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THE MASTER IN ST. PAUL

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

by Giovanni Helewa ocd

 

II. PAUL APOSTLE
AT THE SCHOOL OF CHRIST CRUCIFIED

3. At the school of the Crucified

c) A wisdom and a power worthy of God

— "Jesus Christ, and him crucified"

The Apostle, marked by the experience lived in Athens, reaches Corinth. He needs to be comforted (Acts 18:9-10); and he himself recalls: "I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling" (1 Cor 2:3). But above all, he would make others understand that he had learned a lesson: "When I came to you, brother, proclaiming the mystery of God, I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom... I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified... 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" (vv. 1-2 and 4-5). Was this a self-criticism? It is probable. Nonetheless, to emerge from this revelation is a Paul who knew how to draw something good out of the defeat suffered.

Under the impact of an experience not a bit traumatizing, he understood that the gospel now faced an obstacle of a typically Greek human boast: a proud trust in reason and in the criteria of a completely worldly wisdom. On this matter, he would tell the Jews, also they unwilling listeners to his preaching: "What occasion is there then for boasting? It is ruled out" (Rom 3:27). And we know that against such a Jewish boast, which was a wrong trust in the law and on man’s capacity to achieve justice through one’s own merits, Paul opposed the truth of Christ-Son "died for our sins," that is, the truth of a redemptive death which has declared all as sinners and consecrated the primacy of "grace" and of "faith" in the relationship between man and God (see above). And here he is taking inside him this other conviction while from Athens he approached Corinth: beyond the differences, the Jewish boast and the Greek boast have a common origin and bring to similar behavior: the origin is the pretension of imposing to God schemes and criteria that are human and worldly; the attitude is that of an opposing rejection of the cross of Jesus and to the preaching which transmits its saving truth.

It is precisely on this that Paul wrote to the Corinthians: "... Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength" (1 Cor 1:22-25).

Jews and Greeks: two differentiated pretensions but are in reality that of a worldly reason (v. 21). The Jews "ask for signs," or a God who demonstrates his power with proofs that are sensible to the human eye and in consonance with the criteria and the measures of worldly reality. The cross frustrates their expectation because the human eye and the worldly criteria cannot see in it the face of a "weakness" unworthy of God. Because of this, the Christ Paul preaches is "scandal to the Jews," a stumbling block against which they bang and because of which they fall: a fall like that cannot be of our God, the redeemer of Israel! As for the Greeks, Paul says, they "look for wisdom," that is, they are seduced by the attraction of an intelligence which controls things and events, which appreciates what is reasonable and rejects what is absurd, that understands the cause-effect relationship natural to reality, penetrates its enjoyable harmony and expresses it in persuasive language. For them it is obvious that the Crucified is "foolishness," a pathetic folly, a speech that is not worth listening.

In part, Paul agrees. Christ crucified is foolishness, is weakness. The criteria of "things visible" effectively weigh (cf. 2 Cor 4:18). But the bright impact of the cross lies here: what is undoubtedly foolishness and weakness finds itself to be "power of God and wisdom of God" (1 Cor 1:24). The paradox is native to the fact; and the Apostle unveils the depth with an ardent formulation: in being most human, what is demonstrated in the cross of Christ is a "foolishness of God," a "weakness of God" (v. 25). The genitive case, clear and neat, intends to suggest how much involved God is: it is divine foolishness and weakness, in the sense that it is willed by God, it is present in the mind of God, it is the seat of a resolution of God, it is work of God worthy of the wisdom and power of God himself.

"Where is the debater of this age?" (v. 20). The paradox is adorably divine. Only God can turn weakness to power and foolishness to wisdom; and it is by such transcendent prerogative that Christ crucified is the supreme epiphany. What worldly reasoning declares absurd, the cross reveals to be worthy of God. Meanwhile human schemes are overturned; and every pretension to control the work of God is revealed itself to be pure folly (vv. 19-20; 2:16; cf. Rom 11:33-34). To believe in the cross is indeed "to give glory to God" as God’ and it is an act of adoration which is done, as if a giving up of every human and worldly boast (1 Cor 1:29; cf. Gal 6:14).

