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

by Giovanni Helewa ocd



3. At the school of the Crucified

b) The primacy of grace and of faith

"O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?" (Gal 3:1). The outburst reveals how much and how Paul was used to remember the cross of Jesus in his oral catechesis (see above). An important thought must also be said: it is stupefying that some believers who had had the privilege of knowing so well Christ crucified should have listened to a preaching different from the true and only gospel (cf. 1:6-9). For having let themselves be seduced by such foolishness, they must have been bewitched!

We are at the peak of the crisis of the "Judaizers" and Paul runs for cover. To profess the necessity of circumcision for the purposes of salvation and to hold that one is just before God by the fact that he practices the law means to be one with a regime incompatible with the truth of the gospel and the novelty of Christ. The crisis was spreading fast among different churches and it was causing much anxiety to Paul; nonetheless, a beneficial reflex he certainly had: it brought the Apostle to give wide berth in Galatians and Romans to the famous topic of justification through faith in Jesus Christ, as we see it synthesized in Gal 2:16 and Rom 3:27-30. The topic involves many categories and is articulated in various levels; one could however gather the substance by following this double converging lines: the gospel is the divine initiative of salvation addressed universally to a humanity of sinners; the gospel is the initiative of grace that all, Jews or pagans, are called to welcome with faith. It is precisely along these two lines that we notice how the thought of the cross of Jesus and of the death of the Son of God weighed in Paul’s catechesis.

"Does God belong to Jews alone? Does he not belong to Gentiles, too? Yes, also to Gentiles!" (Rom 3:29). All are under the lordship of the only God (10:12). But Paul contemplates this universal and unifying lordship of God reflected and working in the gospel of redemption which has its origin at the cross-death of Christ.

One needs to begin with affirmations like these: "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures" (1 Cor 15:3); "he gave himself for our sins" (Gal 1:4); "he was handed over for our transgressions" (Rom 4:25); "while we were still helpless, yet died for the ungodly" (5:6); "who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness" (Ti 2:14)... We are listening to one essential part of the apostolic kerygma (cf. 1 Cor 15:11), that part which more directly clarifies for faith the mystery of the great love (see above).

Above all, what does the fact that on the cross Jesus gave himself and died "for our sins" mean? As soon as one thinks that at that moment and in that manner it was the Son of God who offered himself according to the will of the Father who sent him, one can understand a truth both elementary and fundamental: the words "for our sins" has a universal coverage. He could not have but "died for all" (2 Cor 5:14,15), "as ransom for all" (1 Tim 2:5-6), he who was sent to the world as the only mediator between God and mankind. It was then for the sins of all that Jesus died on the cross, the saving epiphany of the great love of God. Meanwhile, in St. Paul’s mind emerges, as a specific evangelical revelation, the unarguable truth of a universal sinfulness. Just as "there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all" (Rom 10:12), so "there is no distinction" on another level: "all have sinned" (Rom 3:22,23), "Jews and Greeks alike that they are all under the domination of sin" (3:9) – and as such they are appealed to by the Gospel of redemption. The shadow of the cross has canceled every distinction and the light of the gospel declares each and everyone a sinner.

"All are subject to sin": the affirmation is not spring-like but consequential. Paul does not start from this certainty to conclude that Christ has died for all. The preacher of the gospel performs a contrary movement: it is the truth of Christ-Son who died for the sin of all, a truth inherent to the gospel, revealed to him and continually meditated upon by him, that gives him the certainty that all are sinners and are needy of divine redemption. Not only that. In the gospel and in the contemplation of the Crucified, Paul gathers another truth: the seriousness of sin itself and the misery of that humanity which was so loved on Calvary – a misery that only the power of God, of that God "who gives life to the dead," is capable of healing (cf. Rom 4:17; Eph 2:5).

Otherwise how could one explain the divine dignity of the victim (Rom 5:10) and the transcending price of the spilt blood (Eph 1:7; cf. 1 Cor 6:20; 7:23; also Acts 20:28; Heb 9:12,14; 1 Pt 1:18-19; Rev 1:5; 5:9)? "He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all" (Rom 8:32): it is unthinkable that such a very precious gift should be aimed at a good which man could achieve by his own strength or receive from God as a merit he could gain. Above all under the light of the gospel of the cross, the evidence emerges in these words: "Or who has given him anything that he may be repaid" (Rom 11:35; cf. 4:4-5). In particular, the cross teaches Paul that there does not exist or ever existed a man – thought of in the Jewish doctrine – who could achieve "his own justice coming from the law" (cf. Phil 3:9), a justice which is based then on the system of work and of merit. Such a man would not be that sinner who is so much in need of redemption and for whom the Son of God has died. Certainly, justice is possible; on the contrary, it is offered to all in the universal gospel of salvation (cf. Rom 1:16); but it is only that which a sinner receives from God as pure gift of grace, precisely "by his grace through the redemption in Jesus Christ" (Rom 3:24). "Justified by his blood... reconciled to God through the death of his Son" (5:9,10): it is either this truth is opened to us or we are excluded from the grace of Christ (Gal 5:2-4).

