Spirituality for Today – December 2008 – Volume 13, Issue 5
The Year Of Saint Paul: A 20 Part Series
Part 5: Fodor's, Volume II
It's time to continue our tour of the letters of Saint Paul. As I hope you recall, the last column dealt with 1 and 2 Thessalonians; Philippians; 1 and 2 Corinthians; and Galatians. Now we will complete our tour by looking at Romans; Colossians; Ephesians; Philemon; 1 and 2 Timothy; and Titus.
Let's all recall what we're trying to achieve by this "Fodor's Guide" to the letters of Saint Paul. My intention is to provide an overview of all of Paul's letters, a sense of when and why each one was written, and what their major themes are. My hope is that this guide will prompt you to want to read Paul's letters for yourself and provide something of a context for the excerpts for Paul's letters that are often read at Mass. So, without further ado, let's get back to work!
The first is Paul's letter to the Romans. It was likely written about the same time as Galatians, around 57-58 A.D., while Paul was in Corinth. In the Acts of the Apostles (20:3) we are told that Paul journeyed from Macedonia to Greece and stayed there for about three months. Afterwards, in the face of yet another plot against him, Paul traveled back to Macedonia, to Philippi, then to Jerusalem where he would be arrested.
In writing to the Romans Paul departed from his pattern of writing to the churches that he had previously visited or even founded. On the contrary, Paul had not visited the church at Rome and would not be in Rome until several years later when he was brought there as a prisoner. Through the entire epistle, Paul does not refer to conditions in the church at Rome. Instead, he seems to be introducing himself and his teaching to the members of that church. Paul also takes the occasion to work out his own thought much more systematically than in previous letters, which were written in response to questions he had received or problems and controversies he had to settle. Paul's letter to the Romans was his opportunity to spell out the Gospel he had been preaching, namely, salvation to Jews and Gentiles alike in and through Christ Jesus.
Consequently, we shouldn't be surprised that Romans is the first of Paul's writings that we come to in the New Testament. Nor should we be surprised that it has been the subject of nearly endless commentary during these past two millennia. I can't hope even to scratch the surface of those writings. But I can suggest how this letter is structured and describe its central ideas.
The letter to the Romans is divided in two parts. The first deals with salvation by faith. Paul explains that in the absence of the Gospel of salvation both Jews and Gentiles are under God's wrath. Through the Gospel, God, who alone is just, extends His justice to us by the saving deeds of His Son, Jesus. The justice of God justifies and reconciles the believer, not observance of the law. Thus, the role of faith is paramount. Paul presents Abraham, "our father in faith" as a prime example of one who is justified by faith. We are the heirs of Abraham (Romans 4:1-25). Paul goes on to show how God's love, having justified us who believe, brings us to salvation in Christ. In Romans 5:12 Paul tells us how sin entered the world through the one man, Adam, and how, through Jesus Christ, the mercy of God overflows "for the many." (Note: this is a key text for understanding the doctrine of Original Sin). In light of the gift of salvation, Paul describes for us the life of faith, hope, and love upon which the Christian life is based.
At Romans 8:24, we find Paul's statement, "in hope we were saved" (8:24), which is the basis of Pope Benedict's beautiful encyclical on hope. In this section (Chapters 6, 7, & 8), Paul goes to the heart of how we are saved, namely, through participation in the death and resurrection of Christ through Baptism and the sharing of His Risen Life, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Participating in Christ's death and resurrection means that we are to put to death sin and the works of the flesh, in Greek, sarx. Sarx means one's whole existence seen from its bodily perspective though snared and infected by sin and the works of sin. By contrast, the word for body (soma) can mean the physical dimension of the whole person who is open to the Spirit and linked with the saving love of Christ, as we shall now see.
In the second part of Romans Paul spells out what the Christian life consists of. Our life is to be a continual act of worship and praise, an extension, if you will, of the liturgy we celebrate. In light of God's mercy, Paul urges the Romans "to offer [their] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, [their] spiritual worship" (Romans 12:1). Paul goes on to say that this is expressed primarily through a life of charity, obedience to the legitimate demands of civil authority, and in defending the weak against the strong. Paul also urges the Romans to live in forgetfulness of self and in union with one another. It is a sweeping reprise of themes from other letters but now magnificently synthesized.
After Romans there follow the captivity epistles, Colossians, Ephesians, and Philemon. This list also often includes Philippians, though we dealt with it already in the last column. What is meant by the phrase "captivity epistles"? As the name implies, Paul wrote them while imprisoned. As Acts 24-26 tells us, Paul was imprisoned first at Caesarea, then, after a tumultuous sea voyage that included shipwreck at Malta (Acts 27; 28:16), he was imprisoned for the first time in Rome. Some date these events between the years 60 and 63. It is thought that Paul wrote Colossians, Ephesians, and Philemon during his imprisonment in Rome.
To complete this part of the story, Paul was released and journeyed to Ephesus, Crete, and Macedonia before returning in 66 or 67 to Rome where he was imprisoned for a second time and martyred. To situate these events a bit more, in 64 the infamous Roman Emperor Nero burnt parts of Rome and blamed the Christians, touching off a severe persecution. Nero would die in 68, perhaps not long after Paul's martyrdom.
Colossians, together with the other captivity epistles, shows us that Paul continued the work of spreading the Gospel even in prison. Colossae was about 100 miles east of Ephesus. It had been evangelized not by Paul himself but rather by a native of that town, Epaphras (1:7). Following his more usual pattern, Paul found out about difficulties among the Colossians and composed a letter he hoped would settle things on the basis of the Gospel itself.
