We Must Teach and Insist on the “Whole Counsel of God”

The first reading from Tuesday’s Mass is Paul’s farewell speech to the presbyters (priests) of the early Church. Here is a skilled bishop and pastor exhorting others who have pastoral roles within the Church. Let’s examine this text and apply its wisdom to bishops and priests as well as to parents and other leaders in the Church.

Paul’s Farewell Sermon – The scene is Miletus, a town in Asia Minor on the coast not far from Ephesus. Paul, who is about to depart for Jerusalem, summons the presbyters of the early Church at Ephesus. He has ministered there for three years and now summons the priests for this final exhortation. In the sermon, St. Paul cites his own example of having been a zealous teacher of the faith who did not fail to preach the “whole counsel of God.” He did not merely preach what suited him or made him popular; he preached it all. To these early priests, Paul leaves this legacy and would have them follow in his footsteps. Let’s look at some excerpts from this final exhortation.

From Miletus Paul had the presbyters of the Church at Ephesus summoned. When they came to him, he addressed them, “You know how I lived among you the whole time from the day I first came to the province of Asia. I served the Lord with all humility and with the tears and trials that came to me … and I did not at all shrink from telling you what was for your benefit, or from teaching you in public or in your homes. I earnestly bore witness for both Jews and Greeks to repentance before God and to faith in our Lord Jesus … But now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem … But now I know that none of you to whom I preached the kingdom during my travels will ever see my face again. And so I solemnly declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from proclaiming to you the entire plan of God … (Acts 20:17-27 selected).

Here, then, is the prescription for every bishop, priest, deacon, catechist, parent, and Catholic: we should preach the whole counsel, the entire plan of God. It is too easy for us to emphasize only that which pleases us, or makes sense to us, or fits in with our world view. There are some who love the Lord’s sermons on love but cannot abide his teachings on death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Some love to discuss liturgy and ceremony, but the care of the poor is far from them. Others point to His compassion but neglect His call to repentance. Some love the way He dispatches the Pharisees and other leaders of the day but suddenly become deaf when the Lord warns against fornication or insists that we love our spouse, neighbor, and enemy. Some love to focus inwardly and debate doctrine but neglect the outward focus of true evangelization to which we are commanded (cf Mat 28:19).

In the Church today, we too easily divide out rather predictably along certain lines and emphases: life issues here and social justice over there, strong moral preaching here and compassionate inclusiveness over there. When one side speaks, the other side says, “There they go again!”

We must be able to say, like St. Paul, that we did not shrink from proclaiming the whole counsel of God. While this is especially incumbent on the clergy, it is also the responsibility of parents and all who attain any leadership in the Church. All the issues above are important and must have their proper places in the preaching and witness of every Catholic, both clergy and lay. While we may have particular gifts to work in certain areas, we should learn to appreciate the whole counsel and the fact that others in the Church may be needed to balance and complete our work. While we must exclude notions that stray from revealed doctrine, within doctrine’s protective walls it is necessary that we not shrink from proclaiming and appreciating the whole counsel of God.

If we do this, we will suffer. Paul speaks above of tears and trials. In preaching the whole counsel of God (not just your favorite passages or politically correct, “safe” themes), expect to suffer. Expect to not quite fit in with people’s expectations. Jesus got into trouble with just about everyone. He didn’t offend just the elite and powerful. For example, even His own disciples puzzled over His teachings on divorce, saying, “If that is the case of man not being able to divorce his wife it is better never to marry!” (Matt 19) As a result of Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist, many left Him and would no longer walk in His company (John 6). When Jesus spoke of His divine origins, many took up stones with which to stone Him, but He passed through their midst unharmed (Jn 8). In addition, Jesus spoke of taking up crosses, forgiving one’s enemies, and preferring nothing to Him. He forbade even lustful thoughts, let alone fornication, and insisted we learn to curb our unrighteous anger. Yes, preaching the whole counsel of God is guaranteed to earn us the wrath of many.

Sadly, over my years as a priest, I have had to bid farewell to many congregations. This farewell speech of Paul is a critical one I use to examine my ministry. Did I preach even the difficult things? Was I willing to suffer for the truth? Did my people hear from me the whole counsel of God or just what was “safe”?

