Read an Excerpt
This little book is the product of a year I spent reading, studying, and praying about the writings of St. Paul. I did a lot of other things during that year. I am a husband and the father of three children. I’m busy at my job. I have a long commute to work from my home in the Chicago suburbs. I also traveled, spent time with my friends, mowed the lawn in the summer and shoveled snow in the winter, fretted over the family budget, watched a lot of movies, and read many books. In short, I am a pretty ordinary guy. But, for this one year, Paul was my constant companion.
First of all, I am fascinated by his story. Saul of Tarsus was a dedicated, committed Jew with a Greek education. He moved among the learned and powerful. He was a member of the Greco-Roman elite of the Mediterranean world. Then he met Jesus in a vision on the road to Damascus. Saul became Paul. His conversion was cataclysmic. It transformed him into an itinerant evangelist, a tent maker who wandered through the Middle East, Asia Minor, and Europe, telling the story of a crucified criminal whose kingdom, he claimed, reigned over all worldly powers. Paul’s life captivated me. I wanted to know more about this man.
I also wanted to know more about his writing. Paul’s letters are part of the founding documents of Christianity. All my life I have heard them read from the pulpit at Mass most Sundays. Yet much of the time they seem difficult, opaque. The syntax is complex, even garbled. Paul bounces around from the most elevated theological concepts to expressions of the warmest personal affection. I wanted to know more about these challenging, unusual texts.
But the strongest pull came from what Paul the man represents to me. Paul never met Jesus in the flesh. Yet he “saw” Jesus. His relationship with Jesus was so vivid and so intimate that Paul counted himself as one of the apostles, the men who had shared Jesus’ earthly life for years. I’ve never met Jesus in the flesh either. Yet I want to “see” Jesus. I want to have an intimate relationship with him. I identify with Paul. Or, more accurately, I hope to identify with Paul. Perhaps, I thought, Paul can show me the way to the relationship with Jesus that he had.
So I immersed myself in Paul. I read and reread his letters. I read books about him—scholarly commentaries, popular introductions, even a couple of novels, and I listened to audio CDs of his epistles. I watched several video miniseries that dramatized his life. This was hardly a systematic study of Paul. I fit it in with the many other responsibilities of a busy life. I did a lot of Pauline reading on the suburban Metra train and the Chicago “L” commuting to and from work.
As I read I began to see Paul’s writing as an invitation that called for a response. Eventually I found the approach to Paul that worked best for me. I would reflect on passages from his letters, then I would write down my reactions. The habit of writing probably comes from my years of work as an agent and editor in the book publishing business. The habit of reflecting and responding is one that is highly prized in Ignatian spirituality, the spirituality that is most dear to me. I produced many reflections during my year with Paul. Here are fifty-two that I decided to publish.
These are personal reflections. That is, they are a reflection of me and my experience of Paul. Here you will see my attitudes, interests, and quirks. You’ll see references to popular culture. I read best-selling books and I go to a lot of movies. Popular culture is where I live. It’s where most people live (it’s “popular” culture, after all). Some of these reflections are sad. Some have a touch of humor. Some are bemused. Some are fervent. All these traits are part of my personality, or so I’m told.
I am not a painstaking scholar by profession or temperament. I read many books about Paul and his times, and some of this background reading finds its way into these reflections. But here you won’t find a lot of information about how and why these letters were written or about the religious and cultural setting of Paul’s world. For example, I do not get into questions of authorship. I know that many scholars believe that some of the letters attributed to Paul were actually written by close associates who were influenced by his ministry. For my purposes here, I’m happy to accept the ancient tradition that Paul is the author of the letters attributed to him. Even if he didn’t personally write all of them, they all reflect his mind and his heart.
Paul changed me. I hope he changes you. He can rearrange your priorities, cause you to think about things differently, and generate more patience, courage, and faithfulness in your life. He can show you how much you have to be thankful for. He can bring the purpose of your life into focus. Paul does all these things because he “saw” Jesus Christ. When he met Jesus, he met love itself. Paul was bathed in love, and this love took over his life.
I hope these reflections will be a gateway to Paul for you, and that the love of Christ will enter your life as well.
Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?
—2 Corinthians 13:5
Ashamed of the Gospel?
I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith . . . For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith . . .
—Romans 1:16, 17
Do you ever feel uncomfortable about your faith? Maybe when in the company of people who are indifferent or hostile to your beliefs? Atheists have captured the zeitgeist, headlines scream with the latest sexual abuse scandals, and we read too many news stories about the damage caused by radical religious extremism. Ask yourself honestly: are you ever ashamed of being a believer?
In Paul’s time, it was worse. Hostile Roman political power dominated the world. Greek thought was the prevailing intellectual currency of the day. The followers of Jesus were stigmatized because of their professed beliefs. In fact, it was dangerous to believe in Jesus during Paul’s time.
