Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Paul’s Gospel Message Still Reaches Us

By CLIFFORD M. YEARY, Little Rock Scripture Study | Published July 2, 2009

Paul had a bold take on the Gospel. He proclaimed that all peoples of the world were invited into a saving covenant relationship with the God of his Jewish ancestors through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

He put it quite simply to the Corinthians: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19).

After nearly 2,000 years, what can we say of Paul’s heritage in our own time? Is Paul’s first-century Gospel relevant to 21st-century complexities of culture and diverse values?

As with any question, the answers given might well depend on who is asked. In just the last few decades, millions of sub-Saharan Africans have fervently accepted the good news that God sent his only Son into the world to redeem them.

Conversely, since the end of World War II, millions of Europeans have abandoned belief in Paul’s message of salvation, apparently regarding it as ancient cultural baggage that ill equips them to navigate the maze of modern challenges.

In America, the percentage of individuals who profess faith in Christ has not radically changed since the Second World War. Professing Christians are still a majority of our population. But if we listen hard for Paul’s authentic voice in American life we might go deaf trying to hear the whisper beneath the clanging, banging and screeching of competing noises.

If Paul does have a viable heritage to offer us as a society there are some deeply held fears and beliefs he must either allay or dispel.

In more or less ascending order, a short list of widely held cultural beliefs and fears that compete with Paul’s Gospel would include:

1. The ivory-tower certitude that all sense of meaning and value is an irrational delusion.

2. The fear that religious commitment is a sign of fanaticism that is the root cause of most violent conflicts in the world.

3. The belief that traditional sexual morality is an impediment to personal growth and psychological wellbeing.

4. The impression created by wave after wave of technological development that our culture and society are somehow being transformed for the better.

5. The secret fear that the meaning of life is to be found in the right mix of fame, wealth and exotic experiences.

I seek no argument with anyone who would add to the list or rearrange the order. As a former high school teacher, however, it is number five that worries me the most. The message of Hollywood and the music industry to our youth is that only the rich, glamorous and (in)famous have lives worth living.

Our youth do not so much believe the message as they fear its possible truth. If only the rich, famous and daring have meaningful lives, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Many of our youth turn to drugs as a shortcut to experiencing life as something other than “ordinary.” In this modern climate of intellectual doubt, technologically induced cultural evolution, rampant materialism, escapist mentality and frenzied lust, what can an itinerant preacher from 20 centuries ago with a Gospel about a crucified Jew do to compete?

What heritage does he yet have to offer in exchange for the wonders and thrills of modern life?

The answer lies in part in the realization that the wonders and thrills of modern life are often out to rob us of what we truly need in life. Paul’s Gospel has not changed in 2,000 years. It still requires conversion in order to be understood or adequately grasped.

However ill suited to modern life many may find Paul’s Gospel to be, its enduring heritage is its appeal as an alternative to whatever else we might seek from life.

Paul’s Gospel can change us and our relationship to the world. Paul’s Gospel can rob the world of its power to deceive us into believing there is something in the world that can actually bring us complete fulfillment.

For all the possibility of being happy in the world, the greatest sadness for us would be to become happy enough in the world that we never look beyond it.

Nothing in the world was ever meant to be the final object of our longing. It was meant to be the place where we would carry out God’s love and concern for creation.

But it is in being recipients of God’s personal love that we will discover what it means to be happy, even if it takes a lifetime of stumbling on the way there. Paul conveys that message so very well.

This article was originally published in the Arkansas Catholic, June 20, 2009. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This is the last 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, which ended on June 29, 2009.