The Year of Saint Paul:
A 20-Part Series - Part 9: Jesus Christ is Lord!
One Sunday afternoon, back in the days when I was a newly-ordained priest, I returned to the parish rectory and found the pastor deep in conversation with a parishioner. I had enough sense to keep moving, but also enough peripheral vision to see there was a Bible on the table and all manner of pamphlets. So I went to my room and went about my business.
After about an hour, there was a knock at the door. It was the pastor. He looked drained and distraught.
"What's the matter?" I asked. He told me that the parishioner he had been speaking to was leaving because the Catholic Church does not acknowledge Christ as Lord and Savior. "I really tried hard to show her that nothing is more basic to the Church than Christ as Lord," he said, adding, "I even used quotes from the epistles of Saint Paul!"
My pastor's concern for this parishioner and his love of the Lord and His Church made a deep impression on me. A few months later, we celebrated when that parishioner returned to the parish and resumed her active role. In the meantime, we both had taken a look at our preaching and teaching to ensure that Jesus Christ was always front and center.
That episode, early in my priesthood, inspired the particular Pauline theme I propose to treat in this column: the ways in which Saint Paul spoke of Jesus Christ as Son of God and Lord.
In my column just before Christmas, I dealt with one of the great hymns to Christ in the New Testament, Philippians 2:1-6, which concludes with the ringing affirmation, "Jesus Christ is Lord!" If you don't mind, I'll return to that hymn but also several other passages in Saint Paul which at least give us a sampling of how the great Apostle to the Gentiles spoke of Jesus. I want to do this not only because we need to speak of Jesus as Saint Paul did but, more importantly, because we need to have the same vivid faith as Paul had in Christ as Son of God and the Lord.
Let us begin with the very idea of the Name of Jesus. The best place to start is, indeed, Philippians 2:9-10. Here Saint Paul celebrates the humility of Jesus in assuming our humanity and in dying on the Cross for our salvation in obedience to the Father's saving will. He immediately adds: "Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend..."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums up the content of this passage when it says that "the name 'Jesus' signifies that the very name of God is present in the person of his Son, made man for the universal and definitive redemption from sins" (CCC, 432).
In fact, Jesus is the Latin form of the Greek Iesous which, in turn, is derived from the Hebrew Jeshua or Joshua meaning "Yahweh is salvation." This meaning is confirmed in Romans 3:24-25 where Saint Paul writes that those who are saved by faith "...are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as an expiation..." Thus, the Apostle Peter and Saint Paul are in accord in preaching that name apart from which there is no salvation (cf. Acts 4:12).
Allow me to add a liturgical note regarding the Holy Name of Jesus. From the foregoing, it is clear that devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus has deep Scriptural roots. Saint Bernardine of Siena (1380-1444) effectively preached the Holy Name of Jesus and helped to popularize the use of "IHS," the first three letters of the Savior's name in Greek. Largely as the result of his preaching, this abbreviation began to appear over entrances to houses and public buildings. A liturgical feast day was instituted in the 15th century by the bishops of Belgium, England, Scotland, and Germany and extended to the whole Church in 1721 (cf. Ildefonso Shuster, The Sacramentary, Vol. III, London: Burns & Oates, 1927, pp. 323-324).
In the most recent edition of the Roman Missal, the Church has once again set aside a specific day, January 3, to celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus. We should ensure that reverent devotion to that Name by which we are saved is a deep and constant part of our spiritual life, just as we must take care not to use the Lord's name in vain, for example, by swearing.
Many times throughout his letters Saint Paul refers to Jesus as "Christ." The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that "the word 'Christ' comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Messiah, which means anointed" (CCC, 436).
In much of the New Testament that meaning is explicit. Saint Paul retains that specific meaning in various passages where he refers to Christ's redemptive suffering and death. An example is 1 Corinthians 15:3: "For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures..." In many other passages, however, the distinctive meaning of the word "Christ" does not come into view. It functions more like a proper name and is often used in combination with the name of Jesus in the recognizable phrase, "Jesus Christ our Lord" (see, for example, 1 Timothy 1:2; Romans 1:3) or "Christ Jesus our hope" (1 Timothy 1:1) (cf. L. Cerfaux, Christ in the Theology of Saint Paul, New York, Herder & Herder, 1958, p. 482).
Saint Paul also frequently refers to Jesus as "the Son of God." In fact, this name for Christ was the core of the earliest preaching of Saint Paul. We read in Galatians 1:15-16: "...when [God], who from my mother's womb had set me apart and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him to the Gentiles..." Here Saint Paul is referring to his "conversion" and calling on the road to Damascus where he encountered the Risen Son of God. Saint Luke in the Acts of the Apostles 9:20 relates that almost immediately after that encounter Saint Paul begins to proclaim Jesus, saying, "He is the Son of God."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, reflecting on those two passages, teaches us that "...from the very beginning, this acknowledgement of Christ's divine sonship will be the center of the apostolic faith"(CCC, 442).
There are three ways in which the title "Son of God" expresses the nucleus of the faith handed on by the Apostles. First, this is the principal title which expresses the pre-existence of the Redeemer. This means that the Son of God is coeternal with the Father. There was never a time when He did not exist. Recall, for example, Galatians 4:4-6 where Saint Paul says: "...when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption..." The clear implication of this passage is that the Son existed before time. We see something similar in Romans 8:3. In a passage reminiscent of the hymn in Philippians 2:6-13, Saint Paul speaks of God's "...sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh..."
Second, Saint Paul uses "Son of God" to refer to Christ's role in the creation of the world. Consider Colossians 1:15-16. Referring to God the Son, Paul repeats a Christological hymn that speaks of Him as "the firstborn of all creation" and then says, "in him were created all things in heaven and on earth."
Since we encounter this passage frequently in the Church's liturgy, it is important for us to understand it. The phrase "firstborn of all creation" means that the Redeemer's Sonship antedates creation. It does not mean that Christ is the first among God's creatures but, rather, that He is their Creator: "All things were created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together" (Colossians 1:16). It is also unlikely that Saint Paul is offering a leisurely treatise on creation; rather, he is setting the stage for Jesus as the source of the Church: "He is head of the body, the Church" (Colossians 1:18). The firstborn, namely the Son, begets many sons and daughters in His Church.
This brings us to the third use of the phrase "Son of God": it refers to Christ after His death and resurrection. Staying with the hymn from Colossians, we see that Paul refers to Christ as "the firstborn of the dead" (vol. 18). Having affirmed a Sonship that precedes creation, Saint Paul now proclaims the Sonship that stems from His resurrection.
Saint Paul does something similar in other passages. For example, in Romans 1:3, he introduces himself and says he's writing to the Church at Rome about "the gospel of [God's] Son, descended from David according to the flesh, but established as Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness through the resurrection of the dead." The word "establish" does not mean that Jesus "became" the Son of God when He rose from the dead but, rather, that He was "revealed to be" the Son of God in power. The Son was the creator of all things before He was redeemer of all things. In any case, creation and redemption are the work of one who is God.
In some respects, we have saved the best title for last: Jesus as Lord (Kyrios). I say this because in his letters Saint Paul called Jesus "Lord" 222 times; he referred to Jesus as the Son of God only 27 times (c.f. Jean Galot, S.J., Who Is Christ, Gregorian U.. Press, 1980).
Clearly, we can only deal with a few passages where Saint Paul speaks of Jesus as Lord. It is also clear, however, that the Lordship of Jesus is central to his proclamation of the Gospel and thus it must be a central and constant affirmation in our prayer and life of faith.
