Friday, June 13, 2014

The Church and charisms according to St. Paul

This lecture by the late Belgian-Brazilian theologian José Comblin was originally given (and published) in Sao Paulo at a conference at the close of the Pauline Year in 2009. It was re-published 6/10/2014 on Redes Cristianas and, at this time when church reform is on so many people's minds, we are pleased to bring it to you in English (translation by Rebel Girl).

Paul's letters reveal what the Church was in the communities founded by him more or less 20 years after Jesus' death. The Christian community was beginning and had all the privileges of infancy.

We should consider the epistles that really are by St. Paul: Romans, 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, 1st Thessalonians, Philippians, Philemon. The rest were written after his death and some were written 30 or 40 years after his death by his disciples. But those disciples changed the ecclesiology, certainly because the communities themselves had changed. The main change was the presence of permanent ministers in charge of leading the community, priests and deacons who weren't established by St. Paul. Likewise, the Acts of the Apostles presents a very different Paul from the Paul of the letters. It's the Paul to whom all the changes were attributed that took place between his death and the drafting of Acts. The author of Acts didn't know Paul or his letters. He accepts popular tradition and adds speeches and episodes that represent his theology and not Paul's theology.

1. The People of God

We must stress that the basic concept of Paul's ecclesiology is the concept of the people of God. The concept of "people" is not sociological. I consulted Sociology treatises and could see that it's not about people in Sociology because "people" is not a sociological category; it's not something that can be observed. "People" is a theological category because it's an ideal planned as a promise made to Abraham.

For Paul, Jesus' disciples are a continuation of the people of Israel. The leaders of Israel betrayed the promises made to Abraham and abandoned the true Israel. The real and definitive Israel is in the communities of Jesus' disciples, Jews and Gentiles. Because Abraham's promises weren't addressed to a small portion of humanity, separate from the rest. Abraham's offspring were supposed to include the whole world, being innumerable. The Jews raised barriers and blocked the entrance of all ethnic communities apart from the Jews. All this is in chapters 9 to 11 of Romans, a basic exposition of Paul's ecclesiology.

Paul doesn't intend to convert individuals; he wants to extend the people of God to the ends of the world because that's God's plan revealed to Abraham. Jesus came to carry out Abraham's plan. That's why he died. But after him, the disciples broke the barriers and went out to the whole world and the people of God included Jews and non-Jews. Jesus didn't come to save souls but to reestablish the offspring of Abraham, breaking barriers and assuming the leadership of this people himself.

A people involves all human life. Jesus didn't come to teach a religion or wisdom, but to change all life. Everything is part of the people -- economy, politics, culture, bodily life, from food to the use of natural resources. All this forms the people. The disciples' mission is to inaugurate this people which will be the people of God, integrating all the other people into the unity of Abraham's plan. There's room for all because there are no longer any barriers. Jesus eliminated all barriers that came from a culture, from a portion of humankind, a way of life, from some leaders of the Jews who had shut themselves in and separated from the other peoples. The leaders of Israel made the entry of the pagans almost impossible because they raised almost insurmountable obstacles. Now the people is open and Paul thinks that it will shortly involve the whole of humanity.

The Pauline communities and the other disciples called by other apostles are the beginning of this now free and open people. They are numerically insignificant but this is Paul's faith -- seeing in them the beginning of a new humanity gathered into one single coexistence in which all diversity is united in love and solidarity.

2. Ekklesia (Church)

At the beginning, Jesus' disciples didn't think it was necessary to give a name to their meetings. They were Jews, members of the chosen people of Israel. Within Israel, they were followers of Jesus' way. They were awaiting the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus. The kingdom didn't come. It seemed farther off than predicted. The concept of the kingdom of God was transferred to the day when the end of this world and the advent of the new one would really come about, hoped for as a great miracle of God. An intermediate time appeared. The disciples couldn't simply wait for this rather distant day. They lived on earth and earthly life went on. It was necessary to give themselves a name, especially when the pagan converts came in and the disciples distanced themselves from orthodox Judaism.

Paul gave his communities a name that was common to all and expressed the unity among all. Paul adopted the name "ekklesia." It was ingenious because that word was very significant.

The word "ekklesia" had only one meaning. It was the assembly of the people  -- of the "demos" -- gathered to govern the city. It didn't have any other meaning. Paul knew exactly what he was doing in taking that word. He didn't choose any religious name. There were various types of religious associations in the Greek cities at that time. But Paul knew he wasn't coming to establish a religion, a cult in the city. Religions and cults didn't interest him. For Paul, the cult of the disciples of Jesus was their life. Paul had come to call everyone to form a people. The communities of a city represented a people, the people of God in that city. They were the true people, forming the real "demos" even though they were still an insignificant minority. But Paul was farsighted with an invincible faith. There was the people, in that assembly of disciples which was the assembly of the people.

The communities were a people that formed an "ekklesia" -- that is, they ruled themselves without leaders, without individuals in command. It was the true embodiment of the Greek ideal of a city. The disciples formed an authentic "democracy" among themselves, embodying the ideal the Greeks never achieved because they allowed slavery and class division.