"I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Cor 2:2). The failure suffered in Athens convinces Paul to avoid the miring in the Greek wisdom and in worldly reason and to impress on his proclamation an evangelical openness which is as if a celebration of the divine transcendence. It is a precise missionary method that the Apostle declares to have decided to adopt. Either one proclaims the gospel of salvation as the "divine word of the cross" (1 Cor 1:18), or one does not proclaim at all. To attenuate the paradox, to make the scandal less shocking, to cover with the veil of worldly elegance the divine foolishness-weakness of Calvary, thinking to bring close in such a manner the gospel to human society, all this ends only to "empty the meaning of the cross of Christ" (v. 17): one finds himself transmitting as gospel of God that which is instead a simply human word, hence a word deprived of saving strength and is perfectly useless.

The experience made Paul understand how great in the apostolate is the temptation to adapt the truth of Christ to criteria of worldly wisdom, while "trying to please people" (Gal 1:10). That would at least spare the minister of Christ to be crucified with Christ himself, to suffer that is the ignominy of talking foolishly and to be considered such. But what kind of minister of Christ should he be? "If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a slave of Christ" (Gal 1:10). It is a matter of fidelity, of apostolic identity, of ministerial faith, that which Paul stupendously calls the "foolishness of the proclamation" (1 Cor 1:21). And how costly is such fidelity! He who was saying: "All these I do for the gospel" (1 Cor 9:23), knew lucidly that the gospel was making him become "foolish because of Christ," to make a spectacle of himself in the amused world of the people (4:9,10). But Paul has no choice: the "word of the cross" has its own language, its own internal coherence, its one ministerial clarity – and all this weighs on the preacher as a personal cross.

We said it is a matter of fidelity. We have to add: it’s a matter of apostolic efficacy. "... It was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith" (1 Cor 1:21). Only the "word of the cross" radiates the saving power of God and only the "foolishness of the proclamation" attracts people into the redemptive sphere of Christ.

By itself, in fact, the gospel is the divine power of salvation (cf. Rom 1:16); it is precisely because it is such that it appeals to the faith of man, ready to become in the believer living and working salvation of God (cf. Rom 10:14-17). In its turn, the faith that saves in that way is one: it is that "amen" and that "obedience" of the mind and of the heart (Rom 1:5; 10:16; 15:18; 16:19; 16:26; 2 Cor 10:5) through which one intimately agrees to the truth of the gospel, thus they no longer are rebels but given to God. Through this pistis one is at peace with God (Rom 5:1), a participant of the grace of Christ, totally introduced into the novelty of Christ, a living carrier of the divine "wisdom, justice, holiness and redemption" who is Christ himself (cf. 1 Cor 1:30). How could one ever think that such a believer is the fruit of a speech inspired after human wisdom, a reasoning suggested by worldly criteria (cf. 1 Cor 1:19-20; 2:1,4; 2:13)?

Something else is needed in order that the human soul, pagan or Jew, may be grasped in depth, induced to strip itself of every worldly boast and be converted by obedience of faith to God in Jesus Christ. A word charged with the power of God himself and a vehicle of the wisdom of God himself is needed. The Apostle knew what this word is: it is the "word of faith" (Rom 10:8), the "word of Christ" (v. 17), that is, the word that appeals to faith by proclaiming and transmitting Christ as the divine gospel of salvation. But the Apostle also knew this: such word-gospel is to be mentioned in the "foolishness of the proclamation" as "the word of the cross" (1 Cor 1:18,21). "Faith comes from what is heard" (Rom 10:17); but what saving strength can a proclamation have when it is clothed with worldly attraction, "so that the cross of Christ is emptied of its meaning" (1 Cor 1:17)?

* * *

Different from the historical witnesses but not less than they, Paul is a disciple of Jesus, with the gaze of his mind and the ardor of his heart fixed above all on Christ crucified. Beside the cross of the Lord, he knew how to develop within that interior unity which is perhaps the most salient aspect of his personality, that is, the unity of the "believer" and of the "apostle". In fact, in the very school of the Crucified, he grew in the gospel that he himself preached and taught. Witness to it are the words we already mentioned: "But may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and to the world" (Gal 6:14). It is the daily life of the "believer" that brings the liberating mark of the cross (cf. Gal 2:20); but it is also the industriousness of the "apostle" that conditions it in such a manner. The believer in fact is won over and then freed from every human boast (cf. Phil 3:4-8); and on his part, the apostle is convinced of having to transmit Christ with the sincere word of the cross, with the foolishness of a proclamation that concedes nothing to the pretensions of human boasting, whether this had the Jewish mark or the Greek one.