What about you? Have you proclaimed the whole counsel of God? If you are a clergyman, when you move on; if you are a parent, when your child leaves for college; if you are a youth catechist, when the children are ready to be confirmed; if you teach in RCIA, when the time comes for Easter sacraments—can you say you preached it all? God warned Ezekiel that if he failed to warn the sinner, that sinner would surely die for his sins but that Ezekiel himself would be responsible for his death (Ez 3:17 ff). Paul can truthfully say that he is not responsible for the death (the blood) of any of them because he did not shrink from proclaiming the whole counsel of God. What about us?

We must proclaim the whole counsel of God, not just the safe or popular things, not just what agrees with our own politics or those of our friends. We must present the whole counsel, even the hard parts, even the things that are ridiculed. Yes, we must proclaim the whole counsel of God.

The Battlefield of our Mind

There is a war we must wage in our mind. Indeed, the mind is the central battlefield of our Christian journey. The mind is where we “live,” where we are alone with our thoughts and with God; it is where we think, deliberate, and decide. Our “thought life” determines our ultimate destiny:

Sow a thought, reap a deed.
Sow a deed, reap a habit.
Sow a habit, reap a character.
Sow a character, reap a destiny.

It all begins in the mind. If you can get a person to think in a certain way, you can control his feelings, decisions, and ultimately his destiny. The world and the devil seek access to our minds. They try to influence us, to sow seeds of sin, doubt, and confusion. In addition, our own flesh seems to like being deceived. Too easily we are like those who, as St. Paul says, will not tolerate sound doctrine, but with itching ears will gather around themselves teachers to suit their own desires (2 Tim 4:3).

We must engage in this battle both for ourselves and those whom we love, especially today when the distracting influences of the world are so numerous and so cunning. There is much in the writings of St. Paul to give us encouragement in this battle. Consider these passages:

We tear down arguments, and every presumption set up against the knowledge of God; and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor 10:4-5).

Every thought should be subject to the standard of the Gospel: is this it in conformity with what God teaches or not? If it is not, it is to be taken captive and either excluded or made pure in reference to Christ.

Is this what we do? Too often it is not! Instead, we tolerate error, darkness, impurity, foolishness, and outright blasphemy. Rather than rendering it captive, we allow it free access to our innermost mind and heart. Through movies, music, the Internet, and all sorts of media, we expose ourselves to what is base, boorish, uncharitable, unchaste, violent, dysfunctional, and just plain evil. Not everything in the world is evil or base but, as St. Paul says in Thessalonians, Test everything. Hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil (1 Thess 5:21-22).

When ideas or any content fails this test, we ought to arrest it and hold it captive. Too often we tolerate or even welcome it. We have too little sense of the battle for our mind and we are easily deceived, carried off by any foolish, unchaste, or ungodly thing. Pay attention, fellow Christians; we are at war and the battleground is our mind.

So, I tell you this, and testify to it in the Lord: You must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding and alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardness of their hearts. Having lost all sense of shame, they have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity, with a craving for more.  But this is not the way you came to know Christ. Surely you heard of Him and were taught in Him in keeping with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught to put off your former way of life, your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be renewed in the spirit of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.  Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are members of one another (Eph 4:17-45).

We are so easily mesmerized by the world, seeing its ways as sophisticated, classy, and cultural—but this is a deception. St. Paul (with the Holy Spirit) speaks of these things and describes those who promote them as lost in futility, desensitized to evil, as having darkened minds and hardened hearts. We are summoned to separate ourselves from all that and be renewed in our minds and washed in the truth. In other words, do not admire the glamorized evils of this world or by its often-foolish priorities and futile pursuits.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God (Rom 12:2).

There is no safer place in the world than inside the will of God. Our goal is to be transformed into the image of God, not conformed to a doomed and passing world. Our goal is to be sober and to discern the will of God in all things. This alone will bring us satisfaction and salvation. Only by the clear discernment of the will of God can we know the way home.

