By CATHERINE UPCHURCH, Little Rock Scripture StudyCATHERINE UPCHURCH, Little Rock Scripture Study | Published March 5, 2009
Quoting the prophet Joel, Paul writes to the Romans, “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? And how can people preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring (the) good news!’”(Romans 10:13-15).
Paul must have had beautiful feet indeed because he certainly knew how to preach. His writings and those inspired by him are not just a record of the events surrounding the public ministry of Jesus. Nor does Paul simply record Jesus’ words. Paul’s writing, no doubt reflecting his oral proclamations, articulates the meaning of Jesus and his words so that hearers and readers will recognize that the news of Christ Jesus is truly good.
Throughout the letters of Paul, Christ is not simply a person, Christ is an event. He does not simply exist as an object of adoration, he comes into our world and transforms it. In Paul’s theology, the central instrument of transformation is the cross of Christ. The word “cross” itself occurs in only a few places in Paul’s writing, but the effects of the crucifixion loom large in his writing.
Quoting what must have been a familiar hymn in the early Church, Paul encourages the believers at Philippi to have the attitude that Christ exhibited: “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” (Philippians 2:7-8).
The phrase “even death on a cross” tells us something about the depth of self-emptying that Paul sees in Jesus. The cross was the instrument of death, so cruel and unusual, that Roman occupiers reserved it for non-Roman citizens who committed serious crimes. Jesus’ preaching could be depicted as traitorous, and to the Romans that was serious cause for concern and conviction.
In the New Testament, especially in Paul’s writings, the cross is more than an instrument used for executions. It becomes the means for salvation and is itself a proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the letter to the church at Colossae Paul reminds them that it is the blood of Jesus’ cross that reconciles all things and makes peace (Colossians 1:20). A little later in the same letter, Paul writes that Jesus forgives our transgressions and the bond of debt that sin demands: “he also removed it (the bond) from our midst, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14).
Paul’s letters to various communities reveal much about his style of preaching and his concerns for the faith of those who follow Jesus. With clarity and authority Paul repeats the message of salvation through crucifixion, that in the apparent weakness of Jesus on the cross we see the power of God
(2 Corinthians 13:4). This message is a call to disciples to recognize that in our weakness we too can discover the power of God.
Paul would say to the Galatians that he had been crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:19) and to the Romans that the “old self” had been crucified with Christ, allowing for new life in Christ (Romans 6:5-7).
From the earliest times Christians have celebrated this reality in the waters of baptism where we enter into the death of Jesus and then put on the garments of resurrection. The cross into which all are baptized continues to shape us as disciples so that we can embrace what it means to empty ourselves for others and in doing so, find a way of living that is marked with freedom.
Having encountered the risen Lord on the road to Damascus, Paul experienced a call to carry the name of Jesus “before Gentiles, kings and Israelites” (Acts 9:15). His commissioning to preach the Gospel led to a storied career and numerous hardships that included shipwrecks, imprisonment and martyrdom, and yet he could say, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14).
Paul’s conviction was rooted in the deep tradition and belief of the early Church — that God’s own Son died for our sins and that he was raised and appeared to his followers (1 Corinthians 15:1-11). His own ministry of evangelization was evidence of the grace that flowed from the cross and enabled him to preach the good news of salvation.
This is the second in a series of 13 columns on St. Paul and his teachings, written by the directors of the Little Rock Scripture Study (Diocese of Little Rock, Ark.) for the Jubilee Year of St. Paul. The Jubilee marks the 2,000-year anniversary of the apostle’s birth.
This article was originally published in the Arkansas Catholic July 19, 2008. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved.