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Paul the Apostle We Love to Hate, Part III

Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
January 31, 2016

After hearing the beautiful words of I Corinthians 13 it is hard to turn to the title of this last of my three part sermons on Paul. Do we love to hate Paul?

If you know anything about him, there are many reasons not to like him! Let’s review some of the reasons many of us have always had problems with Paul, as well as some of the reasons we can change those views now.

Paul has been blamed for slavery! In Ephesians, Colossians, and I Timothy slaves are told to obey their masters. These terrible words were used as justification for American slavery, the darkest period in our history. We now know that Paul didn’t actually write those letters. In the Philemon, the one letter he wrote that mentions the subject he wrote to convince Philemon to free his slave who had come to Paul for help.

Paul is blamed for the subjugation of women! There is an interesting passage in I Corinthians about who should wear head coverings but this was not about putting women down rather it was about maintaining some normalcy. Paul wanted his house ekklesias to be accepted. The statement about women keeping silent in this letter is now known to be an insert. In some manuscripts it is in one place, in others it is in another. Paul was passionate about equality for all people and emphasized this again and again. Many of his friends and leaders of house churches were women. Scholars now see the Corinthian women prophets as the recipients of his letters there.

Paul is blamed for the condemnation of Jews and all the antisemitism that has plagued our world. Paul was a Jew and proud of his heritage. He went to great lengths in his letter to the Romans to explain that Jews still held a sacred place in God’s unfolding of history. The letters that condemn the Jews are not Paul’s words but come from the end of the 1st Century when the temple had been destroyed and Christianity was trying to survive under Caesar’s desire to eliminate Judaism.

Paul is quoted as condemning homosexuality, one of the six brief passages in all of the Bible that reference the subject. Most can be dismissed as misunderstood since the concept of equal relationships between same sex couples was not known. The term in Greek is better translated “sodomite” and refers to powerful men using young boys. But Paul included relationships between women in his condemnation as well. So we can be mad at him for this. The world had a long way to go before it understood that God has created each of us as unique and never intended this condemnation. Paul wasn’t perfect. Jesus never condemned LGBTQ people.

Finally, Paul used language in a classical rhetoric form that we find difficult to hear. He sounds arrogant even when he doesn’t intend to be. We have to cut him some slack in order to appreciate what he has to say.

Paul had a passion for justice and equality that can be compared to Martin Luther King’s. He put his life on the line for his understanding of Jesus’ call to live in equality and mutuality. Every letter that he actually wrote is full of examples encouraging people to do everything with an eye toward mutuality and love.

Two weeks ago we looked at Paul’s words about each of our unique gifts and the importance of always using them for the good of all. Last week we looked at Paul’s courage in the face of many troubles and how he counted them as nothing if they would encourage others to work together in building strong communities. Today we have heard the most often quoted passage of Paul.

1st Corinthians 13 is read at weddings and memorials so often that we hear the words, if we hear them at all, as being all about individual, personal, even romantic love. But Paul wrote them to a community like ours. They were not meant to be understood as impossible ideals. They were meant to be lived.

It is significant to note that the tone and emotional content of these words sounds almost feminine. Perhaps this is why they have been relegated to romantic moments and idealized memorials. Women like this sort of thing. Men find it difficult to imagine being this dedicated to others. But Paul was no effeminate person. His courage and passion is revealed in many ways. He saw the power of love as a force for intimacy and connection. It is no coincidence that “Spirit” in both Hebrew and Greek is a feminine term.

It may be difficult to imagine applying these words to community but Paul intended the church in Corinth to try! I encourage us to try!

First Paul addresses the various ways our egos can get in the way of living in compassion and justice that Paul would call the ‘ekklesia’ of love (Martin Luther King’s ‘Beloved Community’). We can become attached to the sound of our own voices…“If I speak with the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.” We may sing well or have strong opinions that we feel justified in revisiting. Some have found it difficult to work with others in our wonderful, strong-willed choir because they felt their way was the only right way. The same challenge has come up on various boards and committees. Learning to listen well is an on-going challenge for all of us. It was probably a big challenge for Paul as it is for any of us who take leadership roles.

