Note: The following is taken from a talk given on Acts 19-21 to the Scripture Study Group at my old parish.
As he goes on his third journey to Greece, St. Paul is living the millennial dream: after finishing the equivalent of a college education (debt-free, no less!), he goes traveling, makes many friends (real ones, not just ones on social media), takes up a cause—and he does this all in his 30s. You can be sure he has many great stories to tell and has made himself quite interesting. All that was missing was an Instagram account crammed with selfies.
Furthermore, he is not saddled down with commitments like marriage, or a boring job, or oppressive traditions. By the modern definition, he is free. Free to tend to himself. Free to dabble in different kinds of lifestyles. Free to create his own meaning. It seems odd that he describes his life as one of bondage “a slave of Christ,” but this likely due to living at a time that lacked the vocabulary to describe a truly open life.
Rather than ascribe to the narrow-mindedness of his day, Paul embodies a model for all modern men to follow: he is a citizen of the world with a universalist message that transcends borders, cultures, and generations. He is “all things to all men” and he targets the old bigoted order to bring about a new broad-minded order—the very definition of progress.
But, in light of all this, it seems odd that the narrative of Paul’s missionary journey consists not of celebrations and epiphanies that we’ve come to expect of such stories. He does not find enlightenment, nor does he create fun memories that will console him for the future. He does not take in the scenes and eat exotic dishes. Nor does he seem to tear down any cultural walls or build any cultural bridges.
Instead, Luke mainly speaks of the Paul’s many trials, failures, and constant hardship. The Jews dislike him; the pagans dislike him; even the Christians in Jerusalem dislike him. He probably makes more enemies than friends on these trips, and suffers beatings, stonings, large protests, and even a shipwreck.
This is because that far from showcasing modern millennial ideals of travel, activism, and self-care, Paul’s experience reinforces deeper (and harsher) truths about sharing the gospel and building Christian communities: (1) that the integrity of the universal church depends on the integrity of local churches; (2) the Christian gospel is no mere movement, but a comprehensive education; and (3) that evangelization is an endeavor that demands personal sacrifice. Paul’s journey, in direct opposition to the journeying of millennials today, is completely selfless and free of virtue-signaling.
The first lesson of Paul’s journey, that the integrity of the universal church depends on the integrity of the local church, is perhaps the most timely message for today, where we usually know more about the pope and bishops, their thoughts and comments, than we do about the priests who preach to us every Sunday, where many of us feel closer to Catholics online than those at our parish, where Catholicism is more a label we use for ourselves than a reference to a real community.
In Paul’s time, there obviously wasn’t such a loose organization that was so vast and shallow. The success or failure of the Church depended on the tight networks of believers doing their utmost to follow what the apostles and their appointed priests told them. A universal gospel that applied to all groups of people could only succeed where there were actual living groups of people who could share and practice the gospel, not on a viral message circulating throughout the empire.
For this reason, Paul relies heavily on the synagogues and the work of John’s disciples to build up Christian churches. He does not simply write out some interesting thoughts on reforming Judaism and proclaiming Jesus the messiah, send it to his friends in various synagogues, and content himself with contributing to an ongoing intellectual discussion. Nor does he offer a manifesto or handbook on organizing Christian churches to anyone interested, but goes himself and creates local communities out of preexisting ones.
Consider what happens when there is no local community of believers. In such places, like Athens, Paul struggles to find a foothold. He becomes one more philosopher trying to start his own cult or school. He would have the idea of a universal church based on the gospel of Jesus Christ, but he would not have the reality.
In fact, Paul’s work consists less in synthesizing ideas and articulating them and more in forming believers, and this takes time. It is very much like the work of a teacher. People try and try to make the inefficient arrangement of a teacher working with a group of students in a classroom more efficient through online education, streamlined curricula, and complex scheduling schemes. But, these can’t replace the old way because education has more to do with building relationships and spending time together and less with how knowledge is transmitted.
Therefore, Paul spends the majority of his time sitting down with people and talking with them. He is not only teaching them the content of Christianity, but is modeling and helping them practice the skills and behavior of Christianity. Most people do not become good at English or math by going through an online course or reading through some textbooks. Similarly, most people (actually, all people) will not become Catholic by watching the Catholicism DVD series with Bishop Barron or reading the Bible cover to cover, good though these things are. They must have teachers who work with them over a period of time. This was Paul’s work, first and foremost.