Where, then, does the term "Lord" come from and what does it mean in the writings of Saint Paul? In answering these questions, we should remember that Paul, before he was a Christian, was a Greek-speaking Jew and a well-trained rabbi. Throughout his life, he addressed God as Lord (Adonai). Kyrios was also the name for God in the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint (thus called because it was translated by 70 scholars; it is abbreviated as LXX). A native of Tarsus on a mission to Greek-speaking Gentiles, Paul would also have been familiar with the so-called "secular" use of the term kyrios in the mystery religions and in the cult of the Emperor (cf. Reginald Fuller, The Foundations of New Testament Christology, Chas. Scribners & Sons, 1965, pp. 230-231; also Oscar Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament, Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1963, pp. 195 ff.
However, Paul did not borrow the term "Lord" from the pagan cults of his day. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6, Saint Paul disparages idols; "there are," he writes, "many 'gods' and many 'lords', yet for us there is "one God the Father... and one Lord, Jesus Christ." Instead, he used the term in a manner consistent with the Old Testament: in Saint Paul the term "Lord" consistently indicates that he regarded Jesus as divine; the name "kyrios" indicates equality with God (cf. Werner Foester and Gottfried Quell, "Kurios in the New Testament," Bible Key Words, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958, pp. 94 ff).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums up the evidence this way: "By attributing to Jesus the divine title 'Lord,' the first confessions of the Church's faith affirm from the beginning that the power, honor, and glory due to God are also due to Jesus, because 'he was in the form of God' (Philippians 2:6) and the Father manifested the sovereignty of Jesus by raising him from the dead and exalting him into his glory" (CCC, 449). The Catechism also teaches that, from the beginning, the Church has asserted Christ's lordship over the world and over history (CCC, 450). These two paragraphs in the Catechism outline the three principal ways Saint Paul uses the term "Lord" in his writings.
First, as noted already, Kyrios is used to indicate "equality with God" as in Philippians, where Paul also uses the expression "in the form of God." In fact, the use of the term "Lord" often occurred in a worship-setting where the early Christians called upon Jesus as Lord (cf. Werner Kramer, Christ, Lord, Son of God, London, SCM Press, 1966, p. 16g ff) and worshipped him as God.
...Jesus is called Lord because of His victory over sin and death in the resurrection
In 1 Corinthians 16:22, for example, Saint Paul writes: "If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be accursed. Marana tha." Here Paul cites the Aramaic phrase which means, "Come, Lord Jesus!" This reminds us that the use of the word "Lord" in Saint Paul comes from biblical roots rather than the pagan cults. In 1 Corinthians 12:3 Saint Paul contrasts blaspheming against Jesus with confessing Him as Lord: "...no one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit." Paul's hymn in the Letter to the Ephesians addresses Jesus as Lord in praise and worship: "Praised be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!" (Ephesians 1:3).
Saint Paul also makes it a point to use the term "kyrios" in connection with the Lord's Supper, the Eucharist (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:21; 11:27).
Most often, Jesus is called Lord because of His victory over sin and death in the resurrection. This shines forth very clearly in Philippians where Jesus is exalted as Lord precisely because He submitted to the Cross (cf. Philippians 2:9-11). For the same reason, Paul exhorts the Romans to confess Jesus as Lord: "...if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9). Truly He is "Lord both of the dead and the living" (Romans 14:9).
Finally, the term "Lord" must be understood as key in the Father's mysterious plan for the redemption of the world, as in Ephesians 1:10. All things are to be summed up and consummated in Jesus as Lord.
All of which brings us back to the story that got us started – the parishioner who almost left the Church because she wasn't entirely sure that we Catholics confess Jesus as Lord. In this complex and troubled world in which so many unworthy things tend to preoccupy us, we truly must confess Jesus as Lord.
This is not fundamentalism, but it is fundamental to our identity as believing, practicing Catholics. Jesus as Messiah, Son of God, Savior and Lord, must be the foundation of our lives.
And we can tell that He is when pray from the heart each day, attend Mass on Sunday when the Lord gives us Himself as food and drink, seek reconciliation, and strive to lead lives of integrity and generosity.
May we truly say with our lips and our lives, in the power of the Holy Spirit, "Jesus Christ is Lord!"