By Rekha M. Chennattu, RA
Rekha M. CHENNATTU, RA is the Director of the Master’s Program in Biblical Studies, Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth, Pontifical Institute of Philosophy and Religion, Pune, India. She is the co-editor of the book, Transcending Boundaries: Contemporary Readings of the New Testament. Essays in Honor of Francis J. Moloney (Rome, Italy: LAS, 2005) and the author of the book, Johannine Discipleship as a Covenant Relationship (Peabody, USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006).
The celebration of the jubilee year of St. Paul provides us with a golden opportunity to reread his writings and recapture his vibrant theology and spirituality. My reflections begin with a brief description of contemporary society and then proceeds to a re-reading of St. Paul, the Pharisee, exegete, theologian, and pastor, followed by an attempt to articulate some of the challenges of St. Paul to the contemporary mission of the Church in Asia-Pacific.
The Church in Asia-Pacific lives in a multireligious context. As we know, while religion has done a lot of good, it has also done a lot of harm. The startling manipulation and horrifying violent acts against various religious groups in the recent past—e.g., violence against Christians in Orissa, India, or against Muslims in Gaza, Israel, or the conflict between Christians and Muslims in Mindanao in the Philippines—bear witness to the fact that we live in an era of ever-increasing violence, in which religions play an important role. Similarly, we live in a world of scientific and technological development which does a lot of good, but it also tends to be destructive or sometimes downright evil. The terrible bomb blasts and terrorist attacks in many parts of the world bear out this point. The world is today shocked by the economic crisis. More than 50 million people have lost their jobs. Moreover, we live in a world of ruptured relationships and broken families. We are moving towards a more fragmented and less stable era.
The emerging secular and technological culture influences our values and lifestyle and alters our religious practices. There is a frightening relativization of all that was once regarded as sacred and permanent. This secular and secularized scenario calls us to redefine our mission in Asia-Pacific and make it more relevant and life-giving. It is in this context that we reflect on the challenges of St. Paul to the contemporary mission of the Church in Asia-Pacific.
Rereading Saint Paul, A Multifaceted Personality
In his Letters, Paul comes across to the readers as a multi-faceted personality—a zealous Pharisee, a committed exegete, a sound theologian, a passionate apostle, a dynamic missionary, and a caring pastor. St. Paul was proud of introducing himself as a Pharisee (Phil 3:5) and was extremely zealous for the traditions of his ancestors (Gal 1:14).1 As a Pharisee, Paul was trained to interpret the Torah and belonged to the group that was responsible for the ongoing interpretation of the Torah and its faithful transmission (1 Cor 15:3). This is what Paul was doing after the encounter with the Lord on the road to Damascus, reinterpreting the Torah in the light of the Christ-event (Gal 3; Rom 4) and reinterpreting the Christ-event in the light of the Torah as well as the new pastoral concerns of the Church that was spreading from the Jewish to the Gentile world (Gal 3; 1 Cor 15; see also Acts 17). Paul was a key figure in extending membership in the Church to non-Jews, in defining Christian identity through his law-free Gospel, and in developing an inculturated Christian theology. Paul thus established the identity of the Christian movement as a distinct religious group over against the sectarian understanding held by the churches animated by James and Peter.
As the opening lines of most of his authentic letters indicate, Paul was consistent in introducing himself as an apostle: "a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God" (Rom 1:1; see also 1 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:1). By employing the title "apostle," Paul defined his identity and defended his claim to be authorized by the risen Lord as God’s messenger to proclaim the Gospel to the nations (1 Cor 9:1; 15:6-8). Despite imprisonment and life-threats, Paul traveled thousands of miles, formed communities, and animated their various activities. Paul claimed that he preached the Gospel "from Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum" (Rom 15:19) and expressed his desire to go to the West as far as Spain (Rom 15:24).
Paul was a man on fire. With his whole energy, Paul threw himself into everything that he took up. Paul’s determined nature and whole-hearted commitment appeared prominently in his writings. His passion for Christ was so intense that he considered everything else worthless ("I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ" Phil 3:8). Paul was fully convinced of his vocation to preach the Gospel of Christ (Rom 1:16) and this conviction made him say: "If I proclaim the Gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation (anagke) is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel" (1 Cor 9:16). In classical Greek, anagke does not mean "obligation" in the way we understand it in English; rather, it stands for "destiny" or "fate." Paul thus understood his mission as his destiny, as a spontaneous response, at the level of his deepest being, to God’s never-failing love.
Although Paul did not offer a blueprint for mission, one can glean from the Letters of Paul a paradigm for a biblical theology of mission. Paul’s life manifested so vividly the missionary dimension of Christian life. Paul was passionately in love with the mission that he had received from God in the Damascus experience. I shall therefore focus on some of the essential aspects of his mission: (1) Paul’s God-experience; (2) Paul’s idea of community and leadership; and (3) Paul’s vision of a new creation.
1. Paul’s God-experience: the Chosen One of God
The Damascus experience was a turning point in Paul’s spiritual journey.2 He often appealed to this experience to legitimize the divine origin of his call and the divine authorization of his message whenever his apostleship or his Gospel was questioned by others (Gal 1; Phil 3; 1 Cor 9). Paul’s letters, however, do not give us much information about the actual event of the Damascus experience; rather, he focused on the God-experience and the radical changes brought about by his personal encounter with the risen Lord.
In Gal 1, Paul adopted the language of the prophetic calls to describe his experience when he claimed, "God had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace" (v. 15). The God whom Paul served was pleased to reveal God’s son, Jesus, to Paul in order that he might proclaim God’s Gospel among the Gentiles (v. 16). Paul placed his call and mission on a par with those of the great Old Testament prophets like Isaiah (49:1) and Jeremiah (1:5).3 The prophetic language used here highlights the fact that Paul, like the OT prophets who were authorized by God to proclaim God’s message, was called and consecrated by God to proclaim the Gospel. Paul used a paradigm shift—a radical change from his former life as a zealous persecutor of the Church to his new life as a passionate apostle of Christ to the Gentiles—as evidence of this divine consecration (Gal 1:13-14). This experience thus revealed Paul’s true identity as God’s chosen instrument as well as inaugurated Paul’s new life in Christ.
The new life in Christ for Paul was an ongoing process of experiencing the power of God’s transforming grace and love in his day-to-day life (Phil 3:12-14). Paul admitted that he had not yet reached the goal, the expected perfection, but he pressed on towards it (Phil 3:12-14).
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Paul left behind the past and always looked forward, striving after the expected perfection. The new life in Christ thus implies a constant communication with God, and it demands new and ever creative responses from the believer.
How do we understand this communication with God? Paul did not give a treatise on prayer in his Letters, but he considered prayer to be at the center of Christian life. Paul sometimes referred to personal prayers like supplication and thanksgiving. For example, Paul asked for prayers from the Romans (15:3-33), prayed for the salvation of Israel (Rom 10:1), and prayed for Philemon, his friend and colleague (Phlm 4-6). At other times Paul gave thanks to God for the exemplary life of the Christians (1 Thess 1:2-3; 1 Cor 1:4-9). On still other occasions, Paul talked about community and liturgical prayers like baptism (e.g., Rom 6:4; 1 Cor 15:29) and reconciliation (e.g., Rom 5:11; 2 Cor 5:18), and mystical prayers like visions and prophecy (e.g., 2 Cor 12:1).
I want to draw attention to the "nonstop prayer" referred to by Paul when he exhorted the Thessalonians: "pray without ceasing" (1 Thess 5:17). Or when Paul wrote to the Philippians that he was "constantly praying (pantote, always, at all times) with joy in every one of his prayers for all of [them]" (Phil 1:4; see also Col 1:9, 4:2). What does it mean to "pray without ceasing" or "pray constantly"?
Prayer is more than just saying prayers; it is not an occasional activity. Prayer is something that takes place within all the activities of our lives. For Paul, prayer was a way of life, and it transformed Paul constantly and made him God’s chosen instrument. Praying unceasingly is living consciously in the presence of God day in and day out. It is a call to be in communion and in communication with God. This communion enables the believer to recognize God’s actions in the world. Prayer then becomes a way of life: constantly in touch with one’s true self and with the creative presence of God in the world.
