Pope Benedict XVI continued his catechesis on St. Paul during his general audience on Oct. 29. He spoke about the central place of the cross of Jesus Christ in St. Paul’s preaching. For Paul, the cross, which was a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles, is the revelation of God’s wisdom and strength. As the supreme sign of God’s love for sinful man, the cross invites us to the true wisdom that accepts the free gift of God’s merciful and saving love. On the cross, Christ gave himself up for our sins, becoming a sacrifice of atonement in his own blood. In accepting the weakness of the cross, we experience the power of God’s love for us.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Based on St. Paul’s personal experience, one fact is indisputable: Even though Paul persecuted Christians and used violent force against them initially, after his conversion on the road to Damascus, he clearly sided with the crucified Christ, thereby making Christ his whole reason for living and his motive for preaching.
Paul’s life was entirely consumed by souls (see 2 Corinthians 12:15); in no way was it peaceful or sheltered from trials or difficulties.
In his encounter with Jesus, the central significance of the cross became clear to him. He understood that Jesus died and rose for everyone, including Paul himself.
Both things were important: the universal element, Jesus truly died for everyone, and the subjective element, Jesus also died for me. Thus, God’s gratuitous and merciful love was manifested on the cross.
The Gospel of Grace
Paul experienced this love, above all, in his own life (see Galatians 2:20). He had been transformed from a sinner into a believer and from a persecutor into an apostle.
Each day during his new life, he experienced salvation as “grace,” and he experienced everything as a result of Christ’s death — not of his own merits, which, in any case, were nonexistent.
Therefore, the “gospel of grace” became for him the only way to understand the cross — the reason not only for his new life, but also the answer for those who questioned him. These included, first of all, the Jews, who placed their hope in works and hoped to attain salvation because of those works.
Also included were the Greeks, who opposed the cross with their human reason. Finally, there were also certain heretical groups that had formed their own concept of Christianity based on their own model of life.
For St. Paul, the cross has fundamental priority in the history of mankind. It represents the focal point of his theology, because the cross signifies salvation as grace given as a gift to all creatures.
The theme of the cross of Christ became an essential and primary element in the Apostle’s preaching. The clearest example of this pertains to the community in Corinth.
Proclaiming Christ Crucified
Faced with a Church where disorders and scandals were present in a disturbing way and where communion was threatened by factions and internal divisions that compromised the unity of the body of Christ, Paul did not come to them with sublimity of words or of wisdom, but by proclaiming Christ — Christ crucified.
His strength did not lie in persuasive language, but rather, paradoxically, in the weakness and trepidation of someone who trusts only in the “power of God” (see 1 Corinthians 2:1-4).
The cross, because of all it represents and also, therefore, because of the theological message it contains, is scandal and foolishness. The Apostle affirms this with impressive forcefulness, which is better conveyed through his own words: “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. … It was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith. For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:18-23).
The first Christian communities, whom Paul addressed, knew very well that Jesus is now risen and alive. The Apostle wanted to remind not just the Corinthians and the Galatians, but all of us, that the risen Christ is always the one who has been crucified.
The “stumbling block” and the “foolishness” of the cross are found precisely in the fact that where there seems to be only failure, suffering and defeat, there, in reality, is all the power of God’s unlimited love — because the cross is the expression of love, and love is the true power that shows itself precisely in this apparent weakness.
Stumbling Block and Foolishness
For the Jews, the cross was skandalon — that is, a trap or stumbling block. It seemed to be an obstacle to faith for any pious Jew, who had difficulty finding anything like it in sacred Scripture.
Paul, with no little courage, seems to say here that the stakes are very high. For the Jews, the cross contradicted the very essence of God, who manifested himself through prodigious signs.
Therefore, to accept the cross of Christ meant undergoing a profound conversion in the way of relating to God. If, for the Jews, the reason for rejecting the cross was found in revelation, that is, in faithfulness to the God of their fathers, for the Greeks, that is, for the pagans, the criterion of judgment for opposing the cross is reason.
In fact, for them, the cross was death — foolishness — literally insipidity, that is, food lacking salt. More than an error, therefore, it was an insult to good sense.
On more than one occasion, Paul himself had the bitter experience of his proclamation of Christ being rejected because it was judged to be “insipid” — devoid of any relevance — and not even worthy of being taken into consideration on the level of rational logic.
For those who, like the Greeks, considered perfection to be in the spirit, in pure thought, the idea that God could become man, thus immersing himself within all the limits of space and time, was already unacceptable. Therefore, it was clearly inconceivable to believe that a God could end up on a cross!
We see how this Greek logic has also become the common logic of our own time.
Then there is the concept of apátheia, indifference in the sense of the impassibility of God. How could it have understood a God who became man and suffered defeat, only to later take on his body once again in order to live as a resurrected man?
“We should like to hear you on this some other time” (Acts 17:32), the Athenians scornfully said to Paul when they heard him speak of the resurrection of the dead. They considered perfection to be liberation from the body, which was conceived as a prison.
How could taking on the body once again not be considered an aberration?
In ancient culture, there did not seem to be any room for the message of an incarnate God. The whole “Jesus of Nazareth” event seemed to be marked by total foolishness, and the cross was certainly the greatest symbol of this foolishness.
The Power of God
Why, then, did St. Paul make these words about the cross the fundamental point of his preaching?
The answer is not hard: The cross reveals “the power of God” (see 1 Corinthians 1:24), which is different from human power.
Indeed, it reveals his love: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25).
Centuries after Paul, we see that the cross throughout history — and not the wisdom that opposes the cross — has triumphed. The crucified Christ is wisdom because he truly shows who God is: the power of love that goes even unto the cross in order to save man.
God makes use of ways and means that seem to us, at first glance, mere weakness. The crucified Christ reveals, on one hand, the weakness of man, and, on the other hand, the true power of God, that is, the free gift of his love.
It is this completely free gift of love that is true wisdom.
St. Paul experienced this even in his own flesh, and he gives witness to this throughout the various stages of his spiritual journey, which have become specific reference points for every disciple of Jesus: “He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:9) and “God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27).
The Apostle identifies himself with Christ to such a degree that he, too, even in the midst of many trials, lives in the faith of the Son of God who loved him and offered himself up for his sins and for everyone’s sins (see Galatians 1:4; 2:20).
This autobiographical detail about the Apostle is an example for all of us.
St. Paul has offered us a wonderful synthesis of the theology of the cross in his Second Letter to the Corinthians (5:4-21), where he sums up everything in two fundamental affirmations.
On the one hand, Christ, whom God made to be sin for our sake (verse 21), died for all (verse 14). On the other hand, God reconciled us to himself, not counting our trespasses against us (verses 18-20). Through this “ministry of reconciliation,” all slaves are ransomed (see 1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23).
The Ministry of Reconciliation
Here we see how all of this is relevant for our lives. We, too, should enter into this “ministry of reconciliation,” which always presupposes renouncing one’s own superiority and choosing the foolishness of love.
St. Paul renounced his own life and committed himself totally to the ministry of reconciliation — of the cross that is salvation for all of us. This is something that we, too, must know how to do. We can find our strength in the humility of love and our wisdom in the weakness of renunciation in order to enter into the strength of God.
We all have to mold our lives according to this true wisdom, living not for ourselves, but living in the faith in this God, about whom we all can say, “He loved me and gave himself up for me.”