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Paul the Apostle We Love to Hate, Part I

Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
January 17, 2016

At my clergy breakfast meeting this week a United Methodist Church friend said he hates the way Paul divided everything up into a neat package of separate gifts as we heard in this morning’s reading from the First letter to the church at Corinth. A lot of people find Paul offensive. I just finished reading a book by Karen Armstrong called “St. Paul, the Apostle We Love to Hate.” It seemed an appropriate title for this sermon series in which we’ll look at several readings from Paul’s letters and discover, hopefully, some new things about this most famous missionary of the early church.

As Karen Armstrong pointed out early in her book:
“Paul is an apostle whom many love to hate; he has been castigated as a misogynist, a supporter of slavery, a virulent authoritarian, and bitterly hostile to Jews and Judaism.”

Was Paul really that bad? I can’t answer for the rest of you but hopefully by the end of this series not only will you have a better appreciation for this radical preacher and teacher, you may see the early church and its development in a new light!

Ever since Guttenberg developed his printing press in the 15th Century and the Bible became its first best seller, people have been studying scripture with much greater understanding. Translations into the vernacular began to be secretly disseminated. The King James Version allowed the English speaking world a common source for learning about Jesus’ life and times. And thus began the search for the historical Jesus and the true origins of the early church. Protestantism in all its diverse forms, from Lutherans to Pentecostals, grew out of this struggle to discover what really happened.
And the search continues! The Jesus Seminar, after wrestling with what they think Jesus really said and did, has turned its attention to Paul. There will be a two day conference in Palo Alto all about Paul on April 15 and 16. I thought about inviting all of you to it, but realized most of you probably know so little about this troubling guy that motivation to learn more would be sorely lacking.
At Paul Anderson’s suggestion I decided to dig a little deeper myself into the life and times of Paul of Tarsus and see what I could learn and what I could share with you.

So what do we know about Paul?

First, he didn’t say most of the worst things we think he said! Scholars now almost universally agree that only seven letters attributed to Paul were actually written by Paul! And some of the things we don’t like even in those letters were later additions to make Paul more palatable to the Greco-Roman world. He wrote I Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philemon, and Romans. He didn’t write 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus or Hebrews which were written after his death, some as late as the 2nd Century.
Second, he wasn’t a Christian. He didn’t tell people to believe IN Christ but rather to have the faith OF Christ. We can blame the Book of Acts for some of this misunderstanding. (Scholars now think Luke/Acts was written near the end of the 1st Century and the author didn’t know Paul or Jesus personally).

Paul was the earliest writer about Jesus. He was a devout Jew, a zealous Jew who wanted the followers of Jesus stopped, even eliminated. On the road to Damascus to participate in clearing this troubling new sect of Judaism from the map, something happened. He experienced a blinding light and heard the voice of Jesus challenge him to stop what he was doing, find a teacher, and learn about Jesus. He never knew the historical Jesus but felt confronted by the risen Christ who challenged all his beliefs about the messiah and the coming age.

He saw his own arrogance as his greatest sin. That Jesus was willing to walk into the jaws of Empire humbly and accept crucifixion totally undid Paul’s understanding of the messiah as a king like Caesar. He saw Christ’s teaching on humility as so essential it undid all the hierarchy of the ancient world. And there was plenty of it. Patricians were higher than plebeians. Men of property were higher than proletariats (those without property). Patrons were higher than clients. Richer citizens were higher than poor. According to Karen Armstrong, “The rich and poor dressed differently, they ate different food, and spoke virtually different languages. The masses were expected to show their deference to their superiors in myriad stylized rituals in the course of a single day.”
Crosses along the road communicated loud and clear how dangerous it was to break these rules. but Paul emphasized the importance of breaking them. He emphasized that when we are baptized into the church there is no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.

When he began his ministry he came into conflict with other followers of Jesus including Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, who was the head of the church in Jerusalem. Many early believers were required to be circumcised. Followers of Jesus were just another sect of Judaism. Paul traveled outside the bounds of Jewish mainstream and saw that many Gentiles were being transformed by the experience of the Spirit of God without having to go through all the teachings of Torah (Law) first.