Are you on the battlefield with the Lord? Where is your mind right now? Be attentive to the battle for your mind. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings (Heb 13:8-9).

Never Forget the Suffering it Took To Bring the Faith and the Gospel!

Beheading of Saint Paul, Lorenzo Monaco (1398-1400)

Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells of the stoning of St. Paul. We do well to ponder the kinds of sufferings the Apostles endured to announce the Gospel and win souls for Christ. In the “softer” Church of the declining West, it is hard for us even to imagine such suffering. How many Catholics today can even bear to rouse themselves to get to an hour-long Mass on Sunday? How many of us clergy will not speak the truth so as to avoid a raised eyebrow?

All but one of the first apostles suffered martyrdom as well as countless other sufferings before their lives were brutally ended. Arguably, 30 of the first 33 popes died as martyrs. Two others died in exile. Only one died in his bed.

We should never fail to thank God for the heroic ministry of the early Christians, clergy and laity alike, who risked everything to believe and to announce the Gospel. Having encountered Christ, they were so transfixed by His truth and His very person that they could not remain silent. Even in the face of persecution and death, the apostles declared, simply and forcefully, we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:20).

As a tribute to them and to the early Church I present here a catalogue of sorts of St. Paul’s sufferings. We know the most about his trials, but surely many others also suffered. As you read through what Paul endured, remember the many others as well. When discomfited by a mere inconvenience or a minor persecution, consider the price that others paid so that we could know Christ and be saved.

In this first passage, God announced Paul’s sufferings to Ananias:

For he is a chosen vessel of mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake (Acts 9:15-16).

Here are some of Paul’s own descriptions of what he endured:

  • We are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed — always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always manifesting the death of Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you (2 Corinthians 4:8-12).
  • in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fasting often, in cold and nakedness—besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).
  • in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fasting; by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things (2 Corinthians 6:3-20).
  • Why do I still suffer persecution? [For, if not] the offense of the cross has ceased (Galatians 5:11).
  • Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).
  • my doctrine, my manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra—what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me. (2 Timothy 3:10-11)
  • And why do we stand in jeopardy every hour? I affirm, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily …. [Indeed] I have fought with beasts at Ephesus (1 Corinthians 15:30-32).
  • And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
  • You know that because of physical infirmity I preached the gospel to you at the first … (Galatians 4:13).
  • From now on let no one trouble me, for I bear in my body the brandmarks of the Lord Jesus (Galatians 6:7).
  • I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart (Romans 9:1-2).
  • Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me …. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus …. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. At my first defense [in Jerusalem] no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So, I was rescued from the lion’s mouth (2 Timothy 4:10-17).
  • For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have longed for His appearing (2 Timothy 4:6-8).

Lest you think that St. Paul exaggerated in his descriptions, consider the following occurrences documented by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles:

  • Fellow Jews plot to kill him in Damascus, must be lowered in a basket from city walls to escape (Acts 9:23).
  • Hellenists seek to kill him in Jerusalem, must flee to Caesarea (Acts 9:29).
  • Paul is persecuted and run out of Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:15).
  • Facing likely arrest and stoning at Iconium, Paul flees to Lystra and Derbe (Acts 14:5).
  • He is stoned, dragged out of Lystra, and left for dead (Acts 14:19).
  • Paul is opposed by elders and others in Jerusalem (Acts 15:11).
  • He is arrested as a disturber of the peace, beaten with rods, and imprisoned at Philippi (Acts 16:23).
  • Paul is ordered by Roman officials to leave Philippi (Acts 16:39)
  • Attacked where he lodged in Thessalonica, he must be secreted away to Beroea (Acts 17:5-7, 10).
  • Paul is forced out of Beroea and must flee to Athens (Acts 17:13-15).
  • He is mocked in Athens for teaching about the resurrection (Acts 17:32).
  • Paul is apprehended by fellow Jews and taken before the judgment seat of Gallio in Corinth (Acts 18:12).
  • He is opposed by the silversmiths in Ephesus, who riot against him (Acts 19:23-41).
  • Paul is plotted against by the Jews in Greece (Acts 20:3).
  • He is apprehended by the mob in Jerusalem (Acts 21:27-30).
  • Paul is arrested and detained by the Romans (Acts 22:24).
  • He barely escapes being scourged (Acts 22:24-29).
  • Paul is rescued from the Sanhedrin and Pharisees during their violent uprising in Jerusalem (Acts 23:1-10).
  • Assassination plots are made against him by fellow Jews, who swear an oath to find and kill him (Acts 23:12-22)
  • Paul endures a two-year imprisonment in Caesarea (Acts 23:33-27:2).
  • He is shipwrecked on the island of Malta (Acts 27:41-28:1).
  • Paul is bitten by a snake (Acts 28:3-5).
  • He is imprisoned in Rome (Acts 28:16-31).