2. Paul’s Idea of Community and Leadership
Paul talked about love (agape or agapao) more than 100 times and the centrality of love in his writings is very obvious (see also 1 Cor 13, Rom 13). Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to love one another more and more (1 Thess 4:10). He prayed for the Philippians that their love may overflow more and more (Phil 1:9). The life of Paul illustrates that he was a man of relationships. He maintained relationships with people who were his close associates and fellow workers in his massive evangelization project in the Mediterranean world.4 One can therefore infer with good reason that interpersonal relationships were the focal point of Paul’s communities.
Paul used many metaphors to describe Christian communities. The image of a loving family stands out among them. Paul’s Letters are unusually rich in affectionate language. There are 37 occurrences of the term "beloved" in the Letters of Paul.5 Paul addressed Christian communities in general as "God’s beloved" (Rom 1:7; 1 Thess 1:4), "Paul’s beloved" (Rom 12:19; 1 Cor 15:58; 2 Cor 7:1; 2 Cor 12:19), or "Paul’s beloved children" (1 Cor 4:14). Individuals are also referred to as "Paul’s beloved." For example, Timothy is introduced as "my beloved and faithful child in the Lord" (1 Cor 4:17). The expression, "my beloved" (agapetos mou) is striking.6 Paul also addressed the Christians as "brethren" (adelphoi, which implies both brothers and sisters, Rom 1:13, 1 Cor 1:10; 2 Cor 1:8; Gal 1:11). Paul also referred to the women colleagues who collaborated with him in his work as sisters, "our sister Phoebe" (Rom 16:1) and "our sister Apphia" (Phlm 1:2). Moreover, Paul wrote freely about the pain of separation from the members of the community which he has established, and his eagerness and longing to meet them: "As for us, brothers and sisters (adelphoi), for a short time, when we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face" (1 Thess 2:17). The members of the Pauline communities were thus the beloved children of God and also of Paul; they are all brothers and sisters. Christians are to recognize their identity as members of a loving family.7 The characteristic mark of the Pauline understanding of Christian communities is the centrality of love (agape) and fellowship (koinonia).
Another image used by Paul to refer to the community was "God’s building" (theou oikodome, 1 Cor 3:9). Paul was a fellow worker in constructing God’s building, the Christian community. At other times, when referring to the Christians, Paul used the word "temple," the building par excellence, as it is believed to be the dwelling-place of God (see 1 Cor 3:16, 17). Paul wrote: "We are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will live in them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people’’’ (2 Cor 6:16b).8 The temple symbolism highlights the holiness and the wholehearted service the members should render to the world. In sum, both metaphors—the family and building/temple—underscore the aspect of relationship. The love and fellowship of the members expresses itself in concrete acts of service in building up one another and the whole human family.
Paul’s way of guiding the communities is characterized by the spirit of teamwork and the understanding of leadership as an animation from within rather than a control from above. For example, when he wrote to Philemon concerning the runaway slave, Onesimus, Paul did not dictate to Philemon what he should do; rather, Paul helped him to discern the right thing to do in the present circumstance. His appeal to Philemon revealed Paul’s attitude towards authority and leadership (Phlm 1:8-14):
Though I am bold enough in Christ to command (epitassein, order) you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal (parakalein, beg, urge, request) to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing (parakalein) to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. … I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced (kata anagken, under compulsion).
Leadership is an opportunity to build up communities, where differences lose their power to control and dominate and are not equated with superiority or inferiority. Christians are called to be united in love as the "body of Christ" (1 Cor 12-14). Paul appreciated the varieties of gifts and services (1 Cor 12:1-6), but what is most striking was his conviction that the personal gifts and talents of the members are meant for the common good or the welfare of all (sympheron, 1 Cor 12:7). Paul invited the members to have the mind of Christ and to imitate the self-emptying love and selfless service of Jesus (Phil 2:6-11).