It is then a matter of grace – and of grace mercifully predisposed by God in the mystery "of the great love with which he has loved us" (Eph 2:4ff), of that agape that shines greatly beyond every measure in the death of Christ-Son for us all. We now understand the unbelieving outburst of Paul in Gal 3:1: I have taught you about the matters of the cross and now you dare deviate from the norm of grace? We as well understand the declaration made immediately before: "I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing" (Gal 2:21). If it is true that "Christ died for our sins," as the fundamental kerygma states it, it must then be true that we get out of the condition of sin only by virtue of that death, that is by pure gift of grace. To pretend therefore that "justice" – the not-being-sinners but welcomed by God – is obtained with the works of the law, something like recompense, means to empty the grace of God of every consistency. Not only that, it would be as if to tell God, with the boast of human self-sufficiency, the word that wounds his heart even more: I do not need the redemption for which your Christ has spilled his own blood; as for me, your Son died uselessly.

"Died for our sins" (Rom 4:25) – "died for all" (2 Cor 5:15) – "all have sinned" (Rom 3:23; 3:9) – all are "justified through his blood" (5:9) – "justified by his grace" (3:24; Ti 3:7) – "justified through faith" (Gal 2:16; Rom 3:26,28; 5:1, etc.): this is a homogeneous line that starts from the cross and leads to the decisive binomial grace-faith. We respond to the divine gospel of grace and it opens to us through the amen of faith. It is the right deed and the disposition that pleases God because it is a "giving glory to God" just as he deigned to reveal himself in Christ Jesus (cf. Rom 4:20; 11:36), a giving homage to the power and wealth of his love, a confession with the readiness of heart that Christ did not die uselessly (cf. Gal 2:21).

The Pauline discourse on faith branches out in many directions; but the principal line runs along the charis-pistis path. In particular, it is this line that the Apostle points out in the struggle against the Jewish deviation: if it is by grace that man is justified, then justice comes from faith; and this is true for all, Greeks or Gentiles, circumcised or uncircumcised (Rom 3:30). It is a matter of truth and of that truth that the disciple of the cross never ceases to contemplate on the face of him who "has loved us and gave himself for us." (return to summary)

c) A wisdom and a power worthy of God

The intransigence with which Paul fought the Judaic infiltration reflected above all the anxiety with which Paul defended the truth-novelty of the gospel which he received "through a revelation of Jesus Christ" (Gal 1:12). Another preoccupation, however, conditioned also his struggle against the perpetrators of Jewish legalism and of Mosaic observances: that of seeing the gospel blocked in the world of the Gentiles – a world separated from the Jewish world by a fence of culture, of religion and of history – and which would surely reject a message made heavy by mental categories typical of one people only and by practices which were so alien as, for example, the circumcision. Already "obedience of faith" (Rom 1:5) required a conversion to God, which would have revolutionized lives and uprooted from hearts a paganism, which was a system of life and the unquestioned norm of society (cf. 1 Thess 1:9-10). To add another difficulty, as precisely that of a Judaized life, would have been like tempting God. Setting aside every consideration of substance, to "compel the Gentiles to live like Jews" (Gal 2:14) would have eclipsed the universalism of the message and, in practice, make the apostolic preaching a failure from the start. (return to summary)

— "I made myself all for everyone"

[God] "was pleased to reveal his son to me, so that I might proclaim him to the Gentiles" (Gal 1:16). One of Paul’s certainties was precisely this: his mission is for the Gentiles (Rom 1:1,5; 11:13; 15:16; 16:26; Gal 2:7-8; Col 1:25-27; Eph 3:8; 1 Tim 2:7...). It is in the vast world of the pagans that the gospel had to penetrate and grow so that it may become effectively that universal salvation which has been predisposed by the only God through the only Mediator (cf. 1 Tim 2:4-5); and of such divine plan Paul was convinced of being the minister and collaborator. This presupposes that in his apostolic mind a sureness and challenge was maturing since the very beginning: his very call to be "apostle of the Gentiles" comforted him in the idea that the gospel could truly be proposed to the pagans and that these would have welcomed it with the obedience of faith; as for the challenge, he was well aware to understand that face to face with himself there lay the task of administering the word which had to be faithful to the truth and at the same time capable of transmitting the truth to the world of the Gentiles. Certainly, he could always tell himself: "I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me" (Phil 4:13; cf. 1 Cor 15:10; Col 1:29; Rom 15:18-19). The fact, however, remained that the gospel was marked by Israelite premises which were not contingent and that the truth to transmit objectively coincided with the historical, Jewish and Palestinian affairs of Jesus of Nazareth. Paul must have soon understood how necessary was a preaching that knew how to spread the true gospel while separating it from a wrapper which could have uselessly made it burdensome or even made it impossible to express among the Gentiles.

