Meeting Paul again for the first time

Praying with Paul — Ephesians 1:17-23 – We begin with a prayer of Paul’s from Ephesians.

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the [God] of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know [God], so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which God has called you, what are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power…. God put this power to work in Christ when [God] raised [Jesus] from the dead and seated [Christ] at [God’s] right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And ….has made [Christ] the head over all things for the church, which is [Christ’s] body, the fullness of [the One] who fills all in all. AMEN

Paul an Apostle of Jesus Christ

Paul….To the church of the Thessalonians in God…and….Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace from God….and….Jesus Christ.
1 Thessa 1:1-2

Presumably those were the first words that Paul, wrote as a self-proclaimed Apostle of Jesus Christ. This first Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians may have been the first book written of the 27 books of the New Testament.

Paul greets God’s beloved Thessalonian people en Christo – “In Christ.” At heart this is Paul’s passion for all life and faith: Being…In…Christ.

Personal Confession and Pastoral Invitation

Having begun with this majestic prayer and greeting from Paul, I offer a personal confession. Clearly Paul has been central to the life of the Christian church for two thousand years. Equally clearly I have struggled greatly with Paul. I confess that I have had a love-hate relationship with Paul. While “hate” is too strong a word for my discomfort with Paul, it has often overshadowed my love for Paul.  I have fought with Paul. I have ignored Paul. I have even thrown up my hands at Paul and said, “What are you thinking?” In this I am not alone!

Who is this self-appointed Apostle of Jesus Christ who speaks and acts with the utmost confidence and demands that we listen to and live what he says? Who is this person who was always a Jew yet was so formative in the founding stages of the emerging Christian movement? Who is this Paul who speaks so strongly to specific people in a specific situation yet whose words have been universalized as sacred scripture? This Apostle beautifully prays:

that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the [God] of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know [God], so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which God has called you… And ….has made [Christ] the head over all things for the church, which is [Christ’s] body, the fullness of [the One] who fills all in all. AMEN (Ephesians 1).

The same Apostle boldly declares: “I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles….” (Galatians 1:16-17).

Paul names himself an Apostle appointed by God with no need of human interference, so listen up and live what I say. Can you imagine the response if I went to our Mennonite Church conference in Pittsburgh next July and declared “God has made me the Mennonite Bishop!”

Paul is central to the church and controversial in the church. It is impossible to be in the Church and be neutral about or unaffected by Paul. A great dilemma over Paul needs to be named. It is a dilemma located more in we who are Paul’s reader/hearers than it is in the person and proclamation of Paul. Half the church misuses Paul by interpreting Paul’s letters in oppressive authoritarian patriarchal ways. The other half of the church misuses Paul by ignoring or rejecting Paul. Most of the church gets Paul wrong most of the time.  No wonder the Church is messed up. When a central character – the character second in significance in the Church to Jesus – is so widely misinterpreted or ignored something is amiss.

Meeting Paul again for the first time

When I was on sabbatical a year ago an unexpected bonus for me was to “meet Paul again for the first time.” I want to offer that possibility to you. I thought of calling us to “fall in love with Paul all over again for the first time” but thought that would be asking too much. This worship and adult study series is an invitation to you to “meet Paul again for the first time.” Recent explorations of Paul have exploded across the biblical world. I have been collecting many recent explorations and am exploring a select few that I hope help fulfill this invitation to “meet Paul.”

I am reminded of a beautiful poetic extra-biblical word from T.S Eliot’s “Four Quartets:”

We shall not cease from exploration / and the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started / and know the place for the first time.
[“Little Gidding” fourth of the “Four Quartets”]

Acts 9 – Saul’s conversion “In Christ” becomes Paul the Apostle

Saul, the Hebrew name of this man born a Jew in Tarsus of Cilicia, in what is now the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. He was learned and traveling man, as we know from the Acts of the Apostles and from his own letters.

N. T. Wright explains that Paul lived in three worlds: the world of Second-Temple Judaism, the world of Greek Hellenism, and the world of the Roman empire (Paul In Fresh Perspective, 3-5). Saul was a rabbinically trained Jew, schooled in Greek, and conversant with the Roman world.

This fervently faithful Jew, Saul, never stopped being a Jew and never met Jesus. In the years following Jesus’ life on earth, he zealously persecuted anyone found to be a follower of Jesus. Saul ‘breathed threats and murder against disciples of Jesus’ (Acts 9:1). Saul was the Taliban of the Taliban. But that makes it too easy to project who Saul was onto another stream of monotheistic faith. It is more revealing to say in American “Christian” terms, that Saul was the Homeland Security agent or the Patriot Act politician of the first century – until he saw Christ.

Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, quotes Paul declaring,
I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city [Jerusalem] at the feet of
Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God….I
persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting
them in prison….I also received letters [from] Damascus, and I went there in order to bind
those who were there and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment.

Paul Tells of His Conversion While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven
suddenly shone about me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, “Saul, Saul,
why are you persecuting me?” I answered, “Who are you, Lord?” Then the voice said to me,
“I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.” Now those who were with me saw the
light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. I asked, “What am I to
do, Lord?” The Lord said to me, “Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told
everything that has been assigned to you to do.” Since I could not see because of the
brightness of that light, those who were with me took my hand and led me to Damascus.
(Acts 22:3-11).

Paul is retelling his conversion story told in Acts 9. As Saul he fervently believes that he is absolutely faithfully doing God’s work by persecuting followers of Jesus. He hears the voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” ‘You?! I am not persecuting you. I am doing this for you. These people deserve to be tortured and killed.’

We never seem to learn this first great lesson Paul learned. To do violence to any one in Jesus‘ name is to do violence to Jesus. In Christ there is no justified violence. Nowhere is that more true than violence done in the name of God in Christ.

This is the heart and soul of Saul’s conversion and transformation in Christ and becoming Paul. There is a total bodily identification between Jesus and humanity. Jesus is the symbol for the whole human state-of-being. We are the Christ’s body on earth. [Cf. Eucharist/Communion]. If don’t understand that we will not understand Paul (Rohr, CD 3).

Paul knows that God’s love and mercy are boundless and that humans fail to fully embrace and embody God’s love and mercy. This is our human reality and deficiency. But God won’t give up on humans. So God fills the void of our human deficiency with boundless love and mercy with a person and act. God’ act is to send God’s Self to earth in the person of Jesus born as a baby and becoming the person-act of God-In-Christ. Jesus Christ is the name of God’s love and mercy embodied and enacted in and for humanity in and for the world.

Paul says, “Christ is the image of the invisible God…for [in Christ] all things….were created….and all things hold together….through [Christ] God [is] pleased to reconcile to [God’s] self all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross” (Colossians 1;16-17, 20; cf. cosmos John 3:16f).

Paul insists that we all fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23; 5:12) and that we all are “saved” by God’s love and mercy (Romans 11:32-26). God is doing this in love and mercy in Christ .

It is not dependent on our worthiness or our understanding. “God does not love us if we change. God loves us so that we can change.” (Richard Rohr). Most of Christian history tries to reverse that central person-act of God-in Christ. Paul calls us into that way of being in Christ.

Let me state a few further revelations about Paul that I am still unpacking. One, Paul made it possible to later “invent” psychology and personality as we know it today. Two, Paul brought intelligence and experience to faith. Our intelligence and experience are grounded in and emanate from the integration of head and heart.

Paul, with Jesus, trusted his inner authority and experience of God against the tradition.

Let me put it in a series of negative statements about what Paul was not. Paul did not leave Judaism. Paul did not found a church. Paul did not create an institution. Paul did not domesticate faith or make it “safe.” Paul did not defy tradition or the Law. Paul did not ignore experience.  Paul did not uphold the rules.

Paul was an integrator and fulfiller – integrating head and heart, experience and tradition, communal and individual. Paul was instrumental in creating what community means and what personhood means as we have come to know it today. The disciplines of psychology and sociology and anthropology, etc., did not arise until many centuries later. But Paul made them possible in faith in Christ.

In our “bounded set” and “centered set” model today, Paul was the first “centered set” person.  Without Paul we would not be the church we are today. It will help us understand Paul’s being in Christ, to really explore the “bounded set” and “centered-set” model more fully.

Life in Christ is not dependent on or bound by rules, regulations, and rituals defined and guarded by a few to keep the many in bounds. Rules, regulations, and rituals are always operational, they are just not operative. In other words, we have conscious and subconscious rules, regulations, and rituals that give coherence and continuity to our life together but they don’t control, confine, and condemn our life in Christ. This is what Paul is trying to teach us.

Richard Rohr explains it so well in 11 teaching sessions on Paul called “life as participation.” We enter into life in Christ as life that is bigger than we are and more than we can be alone. This life in Christ is organic and dynamic; it is alive and beautiful and growing.

Paul’s Life in Christ

Finally let me offer an abbreviated chronology of Paul’s life in Christ as historical perspective. I am drawing on many sources but especially Jacob Elias’ book, Remember the Future: The Pastoral Theology of Paul the Apostle (chronology pp. 55-57 for adult study from other sources).
Saul was born early in the first century, about 5 CE…studied under Gamaliel 15-20 CE
Jesus crucified 30 CE….Saul persecuted Jesus’ followers of The Way 33-35….CE Damascus road
mid-30s…Paul visited Jerusalem 37 CE….Jerusalem conf 49-50 CE….First letters 49-52 CE….
Last Letters 65-68 CE….Paul killed in Rome (beheaded) 67 CE…[30+yrs; 7-13 books; cf. J 3 yrs]

Paul purpose is pastoral….pastoral word to specific churches and pastor-at-large….
Undergirding and running through Paul’s Letters are stories of God’s people in communities of faithfulness and fallibility being called to ever deeper communal faith in Christ by Paul whom we meet again for the first time.  I conclude today with this blessing from Paul’s first Letter:

Paul’s Blessing and Benediction 1 Thessalonians 5:23-28 (Eugene Peterson’s The Message)

May God, who makes everything holy and whole, make you holy and whole, put you together—spirit, soul, and body—and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ. The One who called you is completely dependable. If [Jesus] said it, [Jesus will] do it!  Friends, keep up your prayers for us. Greet all the followers of Jesus….with a holy embrace. And make sure this letter gets read to all the brothers and sisters. Don’t leave anyone out. The amazing grace of Jesus Christ be with you! AMEN