The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time


Apostleship: What Paul Received

Apostleship: What Paul Received I handed on to you what I received as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve.

Last of all, as to one born outs of due time he appeared to me

Paul would write again of his place as an apostle teaching what he had received, for when he undertook to correct the Corinthian Church regarding their tendency to celebrate the Eucharist as part of a rowdy love feast, he appealed to the tradition he had received from the Lord: that on the night when He was betrayed he took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, This is my body… (I Corinthians 11:23–26). We cannot be sure that Paul ever saw Jesus or ever heard is voice before Jesus spoke to him as he rode to Damascus to persecute the Church in that city. What Paul knew in the ordinary way of knowing he had learned in part from his study of what he then considered a damaging deviation from Pharisaic orthodoxy. He then heard the testimony of Stephen, for Paul, an agent of the Sanhedrin, guarded the coats of those who were stoning the deacon who has always been considered the first martyr. What he learned when Jesus spoke to him on the road we do not know. Whether this was the same experience Paul described in I Corinthians 12, when he was caught up to the third heaven and heard things that cannot be told which man may not utter we do not know. There is also much we do not know about the time between the great experience on the road to Damascus which left him blind and the day when Paul took up his work as an apostle. After his blindness was healed, after he had been baptized and taught, he went to Arabia, whether to a city or into the desert we are not told. Then, having spent time in Arabia, Paul returned to Damascus, presumably to the Church of Ananias. Finally, after three years, he went to Jerusalem to visit Cephas (Galatians 1:19). Paul would later boast that he had not been commissioned by Peter, that his apostleship came directly from Jesus. He was proud that, in the context of the argument about the binding nature of Jewish customs, he had never submitted to Peter’s authority. But later he sought assurance that his teaching was consistent with the teaching of the Jerusalem church, and his insistence that the Jerusalem apostles added nothing to his teaching assumes that he had added nothing to the teaching of Peter and James. It would be rash to claim that Jesus could not have instructed Paul regarding the manner and meaning of the Eucharist and told him the outline and truths of Christian profession by supernatural means, but it is important that Paul claimed no originality. With regard to the preaching of the resurrected Lord Paul claimed not only the authority of his experience but the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures, in which the death and resurrection of the Lord had been prophesied in texts like Isaiah 53. The Gospel Paul preached was “promised beforehand through the prophets in the holy scriptures” (Romans 1:2). This was the universal claim of the Church, assumed by all the apostles and systematized in the apologies of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, whose “Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching” catalogued the texts that supported Christian teaching. The phrase “according to the scriptures” would pass from the apostolic writings into the Creed of Nicaea. Authenticated by his own experience and by the prophetic word, Paul’s teaching also received authority from its agreement with the Jerusalem Church, from Peter, whom he had visited at the beginning of his mission and with whom he had verified the accuracy of his teaching after fourteen years. And beyond all this there was always the revelation given him by God, which was the bedrock of his life in Christ and was beyond question. In the exercise of his apostleship Paul, while he claimed an immediate experience of Christ no less real and compelling than the experience given the Twelve, did not claim to have added anything. He was careful to recognize the distinction between the commands of the Lord and his own opinions, as when, considering the dangers and duties of marrying in the light of the impending distress of the last days, Paul counseled celibacy, while commenting that this, unlike his preaching of the resurrected Christ and his amending of Corinthian liturgical practice, was not a command of the Lord but his own considered opinion (II Corinthians 2:25–35). And thus it would be as the church moved into the world. The twelve apostles were subjects of the revelation given them by Christ, which was grounded in prophecy, and always held with deference to Peter, who had been charged with the task of strengthening his brothers (Luke 22:32). There were many apostles, as in the list prophets, apostles, teachers, but Paul was an apostle in the sense of the Twelve, one in whom the revelation of God reposed. This is a great mystery, for, grounded as Christian teaching was in the Old Testament, it was also new, not a reiteration of the Old Law but its perfection in life formed by the Holy Spirit, and based upon a faith that involved assent to those truths which Paul had received from the Lord. Being an apostle in the sense in which the Eleven plus Mathias were apostles required experience of communion with Jesus, so that Matthias was acceptable because he had “companied with the Lord during all the time He went in and out” among the Twelve (Acts 1:21). It also required the empowering commission, which for Paul was the call that began when Jesus spoke on the Damascus Road. The Twelve were sent into the world with the authority of God: “As Thou hast sent me into the world, so I send them into the world” (John 17:18), and again “As the Father has sent me so I send you” (John 20:21). And after He was risen He said to them on the mountain in Galilee to which He had sent them: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples. Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you, and lo, I am with you always to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:18). To them was given the power to forgive sins with the promise that what they forgave on earth would be forgiven in heaven (Matthew 16:19, John 20:22). It was the Twelve who on the night in which He was betrayed were commanded to break and bless bread and offer the cup in recollection of His sacrifice until He came again” (Luke 22:14–23). The prophet John, when on Patmos a door was opened in heaven, saw that the City of God when it came down to earth from heaven rested on foundations on which were written “the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the lamb” (Revelation 21:14). It was into this great company of the Twelve that Paul was called as the Spirit blew where He would. Paul was to be the apostle to the Gentiles, Peter the apostle to the Jews (Galatians 2:18), and it was as such that the two were depicted when about 390 the great mosaic in Santa Pudenziana in Rome was made, depicting Christ in the New Jerusalem, surrounded by the Twelve, with Peter and Paul made prominent as, respectively, the great apostles to the Jews and Gentiles. It is Peter and Paul who welcome Christ as He returns in the great iconography of the first millennium in Rome. Although the apostolic succession of the Roman Church is always held to derive from Peter, that church always claims a double founding, upon Peter who was crucified in the Circus of Nero and buried outside the red wall at the spot over which the great basilica of Saint Peter rose and Paul who was beheaded near the Three Fountains, near where the great church that bears his name stands.