What can we learn from Paul’s First letter to the church at Corinth?

First, let’s take a quick look at the word “church.” Paul called his new communities ‘ekklesia’ which is the same word used by the Greco-Roman authorities for their local governments. We translate ekklesia as church and miss the radical significance of the word. Paul is saying these communities replaced the authority of Caesar in their cities and towns. Talk about radical and dangerous!

Paul founded the ekklesia at Corinth, probably a small house church, early in his travels. He left them to grow on their own and they ran into trouble. Other followers of the Christ (traveling prophets) arrived to tell them they needed to be more spiritual and less practical about their faith. (Think perhaps, Science of Mind believers). Still others told them they all needed to be circumcised and become Jews. There was no consensus, no creeds, no rules for being Christians at this time. Paul sent this letter to try to remind them of the values of humility and service that their ekklesia was founded upon.

To say Jesus is Lord meant that Caesar was not Lord. It was dangerous and powerful to do so. He asks them here to remember that whatever gifts they have been given should always be used for the common good rather than as ways to feel superior to others. He lists nine specific gifts here but I agree with my United Methodist friend that they should not be separated out and compared for value.

Wisdom teaching, the first on the list, is of value to all of us. Some of us live it. Others teach it, but all of us are learning it.

Knowledge is next. There is a great tragedy in a society that does not adequately educate its children and value knowledge and understanding. We are seeing consequences of this in our national conversations about essential issues today.

Faith as a gift may surprise us. Again, this is not faith that means blind belief. Paul is talking about faith as trust, as devotion. And some of us seem to come by this naturally, but all of us need to cultivate this strength.

Healing arts in the days of Jesus and Paul were considered a part of religious practice. The mind/body connection was taken for granted, and many healings seem to have been experienced during the days of the early church.

Miracle workers were also a part of the early ekklesia. It may be too wild for us to imagine, or it may be that some things we can explain today couldn’t be explained in any other way then, but there must have been some wonderful mysterious events back in the day! And if we are awake, miracles are happening everyday.

Prophesy is another surprising gift. Ministers are always encouraged to be both pastoral and prophetic in our teachings. We understand this in terms of challenging one another to greater justice work. But in Paul’s day most traveling missionaries were called prophets. They built on the ancient prophetic challenges of the Hebrew prophets, and sometimes they predicted future events.

Discernment of Spirits is another unusual gift for us. In my early days as a Fundamentalist Christian I discovered I had this gift. It is the ability to look into the heart of another human being and see their fear, their faith, what drives them, motivates them. It can be disconcerting! When people are controlled by their fears their hearts remain closed. Understanding the Spirit of love and the spirit of fear is a gift. One we can all learn if we listen with our hearts.

Then we hear about “various kinds of tongues.” Some seem to have been able to speak in other languages, some in strange “glossalia” that make no sense at all but feel incredibly good to the person doing the speaking. Paul saw this as just one gift among many rather than something to emphasize as essential.

And finally, there is “the interpretation of tongues,” which seems totally archaic to us, since “speaking in tongues” is so wildly unfamiliar. This is another one of those strange gifts you can only know you have if you’ve ever been to a Pentecostal Church and heard a symphony of voices that sound completely strange until suddenly you understand what is being said. That happened to me once and was very powerful and upsetting!

What gifts have you experienced in your Spiritual life? I know many of you are profoundly wise and carry incredible knowledge. There are healers in our midst, and many whose capacity to trust and show devotion have deeply humbled me. There are visionaries among us and those who sound the alarm for action on behalf of others. We may not identify with some of these gifts. But you teach me and all of us by your willingness to participate in this community. The importance of acknowledging that our differences have value and that all must be done “for the common good” is a contribution from Paul’s understanding of what it means to be a ‘Beloved Community’.

For Paul, Jesus’ call to experience the Reign of God in our midst was played out in house churches throughout the ancient world. We are heirs of that vision. May our Beloved Community seek and develop our gifts so that the call to justice and courage that Martin Luther King displayed and challenged us to follow might be fulfilled in our time.