How much ministerial security Paul drew from that faith of his, nourished at the foot of the crucified Master! He could in fact speak of himself with these words: "when I am weak, it is then that I am strong" (2 Cor 12:10); "poor, yet enriching many" (2 Cor 6:10). The thought leads immediately to Calvary inasmuch as the antitheses "poverty-richness" and "weakness-strength" are the very same things that clothed the cross-death of Jesus with divine grandeur (cf. 1 Cor 1:23-24; 2 Cor 8:9). Not only that, Paul bodily bears the "marks of Jesus" (Gal 6:17): the paradox of the cross marks deeply the whole of his conscience as believer and apostle.

That interior unity and ministerial security of his were consolidated also in the difficult school of experience; and it is meaningful that the failure of Athens itself helped him to be convinced that his weakness was not a burden to his apostolate (1 Cor 2:3), as his fruitful activity in Corinth served to persuade him that "it was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith" (1 Cor 1:21), or with the humanly weak and ignorance of the cross (v. 18).

We spoke about the missionary method consciously adopted in order that the cross of Christ may not be in vain (v. 17) and in order that the saving power of God may find in hearts the renewing response of faith. In fact, the seed transmitted must be that of the gospel; but what makes it grow is God and only he (cf. 1 Cor 3:5-9). Hence, the Apostle makes sure to tell the Corinthians that he decided to preach "Jesus Christ, and him crucified" precisely because he was entrusting his word to the divine power of the Spirit, convinced that their faith should not be founded on "human wisdom, but on the power of God" (2:1-5).

We always have to bear in mind the specificness of the Pauline experience. The Apostle is attentive to the magisterium of the Cross, but he does not live in the past: he allows himself to be penetrated by the truth of the cross in order to better know his Lord, the Son of God who was revealed to him, the Christ who lives and works in his person, the actual Christ of glory, the Christ who is the living gospel of God, that gospel of divine salvation which he preached and taught. In his personal faith, he does not separate the suffered shame of the cross from the glorious power of the resurrection (cf. Phil 3:10-11); and in the apostolate he proclaims together Christ crucified and Christ Lord (1 Cor 2:2; 2 Cor 4:5). In fact, objectively, the Christ-servant died in weakness in order to rise in his actual dignity of Christ-Lord and to become thus the living seat of the saving power of God (cf. Phil 2:6-11; Rom 14:9; 2 Cor 13:4). And so it is with the Gospel: it is preached with the foolish and weak word of the cross in order that it may penetrate and work in the believer as the divine power of salvation (1 Cor 1:18,21).

Hence, in being revelation of the great love, grace of redemption and gift of salvation, the gospel is divine power that is cast like rays of light from the actual glorious fullness of Christ and expands in the world by means of apostolic proclamation. If he did not believe this, Paul could not have worked the way he did, that is, as "apostle of the Gentiles" in view of the "obedience of faith" among pagans. "... I will not dare to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to lead the Gentiles to obedience by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit..." (Rom 15:18-19). The power of the Spirit! It is this divine power that has done it that the pagans should welcome Christ preached and to receive him as living wealth of grace and of salvation.