3. Paul’s Vision of a New Creation in Christ
Paul’s vision of a new community in Christ is articulated in Gal 3:28.9 The transformed life in Christ is intimately connected with the abolition of discrimination on the basis of religious, social, and gender differences: a) there is neither Jew nor (oude) Greek; b) there is neither slave nor (oude) free; c) there is no longer male and (kai) female. The first two pairs are straightforward and need no further explanation. But the third pair, "male and (kai) female," calls attention to itself by breaking the formal pattern of the first two pairs: neither Jew nor (oude) Greek, neither slave nor (oude) free. The third pair echoes the language of the creation account in Genesis: "male and female God created them" (1:27). Through these three pairs, Paul seemed to signal the inauguration of the new creation where religious, social, and gender discrimination does not exist. According to Paul’s vision, this does not mean that those who are in the new creation cease to be Jew and Greek, slave and free, or men and women; it means that these discriminatory distinctions lost their power to be the ground for honor and privileges. These distinctions are no longer in force so that one group does not dominate over the other. Betz comments that "there can be no doubt that Paul’s statements have social and political implications of even a revolutionary dimension."10 In sum, Paul’s vision of a new life in Christ marks the end of discrimination of every kind and establishes full equality among the members of the Church.
The Christian vocation has both social and cosmic dimensions. Paul reminded the Galatians: "You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence (sarx, flesh), but through love become slaves to one another" Gal 5:13. Christ has set us free for a life in the community; our freedom is for the building up of a "new creation" (Gal 6:15). Paul asserted, in the context of the "new creation" brought into being through God’s work in Christ, that Christians are called to become "the righteousness of God" (dikaiosyne theou, 2 Cor 5:21). The text deals with reconciliation between God and humans in and through Christ. Paul claimed that those who are reconciled are called to become "the righteousness of God" (dikaiosyne theou), and he described this as God’s response to ever-failing people (Rom 3:21-26). For Paul, the righteousness of God designated those acts of God which restore the broken relationship between God and humans. It thus re-establishes the covenant relationship between God and humans. The righteousness of God refers to God’s forgiving love and redemptive interventions in human history. So when Paul said that the believers are called to become "the righteousness of God," it would imply that we are called to become active agents in God’s ongoing reconciling work among humans and to become instruments in restoring the harmony in God’s creation.11 In the biblical understanding, God’s work (ergon tou theou) includes both God’s creative as well as redemptive work symbolized by God’s righteousness. Commitment to the integrity of creation is thus fundamental to God’s work as the universe is a dynamic process of evolving and becoming a "new creation."
The divine blueprint for the ongoing transformation is thus symbolized by the concept of God’s righteousness (dikaiosyne theou). Change is radically unsettling; it is more comfortable to live in secure, safe, static, and predictable situations. There is also a tendency to accommodate to what is pleasing to the culture and worldviews of the community. In the context of change and novelty, Paul recommended to his community members to be constantly in a process of discernment: Paul exhorted the Romans: "discern (dokimazein, examine, discern) the will of God—what is good, acceptable and perfect" (Rom 12:2). Similarly, Paul urged the Thessalonians: "test (dokimazein, discern) everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil" (1 Thess 5:21-22). Chosen and transformed by God’s unfailing love and guided and empowered by the Spirit, Paul consecrated himself to live anew to respond to the brokenness and paradoxes of his time and participated in God’s work of sustaining the planet as the dwelling place of God, bringing to birth "a new creation" (Gal 6:15; 2 Cor 5:17).
Challenges of St. Paul to the Mission of the Church in Asia-Pacific
The heart of Pauline theology or spirituality is a life encircled by the power of the transforming grace of God, a new life in Christ. This new life in Christ is a dynamic and transformative journey with God towards the fullness of life in the new creation. I shall just initiate a reflection on the challenge of St. Paul by presenting seven calls or invitations, which will enable the Church in Asia-Pacific to respond more effectively to the challenges of contemporary society.
1. A Call to Remain Rooted in our God-experience
First of all, Paul challenges us to reconsider the basis of our mission in Asia-Pacific. As we have seen, Paul’s mission originates in a call from God on the road to Damascus. For Paul mission was the spontaneous and passionate communication of his personal experience of the Risen Lord. The sharing of the God-experience was the core of Paul’s life and mission. There is a paradigm shift that has taken place in our understanding and practice of mission. For us, mission is very often no longer a spontaneous communication from within of an experience of God, but to a certain extent a duty imposed from above. Paul challenges us to become deeply rooted in an experience of God, and our mission stems from this experience.
