Archpastoral Letter on St. Paul 2008
Prot. N. 187-March 18, 2008
The Gifts of St. Paul
To the Very Reverend Protopresbyters, the Very Reverend and Reverend Fathers, Beloved Clergy, Monastics and Faithful of the Diocese:
Glory to Jesus Christ!
I rejoice that His All-Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch BARTHOLOMEW, designated 2008 as a year-long commemoration of St. Paul the Apostle. Along with the Church of Rome, the Orthodox Church is celebrating the life, the leadership, and the legacy of this Great Apostle to the Gentiles, the Apostle Paul.
He was born several years after the Birth of Christ in Tarsus, the capital city of the Roman province of Cilicia in modern day Turkey. He was raised in a strict and devout Hebrew home, his father training him to work not only with his mind but with his hands in the occupation of tent-making. But because of his early brilliance, he was sent as a young teenager to Jerusalem to study in the Pharisaic Rabbinical school of Gamaliel, whom the Jews considered one of the greatest teachers of all time.
Paul became a Pharisee himself. He was zealous for the Hebrew faith, and in his zeal for truth and the glory of God, he took offense at the new Christian Church which was on the rise. He took an active part in the martyrdom of the first martyr and deacon St. Stephen (Acts 7.58-8.1): when Stephen was stoned, Paul stood nearby, watching over the coats and robes of the men who hurled rocks at the defenseless, pious young man. Soon after this terrible event, Paul organized and personally led the official Jewish persecution of Christians in Jerusalem and in the surrounding area (Acts 8.1-4).
On his way to arrest Christians in Damascus, Paul personally encountered Jesus Christ. In an explosion of light that blinded his physical eyes, the Risen Christ rebuked Paul for misplacing his love and zeal for God, and for persecuting the very people who were most obedient to God. Moreover, the Lord accused Paul of leading his persecution against Himself: "Why do you persecute Me?" Jesus said to the trembling, blind man who now realized that he had been terribly wrong (Acts 9.4).
Paul was met by the Risen Christ, in a cloud of glory that is the Uncreated Light of the Holy Trinity - the same light that surrounded the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mt. Tabor. It is this very encounter in the bright certainly of the Resurrection that makes St. Paul an "Apostle." He responds to this vision of Christ with the complete affirmation that the Jesus of history, Who was crucified, is Himself the Risen Lord, the Eternal Son of God, the Word made Flesh, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
When Christ asked the Disciples, "Who do you say I am?", Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of God" (Matthew 16.15-16). Paul said the same thing, with Peter. That is why St. Paul is an Apostle. That is why we celebrate St. Paul together with St. Peter.
In this earthshaking conversion on the Damascus Road, and during the next three years in the Arabian desert where this former Pharisee and ex-persecutor sojourned in solitude, St. Paul was taken up into the "third heaven" where he was shown revelations that cannot be contained by mere academic language or philosophy. These are St. Paul's own words in 2 Corinthians 12.2, and we are meant to take them seriously.
He is not speaking of his mystical, apocalyptic experience as a badge of celebrity and pride. Instead, he speaks of this against his own ego. He speaks in favor of the single vision that is the content of Christian revelation.
St. Paul and all the Apostles experienced the same noetic vision as did all the Prophets and the Saints. St. Paul invented nothing in his preaching, thinking or writing. He received the Apostolic Vision of the Trinity, the Dogma of the Incarnation and the Miraculous Mystery of the Church, in which Divine nature fellowships with human nature.
St. Paul spoke of this not as intellectual theory, but of what he actually knew, out of the treasure of his heart.
This is important to state, because there are many modern experts who insist that St. Paul developed his teachings out of his own thinking. The actual life, however, of St. Paul overturns such a view.
St. Paul, the man who once persecuted Christians, became the victim of persecution himself. He was beaten many times. He was imprisoned, at one point, he was even left for dead.
A man does not suffer all of this for the sake of his own ideas. On the other hand, he will suffer for the sake of the Son of God, Whom Paul met, Christ Jesus risen from the dead. He will say, even at the end, "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Philippians 1.21). He will say "I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me" (Philippians 4.13).
