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Paul the Apostle We Love to Hate, Part II


Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
January 24, 2016

What gives you courage? Can we learn anything from Paul’s courage that might be useful?

Last week I tried to suggest some of the reasons many of us have come to hate Paul. I suggested that at least some of his bad reputation comes from the fact that we think he wrote everything in the letters attributed to him, which he didn’t. Seven are mostly his, the rest are not. He also wrote in a classical rhetorical style that puts many of us off. He sounds arrogant! He was addressing specific problems in specific communities and the context is difficult for us to see.

But why does any of this matter? Why should we care about Paul at all?  Can’t we just skip him and focus on what we like about Jesus? Of course, truth be told, we probably have to skip a few things the gospels say about Jesus as well. We know these texts were written by human beings and all had their unique agendas. Understanding those agendas help us to discover the meat among the dross. If Paul said some good things, how are we to search them out among the things that just make us angry? What’s so good about Paul? What are we missing by skipping him?

The short answer: The misinterpretation of Paul is the root of much that is wrong with the historical church. Understanding Paul might make us stronger in our faith and heal much that has been wrong with the church over time.

Paul was idealize by the author of Luke/Acts who wrote some 50 years later than Paul lived. He describes Paul’s journeys as one success after another. But there is evidence within the letters of Paul and between the lines when we understand the historical context in which he struggled that reveal a man desperate to prove his devotion to the Christ and to establish God’s Beloved Community in the 1st  Century world.

Paul spent much of his time in one local jail after another. That’s why we chose the image of a jail cell in our publicity about this series and for the front of this Sunday’s bulletin.

Everywhere he went he did what would seem outrageous and impossible to us today! He walked into local synagogues and began using the Hebrew Scriptures to show that Jesus was the Messiah. He was an educated Jew and never stopped seeing himself as Jewish. He never called himself a Christian. The gospel authors followed his lead in this.

Most of the time he outraged the local leadership and they did everything they could to get rid of him. He was beaten, banished, jailed. He was condemned to death.

The passages I chose for today speak to the suffering he endured and his constant desire to face the dangers with courage. In many ways Paul reminds me of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. How can I say that?

Paul’s vision for the world was grand and wholistic. Martin Luther King chose the phrase “Beloved Community” to express his vision for the world. Martin challenged the powers and principalities of our world. He didn’t just talk about civil rights for black folks. His March on Washington was for Jobs as well as equality. He condemned the Vietnam War in a speech from the Riverside Church in New York, a United Church of Christ congregation. He was a threat to all the political, economic and military powers in our 20th Century world. That’s what got him killed.

Paul chose the word “ekklesia” to describe the communities he was establishing in city after city. The term has been translated “church” and as a consequence has lost all its powerful implications. Ekklesia was Greek for local government, the assembly that governed a community. Paul was making his new communities more important than the synagogue in Jewish communities, or governments in all communities.

Paul took Jesus’ call for absolute equality so seriously that later editors had to add in lines about women keeping silence. There is abundant evidence that women were leaders in many if not most of his early ekklesia. Their names are mentioned. He was proud to serve with them. The early churches may have been more egalitarian than the early Civil Rights movement!

He insisted that Jews and Greeks should be treated equally. He outraged many of the founding apostles, those who had no room for Mary Magdalene in their leadership; those who felt everyone needed to become practicing Jews if they wanted to be part of the fellowship.

Paul’s letter to the church at Rome is listed first in the series of letters simply because it was the longest. Paul wrote it as an introduction to the community he hoped to visit, to address conflicts he had heard they were having about Jews and Greeks in community together and to explain his own understanding which had been evolving over his years of ministry.

He hoped to visit them after he went to Jerusalem to deliver offerings for the poor he had been collecting on his journeys. The importance of caring for the least of these, his brothers and sisters, was central to his ministry.

There is no evidence he ever made it to Rome. (although Luke says he did).  It may well be the last letter he ever wrote.

The letter develops a theology that is difficult to understand and was addressed to a 1st Century world view. He uses classical rhetorical forms that sound ponderous to us today. He may seem more arrogant here than in other places. So I have chosen passages from Chapter 8 that reveal the heart of this man, his courage and his suffering.

He saw his own suffering in light of the importance of transforming the world. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”  These words remind me of Martin Luther King’s vision and dream. “The arc of history bends toward justice!”

He depended on the Spirit to give voice to what his words could not “the Spirit helps us in our weakness for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” This has always been a comfort to me. I don’t know how to pray or what to say. Even Paul struggled to find words for what his heart felt. He trusted the Spirit to give voice to his longings. He knew that there were many ways for the Spirit to pray through us and music could be a part of that. Martin Luther King used powerful music to inspire, to give the Spirit voice as well. Songs like ‘We shall overcome!’ spoke to the heart of the Civil Rights work.
Paul declared that no matter what happened God was working through it all for God’s purpose. “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” We can hear these declarations as simplistic but in his circumstances they were incredibly courageous.

Then he lists those things that will try to separate us from God’s love: Hardships, distress, persecutions, famine, the shame of nakedness, peril, sword…and embraces them all with a quote from Psalm 44:22.

The powers of this world are debunked ~ even Death. As Martin said, “I may not get there with you!” Paul felt the same!

He named the rulers of this world, whether political or religious, their influence in the present, their threats about the future. He knew our faith can overcome them.

Powers and principalities ~ those in high places, those with the power to bring us down, and anything else in all creation will NOT be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 And when he called Christ Lord he was dismissing the power of Caesar as Lord. It may well have gotten him killed.

Luke says Paul went to Rome in chains as a prisoner of Empire, but there is no corroborating evidence, and the suggestion that he went on from there to Spain is very doubtful indeed.

Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail shares much in common with the challenging voice of Paul of Tarsus: He was writing in response to other religious leaders who were condemning his work, as did Paul in many of his letters. Paul wrote his letter to the church at Rome in hopes of helping them to overcome their differences and find common cause with the strengthening of people of faith everywhere.

Martin Luther King compared himself to Paul of Tarsus: “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns: and just as the Apostle Paul  left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom far beyond my own hometown. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian  call for aid.”

Paul’s journeys were often condemned by the house churches in Jerusalem and Rome. But he soldiered on because he saw the suffering in the wider world and felt compelled to act!

King wanted all people to come together to work for the Beloved Community, or as Paul would call it, the Ekklesia of Christ’s love. Paul would have agreed.

Do we fall into comfortable us/them realities in our community? Paul would have been as outraged as Martin to see the continual destruction of black lives throughout this county. He knew that without equality of Jew and Greek, male and female, neither slave nor free, we are all suffering.

King challenged the modern church to return to the courage of its roots. He said: “the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.”

We’ve heard this challenge directed at the church today. We can no longer afford to dismiss it as talking about somebody else! Paul’s courage may sound over the top, but without his kind of faith, that “all things are possible, that nothing can separate us from the Love of God” we remain too comfortable and the church is in danger of being irrelevant!

Martin he closed with the same hope that seemed to drive Paul’s incredible courage. Paul traveled throughout the Roman Empire and saw how it had impoverished the majority of people. When he stood for love and justice he was not simply laying down a theology to argue about in the 21st Century.  He wanted all people to know the freedom and justice that God called us to in the Reign of God, the Beloved Community, the Ekklesia of Jesus Christ our Lord. We need that kind of vision and courage today.

Paul was more complex and intense than our studies may have lead us to believe. Without Paul’s courage the church may not have survived. Certainly it would have lost much in the way of justice and equality. We lose much when we dismiss him as irrelevant. He challenges us some 2000 years later to stand up and be counted just as Martin Luther King has done these last 50 years. May we listen. May we respond!