Paul called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God…
A mighty strange way to start a letter, don’t you think? And yet this is exactly what Paul does. While other letters of Paul are considered to be theological landmarks, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is, first and foremost, the work of a concerned pastor. Soon after Paul had preached the message of the Risen Jesus to the Corinthians and moved on to the next city, things began to fall apart there. Divisions between the rich and poor, between those thought they ought to be in in charge, divisions between Jewish and Gentile converts threaten to tear this community apart. Having received a letter explaining all that was going wrong, Paul begins his response in the most extraordinary of ways, rooting anything he has to say, any advice he has to offer, in the fact that he was “called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus.”
In this first sentence – his introduction – Paul explains to us what it means to be a follower of Jesus: we are called and then we are sent!
This, however, isn’t something to be taken lightly: what happened to Paul, and happens to us, is actually a lot more extraordinary than we may often think.
Consider for a moment just what Paul’s identity is: this is the man who persecuted the Church; he was present when Saint Stephen, the first deacon, was publically stoned for professing Christ. And yet, Paul is called by God into a personal relationship, into something that he never could have imagined. Paul encounters the living God and his life is changed for all time. With his life being changed, I should add, the entire history of the world is changed. Think about it, Paul is the first missionary to the Gentile world – the first missionary, in other words to Europe. Without Paul’s efforts, there would be no Saint Francis, no Saint Brigid, and no Saint Patrick. Exactly because Paul received a call, the world changes.
Because Paul isn’t called to be just anything; no, he is called to be an Apostle. Apostle means “sent,” as in, someone who is sent on a mission. Paul, after being touched by God in a particular way, thus goes out into the world to explain what has happened in his life. In other words, Paul’s interaction with God is so extraordinary that it forces him out of his own self.
The final part of the way Paul identifies himself may be the most important. He is called and then sent, not to be an ambassador for himself, but rather for Christ Jesus. Paul is not a free agent of sorts, one of the many religious salespeople that would walk the countryside attempting to get people to worship one god or one goddess who could solve all of life’s problems. Paul doesn’t do this at all: he preaches the Crucified one. He preaches about the true God, the Christ, who, as we heard in the Gospel is the Son of God.
But what does all this mean for us today?
I think it all comes back to the way Paul introduces himself.
We too are called by name, to be Apostles (= sent), in the name and power of Christ Jesus.
I think this reality presents us two challenges this week: the first is to recognize the place from where our call springs forth, and the second is to go about and make the reality of our Apostleship made known to others.
All of us have been called: in ways little and small. But all of us have been called by the Lord: each of us, if we take some time about to approach God in prayer, can remember just what it is that brings us here. Of course, the day-to-day reasons why we come to church on a weekly basis may change. But I’m talking about something beyond that: all of us, I think, at one moment or another, have moments where we realize what true love is: perhaps at a wedding, or the birth of a child, a quiet moment in prayer in a country church. For me, it was laying on the ground praying as part of the mass where I made final vows as a Capuchin. At that moment, I could feel God pushing into my heart and letting me know that I had been called not because I was perfect, but because God deeply loved me. So this week, let’s pray to be reminded of those moments, and if we’ve forgotten them, or don’t believe we’ve had them, let’s be courageous enough to ask God to give them to us.
Yet, we can’t stop there this week: we have been called, but we have also been sent. And just as Paul couldn’t use his past as an excuse to avoid being sent neither can we. This is the most important thing: as Catholics, we may not have an outward mark of being sent by God. We don’t have a distinctive way of dress or speech. What we do have, however, is the reality of to whom we have been sent: everyone. And we have also have the mission, as given to us in the first reading: “to be a light to the nations, that God’s salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
This week, let’s ask God in prayer to remind us of the loving call we’ve received, and, having recalled it, be Apostles, those sent to all the corners of our lives.