The real translation of "ekklesia" should be "democracy". In each city, Jesus' disciples formed a democracy. However, there weren't translations. In Latin, they took the Greek word that lost its meaning -- "ecclesia", which in Spanish became "iglesia". The word "iglesia" ("church") means nothing. It says nothing. It became the name of an institution.

Anyone in the Catholic Church can see how far we've come from our Christian roots. Today, anyone who thinks the Church is or should be a democracy, is condemned as a heretic. We are exactly the extreme opposite of the early Christian communities.

In the Christian "democracy," all were equal, all could speak, all could intervene in the decisions taken by the assembly. It was really the advent of freedom, the nucleus of a new people, a new humanity. The communities didn't meet to worship, to practice a religion, but to live with others in a brotherhood of equals. Living together was the reason for these gatherings. There was naturally a meal in common because living together is eating together.

What was most like the original "ekklesia" was the so-called basic ecclesial communities, an embodiment of which there hasn't been much news since the Middle Ages, although it was embodied in some Reformed churches, especially in the United States.

3. The gifts of the Spirit in the communities

The Church, that "democracy" formed one entity, one single body because it is the body of Christ. Each one is an organ of Christ. Christ himself gathers all its members together. He unites all those members through the gifts of the Spirit which are diverse. Each one receives a gift of the Spirit. The gift is an ability to serve. All serve all, all are at the service of all. That's unity. Unity is made by the Spirit.

Paul leaves three lists of gifts or services that he calls charisms. The lists are not the same. There was not an official catalog. The communities were not to be copies of a uniform model.

1 Corinthians 12:8-10: "To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another the expression of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit;to another mighty deeds; to another prophecy; to another discernment of spirits; to another varieties of tongues; to another interpretation of tongues."

1 Corinthians 12:28: "Some people God has designated in the church to be, first, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then, mighty deeds; then, gifts of healing, assistance, administration, and varieties of tongues."

Romans 12:6-8: "Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us exercise them: if prophecy, in proportion to the faith; if ministry, in ministering; if one is a teacher, in teaching; if one exhorts, in exhortation; if one contributes, in generosity; if one is over others, with diligence; if one does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness."

We don't need to investigate here what the specific content of each of these gifts was. What matters is that all members had a role in the community. If someone presides, it's not to give orders but to bring people together. In the Pauline communities, no one gave orders and no one imposed themselves. What happened was what Dom Helder said when he came to Recife: two words are forbidden here -- commanding and demanding.

Of course, these communities were small and didn't need much organization. Problems, conflicts and rivalries came up but those problems weren't resolved by the imposition of a leader.

Paul always claimed his rank of "apostle" because of having been called by Christ himself, as were the Twelve -- although under different circumstances -- and he has the authority to proclaim the Gospel. During his itinerant mission, he was the founder of many communities. He claims the authority of father of the community, which confers unique authority on him.

However, it's important to see how Paul exercises that authority. He doesn't give orders and he doesn't impose. We have very important testimony in 2nd Corinthians. As is well known, 2nd Corinthians isn't one single letter but a collection of letters integrated in a set. It's easy to recognize the various letters. 2nd Corinthians contains 5 letters that all refer to an incident that occurred in Corinth.

When Paul was in Ephesus, a crisis erupted in Corinth. Someone contested Paul's authority and led an opposition group (2 Corinthians 2:5-6). Paul ran to Corinth. His visit was brief and without result. On the contrary, the leader of the opposition insulted Paul himself and defied him openly. Paul preferred to withdraw and wait for better conditions to initiate a different strategy with an eye to reconciliation.

From Ephesus, Paul wrote a letter exhorting the disciples at Corinth to reconcile with him. That letter is in 2 Corinthians 2:14 - 7:4. It was a letter of apology. It wasn't the first, because in 2 Corinthians 2:3,4,9 Paul mentions a letter written in tears. Some have thought it might be 2 Corinthians 10-13, but that doesn't seem to be written with such strong emotions. If it isn't that, the letter in tears has been lost. Certainly the letter in tears was the culminating moment of the crisis.

So Paul sent Titus to Corinth to see if he would be able to solve the problem, that being that the Corinthians would recognize Paul's apostolic authority. Titus' mission was a total success. He traveled to announce that news to Paul. The latter was now so impatient that he left Ephesus to meet Titus. They met in Macedonia, probably at Philippi. Paul was so happy that he wrote and sent the Corinthians the reconciliation letter -- 2 Corinthians 1:1 - 2:13, 7:5-16.

Once reconciliation had been achieved, Paul wanted to take up again the matter of a collection for the poor in Jerusalem, which had been an initiative of the Corinthians but which had been abandoned when the conflict broke out. He wanted to exhort the Corinthians to excite them. They are chapters 8 and 9 of 2nd Corinthians.

This episode is very interesting. Paul could have invoked his stature as an apostle to impose himself. He could have handed down a sentence of condemnation on the rebels, or even one of expulsion from the community. He preferred the path of dialogue with a goal of achieving reconciliation.