Paul was executed by decapitation ca. 68 A.D.

Never forget the price that others have paid in order that we may come to saving faith. Each Sunday, remember that the Creed we profess was written in the blood of martyrs.

The movie Paul, Apostle of Christ is a worthy tribute to St. Paul and the suffering of the early Christians:

A New Movie: Paul, Apostle of Christ

Over a month ago I was blessed to get an early view of the new movie, Paul, Apostle of Christ. It is indeed wonderful — beautifully filmed and with a moving ending. It is not a simple retelling of the Acts of the Apostles; such films have already been made. Instead, it is a moving portrait of St. Paul (James Faulkner) and St. Luke (Jim Caviezel).

The setting is Rome during St. Paul’s last days. Great persecutions are underway, taking a heavy toll on the Christians there. The movie presents the humanness of these struggles, both individually and communally. It weaves many of Paul’s writings in, but not in an artificial way. It also depicts a personal dimension of Paul by developing certain painful memories he carried with him. While these memories are mentioned in Paul’s writings, their creative treatment in the movie leads to its powerful conclusion.

To avoid having to issue a “spoiler alert” I will not say any more about the movie, but I strongly encourage you to see it. Expect less of a retelling of Acts or a presentation of Paul’s writings and more of a treatment of Paul, Luke, and the early Christians, who endured so as to hand the faith on to us.

Eyes that Are Humble – A Meditation on the Conversion of St. Paul

Today in daily Mass we read the well-known story of St. Paul’s conversion. There is a detail in the story that I have often pondered. Although I am speculating on the specifics, I think it ought not to be overlooked. Even my choice of the words “speculating” and “overlooked” (both of which refer to the eyes) indicate that we ought to “give an eye” to St. Paul’s eyes.

As you probably recall, St. Paul was not just struck down on the road to Damascus—he was blinded as well.

Saul got up from the ground,
but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing;
so they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus.
For three days he was unable to see, and he neither ate nor drank (Acts 9:8-10).

Having persecuted the Lord, Paul was now confronted with the darkness of sin and unbelief. It is as though the Lord wanted nothing to distract Paul as he pondered his experience, neither the delights of food and drink nor the delights of the eye. It was a kind of dying and being with Christ for three days in the tomb before rising. Like the dead, Paul was unable to eat and was enveloped in complete darkness of blindness. He could do little during that time but think and pray.

And pray he did!

[The Lord said to Ananias,]“Get up and go to the street called Straight
and ask at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul.
He is there praying,
and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias
come in and lay his hands on him,
that he may regain his sight.”

… Ananias went and entered the house;
laying his hands on him, he said,
“Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me,
Jesus who appeared to you on the way by which you came,
that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes
and he regained his sight.
He got up and was baptized,
and when he had eaten, he recovered his strength.

Through Word and Sacrament, Paul’s eyes were healed—or were they? Surely they were, for in the years that would follow, Paul saw well enough to travel the world speaking of Christ.

I’m convinced that some vestige of blindness, some physical memory remained in Paul’s eyes for his entire life, something to remind him of his need for mercy and to keep him humbly mindful of how that mercy was extended.

