The Pope: Paul of Tarsus, Continued

Dear Brothers:

In the earlier catechesis, two weeks ago, I attempted to sketch the essential lines of the Apostle Paul’s biography. We have seen how the encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus literally revolutionized his life. Christ became his reason for being and the profound motive of all his apostolic work.

In his letters, after the name of God, which appears over 500 times, the name most often mentioned is that of Christ — 380 times. Therefore, it is important that we realize how Jesus Christ can influence a person’s life and, hence, also our own life. In fact, Jesus Christ is the apex of the history of salvation and therefore the true discriminating point in the dialogue with other religions.

On seeing Paul’s example, we can thus formulate the basic question: How does the human being’s encounter with Christ take place? In what does the relationship that stems from it consist? The answer Paul gives can be understood in two ways.

In the first place, Paul helps us to understand the fundamental and irreplaceable value of faith. In the Letter to the Romans, he writes: “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (3:28). And in the Letter to the Galatians: “a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, in order to be justified by faith in Jesus Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified” (2:16).

“To be justified” means to be made righteous, that is, to be received by the merciful justice of God, and enter into communion with him and therefore to be able to establish a much more authentic relationship with all our brothers: and this in virtue of a total forgiveness of our sins.

Paul says with all clarity that this condition of life does not depend on our possible good works, but on the pure grace of God: We “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).

With these words, Paul expresses the fundamental content of his conversion, the new direction his life took as a result of his encounter with the Risen Christ. Before his conversion, Paul was not a man estranged from God or his law. On the contrary, he was observant, with an observance that bordered on fanaticism.

However, in the light of the encounter with Christ, he understood that with this he only sought to make himself, his own righteousness, and with all that righteousness he had lived only for himself. He understood that his life needed absolutely a new orientation. And he expresses this new orientation thus: “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Paul, therefore, no longer lives for himself, for his own righteousness. He lives from Christ and with Christ: Giving himself, he no longer seeks or makes himself. This is the new righteousness, the new orientation that the Lord has given us, which gives us faith. Before the cross of Christ, highest expression of his self-giving, there is no longer any one who can glory in himself, in his own righteousness!

On another occasion, Paul echoing Jeremiah, clarifies his thought: “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31; Jeremiah 9:22f); or also: “But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world!” (Galatians 6:14).

On reflecting what it means not to justify oneself by works but by faith, we have come to the second element that defines the Christian identity described by St. Paul in his own life. Christian identity which is made up in fact of two elements: not to seek oneself, but to be clothed in Christ and to give oneself with Christ, and in this way participate personally in the life of Christ himself to the point of being immersed in him, sharing both in his death as well as his life.

Paul writes this in the Letter to the Romans: We were “baptized into Jesus Christ, we were baptized into his death … we were buried with him … we are one with him … So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:3, 4, 5, 11). Precisely this last expression is symptomatic: For Paul, in fact, it is not enough to say that Christians are baptized, believers; for him it is equally important to say that they “are in Christ Jesus” (cf. also Romans 8:1, 2, 39; 12:5; 16:3,7,10; 1 Corinthians 1:2,3, etc.).

On other occasions he inverts the terms and writes that “Christ is in us/you” (Romans 8:10; 2 Corinthians 13:5) or “in me” (Galatians 2:20). This mutual understanding between Christ and the Christian, characteristic of Paul’s teaching, completes his reflection on faith. Faith, in fact, although it unites us intimately to Christ, underlines the distinction between us and him.

However, according to Paul, the Christian’s life also has an element which we could call “mystical,” as it entails losing ourselves in Christ and Christ in us. In this connection, the Apostle goes so far as to describe our sufferings as the “sufferings of Christ in us” (2 Corinthians 1:5), so that we always carry “in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:10).

We must apply all this to our daily life following the example of Paul who always lived with this great spiritual horizon. On one hand, faith must keep us in a constant attitude of humility before God, more than that, of adoration and praise in relation to him. In fact, what we are as Christians we owe only to him and to his grace. Given that nothing and no one can take his place, it is necessary therefore that we render to nothing and no one the homage we render to him. No idol must contaminate our spiritual universe; otherwise, instead of enjoying the freedom attained we will again fall into a humiliating slavery. On the other hand, our radical belonging to Christ and the fact that “we are in him” must infuse in us an attitude of complete confidence and immense joy.

In short, we must exclaim with St. Paul: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:39). Our Christian life, therefore, is based on the most stable and sure rock imaginable. From it we draw all our energy, as the Apostle in fact writes: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).

Let us therefore face our lives, with its joys and sorrows, supported by these great sentiments that Paul offers us. Experiencing this, we can understand that what the Apostle himself writes is true: “I know whom I have believed, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me,” that is, until the definitive day (2 Timothy 1:12) of our encounter with Christ, judge, savior of the world and of us.


~ by Rob on November 10, 2006.

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