W. P. Bennett
The Top 3 Quotes from St. Paul
On the road to Damascus en route to persecute more followers of Jesus Christ, Saul experienced the Lord Jesus Christ in an event that would change the course of world history. This zealous Jewish persecutor of Christians would change his name to Paul and almost immediately become the greatest evangelizer of a faith he had previously sought vigorously to wipe out. But what we often forget as we study St. Paul is that, in addition to being the prototypical evangelizer, is also one of the finest, in addition to being one of the first, theologians of the Christian faith. As we celebrated the Feast of St. Paul last week, I want to focus on this often overlooked aspect of St. Paul's contribution to our faith--he was a theologian who had a tremendous impact on shaping Christian theology for the growing Church.
To put his contribution to theology in context, we have to remember that when St. Paul wrote his letters--now contained in the New Testament--the Gospels had not been written. In the New Testament we read today, the Gospels come first. This belies the fact that, chronologically, St. Paul’s letters come first. In addition to this, St. Paul was in a very unique position for his time, adding to his resume as a theologian. He was schooled in the Jewish tradition, but yet evangelized primarily to the Gentiles. St. Paul understood both the Jewish roots of Jesus Christ and the first Christians, and the lives of non-Jewish converts to Christianity. The ability to belong to both worlds provided him with the context in which to write his theological letters to his audience in a way that very few, if any, other figures of the early Church could.
Entire courses are taught on the writings of St. Paul, and even these won’t ever exhaust the wealth and profundity to be found in these materials. I will not even attempt to do so here, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at his writings at all, especially in the celebration of his Feast Day. So I hereby give you St. Paul’s Top Three Quotes from his letters:
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ.” (Romans 6:23)
Does any short verse so perfectly sum up the history of salvation as this one? In this simple verse we have the Fall, the consequences of the Fall, the freedom of the gift of Jesus Christ, and the result of the gift of Jesus Christ’s life. “For the wages of sin is death…” is the perfect description of the state of humanity after the Fall without Jesus Christ. Original sin leads humanity to be slanted or inclined towards evil, towards death. We see time and time again throughout the Old Testament the nation of Israel falling away from God due to sin and the death and chaos that result from this. The second half of the verse provides us with the escape from this deadly cycle of falling away from God and death: Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ who is a gift freely given from God the Father who had one ultimate mission here on earth. His mission was, in its simplest form, to be the sacrificial lamb that would once for all win the salvation of humanity. But often our thinking on this verse ends here. However, St. John Chrysostom highlights another key aspect, that we need to continue to re-read the first part of the verse as a deterrent from sinning again. For although Christ has won our salvation once for all, by our sin, by our choosing evil over that free gift of God we can fall again into death. As St. John Chrysostom says “For when he calls death the wages of sin, he alarms them again, and secures them against dangers to come. For the words he uses to remind them of their former estate, he also employs so as to make them thankful, and more secure against any inroads of temptations.”
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.”(Hebrews 4:14)
Although the authorship of the Letter to the Hebrews is under debate, traditionally it has been ascribed to St. Paul and so I include it here. The Letter to the Hebrews deals with the notion of priestly sacrifice and is excellent reading for anybody interested in the Jewish roots of the Catholic priesthood and provides excellent material on how a priest is very different than a Church paid social worker. But aside from this, the letter also highlights a key theme of St. Paul that is central to this verse, namely that need to hold fast to the faith. St. Paul, in his dealings with various Christian communities, was very aware that the zeal of faith can, and often does, fade with time. This is natural, but what we need to continue to do once the euphoric high of our faith fades away is to hold fast to the confession of faith as an act of the will. I may not feel that same high as I did the first time I received the Lord Jesus in the Eucharist, but I need to hold fast to the confession of our faith. In our age and time this can be hard to do. Societal forces push us towards denying our confession for the sake of “getting along” or “not offending” but St. Paul reminds us here of our Christian duty- to hold fast to our confession!
…and now for the
Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
This Christological hymn is thought to perhaps be St. Paul’s rendering of an early Christian hymn singing of Jesus Christ, but today the Church considers it so important that it is included every week in the Liturgy of the Hours. The prayer of the Church that is prayed every day by deacons, priests, religious men and women and the entirety of the Church includes every psalm and once a week this hymn. The Church has deemed this hymn important enough that it should be read and prayed at least once a week. One of the most difficult sins to purge from our lives is pride. We think so highly of ourselves and our accomplishments that often we need to be reminded of the call to humility. This hymn speaks so beautifully of the humility of Jesus Christ that we cannot help but grow in our own humility by praying it at least every week as the Church sets up for priests and religious men and women. Through this hymn we learn where true exultation comes from: from submission. In order to be great, we must become small. In order to live in heaven, we must die to ourselves. This hymn speaks to this in addition to much, much more. Entire books can be written on this simply hymn trying to unpack the theological riches of it, but I will leave it to you to grow in your appreciation of this hymn by slowly reading and re-reading it in your own prayer life.
Our duty to conform our lives to the grace that comes through the free gift of Jesus Christ on the cross is a defining aspect of St. Paul’s theology that cannot help but come through his writings. If you begin to read his writings you immerse yourself in the writings of one of Christianity’s greatest theologians and hopefully begin to share in his evangelistic zeal to spread the message of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.