During his general audience on Sept. 24, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about St. Paul’s relationship with the Twelve Apostles. After his conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul sought out the apostles, whom he considered to be the “pillars” of the Church, asking them to confirm his mission to the Gentiles. Subsequently, Paul passed on the living tradition that he received from them in his letters: Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, his death and resurrection, and his apparitions to Peter and the other apostles. Now that Jesus has risen from the dead, the Holy Father emphasized, he is living in his Church and in the Eucharist, where we continue to encounter him. Our faith is not grounded in myths or legends, but in the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth and in our encounter with the risen Lord, present in the life of his Church.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today I would like to speak about St. Paul’s relationship with the Apostles who preceded him in following Jesus. These relationships were always characterized by a deep respect, yet with the same forthrightness that marked Paul’s defense of the truth of the Gospel.
Even though he was, for all practical purposes, a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth, he never had the opportunity to meet him during his public life. Thus, after the episode of the dazzling light on the road to Damascus, he felt the need to confer with the first disciples of the Master, who had chosen them to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
In his Letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote an important account of his contacts with some of the Twelve Apostles, especially with Peter, who had been chosen to be Kephas, the Aramaic word that means “rock,” on whom the Church was being built (see Galatians 1:18); with James, “the brother of the Lord” (see Galatians 1:19); and with John (see Galatians 2:9).
Paul does not hesitate to acknowledge them as “pillars” of the Church. His meeting with Kephas, which took place in Jerusalem, was particularly significant. Paul spent 15 days with him in order to “confer” with him (see Galatians 1:19) — that is, to learn about the earthly life of the risen Lord who had taken hold of him on the road to Damascus and was now changing his life in a radical way.
He had been transformed from a persecutor of the Church of God into an evangelizer of the faith in the crucified Messiah and Son of God that he had previously sought to destroy (see Galatians 1:23).
The Living Tradition
What kind of information did Paul obtain about Jesus Christ during the three years that followed his Damascus encounter?
In the First Letter to the Corinthians, we should take note of two texts that Paul learned in Jerusalem and that were already formulated as central elements of our Christian Tradition and essential to that Tradition. He passes them on word for word, just as he had received them, with this solemn formula: “I hand on to you … what I also received.”
Therefore, he is insisting on faithfulness to everything that he himself had received, and that he is now faithfully handing down to new Christians. They are essential elements, and they regard the Eucharist and the Resurrection — both of which had already been formulated in the 30s — thus taking us back to Jesus’ death, his burial in the heart of the earth, and his resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
Let us consider them one at a time.
For Paul, the words of Jesus at the Last Supper (see 1 Corinthians 11:23-25) are truly at the center of the Church’s life. It is from this center that the Church is built and so becomes herself.
Besides this Eucharistic focus in which the Church is reborn again and again — in all of St. Paul’s theology and in all his thought — these words had a remarkable impact on Paul’s personal relationship with Jesus.
On the one hand, they attest to the fact that the Eucharist sheds light upon the curse of the cross, transforming it into a blessing (see Galatians 3:13-14). On the other, they explain the importance of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
In his letters, the expression “for you,” in reference to the institution of the Eucharist, becomes “for me” (see Galatians 2:20) — thereby personalizing it, knowing that in the expression “you,” he himself was being acknowledged and loved by Jesus — and on the other hand, “for all” (see 2 Corinthians 5:14): The expression “for you” becomes “for me” and “for the Church” (see Ephesians 5:25), that is, “for all,” in reference to the expiatory sacrifice of the cross (see Romans 3:25). It is by the Eucharist and in it that the Church builds herself and recognizes herself as the “body of Christ” (see 1 Corinthians 12:27), nourished day by day by the power of the Spirit of the risen Christ.
The other text, regarding the Resurrection, is, once again, handed down with the same formula of faithfulness. St. Paul writes: “For I have handed on to you 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” (see 1 Corinthians 15:3-5).