Let us say that under this aspect, exquisitely missionary, God chose in Paul the right ministry. His personality, so cosmopolitan so to say, prepared him for that operation which would transplant the gospel, without minimally betraying it but even exalting its grandeur and wealth, from its original Jewish-Palestinian ground to that still uncultivated pagan world – precisely that operation for which the Apostle was truly the "teacher of the Gentiles in faith and in truth" (1 Tim 2:7).

Above all his Jewish identity (2 Cor 11:22; Phil 3:5-6; Rom 9:3; 11:1; Gal 1:14; cf. Acts 22:3; 26:4-5). Only a Jew like Paul, who was educated in a very good Rabbinic school and who was a profound student of the Bible, who lived as a faithful observer of the law and a jealous defender of the tradition of the fathers, could understand the continuity of a history of salvation that has reached its fullness and together gathers the glorious novelty of the gospel revealed by him. The unity of a new and universal people of God where there is no more Jew or Greek, the merely relative importance of the law, the overcoming of circumcision, the superiority of the new alliance, the historical primacy of Israel seen in the light of a divine grace offered to whoever believes – a composite of truths which are not extraneous to the global truth of the gospel and which Christian catechesis cannot ignore – only a true and intelligent Jew like Paul could gather in depth and keep in his awareness as "apostle of the gentiles." In particular, his Jewish identity allowed Paul to separate, within the great Israelite heritage, the elements always and wherever valid from those which are marked by ethnic and temporal fallibility and which would have been a stumbling block to the gospel preaching amidst the Gentiles. "All that I do for the Gospel" (1 Cor 9:23): the word regards also the pruning which Paul held as a duty to accomplish on the Israelite tree so that the holy root could spring forth the holy branches of a people of believers, one and universal (Rom 11:16-24).

"Although I am free in regard to all, I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew to win over Jews; to those under the law I became like one under the law... to win over those under the law. To those outside the law I became like one outside the law... to win over those outside the law" (1 Cor 9:19-21). It was not only legitimate to force the pagans to become Jews (cf. Gal 2:14), but the Apostle understood how obligatory was it to approach that humanity with a behavior which as much as possible was sympathetic on the social and cultural level as well as on the psychological. It is serving all by serving the gospel with the humility and courage of one who is identified with the gospel he preaches (1 Cor 9:16-17). And we need to recognize that Paul had the means to enact this missionary approach of his. "I am a Jew, of Tarsus in Galicia, a citizen of no mean city" (Acts 21:39; cf. 9:11; 22:3). Along with his Jewish identity, which remains the most outstanding, here is another trait, not at all negligible: he belongs to the Greek Diaspora, he is of urban extraction, he is at ease in the Hellenized world of the Eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea. He would speedily and naturally become part of that Christianity of Judeo-Hellenist kind of the city of Damascus, of Tarsus and especially of Antioch in Syria. Besides, this Semite is endowed also with a good Greek culture although he was not introduced to any particular current of thought; and he uses, quite fluently, as a second maternal language, the Greek of his time, as well as the distinct common language of the time. He was certainly not a farmer or a fisherman of Galilee; and his intellectual capacity is more than enough so that he could acquire through practice a language adequate to transmit the gospel, from city to city, and to the ears of the people he met.

Let us read his Letters as our inheritance and let us gather his formulation as a normative expression of our faith; but let us remember that at stake is the work of an apostle who knew how to make a good use of his intellectual traits and his socio-cultural training for the gospel. What we read and gather is in reality the fruit of a sowing tenaciously worked at, where an entire world, the Greco-Roman world of the Gentiles, is appealed to by the gospel message as if by a word that this world could listen to. The undertaking seems to us already granted; but it was of a Paul of immense ambitions, who worked more than all the others (1 Cor 15:10; cf. 2 Cor 11:5,23ff), moved by a conviction which he knew how to concretize in a winning manner: it was not for the pagan to flock to Jerusalem, but it was the task of Jerusalem to be missionary, to go out of its own milieu, to go towards the pagans and plant the gospel in the culture of the Gentiles, to introduce the leaven of the truth in the mass of the pagan world so that it could become bread pleasing to God. What we now call inculturation was practiced first by Paul and with stupefying results; and he did it with the awareness of one called-chosen, secure to interpret so well the mandate received and to serve in such a manner the gospel entrusted him. "I have become all things to all..." (1 Cor 9:22).

