6th century Byzantine
(Musée de Cluny)
Today being the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul and I having recently finished a semester studying Paul, I thought I would share some of my reflections on this great and infuriating figure of Christian history. His power to unite and divide remains strong even after the passing of nearly two thousand years. Just last month, a friend shared with me that he wouldn’t mind at all if the Church tossed out all his epistles and he never had to listen to one again. Well. That’s not going to happen.
My image of Paul has shifted considerably over the years. Perhaps fittingly enough, my introduction to Paul’s writings was in the context of religious contention between a Protestant mother and a Roman Catholic father. Paul was my father's confirmation name and my mother's inspiration. Raised between these divergent perspectives, somehow I ended up initially with a mostly Protestant lens on his writings. Paul always sounded like a sola fide Protestant to me, and having embraced a rather polemical form of Roman Catholicism at the time, I consequently did not like him. I found him bristly and rankling to my doctrinal sensibilities. Mainly, I thought his statements about people being justified by faith and not by works (e.g. Rom 3:28; Gal 2:16) conflicted with certain opinions I held radically to the contrary, e.g. that people are justified by faith and works. I preferred the discussion of faith and works in James 2, and found it a comforting counterpoint to Paul, even interpreting it as anti-Pauline. Once, my anti-Pauline fervor rose to such a pitch that I found it necessary to confess the sin of sacrilege against Paul to a priest, who responded, “that’s one I’ve never heard before.” All this is to say, Paul and I have a history. We have had words. I usually directed all this bile against his ideas – as I poorly understood them – and not against his person, but there was never anything “warm and fuzzy” about the image I held of Paul. I remained mostly ignorant about the life of Paul, as opposed to some of his ideas, until comparatively recently.
Now having read – academically, devotionally, and liturgically – all of Paul’s epistles, my image of Paul has evolved considerably both doctrinally and personally. I have come to love him. What I love most among his writings is his emphasis on love in 1 Cor 13. I have discovered also that this passage serves as a good examination of conscience
I now see Paul as a broken and magnificent creature, turned from his own intentions and understandings and taken over by Christ Jesus (cf. Phil 3:12) to establish his kingdom. Rather like a mule in the hands of a skilled trainer, he was stubborn and powerful, but also lowly – “the least of the apostles” (1 Cor 15:19) – and obedient to his master. Raymond Brown, in his Introduction to the New Testament, gives an image that particularly struck me:
Here was a Jew with a knapsack on his back who hoped to challenge all [the grandeur and power of Greco-Roman culture] in the name of a crucified criminal before whom, he proclaimed, every knee in heaven, on earth, and under the earth had to bend.
Paul was a wise man, an educated man, an intelligent man, made to speak like a fool (cf. 2 Cor 11:21) for the Christ’s sake. Here is one trembling in awe before his crucified former enemy who comes before him as his God and trembling not at all before any other. He is fearless and resolute at times, but not immutable, ever. He is entirely, beautifully, infuriatingly human. He entirely, beautifully, wholly belongs to God and to God’s Son Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.
I am now overwhelmed with gratitude to Paul and his spreading of the gospel to us Gentiles. Paul gave us Jesus. Or else, Jesus gave us himself through Paul.
St. Paul, pray for me , a sinner.