Mark Shea: Models of the Church: Paul and the Church of Mission

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A young Christian worshipper lights a candle during a 2015 Mass for peace at a church in Damascus, Syria. Source: CNS

This completes Mark Shea’s series, Models of the Church

There is a myth about St Paul: that he was the Lone Ranger apostle.  A visionary zealot running around the ancient world, babbling about some Cosmic Christ bearing no relation to the very human Jesus the Twelve Apostles had known.  According to this myth, Paul somehow horned in on and gained control of the Church from the Twelve and then went nuts fantasizing about a Risen Christ they never heard of and that’s where Christianity came from.

The problem is, the New Testament offers no evidence for this myth. There’s no evidence that the gospels are influenced by Paul more than by the rest of the Twelve and there is plenty of evidence they are informed by a ton of sources besides Paul, particularly by the Twelve.

More than this, Paul specifically tells us that he is not making this stuff up, but is regurgitating Tradition he himself received from people who were Christians before he was, namely the Twelve.  That is why he says:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Cor 15:3-8)

So far from being a Lone Ranger, Paul is a Sent One, for that is what “apostle” means.  The word comes from the same Greek root from which we derive “Post Office”.  The postman doesn’t write you letters.  Nor does he randomly carry messages to whatever house he feels like.  Nor can any joker just march into the Post Office, grab the mail, and start handing it out to strangers.

Neither could Paul do these things with the gospel.  He had to be sent and he had to know the message to carry and to whom it was addressed. The sending we see in Acts 13:1-3:

“Now in the Church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Symeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”

What you are looking at is not just a sending, but an ordination, complete with laying on of hands.  Strengthened by that grace and commission, Paul will go all over the ancient world with the same message:  God has sent his only Son into the world for the salvation of Jew and Gentile alike and now we all have access to the divine life of God’s grace and love by faith him and his passion, death, and resurrection for us.  This grace will enable us not only to live the “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5), but will issue in “the redemption of our bodies” (i.e., a resurrection in glory exactly like what Jesus experienced) (Romans 8:23).

Paul’s challenge—and the challenge of the Church of Mission—is to be “all things to all” (1 Corinthians 9:22).  The Church is Catholic—universal—and therefore must make its gospel intelligible—and responsive—to the needs and aspirations of people from every nation, language, tribe and tongue.  It cannot be Fortress Katolicus, kicking out the impure and pouring boiling oil on those at the gate seeking entry.  Rather—like Pope Francis—it must go out into the highways and byways of the world seeking to serve, heal, and save the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame both physically and spiritually.

This means meeting people where they are, not demanding they crawl to us.  This is what Jesus himself did and what Paul did as well.  He spoke to people, Jew and Gentile alike, on their terms.  He ignored what did not matter (for instance, food taboos) and focused on what did: faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to him.  He always sacrificed his own wants and desires if they stood in the way of somebody else coming to Christ.

We must do likewise if we are to be disciples who contemplate and obey Jesus in the Church he founded on Peter.

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