Nowadays the fact that there weren't any ordinations draws a lot of attention. Everyone received their charism directly from the Spirit. The charism was accepted because the disciple showed his ability. No one was designated for a particular job. Spontaneity was enough to solve the problems of community life. Gifts of the Spirit weren't lacking. The communities were small. There was no formal organization.

The fact that there was no ministry or any liturgical or cultic kind of charism also draws attention. Today ordinations and liturgical and cultic ministries come first in the Catholic Church to the point of obscuring the gifts of the community. In Corinth, nobody was ordained in order to baptize people. No one was ordained or designated to preside at the celebration of the Eucharist, linked to the community meals. The person who presided at the meal, presided at the Eucharist, that is, they distributed the bread. It was the person who said grace at the meals.

This reflects the fact that there was no liturgical worship in the Christian communities. All the Old Testament worship disappeared and was replaced by worship made of reality, not symbols. Henceforth the temple was the disciples themselves in body. In them, God dwelt (1 Corinthians 3:9-17).

There were no more cultic sacrifices. The sacrifices were the bodily lives of the disciples, their actions inspired by the Spirit (Romans 12:1, Philippians 3:3). The priests were all the disciples who offered their lives daily, lived out in their bodies.

There was nothing liturgical. Liturgy was real life...Later, the influence of the Old Testament and pagan religions made the Christians give themselves liturgical worship made of symbols too. So ordained ministers emerged for that worship. After Constantine there was a radical development of liturgical worship and its ministers. The Church became clericalized and the charisms disappeared, at least from the minds of Christians and the official structures of the Church...In Paul's time, no one imagined ordained priests for worship. Ministries were real services for the community or for the poor.

4. The poor Church

The subject of poverty is fundamental in Paul's ecclesiology. Let's say next that Paul's poor Church theme has nothing to do with the contemporary theme of the preferential option for the poor. Anyone making an option for the poor can only be rich. The Church that makes that option is a rich Church. That is, in fact, the condition of the Catholic Church nowadays. When the bishops at Medellin made an option for the poor, they knew they were rich and represented a rich Church. They wanted to respond to the challenge of their status as rich bishops who call themselves successors of the apostles who were poor.

Paul makes a long exposition on this poverty theme in 1st Corinthians 1:17-2:16 and 3:18-23. The subject of poverty is linked to the theme of the Cross. Paul proclaims the crucified Jesus and his ecclesiology derives from this basic theme. The greatest poverty is the Cross. The Cross is the situation of the worst human degradation; it is total powerlessness. So it is an object of shame. Being crucified is the greatest shame. It is contempt, rejection, an object of derision. The Cross reduces human beings to garbage.

Now, God chose the Cross -- garbage, scandal, shame -- to create the new humanity. That Cross is present in the poor. God chose what is most despised among humankind. That's why He chose the poor. The poor are the ones chosen to initiate the journey of humankind's liberation. The poor are chosen because they are rejected, mistreated, reduced to impotence. God chose what is weakest to show that His strength acts through that which is "weakest." The community at Corinth is an example of this manifestation of His creative power...In Corinth there were few rich people and the community was essentially made up of the poor (1 Corinthians 1:26).

The Church according to St. Paul is the Church of the poor that was John XXIII's dream.

There is a special emphasis on cultural poverty. God rejected the wisdom of the wise and chose the folly of the Cross. Folly means intellectual weakness, cultural poverty. We don't need the help of Greek philosophy. Real wisdom is the wisdom of the Cross. It's the wisdom of the poor.

But poverty is material too, of course. We have a description of that material poverty in Paul's description of his life. Since he himself on his mission was proof of the wisdom of the Cross. "I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God." (1 Corinthians 2:3-5) Now here's the material poverty: "We are fools on Christ's account, but you are wise in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clad and roughly treated, we wander about homeless and we toil, working with our own hands. When ridiculed, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we respond gently. We have become like the world's rubbish, the scum of all, to this very moment." (1 Corinthians 4:10-13; cf. 2 Corinthians 11:16–12:10)

If we consider the Church's 2000 years of history, how can we not be frightened by the enormous distance that separates us from our origins? In spite of everything, there has always been a remnant, a small minority that has been faithful to the origins and poor communities that have heard the message of the folly of the Cross. Beside them was so much wealth, so much power that hid the gospel!

In the conquest of America, there were some missionaries who reproduced Paul's model -- the Dominicans of Hispaniola, the Franciscans in central Mexico, the Jesuits in the Guarani missions. Beside this, all the power and all the wealth of a Church linked to the conquistadors. Until today, so much temptation to power!

They talk about a great mission in Latin America. But this Church we are today, what can it proclaim to the poor masses of Latin America? What authority does this Church that seeks power so much, have? The great mission could only be a great conversion of the Church. This conversion would be the work of the poor of Latin America. The Church has nothing to teach and everything to learn. The real Church is in the midst of the poor as a crucified Church, without human wisdom, without prestige, without buildings, without theology, without university degrees, really the dung of the world, ignored and despised. There is the Cross of Christ that we don't teach.

That's the great lesson that comes to us from St. Paul. It's folly, but we can all try to be fools!

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