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Week of August 25, 2008

As we enter the second inning in year-long celebrations to mark the second millennium since the birth of the apostle Paul, we might ask: What was his major theme? And how might that give particular focus to efforts undertaken by local congregations as well as by individual Christians in the year ahead?

In The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, the editors ask if there is a central organizing principle in Paul's theology and ministry. They then proceed to examine a variety of themes like the primacy of grace, the cross as an event related to our need and recovery, the missionary mandate to both proclaim and live out the saving truth found in Jesus.

In the end, the editors conclude, the most adequate and meaningful candidate for the award of "the organizing principle in Paul's theology" is reconciliation. It provides the most coherent picture and is the most suitable umbrella under which Paul's preaching and practical community building can be set.

The term had a pre-history in the political and familial realm, generally referring to the coming together of two parties or spouses who had become estranged from one another.

Interestingly, the language of reconciliation is virtually absent from the Old Testament, and within the New Testament literature it is used only by Paul . . . and then in only a few passages (1 Corinthians 7:11; Romans 5:10-15; 2 Corinthians 5: 18-20; Ephesians 2:11-18; Colossians 1:20-22).


It is not only his invocation of the theme but the way he works with it that is noteworthy: he turns the tables of expectation. In ordinary human circumstances, the one who causes the alienation is the one who is responsible for initiating and pursuing the reconciliation.

But when Paul looks at humanity alienated by its own sin from God, he realizes that we humans cannot effect this reconciliation. God must bring it about.

This stained-glass depiction of St. Paul appears in St. Paul's Anglican Cathedral in Regina.


This stained-glass depiction of St. Paul appears in St. Paul's Anglican Cathedral in Regina.

And God does - through the God-man Jesus. In Paul's reflection, reconciliation demands that the strong become weak so that the weak can become strong. God, the strong one, reaches across the barrier that we had established by becoming one of us: "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).

The pattern of Christ's reconciling death is to shape our community attitudes and actions. This demands more of the strong. It is not a matter of who is right; it is a matter of being rightly related together.

Paul sees God's work of reconciliation in Christ as an exchange. He died so that others might live. He became poor so that others might become rich. "All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5:18).

This ministry of reconciliation involves the same self-emptying on our part for the sake of others. Paul develops his theology in the midst of the real-life situations he experiences with the communities he founded.

The Corinthian community was particularly trying. Some in the community preferred other teachers to Paul; others question whether Paul has any special authority to teach them; still others suspected him of defrauding them in his great collection for the Church in Jerusalem.


Paul's situation is painful.

He responds by taking a risk and making himself vulnerable to his readers. By making himself appear foolish so that others might become wise with the mind of Christ. By manifesting in his own living the death of Christ so that others might live. By modeling to the Corinthians that they are called to live a reality larger than their small hurts and misunderstandings - they are called to share in God's work of reconciliation in the world.

In this Pauline year, what if we were to engage in this ministry of reconciliation as Paul did with the Corinthians? Is there, for example, a family member, a colleague, a confrere whom we're avoiding? Or suppose we were to identify those who are marginalized in our own contexts, both within and outside our community.

What role does race, nationality, religion, language and lifestyle play in this naming of the "other"? What prejudices, if any, inspire the naming? How might we personally cross boundaries to transform the "us" and "them" into a "we" as Paul did in Corinth?

What made this boundary crossing possible was their common belief that God was calling them to live reconciled with one another and all humanity. Two thousand years later, that's still our belief. Are we ready to take a risk, make ourselves vulnerable and chance looking foolish? It's the divine pattern revealed in Jesus and embraced by Paul. And now God has given us the ministry of reconciliation.

Where shall we begin?

(Paulist Father Thomas Ryan is director of the Paulist Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington.)