Nicolas Stebbing introduces a Catholic St Paul
We Catholics tend to be a bit suspicious of St Paul. After all it is was his ideas on justification that set Luther off and caused the Reformation. We prefer the Epistle of the Hebrews with its priestly imagery and a picture of heaven which looks very much like the most glorious, old-fashioned High Mass!
I caricature a bit but I think with truth. Yet a few considerations should show us we are wrong. Without St Paul Catholic Christianity would be a very different place. I am not a Pauline scholar (that takes a life time to achieve!) so I can only sketch this out but:
The Church is the living body of Christ. It is fundamental to Catholic life and theology that the Church is not just church buildings or a collection of Christian congregations; it is not just a world-wide organisation and an institution with structures and millions of people. It is, quite simply the living body of Christ. It is St Paul much more than the gospels who tells us this. We are baptised into this body and become members of it (1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3: 27). In different imagery Paul tells us that Christ is the head of this body and we are its members (1 Cor 12: 27). This, of course, has huge implications on how we regard our fellow Christians. If they, like us, are members of the living body of Christ then we have to treat them with the same kind of reverence as we would treat Christ himself.
Baptism is not just a sign of repentance as it appears to be in the gospels. It is our incorporation into Christ. Baptism fundamentally changes who we are and how we relate to God. The idea of dying to the world, rising to new life in Christ is something we owe to Paul. It is baptism that makes every Christian a missionary, a teacher, a prophet and a person who ministers the grace of Christ to others. We do not have to be priests to do all this, as the church is now, sometimes, discovering. We do need to be ‘in Christ’ as Paul constantly tells us, and it is baptism that puts us there.
Paul tells us about the Eucharist. Paul’s account of the institution of the Eucharist in 1. Cor 11: 23ff is the first account we have, earlier than the gospels and it is this account that forms the basis of our Eucharistic prayers. It is clear that some people in Corinth had got some wrong ideas about this Eucharistic meal. Some regarded it just as a fellowship meal. Some ate and drank too much while others went without. Paul is concerned to establish a proper sense of order and respect. This is not a time for self-indulgence. Indeed, their self-indulgence leads to their condemnation. The practice of fasting before communion, sadly neglected or barely acknowledged today, depends on Paul’s strictures: “whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 11: 27)
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful….Love never ends. Where would we be without I Corinthians 13. It sums up the sermon on the mount and does so in such unforgettably beautiful language that we never forget it. How many of us have used this description of love as a basis for self-examination before confession?
I have just finished an excellent little book on St Paul which nowhere mentions Baptism, Eucharist, or the Church as the Body of Christ. We need to put this right and correct the balance of Paul’s teaching. Let’s go back to St Paul and share his excitement at the wonderful things God has given us through Jesus Christ!
Father Nicolas Stebbing is a member of the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield.