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The Second Adam

An address by Fr John Slater

30 March 2003 11:00 | Fr John Slater

St Paul tells us, in our reading from his First Letter to the Corinthians, that he once persecuted the Church of God. That, of course, is how we first meet Paul in the Acts of the Apostles. Those who stoned Stephen to death had laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul, which suggests that he had some religious authority and that he had used that authority to condemn the first Christian martyr to death. Subsequently, on his way to Damascus to arrest Christians there, he underwent his dramatic conversion to the new faith. There is no way of telling how long after the resurrection this took place, though tradition says that Paul, as he now became known, died, along with Peter, in the persecution of the Emperor Nero in AD 64.

That gives a maximum of thirty years in which Paul both learned about Jesus and became his most energetic proclaimer. He travelled widely about the Eastern Mediterranean, preaching and teaching and founding churches. And as he travelled he kept in touch with these churches by letter. Probably many of his letters have been lost but those which remain form a major part of the New Testament and give us much of the theological vocabulary in terms of which Christianity has been preached and understood throughout its history.

In today’s reading from his First Letter to the Corinthians he gives us a brief summary of Christianity as he has received it and as he preaches it.
Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures;
he was buried; and he rose again the third day,

according to the scriptures; and he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve; after that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once… after that he was seen of James, then of all the Apostles: and last of all, he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. For I am the least of the Apostles, that am not meet to be called an Apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God.

Paul may sound suitably humble at this point, but from other writings we know how powerfully he defended his apostolic authority when he came into conflict with other apostles. And, of course, none of the other apostles made anything like Paul’s contribution to the theological definition of Christianity. It’s interesting to note how heavily Christianity depends on the thought and the writings of a man who, unlike the other apostles, never knew Jesus and who seldom quotes anything that Jesus said.

I want to look at just one of the things Paul says about Jesus in that summary of the faith he received from the apostles before him and which he preached so eloquently. Paul says that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures. Before his conversion on the Damascus Road, Paul had been a follower of the Pharisees - a rabbinical scholar, steeped in the text of the Hebrew Bible. So he would have been very familiar with the words of the prophet Isaiah which remain central to our understanding of the death of Jesus.

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried

our sorrows: yet did we esteem him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed.

But we should not leap from this prophecy to a sense of individual responsibility for the death of the Lord - though that appeal is often made by emotional evangelical preachers. The long sweep of the biblical narrative places the death of Jesus in the context of God’s whole creation and the consistent refusal of men and women to live in obedience to God’s will. The Romans may have put Jesus to death because they feared political unrest, but he was sent to them for execution by the religious authorities. They saw Jesus as a challenge to their traditional ways of responding to human sin.

Jesus rejected the temple cult of animal sacrifice and offered himself instead. As John the Baptist had put it, Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. In this sense, Jesus has become a representative of the human race, and it is Paul who calls him a Second Adam. If the first Adam can sum up the human race with its face turned away from God, Jesus represents us in our desire to be at one with God. Every day of our life we choose to identify ourselves with Adam or with Jesus. Here in the Eucharist we make our choice clear and are sacramentally and mystically united to him.
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