The story of Paul punctuates the progress of the undertaking. A first period, of at least 11 years now known as the Antiochian period (cf. Gal 1:21-24; Acts 9:30; 11:25-26; chapters 13-14), made it possible for Paul to become part of a Christianity where the gospel was already being preached to the Greeks (Acts 11:19-26), to approach a culture which already knew to form, with the help of Barnabas, a missionary method, to acquire an adequate language, to understand how tenacious and anti-gospel and harmful was the tendency of imposing Judaizing criteria on the Gentiles (cf. Gal 2:11-14). The period ends in year 49 with his ascent to Jerusalem and participation in the apostolic council, where it was sanctioned that the Jewish law did not oblige the Christians converted from paganism (Act 15; Gal 2:3-6) and where the very mission of Paul among the Gentiles received an official recognition (Gal 2:7-9).

The return to Antioch finds Paul certain of not "having run in vain" (Gal 2:2), ready to free himself from the tutelage of Barnabas, anxious to go on a journey (Act 15:36-40), possessing certainties and means which would make him great. In this manner, marked by a grown apostolic maturity, the most fruitful period of Paul’s work begins, that which covers the years 50-58 and which coincides with the second and third missionary journey (Acts 15:36-18:22; 18:23-21:17). Until then, Paul moved around Antioch, in a rather narrow circle of Asia Minor, with a stop in Cyprus. The road of evangelization now carried him towards the West, always farther from the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean. And then an event of great importance happened: in Troas Paul had a vision of a Macedonian who was pleading to him: "Come over to Macedonia, and help us!" (Acts 16:6-10). Considering himself called by God, Paul sets sail from Troas thus leaving for the first time the Asian soils; he crosses the Aegean Sea and disembarks in Macedonia in order to "to proclaim the good news to them" (Acts 16:10ff). It is not a stage like the others. He was by now in Europe, at the gates of Greece, the country of that civilization wherein Paul of Tarsus was already planting the seed of the gospel. In fact, after having founded the churches of Philippi and of Thessalonica and having preached the word in Boerea, Paul was escorted by the new believers up to Athens (Acts 16:11-17:15).

One thing is certain: for the author of the Book of the Acts and undoubtedly for Paul himself, to proclaim the gospel in the spiritual center of pagan Hellenism meant that the Christian apostle was accomplishing a leap of quality foreseeably fruitful and of symbolic and practical consequences. It was not the same as appealing to Hellenism in the peripheral areas of Asia as to bring instead the gospel in the historical and cultural heart of that world! The narration of Acts 17:16-34 is written carefully and it reflected what Paul must have felt as a challenge reaching its peak. He "grew exasperated at the sight of the city full of idols... he debated in the synagogue... daily in the public square with whoever happened to be there. Even some philosophers of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophies engaged him in discussion." But the city is jaded, so used to speakers who came from the Orient: he was taken for a charlatan; and some, upon hearing him "proclaim Jesus and the resurrection," thought that he was preaching about strange gods, precisely the goddess Anastasis and her spouse called Jesus (vv. 16-21)!

The Athens experience reaches its deciding point at the Areophagus and in a manner which makes the Apostle of the Gentiles understand that he still had something to learn. In fact, the speech he made is interesting both in content and the effect it had made (vv. 22ff). He tried to graft the proclamation of the true God in the same stratum of culture which ignored it but had the means to seek and find it – means given to man by the same God who created everything and everyone and was close to each one. So he was not proclaiming a strange god, but the God whose image everyone bore just as someone among their poets had already intuited (vv. 22-30). The ideas are not original, but they are inspired after the habitual schemes of the monotheistic propaganda practiced by Hellenistic Judaism. If not for anything else, the discourse reveals to us a Paul who is attentive to the instances of a culture to regenerate and attentive to bring the pagans to question their own religiosity.

The speech ends with an invitation for conversion, because "he has established a day on which he will ‘judge the world with justice’ through a man he has appointed, and he has provided confirmation for all by raising him from the dead" (vv. 31-32). Certainly, the Paschal substance of the gospel is implicit in the words; but the formulation is strangely flat and without bite. Then the whole speech shows a thematic imbalance that favors a generic monotheistic proposal at the expense of a specifically Christian truth. Nonetheless, the failure of Paul was almost complete: "When they heard about resurrection of the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, ‘We should like to hear you on this some other time’" (v. 32).

Paul was not a beginner as he had already brought the gospel to many places of Hellenism, either in Asia or in Europe. What went wrong this time and in Athens at that where a success would have been a crowning and at the same time a promise of great results? Was his method wrong? Did he appeal to the wrong persons? Was he not sufficiently integrated in the society that he had to evangelize? These and other questions should have troubled his mind when, leaving Athens, he journeyed towards the next metropolis of Corinth. (return to summary)

Continued: Paul Apostle at the school of Christ crucified - 3 -

return to summary


           Jesus Master yesterday, today and for ever

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