus gave himself (Gal 1:4), or "in ransom for all" (1 Tim 2:6), "to deliver us from all lawlessness" (Ti 2:14). This was objectively the will of God; and this was the will of Jesus himself when, having made himself the obedient servant and offering himself, he allowed himself to be put to death "for our sins" (Rom 4:25).

It is precisely this redemptive finality, the will of God to which Jesus adhered fully, that attracted Paul to the cross to listen to the word of great love. Above all to the word of that love of Jesus himself: "who has loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal 2:20); "Christ loved us and handed himself over for us" (Eph 5:2); "Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her" (5:25). He loved us by giving himself; he gave himself loving us. This love totally involved Paul and conditioned his way and the apostolate (2 Cor 5:14); and it is a love that never ends to seek and to understand, so vast and profound that "it surpasses all knowledge" (Eph 3:17-19).

At the school of the cross, Paul learned also the living mystery of the love of God, of that agape tou Theou which is the eternal soul of the gospel (Eph 2:4; Ti 3:4-5) and the very richness of the grace of Christ poured into believers (2 Cor 13:13; Rom 5:5). In fact, the communion of wills between Christ Jesus and God the Father was at the same time the communion of the same agape, which was manifested as a philantropia, all mercy and grace and perfectly worthy of God (Ti 3:4-7). Paul thinks of the cross as the historical document of love when he says that Christ "gave himself for us" (Eph 5:2; Gal 2:20; Eph 5:25); the same vision inspires this other word of his: God "did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all" (Rom 8:32). At the moment when Jesus "gave himself for us," God was involved as He who "gave his own Son for us all": one and the same agape, the same "love of giving"! The agape manifested on Calvary is the dynamism of a love which is Christ’s and God’s, together and inseparable (Rom 8:35,36,39).

In itself, with a theoretical speculation using categories outside time, one can gather the concept of a God who loves and whose love is divine. But it is not the perspective of the believer Paul and the preacher of the Gospel. The agape tou Theou he believes in and proclaims is not abstract, but the substance of a divine initiative historically accomplished. Paul recognizes him, whom he calls "God of love" (2 Cor 13:11), as "God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Cor 1:3; Eph 1:3; Rom 15:6; cf. 1 Pt 1:3); he is the God who loves "in Christ Jesus" (Rom 8:39), that is, he who revealed himself always as the "God of love" inasmuch as, not sparing his own Son, he gave his Son for us all (v. 32), thus giving himself to all of us. This agape, entirely giving, is the will and power of salvation in the actual gospel that is the Lord Christ; to refer that agape to the cross and death of Jesus is a need of faith that cannot be renounced. He is the eternal and present agape of God, and at the same time he is "the great love with whom God has loved us" (Eph 2:4). The aorist brings the thought to a moment in the past, an event of history, to that moment and to that event whereby God "did not spare his own Son" and accomplished the great giving to all of us (Rom 8:32). When the subject of the verb agapan is God or Christ, Paul uses instinctively, we would say, the aorist because he directly thinks of the moment wherein Christ gave his life and God gave his own Son. This moment could be extended over the whole mission of the Son, "born of a woman, born under the law" (Gal 4:4); but Paul’s language makes one understand that it refers mostly to the cross-death of Jesus.

Near the cross, Paul let himself be compenetrated by this other truth: the appropriately divine greatness of that agape. One must read together Gal 2:20 and 6:14. The Paul who is pleased with not having another "boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (6:14), is the believer who continuously approaches the "Son of God who loved him and gave himself up for him" (2:20). To know how much one is loved by one who’s much of a victim! Paul draws from it an ever more solid security, while liberating himself from every boast that could be found elsewhere. To such a security, The Apostle invites also others while speaking to them of "the great love with which God has loved them" (Eph 2:4). "We also boast of God" (Rom 5:11): it is not enough to say that the "boast" of believers is the "God of love"; to adhere with Paul’s thought, we have to add that it is the God of that love, great beyond measure, which shines in the revealing light of the cross.

With this, he speaks of God who "shows his love for us" (v. 8). The love of God of which we boast is an agape that allows itself to be "shown" to the believer who wants to contemplate it. Where? The reply, being Pauline, is granted: "while we were sinners, Christ died for us... while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son" (vv. 8 and 10). The dignity of the victim and the indignity of the beneficiaries! This is the historical document, always open to faith, of the great love; and this is the epiphany of an agape only God can have and which tells the believers, with his own evidence, how justified is their boast and how founded is their hope.

In fact, a love so great, demonstrated in a death like that of the Son who is God cannot but be solid and winning: in it the God of the gospel has invested, once and for all, his own power and fidelity for the salvation of those called. Paul teaches it in Rom 8:31-39 where, having referred himself to the cross in v. 32, proclaims that, amidst all tribulations and face to face with whatever hostility, we trust that "we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us" (v. 37) and that there is no power in creation which can "separate us from the love" of Christ and of God (vv. 35 and 38-39). The tone sounds of triumph, so certain is faith and secure is hope of him who opens up to the ever actual magisterium of the cross. (return to summary)

Continued: Paul Apostle at the school of Christ crucified - 2 -

return to summary


           Jesus Master yesterday, today and for ever

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