So we find at the outset of Colossians a beautiful hymn to Christ that speaks to us of his preeminence (Colossians 1:15- 20). This hymn speaks of Christ as "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation" through whom all was made. After glorifying God for Christ's role in creation, the hymn turns to His work of redemption. Christ is praised as "the head of the body, the Church... the beginning, the firstborn form the dead... who made peace "by the blood of His Cross."
This is the mystery in which Christians participate and the basis for dealing with the problems facing the church at Colossae. These include a strong pull to return to the Judaic law and its specific requirements, as well as some harmful philosophical currents that were swirling about that tended to cast doubt on the goodness of the body and the physical universe (Gnosticism).
In view of that, Paul proclaims Christ's primacy over the created world, indeed, the cosmos, and sees redemption itself as cosmic. Paul clarifies Christ's role as head of the Church and in Colossians instructs us that we who are members of His Body the Church "fill up what is lacking in Christ's sufferings" (1:24). This does not mean that Christ's redemption was inadequate but, rather, we who are members of Christ's body must participate in those sufferings by our own. In this setting Paul also provides guidance for the Christian life, especially for liturgical and moral matters. He also offers guidance on what a Christian household should be like and on the spirit of evangelization that should characterize them.
The themes in Paul's letter to the Ephesians are similar to Colossians, but the spirit of the letter is more peaceful. In Ephesians, Paul doesn't seem to struggle with a congregation in danger of going wayward. More like Romans, he offers an exposition of his thought. Paul may also have had help in writing this letter. In any event, Ephesians offers us a rich theology of the Church, rooted in the primacy and saving activity of Christ. Like Colossians, Ephesians begins with a beautiful hymn that describes the mystery of Christ in the Church. The hymn sings of the Father's mysterious plan of redemption (Ephesians 1:3-14).
The word "mystery" here does not mean a riddle or something impossible to understand, but rather refers to the hidden counsels of God whereby we are destined to share His life and love as adopted sons and daughters through Christ and the outpouring of His Blood. Summed up in the very few words of this hymn is the entirety of salvation history. Into that context, Paul speaks about reconciling Jews and pagans with God such that the Church is revealed and built up.
In a passage often read at Mass, Paul tells us that "we are no longer strangers and sojourners, but... fellow citizens of the household of God, built on the foundation of apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the capstone" (Ephesians 2: 19-20).
It is also in Ephesians that Paul spells out the relationship of Christ to the Church as bridegroom and bride (5:22). This is a key passage for understanding the nuptial love that is at the heart of the Christian mystery. In the "new covenant in His blood," Christ has "married" a people He claims as His own. The Eucharist participates in the nuptial banquet of heaven. Every soul is called to fall in love with God and to be His spouse. All this and more is symbolized in the Sacrament of Matrimony and is to be lived in the vocation of marriage and family life.
Paul's mission to bring the Gospel to the nations is set within the context of God's mysterious plan for the redemption of the whole world. Paul is God's instrument in revealing "the mystery hidden for ages."
After praying for his readers, Paul's letter transitions to a second part which deals with themes for living the Christian life, including the obligation to seek and preserve Christian unity and the call to put off the old man with his sinful ways and to be clothed anew in Christ. Paul describes former vices which the Ephesians must continue to eschew; instructs them on how to relate to the world at large; returns to liturgical questions; the Christian household; and the need for ongoing spiritual struggle or combat.
The final captivity epistle to be considered here is Philemon, probably written between 61 and 63 A.D. It pertains to a slave from Colossae named Onesimus who was Paul's convert. Onesimus ran away and may have committed theft as he did so. Paul sends him back to his master but not merely as a slave but, rather, as a "brother in Christ." Paul did not directly challenge the institution of slavery - indeed, he did not look to longterm social reforms because the second coming was regarded as imminent - but he does regard Onesimus with an affection and brotherly love that went far beyond social convention.
A final group of epistles for us to consider is termed "pastoral." These were written in Paul's final years. This group includes 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, the co-workers of Saint Paul. They are called "pastoral" because they pertain to the good order of the Church and because they were addressed to pastors of the churches. Until relatively recently (19th-early 20th century), Paul was thought to be the author of these epistles and some scholars continue to maintain that they were, indeed, written by Paul. In any case, these letters strongly reflect Pauline theology and concerns; at the very least they are "of his school." It is likely that 1 Timothy was followed by Titus which in turn was followed by 2 Timothy. All were written sometime after 63 A.D.
These letters have three common themes. First, there is the importance of sound teaching. In ways that resonate with current concerns, Paul urges his co-workers to spread and maintain sound teaching. Second, Paul counsels his companions to the good works that flow from life in Christ. He especially urges Timothy and Titus to a life that gives credibility to their preaching. Third, Paul talks about the role of bishops, presbyters, and deacons, and the transmission of apostolic authority to Timothy and Titus, and by extension to others.
On another occasion we hopefully will revisit the question of the Letter to the Hebrews. For now, I hope this tour of Saint Paul's epistles has been helpful. Among other things, we should note the relevance of Saint Paul's concerns for the Church in our day and see in his writings the contours of the Church's doctrine on Christ and salvation; the Church and her good order; the Sacraments; the moral life; and the life of charity. In future columns, I will spell out themes I could only hint at in this whirlwind tour.
Thanks for joining this tour! Next time we'll start by looking at Saint Paul's teachings on Christ and His mysteries.
The Year Of Saint Paul: A 20 Part Series
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