As background, we do well to recall the story of Jacob, who wrestled with God one night. Jacob proved strong in that great contest, so strong that God gave him a new name, Israel, which means “he wrestles (or struggles) with God.” God also left Jacob with a permanent memory of that nighttime battle. Scripture says that God knocked out Jacob’s sciatic muscle (Genesis 32:32), such that he would walk with a limp for the rest of his life, leaning on a staff. It was a reminder to Jacob that he was always to lean on the Lord (Heb 11:21).

So, too, perhaps, for St. Paul. Although he persevered through three dark days with God and although his eyesight was restored, it would seem that some weakness remained in his eyes. Later, St. Paul would speak of an ailment, a mysterious thorn in his flesh (2 Cor 12:7). Three times he begged God to remove it but the Lord told him to endure it for the sake of humility.

What was it? What was this mysterious physical affliction? I’m convinced that it had something to do with his eyes. Paul told the Galatians,

As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. Where, then, is your blessing of me now? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me (Gal 4:13-15).

While I am speculating, it seems to me that Paul had something to akin to conjunctivitis (pink eye), an affliction that make the eyes fill with a sticky yellowish discharge and become red. It can be extremely contagious and is often repulsive to others. Indeed, it was quite difficult to endure in the era before modern medicine.

Whatever his actual affliction, it seems (if the Galatians text is acknowledged as descriptive) to have involved Paul’s eyes, the same eyes that had been healed but perhaps with a reminder left in them of the need for humility and for remembrance of how God saved him.

What is your thorn? What is your limp? What is your conjunctivitis? All of us have things that keep us humble. They remind us of our need to lean on God and to look to Him, not with haughty eyes, but with eyes that are humble, respectful, and grateful.

This song says, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus”

Faith Is About Obedience

There is a very important phrase in the beginning of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which we are reading in daily Mass. A common modern conception of what it means to have faith has an egocentric element, for which St. Paul provides a remedy. In describing his authority and mission as an apostle, he says,

Through [Jesus] we have received the grace of apostleship, to bring about the obedience of faith, for the sake of his name (Romans 1:3-4).

There it is: the obedience of faith.

He repeats the same phrase at the very end of Romans as well:

Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ … through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen (Romans 16:25-27).

So again we read, “the obedience of faith.” It forms the bookends of the Letter to the Romans. St. Paul both starts and ends the letter declaring his purpose to be bringing about the obedience of faith.

Are we listening? Faith requires obedience from us. There are precepts, knowledge, and commands to which we must be obedient. Faith and obedience are two sides of the same coin. If we have true faith, we will be obedient and we cannot have a saving obedience apart from faith. If we have faith, we will base our life upon its promises and demands. We will see and judge the world by the standards of faith, even if that challenge us and convicts us of error or wrongdoing. Who has not obedience cannot claim to have faith. You can tell a tree by its fruit. If there is no good fruit (obedience) then there is not a good tree (faith).

This is important because many today have turned faith into a kind of self-help, self-affirming thing. According to this notion, the role of faith and religion is to comfort me, affirm me, and give me meaning that pleases me. Many speak of the “god within,” or the “god of my understanding.” They think that they have a perfect right to craft their own “god” and worship him (or her, it, or them). Inventing your own god and worshipping it used to be called idolatry and was the most egregious sin imaginable. Today, however, many blithely call this being “spiritual but not religious” and self-righteously speak of their spiritual hubris as a kind of tolerance, enlightenment, and openness.

In such a view, “god” becomes a kind of “affirmer-in-chief” or divine butler whose role is to step and fetch, to provide for me and console me. A god who says no or summons us to difficult things is unimaginable to many. The “Jesus I know” or the “god of my understanding” is fine with almost any sin (except intolerance of course), and is, frankly, just a big sweetie-pie. Gone is the cross or any demand to repent or to come to conversion. If there is any demand at all, it is that I learn to love and accept myself just as I am and others just as they are.

Apparently Paul never got that memo. He sees faith as a truth to comprehend and obey. Faith is taught and revealed, not invented and self-proclaimed.

The Greek word translated here as obedience is ὑπακοή (hypakoe), which literally means to be under what is heard: hypo (under) + akouo (hear). Having heard the revealed faith, we are to be under its sway, its demands, and its truth.