We do face some of the same challenges the first Christians faced: how are we, as people of faith, to show up in this world we live in?
Paul says that our first task is quite simple—do not be ashamed of our story. To live as Christians, we must first find ourselves within the epic story of our faith. We must approach it with the awe and respect due a legacy of ancient and enduring spiritual heritage. We do this best by studying scripture, by prayer and instruction, and especially by learning the story of Jesus: his life and teachings, his death and resurrection.
When we embrace this great story, we open ourselves to a God who speaks directly to us and reveals our unique part in the unfolding story of salvation. This is God’s gift to all who believe. This is what Paul was saying to the people of his time. I’m certain this is what Paul is saying to us today.
Paul’s Astounding Conversion
I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
Paul’s conversion is possibly the most famous conversion story in the Western world. Paul never met the historical Jesus as the twelve apostles had. In fact he persecuted the early followers of Jesus. So what happened?
Paul claims that Jesus spoke to him and revealed his life’s mission in one single, life-altering vision on the road to Damascus. He said he saw Jesus in all his ascended glory sitting at the right hand of the Father amidst the hosts of heaven. I think that Paul got a glimpse of the true nature of reality—a look behind the curtain—and chose to act because of what he saw, a vision of how life really is.
Paul immediately abandoned his former life and began praying, teaching, traveling, and sharing the story of Jesus as the awaited Messiah. The sworn enemy of the first Christian believers became the greatest evangelist of the early church. His life’s work and writings were driven by the urgent desire that all people would come to know Christ.
Was Paul’s ministry a success? It’s been two thousand years now and there are more than two billion Christians on the planet. Not bad for a guy without a car, laptop, or cell phone.
Everything Created by God Is Good
Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.
—1 Timothy 4:4–5
Look at the world we live in. Consider what you see on television or read online or in the newspapers. Do you truly believe what Paul writes here—that everything God has created is good? Do you believe that “nothing should be rejected”? It’s hard to believe this—at least on some days. Finally, how are we to be “sanctified by God’s word and by prayer”?
I believe that Paul is telling us that the world and the people in it are inherently good because God created them. God wants us to enjoy what is in the world. However, there’s one small caveat: we are to receive what life offers us with a spirit of gratitude, or as Paul writes, “thanksgiving.” Gratitude becomes a form of prayer that invokes God’s presence, and God’s presence allows us to see the goodness in the world he created.
I see God as a generous but surprisingly reticent guest, waiting to be invited into the room, waiting to join the celebration, ready to share a wealth of gifts and blessings, ready to transform our world and give us a glimpse of the world to come.
I ask myself, What would my life feel like if I invited God in, if I began treating the world as holy, if I gave thanks for everybody and everything in it?
Everyone Who Calls on the Name of the Lord Shall Be Saved
For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?
Paul is reminding us of our responsibility to share the good news. If we believers don’t bring the good news to others, how will they know the good news? We are all called to be evangelists, according to Paul. We are all called to share the promise of salvation through Jesus. When we proclaim the good news, Jesus becomes present in our proclamation through the Holy Spirit. In doing this we create another doorway for God to work in the world—our world. This is the good news.
The question is: have I, have you, have we together, proclaimed the good news of the Lord today? “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” With all the bad news in our world shouldn’t I find a way to proclaim this good news?
Today, Lord, help me to share your good news by word, by action, by intention.
Love Never Ends
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
—1 Corinthians 13:1–10
Paul’s eloquent words in 1 Corinthians 13 redefined love for the ages. This definition of Christian love has not been improved upon in two thousand years. But it’s not simply the words Paul used that carried his message into eternity; it was his belief that gave them wings.
A church in a small village was celebrating its two hundredth anniversary and all the townspeople were invited. The special guest was an actor from the village who had gone on to become famous and successful. After dinner, the pastor introduced the actor and invited him to recite something. The actor stood, and to the surprise of many, began reciting the first part of 1 Corinthians 13—Paul’s hymn to love. This happened to be the pastor’s favorite passage of scripture.
When he was done, there was much enthusiastic applauding and cheering, and before he sat down, he turned to the pastor and invited him to recite 1 Corinthians 13 for everyone. The pastor reddened and said in a quiet voice, “I can’t do justice to what you’ve just done. I’m only a simple pastor.” The actor gently encouraged him to stand and recite the passage.
Nervous at first, the pastor began, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love . . .” As he spoke the familiar words, the pastor seemed to forget where he was and what he was doing. The room fell quiet and all who heard the pastor were moved to tears for they felt they were in the presence of the sacred. When he finished, there was a hushed silence in the room, and then thunderous applause. The actor put his arm around the pastor and turned to everyone and said, “You see, I know the lines, but your pastor knows the Lord.”