In this tradition, which was transmitted to Paul, the words “for our sins” come up once again, thereby emphasizing the gift that Jesus made of himself to the Father in order to free us from sin and death.
It is from Christ’s gift of himself that Paul is able to draw the most moving and fascinating expressions of our relationship with Christ: “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (see 2 Corinthians 5:21), and “For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake, he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty, you might become rich” (see 2 Corinthians 8:9).
It is worthwhile recalling Martin Luther’s comment on these paradoxical statements by Paul, while Luther was still an Augustinian monk: “This is the grandiose mystery of divine grace towards sinners: By an admirable exchange, our sins are no longer ours, but Christ’s, and the righteousness of Christ is no longer Christ’s, but ours” (Commentary on the Psalms from 1513-1515). And so we have been saved.
A Present Reality
In the original kerygma (proclamation) that was transmitted by word of mouth, it is worth noting the use of the verb “is risen” instead of “has risen,” which would have been more logical to use in continuity with “he died ... and was buried.”
The verbal form “is risen” was chosen to emphasize the fact that Christ’s resurrection affects the lives of believers down to the present day. We can translate it as “he is risen and continues to live” in the Eucharist and in the Church.
Thus, all the Scriptures give testimony to the death and resurrection of Christ, because — as Hugh of St. Victor wrote — “all of divine Scripture constitutes a single book, and this single book is Christ, because all of Scripture speaks of Christ and in Christ finds its fulfillment” (De arca Noe, 2:8).
If St. Ambrose of Milan was able to say that “in Scripture, we read Christ,” it is because the early Church interpreted all the Scriptures of Israel starting from Christ and returning to him.
The list of apparitions of the risen Christ to Peter, to the Twelve, to more than five hundred brothers, and to James, closes with a reference to the personal apparition that Paul received on the road to Damascus: “Last of all, as to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me” (see 1 Corinthians 15:8).
Because he had persecuted God’s Church, he expresses in this confession his unworthiness to be considered an apostle on the same level as those who had preceded him. But the grace of God in him was not in vain (see 1 Corinthians 15:10).
Therefore, Paul’s boastful affirmation of God’s grace unites him with the first witnesses of Christ’s resurrection: “Whether it be I or they, so we preach and so you believed” (see 1 Corinthians 15:11).
This sameness and oneness in proclaiming the Gospel is important: Whether it be they or I, preach the same faith — the same Gospel of Jesus Christ who died and is risen, and who gives himself to us in the most holy Eucharist.
The importance that Paul bestows on the living Tradition of the Church, which he transmits to its communities, shows how mistaken is the view of those who attribute to Paul the invention of Christianity.
Before proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, his Lord, he encountered him on the road to Damascus and got to know him in the Church, observing his life in the Twelve and in those who had followed him along the roads of Galilee.
In forthcoming catecheses, we will have the opportunity to delve deeper into the contributions that Paul made to the early Church. Yet, the mission he received from the risen Lord regarding the evangelization of the Gentiles needed to be confirmed and guaranteed by those who gave him and Barnabas their right hand as a sign of approval for their apostolate and their work of evangelization, and of their acceptance into the one communion of the Church of Christ (see Galatians 2:9).
We are able to understand, therefore, that the expression “even if we once knew Christ according to the flesh” (see 2 Corinthians 5:16) does not mean that his life here on earth has little relevance for our growth in maturity in the faith. Rather, from the moment of his Resurrection, our way of relating to him changes.
He is, at the same time, the Son of God, “descended from David according to the flesh, but established as Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness through resurrection from the dead,” as Paul recalls at the beginning of his Letter to the Romans (1:3-4).
The more we seek to retrace the steps of Jesus of Nazareth along the roads of Galilee, the more we understand that he assumed our humanity, sharing it in everything except sin. Our faith was not born from a myth, nor from an idea, but from an encounter with the risen Christ in the life of the Church.