“Crucified With Christ”

File:Jan Lievens, Painting of St Paul, ca. 1627-29. Oil on canvas. Nationalmuseum Sweden.jpg - Wikimedia CommonsThis week, as Christian pastors and laity alike turn in their devotions to reflection on Jesus’ betrayal, trial, torture, and death, it seems appropriate to turn to the witness of the apostle Paul, our first-century peer.

Like us, Paul never met the earthly Jesus–he was, after all, from Tarsus, in what we know today as Turkey, and not from Palestine.  Indeed, unlike the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Paul spends no time recounting the events of Jesus’ life, and even the words of Jesus appear only a few times in his letters (1 Thes 4:15, see Mark 13:26-27 [the second coming]; 1 Cor 7:10, see Matt 19:4-6 [divorce]; 1 Cor 9:14, see Matt 10:9 [wages for ministers]; 1 Cor 11:23-25, see Luke 22:17-20 [Eucharist]).  Paul can go so far as to say,

So then, from this point on we won’t recognize people by human standards [Greek kata sarka; mechanistically, “according to the flesh”]. Even though we used to know Christ by human standards, that isn’t how we know him now (2 Cor 5:16).

And yet–Paul everywhere insists on the title “apostle” (from the Greek apostello)–that is, one sent out by Jesus (23 times in his certainly authentic letters: for example, Rom 1:1; 1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:1; 1 Thess 2:7).  The opening of Galatians is particularly interesting:

From Paul, an apostle who is not sent from human authority or commissioned through human agency, but sent through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead.

The Road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19)So–when and how did Jesus send him?  In 1 Corinthians 15:1-7, Paul rehearses the tradition regarding Jesus’ resurrection appearances, some of which we also find in our four gospels (appearances to Peter, who, as usual, Paul addresses as Cephas,  the Aramaic form of his name, and to the Twelve) and some otherwise unknown to us (a mass appearance to five hundred, and an appearance to Jesus’ brother James, leader of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem).  Then, Paul says,

last of all he appeared to me, as if I were born at the wrong time. I’m the least important of the apostles. I don’t deserve to be called an apostle, because I harassed God’s church. I am what I am by God’s grace, and God’s grace hasn’t been for nothing. In fact, I have worked harder than all the others—that is, it wasn’t me but the grace of God that is with me (1 Cor 15:8-10).

Paul regards his encounter with Christ on the Damascus road (Acts 9:1-31; see Paul’s own brief account in Gal 1:11-24) as a resurrection appearance, and his experience as no less real than the experiences of those, like Cephas and James, who had known Jesus in Galilee.  Like them, Paul says, he is a witness to the resurrection:

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Haven’t I seen Jesus our Lord? (1 Cor 9:1).

Yet the heart of Paul’s gospel is not the resurrection of Jesus, but his death.  Paul must speak, always and everywhere, of the cross.  As he tells the fractious congregation at Corinth,

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I didn’t come preaching God’s secrets to you like I was an expert in speech or wisdom.  I had made up my mind not to think about anything while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and to preach him as crucified (1 Cor 2:1-2).

undefinedPaul freely acknowledges that this is absurd on its face:

Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Cor 1:22-25).

Rather than through the signs and demonstrations of power that Jewish messianism expected, or through the reasoned, careful arguments of Greek philosophy, God has shown Godself in Jesus on the cross: a crucified, naked, dying man.  The wisdom of God and the power of God alike are manifest, paradoxically, in the weakness and foolishness of the cross.  So the person of faith is neither convinced by argument nor swayed by signs, but instead experiences God’s salvation through participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

As church historian Diana Butler Bass observes, this same emphasis underlies the language of Christianity’s creeds.  After all, the Latin verb credo, from which we our word “creed” comes, means not (as it is usually translated) “I believe,” but rather “I set my heart upon.” That difference is “a shift from information about to experience of.” 

Therefore, Paul speaks of our being “in Christ,” as though Christ were a country (2 Cor 5:17), or being “clothed with Christ,” as though Christ were an overcoat (Gal 3:27)!  So too when Paul says that the church is the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-31), it is no mere word picture.  For Paul, we are quite literally joined to Christ, and so to one another.


This means that the death of Jesus on the cross is not just about Jesus (2 Cor 5:14).  As Paul describes his own experience of faith,

 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal 2:20).

For Paul, the cross is not a doctrine, but an experience.  That identity with Christ is enacted through baptism:

[D]on’t you know that all who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore, we were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life.  If we were united together in a death like his, we will also be united together in a resurrection like his (Rom 6:3-5).

Good Friday, friends, is not a memorial.  It is an invitation to the death of our former selves, and rebirth as the people God created us to be.  Indeed, Paul says that the cross of Christ marks the end of an old world, and the beginning of a new one:

So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!  All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ (2 Cor 5:17-18).

As citizens of that new world, we have a responsibility to those who remain in bondage to the old one, for God has given us “the ministry of reconciliation”:

God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18-19).

May this Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday) mark, not only the celebration of Christ’s victory over death, but our own death and rebirth with him.  May we all be, like our brother Paul, “crucified with Christ.”