It is the power that acts in the evangelical word transmitted by Paul; and it is the power that transforms the proclaimed word welcomed and believed; and it is the power that makes Christ live and prosper in the hearts of the believers. The gospel, in fact, is not just any other word, but the word of God that Christ speaks to faith and brings Christ to reality in the believers, while letting these become each one of them a "new creature" in Christ (Gal 6:15; 2 Cor 5:17; Col 3:10; Eph 2:10,15; 4:24), that is a person who carries in his heart and projects to the pleased gaze of God the living image of his, who is Christ (2 Cor 3:18; 4:5; Rom 8:29; Col 1:15; 3:10). Such a project, where the love of God is revealed and works – aside from being grace of redemption – the power of new life and new creation, cannot depend on some ministerial ability or be under criteria of worldly reasons. The Apostle collaborates in it with his best (cf. 1 Cor 3:5-9; 4:1-2), by making himself all for everyone (9:22); but he knows that it is the grace-power of God that supports it (1 Cor 3:6; 15:10; Phil 4:13; Col 1:29) and it is the "power of the Spirit" that brings in the world of pagans the fruit of faith and of new life, the same fruit which is mysteriously present in Christ crucified (1 Cor 1:23-24). It actually flows back from the heavenly and glorious fullness of Christ-Lord (1 Cor 15:42-45; Rom 1:3-4) and penetrates into the person by means of the "foolishness of the proclamation" (1 Cor 1:18,21; 2:1-5).

He did not know Jesus of Nazareth and he did not see him die on the cross; but he made himself his assiduous disciple in order to learn the truth of God-Savior and transmit it to the Gentiles in the best manner; in particular, he interrogated the Divine Master on Calvary in order to understand how rich in love and power was his Lord Christ, the living gospel of God he had to sow in the world for the life of the world. He did everything for the gospel, living as Jew among Jews, Greek among Greeks (1 Cor 9:19-23); but he also learned "that we might trust not in ourselves but in God who raises the dead (2 Cor 1:9; cf. Rom 4:17), growing in the certainty that his personal weakness and the ridiculous folly of the proclamation were, in reality, a fruitful epiphany of the wisdom and power of his God, the God of Christ crucified and Lord. He knew he had the mission of leading to "faith-obedience" a pagan humanity which was being appealed to with love and esteem and spirit of service, a world which was to be liberated and sanctified and offered to God as a "pleasing sacrifice" (cf. Rom 15:16); and his contact with that humanity and that world made him feel, always more clearly, which he was learning through the inner listening to the Master: the work is of God, it is worthy of God and to accomplish it and is God himself with the power of his Spirit.

Hence, the extraordinary dynamism of the Pauline venture and the penetrating force of a new and demanding message which in a few years had settled in the eastern part of the Empire, or, as the Apostle himself clearly states, "from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum" (Rom 15:19). But we also need to think of a Paul who, having preached the gospel, continued to listen to the Master and serve the Lord by teaching the truth believed and exhorting the believers to coherence with a new life worthy of their calling (cf. 1 Thess 2:11-12; Col 1:10; Phil 1:27; Eph. 4:1; 5:8-10...). It is Paul, father and pastor (cf. 1 Cor 4:15), he who bears "the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches" (2 Cor 11:28), who is "again in labor until Christ be formed" in those he calls his children (Gal 4:19), who wants to continue being of assistance to all "for your progress and joy in the faith" (Phil 1:25). It is the same Paul who, after having sowed, does not stop to care for the plants so that they may grow strong and healthy. This Paul, who also is the author of the Letters, is that "teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth" (1 Tim 2:7) who, with the word and example, and prayer and the generosity of love, places himself at the service of those in faith (2 Cor 4:5b) so that they may persevere and mature in their new dignity, while being attentive to find for them and with them the manner of being Christians in the sea of a society which is always full of pagan criteria and customs (read 1 Corinthians!).

Not less than the preacher, this Paul father and pastor, while remaining a listener to the Master and a contemplative of the Crucified, had to put all his trust in the Spirit, knowing that God is faithful and wants to bring to completion in the believers the work he had started in them (cf. Phil 1:6; 1 Thess 5:23-24; 2 Thess 3:3; 1 Cor 1:7-9; 10:13...). The power of God already works in the believers (Eph 3:20), and the Spirit is, in them, richness of life and of truth, sharing with them the life of Christ Lord and opening their mind to the divinely adorable truth of Christ crucified (cf. 1 Cor 2:10-16). They are now engaged in the journey, earthly and blocked by faith-hope-charity; and it is the Spirit that guides them from within in this journey (cf. Rom 8:14; Gal 5:18ff), by making them, like St. Paul, follow the footsteps of Christ as faithful disciples of the Master. (return to summary)

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           Jesus Master yesterday, today and for ever

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