Whenever we speak of matters related to the Christian faith, we can find ourselves referring to one or another of Paul’s key concepts. Of course, Paul wasn't the only early writer to come up with these concepts, but he was probably the first to write them down for us. In doing that, Paul not only gave us much of our basic vocabulary of faith. Paul would marvel that all the grief he was getting from the people in Corinth and Galatia and Thessalonica, all their confusions, questions and compromises, would provide the Church with guidance and the foundations for theological understanding!
The first of these foundational concepts, the one word that sums up Paul's gospel and his mysticism, is the centrality of the cross.
You would have thought that the ugliness and scandal of crucifixion would turn people away from the Gospel. Instead, Paul kept realizing again and again the truth of Jesus' words, "When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everything to myself" (Jn 12:32). It was the resurrection that convinced Paul to "speak of nothing but Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Cor 2.2). Because God had overturned all human expectations by raising Jesus from the dead, Paul boasted of the cross (Galatians 6:14). When writing to the vain Corinthians, he kept pulling the word out and waving it in their faces, taunting them with God's folly and weakness because they wanted so much to be wise and strong. The cross is proof of how God turns things upside down, not only in the expectations, priorities and values of society, but in the cosmos, routing the principalities and powers. " If the rulers of the age had known the mystery, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory" (1 Cor 2:8)--not out of reverence, but because it meant their loot being taken from them by God's unexpected and unexplainable tactic in raising the Crucified One from the dead.
Catholics may run the risk of a sanitized impression of the cross because of the way it is connected with redemptive suffering, but in Paul's mouth this was not pious language. The way Paul refers to the passion of Jesus, the number of times and variety of contexts all tell us that this was a consistent focus of his mind and heart. Paul doesn't only boast about the cross of Jesus, he boasts about the shape and form the cross takes in his own apostolic life: his weakness! his failures! his humiliating experiences! Paul even catalogs his various afflictions--twice--demonstrating faithfulness to his ministry "amid trials, difficulties, distresses, beatings, imprisonments and riots.... We seem to have nothing, but everything is ours!" (2 Cor 6:10). There is a similar list of sufferings in Romans: "Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Hardship, distress, hunger, nakedness, danger or sword?" (8:35) These were all forms of human suffering that Paul knew personally, but he also knew that in the light of the resurrection, "we are triumphantly victorious [over all these sufferings] because of him-who-has-loved-us" (Rom 8:37). The scars Paul bore from stoning, scourging and shipwreck were like the marks of the nails the Risen Jesus bore and still bears. For Paul, those scars were a promise and pledge of everlasting life: "We are co-heirs with Christ, provided that we share his suffering, so as to share his glory"(Rom 8:17).
Paul presumes that Christian lives will not be free of pain, but he gives suffering a new spin: it becomes "the suffering of Christ" overflowing to us (cf. 2 Cor 1:5). If you’ve ever heard the exhortation, “Offer it up!” you were encountering a Pauline notion. "Offering" something up in this spirit brings us into deeper, more explicit communion with Christ and with all who suffer, especially those who suffer for the sake of truth. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his encyclical on hope, stressed the missionary potential of offering up the sufferings that are a real part of human life:
The individual cannot accept another's suffering unless he personally is able to find meaning in suffering, a path of purification and growth in maturity, a journey of hope. Indeed, to accept the "other" who suffers, means that I take up his suffering in such a way that it becomes mine also. Because it now has become a shared suffering, though, in which another person is present, this suffering is penetrated by the light of love. ... furthermore the capacity to accept suffering for the sake of goodness, truth and justice is an essential criterion of humanity, because if my own well-being and safety are ultimately more important than truth and justice, then the power of the stronger prevails, then would violence and untruth reign supreme (Saved in Hope 38).
The death of the Lord wasn't an isolated event, or a theological fluke. For Paul and for the first Christians, Jesus' cross and resurrection was the central reality in the story of God's saving action, and they knew that every time they gathered for the breaking of the bread, they were proclaiming the death of the Lord until he came and there would be no more need for a sacrament of his presence.
But that's another post.
Anne Flanagan, FSP, is a Daughter of St Paul and a specialist in social media.