The opening words of Jesus’ ministry were “Repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The word “repent” is a translation of the Greek metanoiete, which literally means “come to a new mind.” In other words, get rid of all that worldly mumbo-jumbo and the self-deception of the “god of your understanding.” Lose the trendy gibberish and double-talk. Come to a new, transformed mind that grasps the revealed truth of the gospel and have a will that is ready to obey.

St. Paul is clear that his work is to bring about the obedience of faith in us. Consolation, welcoming, and affirmation have their place, but obedience is the central goal—even if it means that affirmation, welcoming, and consolation must go. Would that all pastors and their flocks had this key goal in mind. To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams (1 Sam 15:22).

Is It Possible that St. Paul Was a "Poor Preacher?" A Brief Meditation on Superficiality

For many years, growing up,  my usual image of St. Paul was of a bold preacher and teacher who went from town to town powerfully teaching and preaching on Christ. I imagined people mesmerized as he preached and took on his opponents.

In the years since seminary however I have altered my view just a bit based on Scriptural descriptions of Paul. I have no doubt that he was a brilliant theologian. He was reputed to have been one of the greatest students of one of the greatest Rabbis of that time, Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). I have no doubt as to his zeal for Christ and that this zeal must have been reflected on his face as he preached and taught. But it would seem that Paul was not considered a remarkably gifted preacher. Consider the following texts from Scripture along with some commentary by me in RED.

  1. Now I myself, Paul, urge you through the gentleness and clemency of Christ, I who (you say) am humble when present in your midst, but bold toward you when absent…..(2 Cor 10:1) The key element of this passage is that people regard Paul as rather humble and quiet in person but in contrast quite bold and assertive in his letters. This does not paint the picture of a fearsome and bold preacher.
  2. For someone will say, “His [Paul’s] letters are severe and forceful, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.” (2 Cor 10:10)  Here is clearer evidence that some (surely not all or most) though of Paul’s presence and preaching as weak and of no account. The Greek phrase λόγος  ἐξουθενημένος  (logos exouthenhmenos)  translated here as “speech contemptible”  can also be translated as “words or speech of no account”, or “a word or speech  to be despised”  Now, of course, Paul himself is reporting this and may be overstating the perception of his preaching out of a kind of humility. But, here again, is more evidence that Paul may not have been a highly gifted or bold preacher,  at least from a worldly perspective.
  3. For I think that I am not in any way inferior to these “superapostles.” Even if I am untrained in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; in every way we have made this plain to you in all things (2 Cor 11:5-6) The exact identity of the “superapostles” is debated but there is wide consensus that Paul does not mean here the Apostles chosen by Christ. Rather he likely refers to itinerant preachers who were well known for their oratorical skills. Some of them may have been Judaizers who opposed Paul. But it would seem that these skilled orators could draw a crowd. Perhaps they are like the revivalists of today. Here too is more evidence that Paul was not possessed of great oratorical skill. He seems to admit this but refuses to admit that he is inferior to anyone in the knowledge of the faith.
  4. For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with the cleverness of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning…..(1 Cor 1:17). Again Paul admits of no clever oratorical skill but actually underscores his lack of eloquence to emphasize that the power is in the Cross of Christ.
  5. On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight…..Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “He’s alive!” Then he went upstairs again and broke bread(Acts 20:7-11)  🙂 Note that Luke describes Paul as preaching “on and on.” The sermon seems to have put the young Eutychus right to sleep and he, sitting in a window sill, fell three flights to his death. Paul runs down and raises him from the dead. (All in a night’s work!)  He then returns to complete the Mass. A humorous and touching story in many ways but one that also illustrates that perhaps Paul could go on and on and be soporific.

So it would seem that Paul was not possessed of great oratorical skill. This may surprise us given his astonishing missionary accomplishments. But we must avoid superficiality in understanding the power of God’s Word. The power is in God. The battle is the Lord’s. We may all prefer to listen to great orators who can bring the house down. But God can write straight with crooked lines. He can make a way out of no way. If God could speak through Balaam’s donkey (cf Num 22:21), maybe he can speak through me too. Maybe he can speak through you.