Paul invites us to have an authentic and deeper contemplative life. Commenting on our so-called busy life, Henri Nouwen wrote in his book, Making All Things New, that our days are filled with things to do but our hearts have a deep sense of unfulfilment. This growing sense of being "unfulfilled," Nouwen attributes to our busy lives that lead to boredom, resentment, and depression.12 A prayerful life in the Pauline sense will liberate us from the slavery of our preoccupations and enable us to be attuned to the voice that transforms us constantly and makes us anew. Contemplation consists in a life of constant prayer in an abiding relationship with God the Creator. We are called to cultivate a life-giving spirituality rooted in an experience of God in all the events of our daily life. This experience manifests itself in a life of communion with others and the entire creation. Paul thus challenges the Church to become a visible sign of hope and divine presence in the midst of a secularized society.
2. A Call to Contextualized Biblical Interpretations and Inculturated Local Churches
Paul employed innovative strategies in his mission of proclaiming the Gospel, being sensitive to the needs and concerns of the different communities. Paul challenges us to translate the message of the Gospel in the language and symbols of our vast continent with its rich religious and cultural pluralism. Paul would, however, remind us to keep two things in mind in this process of contextualization: everything should be done for the glory of God and for the edification of the whole community. This invitation of Paul enables the Church to become more relevant in Asia-Pacific.
3. A Call to Prophetic Community Witness
People today appreciate more the visual manifestations of religious experience in the life of the individuals and communities than mere proclamation of the Gospel in words. Paul challenges us to shift the emphasis of our missionary work from proclamation to prophetic community witness.
The love-centered spirituality empowered Paul to conceive Christian community as the loving family and temple of God. We are called to recreate in our parish communities that special life of love, which will make others comment: "They are truly the people of God!" Communion (agape and koinonia) manifests itself in a life-giving community that fosters the wellbeing of its members. This intense experience of love and belonging in the community liberates its members from external pressures and empowers them to respond to the challenges of our time creatively and constructively. The Church then becomes a "counter-community" or "contrast-community" in a secular world characterized by broken relationships.
4. A Call to an Inclusive and Participatory Leadership
Paul challenges the hierarchical and exclusive model of leadership in the Church. He invites us to a different model of leadership as an animation from within rather than control from above. Such leadership is both inclusive and participatory by nature: it is inclusive in the sense that it is open to both men and women, rich and poor, black and white; it is participatory in the sense that all members—clergy, religious, and laity—get actively involved in the decision-making process.
5. A Call to Dream of an Alternative World
St. Paul had a vision of and passion for "a new heaven and a new earth." The passion for mission—for proclaiming the Gospel—was the life-breath of Paul. He never made any compromise regarding his mission. Paul invites us to a new paradigm for mission in Asia-Pacific from the growth of the Church to the creation of a new society. In our mission, the welfare of the people should take precedence over the numerical expansion of the Church. The passion for God’s mission calls us to walk the way of continual conversion (metanoia) and discernment (diakrisis) (1 Cor 12:10).
6. A Call to a Deeper Collaboration and Networking
Paul invites us to cultivate attitudes for a participatory mission, to collaborate with all people of goodwill to create a civilization of freedom with responsibility, and to build up a society of compassionate justice. In the context of global warming and environmental distress that brings anxiety over the future of our planet, proclamation of the Gospel includes reconciliation in the midst of violence and division, the establishment of justice and peace, and working for sustainable development that protects and preserves our beloved planet for future generations.
7. A Call to a Greater Integration
The Church in Asia-Pacific is called to a greater integration of the three quintessential aspects of our Christian vocation: contemplation, communion, and commitment. We are being called out of piety and ritualism into deep communion and communication with God. This contemplation leads us to an abiding relationship with one another. We are being called out of individualism and personal perfection into community living and sharing of our resources and talents. This communion energizes us for the mission. We are being called out of our secure and safe environments into newer and deeper commitment in favor of God’s choices. It is up to us to imbibe the passion of Paul in our lives to become women and men on fire to meet the challenges of the emerging new world.