Fourteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Simon Gaine suggests that Christians can learn from St Paul’s refusal to boast.
St Paul tells the Galatians that he glories only in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. But what is it to glory in something? Do we ever even speak of glorying in something? Another translation is ‘boast about’. The only thing Paul can boast about is the Cross of Christ. We know what boasting is. We don’t like to hear other people boast, and perhaps we think it’s rude to boast. But even if we don’t boast out loud ourselves, we may well boast silently in our hearts.
But what do we have to boast about? Normally people boast about something they think reflects well on them, say their achievements or those of their children. People glory in something they think gives them a touch of greatness.
St Thomas Aquinas has a whole list of things in which people might glory. For example, there is what they know – someone might glory in their wisdom or boast about their knowledge. As a great philosopher and theologian, St Thomas must surely have been personally aware of this temptation. Or it may not be a matter of what you know but who you know. Some people might glory in their connections, boast of their friendship with the high and mighty, because they think the greatness of these people rubs off on them too. Coming from a noble family, St Thomas surely knew plenty about friends in high places. And then yet others might glory in the freedom they’ve found or the power they possess or some great victory. Others still might glory in some club or association to which they have gained entrance, membership of which speaks well of them. People may boast of whatever has given them their ‘in’.
St Paul doesn’t say that boasting in itself is wrong, though of course one can boast in something unworthy. What Paul says about himself is that he gloried only in the Cross of Christ, as though any other boasting paled in comparison. St Thomas thinks that the Cross somehow fulfils the various kinds of boast he lists, as if each one pointed in some poor way towards the Cross.
If our boast is in knowledge, then Christ Crucified is the Wisdom of God. His suffering and death show us the wisdom of living well and dying right. If our boast is in power, then his Cross is the Power of God manifested in weakness and renewing us within. If we glory in victory, then Christ’s death conquers every kind of evil. Or if we glory in freedom, then the Cross liberates us from slavery to sin. If our boast is in the fellowships to which we belong, then the Cross brings us communion with the angels and the saints. If our boast is in friendship with the great, then the Cross is the source of friendship with God.
When St Paul wrote to the Galatians, he was exercised by those whose boast was ‘in the flesh’. He meant those who gloried in having the Galatian Christians circumcised. Paul hints that they were under pressure themselves to convince Gentile converts to take on the sign of God’s covenant with the Jews as their ‘in’. It was a complicated time of ecclesiastical battles about the nature of and membership of God’s People. Paul opposed the imposition of circumcision, a sign that had pointed forward to Christ but was required no longer, now that it was fulfilled and all things made new by the Cross of Christ. Paul said that circumcision was of no avail and any alternative pagan uncircumcision irrelevant too. What matters, he says, is a new creation.
What is Paul’s new creation, this new creature? We don’t have to look back far in his letter to find out. He says, ‘In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love.’ We are recreated, made new, by the gift of faith in the Crucified Christ, a faith made alive by the love of God poured into our hearts from His Cross.
In the midst of ecclesiastical battles, Paul never focused on the Church as such. He pointed the Galatians to the Cross of Christ, just as faith working through love makes us one with Him. For Paul, the Church is important just because in it we are one body, one spirit with Christ. Whenever we find ourselves surrounded by ecclesiastical disputes and the nature of the Church is contested, our first thoughts should be trained on Jesus Christ, just as Paul boasted of Christ alone, and gloried in Him Crucified.
Image: detail from a stained glass window of St Paul preaching in Athens at St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, photographed by Fr Lawrence Lew OP.