Avoiding Superficiality – As a priest, I strive to work very hard to develop my skills. I think the people of God deserve this. But in the end none of us should ignore that God can speak in and through the humblest people and circumstances. Paul may not have had all the rhetorical skills we think he should have had. But he was possessed of many other gifts. He was a brilliant theologian, had amazing zeal and energy, was committed to walk thousands of miles and endure horrible sufferings if only he could proclaim Christ crucified and risen. He was also a natural leader and one of the most fruitful evangelizers the Church has ever known. We rather highly prize oratorical skill and personality. But there is obviously more to evangelizing effectively than eloquence and personality.

Our TV based media centered culture has come to focus primarily on personality and word-smithing. The ability to communicate is surely a great gift but there are many others as well. In prizing certain gifts over others we risk superficiality and injustice. The Church needs all the gifts.

What gifts do you have that God can use?

This song says, “If you can use anything Lord, you can use me.”

It’s Not About You

We have come to the conclusion of the Easter Cycle as we celebrate Pentecost this weekend. All through this period we have been reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Fully the last two-thirds of Acts has focused on the Evangelical Mission of St. Paul as he made four journeys into Asia Minor and then into Greece. The final chapters of Acts deal with Paul’s arrest, imprisonment and appearance before Roman officials such as Felix and Festus, as well as Herod Agrippa in Jerusalem and Caesarea.

Paul appeals his case to Rome and is sent there on ill fated journey that shipwrecks at Malta. Finally making it to Rome, Paul is imprisoned and awaits the trial that will either vindicate him or seal his fate. The story seems to be building to a climactic conclusion and we, the readers,  are ready to see Paul through his final trial. But then something astonishing happens: the story just ends. He is the concluding line of the Acts of the Apostles:

[Paul] remained for two full years in his lodgings. He received all who came to him, and with complete assurance and without hindrance he proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 28:30-31)

But Luke! Don’t just leave us hanging! Did Paul go on trial? We he acquitted as some traditions assert and then made his way to Spain as he wanted? Or did he loose his appeal and suffer beheading right away? What was the outcome? We have seen Paul so far and now the story just ends?!

How can we answer this exasperating and unsatisfying end?

The simplest answer is that the Acts of the Apostles is not about Paul. It is about the going forth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations. Luke has, to be sure, personified this going forth of the Gospel to the nations by focusing on Paul. But once Paul reaches Rome and, though under house arrest,  is able to freely preach the Gospel there (for there is chaining the Word of God(2 Tim 2:9)), the story reaches its natural conclusion. It is true, others had preached the Gospel in Rome before Paul, but since Paul has been the way Luke illustrates this going forth of the Word of God, the entry of Paul into Rome means the story has reached its goal. From Rome the Gospel with go forth to every part of the Empire, for every road led to Rome and away from it. Now that the Gospel has reached the center hub and is being freely preached, it will radiate outward in all directions by the grace of God.

But what about Paul and what of his fate? It doesn’t matter. It never WAS about Paul. It was about the Gospel. Paul himself testified to this when he said, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me–the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace. (Acts 20:24)

We are often focused on personalities and frequently we loose track about what is most important. And, frankly the personality we are most focused on is very often ourselves. Acts never really was about Paul. And your life is not about you. It is about what the Lord is doing for you and through you. We often want things to revolve around us, around what we think, and what we want. But, truth be told, you are not that important, neither am I. We must decrease and the Lord must increase (Jn 3:30).

Some of these notions hit hard in the self esteem culture in which we live. But in the end our true glory is not our own glory, but the glory of God radiating in us. If we decrease, the Lord increases. But that does not mean we are swallowed up and lost in Christ. Rather, it means we truly become the man or woman God has always made us to be, one who reflects the very glory of God. Perhaps it is best to let Paul himself end this:

For we do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for the sake of Jesus. For God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of (Jesus) Christ. (2 Cor 4:5-6)

This video is of the conclusion of the Acts of the Apostles. The scene begins with Paul speaking to Jewish leaders in Rome. The epilogue in the video which shows Luke leaving Rome is not part of the Acts of the Apostles.