This then explains the second lesson of Paul’s journey: that the gospel is more than a movement. That is, it’s more than some populist cause consisting of a few slogans and a lot of popular anger. One cannot explain Christianity in a few easy lines, blame a scapegoat for any perceived problems, and be done with that. As mentioned already, it takes much more time and effort. This is why imagery associated with evangelization is related to farming: scattering seeds, cultivating the soil, and harvesting. It is not the image a wildfire spreading rapidly through the empire, where the merest spark will fire up conversions.
It’s not enough to invoke the name of Jesus. The incident with Jewish exorcist proves this very fact. He thinks that a mere phrase will do the trick instead cultivating a deeper understanding and practice of Christ’s gospel.
Paul does a lot of talking on his journey—so much so that he literally talks one of his listeners to death (since he falls out the window after dozing off). He also performs many miracles on this journey like reviving that same person and curing countless others. If the gospel were simply an appealing idea or life plan, teaching and miracles wouldn’t be necessary. Paul could go on a speaking tour and accomplish his task in a few weeks instead of a few years.
And, this would be much easier. Politicians and entertainers do this all the time. LBJ once said, “Any jackass can kick down a barn but it takes a good carpenter to build one.” It is easy to manipulate people and direct their frustrations against some elite, especially in corrupt place like the Roman Empire where peasant uprisings were common; it is much harder to preach a message of love, self-discipline, and developing a spiritual life.
Christianity does call for charity for those in need, and it stresses humility and service over titles and authority. Nevertheless, it is not a populist ideology that seeks to redress the wrongs of society, nor is it an elitist ideology that seeks to replace the current elite with one that’s more enlightened. This was the problem with liberation theology in Latin America in the 70s which sought to politicize the gospel for the sake of popularizing it. It wasn’t about combatting sin and coming together as brothers finding redemption in Christ, but combatting an elite and coming together as fellow citizens finding redemption in a Marxist utopia.
Needless to say, liberation theology was short-lived, as was all political-religious movements throughout the ages. Paul needed to create lasting communities that could resist both populist and elitist movements. He saw firsthand what came of the populist Jews who would rebel against the Romans, only to be utterly annihilated by the elites. And he saw what came of the elitist Jews who allied themselves with the Romans, only to be taken down or reviled by the masses. He had to train the early Christians for clashes with both these groups and hold their own.
And this work would require everything Paul had to give: his comfort, his reputation, his time, his talents, his patience, his attachments, and ultimately his life. This is the third lesson of his journey. He does not find himself during his travels; he really does lose himself and everything he has.
Paul’s job of preaching is thankless, as he suffers beatings, injustice, and constant pushback everywhere he goes. On one hand, he can see this as proof that he is making a difference and proof that his intentions are pure and he nothing to profit. On the other hand, the denunciations, the criticism, and the beatings still hurt. Paul is clearly very strong, but he still has feelings. And, even if he can take the abuse; it likely hurts to know that his words and presence brought this out of otherwise good people.
I experience something similar to all this when I receive hateful comments on an article I write. On one hand, I’m glad people are reading my article and taking it seriously enough to comment. On the other hand, I don’t like being called horrible things and I’m sad that something I wrote brought out this kind of nastiness from people.
Paul also suffers loneliness, which might be the worst pain. Every time he makes friends, he must leave them. He can never marry and have children because there is simply too much to do. It is by necessity that Paul must make Christ his best friend and the Church his bride. They must take the place of these conventional sources of comfort and keep his soul and body intact. Without them, he will become a terrible pastor, a terrible person, or more likely both.
In light of these lessons, it is fairly evident that St. Paul is not a proto-millennial, but very much its opposite. He takes on the instability of apostleship to allow some stability for new disciples. This means that our role model in Acts, as laypeople, is not actually Paul, but all those people he converts. We need to build up our local churches and focus on knowing and supporting one another, not keeping up with Vatican gossip. We need to take passing on the faith much more seriously and stop trying to simplify it or outsource it. Finally, we need to love our priests and recognize the sacrifices they make in living out their vocation. We need to help them keep their vows and succeed in their mission. St. Paul was a talented and blessed man, but like all the saints, his success and wellbeing depended on those who loved him and put the gospel ahead of themselves.