A man who has met the Risen Christ, and has seen Him and His vision, will proclaim the Gospel, and he will confess an already existing truth. He does not manufacture his own religious theories. HE speaks of what he knows. Such a man is an Apostle of the eternal Church of God. Such a man is the Apostle Paul.
He wrote fourteen out of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament canon. He made three historic missionary journeys, during which he established churches in numerous cities. He consecrated bishops like Timothy and Titus to oversee the regional expansion of these churches, and to ensure the continuity of the Orthodox Gospel.
He was also the first to apply the Gospel to the world of philosophy. He understood that the Resurrection meant the cancellation of all pagan religions, the resolution of all philosophical questions, and the fulfillment of all sacrifice.
He was the first Christian rhetorician to the secular world. He used language masterfully to take familiar cultural meanings and use them for the sake of the Gospel. He used the familiar problem of capture in war and being held for ransom as an image of redemption from sin. He used the just as familiar courtroom setting as an image for Christ's obedience to the Father, and that Divine obedience itself is what justifies fallen man.
He was the first to clearly identify the doctrine of the Church as the Pillar of Ground of Truth. It is through the Church that Christ is known as the Way, the Truth and the Life. St. Paul never shrunk from insisting that salvation is only in the Church, and that religious truth is found only in the brightness of the Apostolic Vision. It is in Jesus Christ, the Word of God, that "all things hold together" (Colossians 1.17).
St. Paul established that theology for the Orthodox Church is not the academic research into the Divine: this misunderstanding of theology is one of the main problems of the Western Christian experience. Instead, "theology" is nothing less than a relationship with God. It is an actual vision of His Trinitarian glory. It is a spiritual witness of the Incarnation and salvation. He established once and for all that philosophy, after the Resurrection and exaltation of Christ (Romans 1.4), has become secondary to theology and dogma. He described the form and nature of the Orthodox Church as it stands forever, and not changed by the demands of civilizations and sociologies. And, most of all, he clearly perceived that the Church is the mystical Body of Christ, constituted by the Eucharist, initiated by Baptism, enlivened and gifted by the Spirit, and headed by the Lord Jesus Himself.
The Apostolate of St. Paul has shone a bright legacy upon the entire Church. It requires our best devotion, and our fervent academic efforts. The Epistles of St. Paul have called forth over 250 sermons by St. John Chrysostom. In the same manner, the legacy of St. Paul should call forth our own efforts.
I invite you, beloved, to set as a goal the reading the Book of Acts for St. Paul's story, and of all of St. Paul's Epistles this year. Read them with care and inspiration. Use the Orthodox Study Bible to assist your understanding.
I also invite the children and youth to Camp Nazareth during the summer camping season. The religious instruction lessons will focus on the dramatic stories of St. Paul's career as an Apostle. The children and youth will hear of his conversion, his midnight escape in a basket over the walls of Damascus, his earthquake escape from the Philippian jail, his shipwreck in a tempest on Malta and his miraculous immunity from a snakebite on that island, his constant faith in Jesus Christ and his glorious martyrdom (about 68 AD, after serving the Lord for 35 years).
Finally, I invite you to follow St. Paul, in all that he thought, all that he taught, all that he believed and did. In 1 Corinthians 11.1, he told the Orthodox Christians at Corinth to "follow me as I follow Christ," In Philippians 3.17 he wrote "Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for pattern."
I invite you, in this year of our celebration of St. Paul's Apostolic legacy to follow his example, to enter into his pattern of Christlikeness, to follow after him as he follow Christ.
Doing this, we will commemorate St. Paul, and we will fulfill his bright legacy for all time.
Granting you my Archpastoral Blessing, I remain
Most sincerely yours in Christ,
+ Metropolitan NICHOLAS
This Archpastoral Letter is to be read in all Diocesan Parishes in lieu of the regular Sermon at the Divine Liturgy on Sunday, April 13, 2008