Next he talks about prophetic powers and knowledge and faith all in one breath. Some of us might have a strong sense of history and fear for the future of the church. Some may be intellectually knowledgeable and sure about what we all need to know. Some may feel their faith is deeper or stronger than others. Whatever the source of our pride, it gets in the way of our capacity to be present to others in a compassionate way. Each of these gifts is valuable to the community, but only if it is contributed with a loving spirit. We all have the capacity to live out the law of love but Paul knew from his own strong personality that humility was hard and ego was easy.

Next Paul speaks of giving everything away, even your body which probably sounds very strange to us. In the 1st Century those crosses by the side of the road were not symbolic of death, they were vivid examples of it. Martyrdom was so common it became almost popular. The Gospel of Judas found at Nag Hammadi and recently in the news rejected martyrdom as an abomination. Paul would agree.

For us the modern equivalent might be turning yourself into a doormat, always saying yes when your human frailty asks you to say no, never learning healthy boundaries and finding yourself worn out and lost. Paul would call this too an ego trip that gains you nothing, nor does it truly serve the needs of others.        

Now Paul dares to define love: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Beautiful words, but what do they really have to do with community? With us? Are they too utopian?

I like to remind myself regularly that the first definition of love is PATIENCE. My mother used to tell me I was too patient with my sons when they were growing up. I doubt that was true. I don’t seem to have that problem now! I know how hard it is for me to be patient with others in traffic, in meetings, before church, in the community. But when I am able to be patient, I communicate by my actions genuine respect for others. Nothing is more helpful to building strong relationships.

Love is also kind. Our world moves too fast. We are too full of our own agendas. It isn’t easy to always be kind. I was drawn to the words from the book of Celtic Daily Prayers found in our Quiet Meditation because they seemed to address this very real challenge:
“We live in a world where mental ability is rewarded. But the heart is not trained; it just muddles along. Soon we know more and more, and understand less and less. Sophisticated media reports bring information about wars and disasters right into our living rooms; but we are less affected than previous generations would have been by reports of a mishap in a neighboring village.”
It isn’t easy to remain kind in a world so full of vitriol and mean-spiritedness. Kindness can be seen as weakness. And sometimes tough love requires us to say the difficult thing to someone we love even when it doesn’t sound or feel kind at the time!

For us to remember not to be “envious, boastful, arrogant or rude, to not insist on our own way, not be irritable or resentful, or rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoice in the truth” may require us to give up reality television altogether. It may challenge us to examine our motives, our actions, our choices on every level.

That love bears, believes, hopes and endures all things feels over the top…a perfect justification for being a doormat, of never giving up on an abuser. But it was meant to apply to never giving up on community. Sometimes we must walk away from an individual but when we walk away from each other it is a hard experience for all. We continue to grieve those who moved away or just stopped coming to church. We matter to each other and every person who finds their way into our midst is meant to be embraced as a brother or sister, already family. We need to Draw the Circle Wide!

Finally Paul challenges us to grow up! “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly; then we shall see face to face.” We may not see clearly the path ahead but we can rest in the assurance that God’s Spirit lives within us, around us and among us in the community and in the wider world.

We are assured that though “Now we know only in part; then we will know fully even as we have been fully known.” Paul was clearly a mystic, as John Dominic Cross said, “Paul is a mystic. He thinks mystically, writes mystically, teaches mystically, and lives mystically. He also expects other Christians to do likewise.”

“And now faith, hope and love abide, these three. But the greatest of these is love.” We are challenged to live in community as extended family to one another. It is not easy but it is how we grow up in our faith. You teach me by your courage and kindness, patience and presence. We teach each other every day just by showing up and practicing our faith, our hope, our love!!

Paul may have his problems, but I’ve learned to love his powerful challenging words. I hope you will too. Amen.