Sunday, April 14, 2013

"Apostle of the heart set free" (J. Barry Vaughn, April 7, 2013)

The British novelist P.G. Wodehouse wrote a series of comic novels  about the aristocratic but dim-witted Bertie Wooster. In one of the novels, Bertie said that he had failed a course in New Testament because he had been taught that it was wrong to read other people's mail and most of the New Testament was made up of St. Paul's letters.

I think that's a case of doing the wrong thing for the right reason!

Bertie Wooster was right: The largest component of the New Testament does consist of the letters of Paul. The 13 letters by or attributed to Paul amount to only one less than half of the 27 books of the New Testament or almost a third of the New Testament by length.

But there are quite a lot of people who would be just as happy to see Paul excluded from the New Testament , and a number of them are Anglicans. To Thomas Jefferson, Paul was "the first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus." And to Jefferson's friend, Thomas Paine, he was "a manufacturer of quibbles."

By and large, Anglicans have preferred the gospels, especially the gospel of John, to Paul.

But just consider a few things:

In Matthew's gospel, Jesus tells the parable of the wedding feast. Those who arrived unprepared were sent into the "outer darkness, where there was weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth."

And in the parable of the sheep and the goats (also in Matthew), those who have not cared for the poor and hungry are sent "into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels."

Paul, on the other hand, tells us that "love is patient and kind," that "faith, hope, and love abide but the greatest of these is love."

One of the most common charges brought against Paul is that he was a misogynist or anti-woman. There is no doubt that Paul or one of his disciples writing in Paul's name urged women to be obedient to and subordinate to their husbands. But it was also Paul who selected a woman, Phoebe, a deacon of the Corinthian church, to be his personal ambassador to the church in Rome. And it was Paul who declared that two woman of the Philippian church - Euodia and Syntyche -were his "fellow workers."

 Furthermore, I believe that the greatest chapter in the NT is the 8th chapter of Romans, at the end of which Paul declares, "I am convinced that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

 To understand Paul, it's helpful to know a little background. In the first century, there were 2 great divisions of Judaism - Palestinian Judaism and Diaspora Judaism. The diaspora consisted of the Jews who lived outside of Palestine. There were Jewish communities in all the great cities of the Roman empire - Rome, Athens, Corinth, Alexandria, Antioch, and so on. It is estimated that there were about 4 million Jews in the first century, and about 3 million of them lived outside of Palestine.

 Paul was a Jew of the Diaspora. For the Jews of the Diaspora, Greek was their first language. Hebrew was the language of the Torah and the synagogue.

 The Book of Acts tells us that Paul was a Roman citizen from the city of Tarsus in Asia Minor or present day Turkey. But Acts also tells us that Paul studied with Rabbi Gamaliel in Palestine.

 One mystery about Paul is his name. We are told that he was called Saul until his conversion and Paul afterward. This is probably not exactly correct. More than likely, Jews of the Diaspora had 2 names: a Hebrew name used by other Jews and a Greek name they used outside the Jewish community. Saul is a Hebrew name, and Paul a Greek name.

 But the most famous story about Paul is the story of his conversion in the 9th chapter of Acts. Paul, a disciple of the most famous and important rabbi of the first century, had become the chief persecutor of Jesus' followers. He was so fierce in his determination to persecute Christians that he was on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus - a journey of about 100 miles in a day when such journeys were difficult and dangerous - to continue the persecution.

 Lo and behold, as Paul was riding along on his ass, when all of a sudden, a light from heaven knocked him off it! The heavenly light shone and a voice from above said, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do."

 One of the most interesting things about this story is that Paul never tells it himself. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul simply says that he was called by God and received a revelation. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says that the Risen Christ appeared to him "last of all, as to one untimely born." And that's it - Paul himself tells us nothing about the heavenly light, the voice from above, or about being knocked of his... uh... donkey. And that's it -Paul says nothing else about his conversion.

 But it is this experience, the so-called conversion of Paul, that I want to talk about, because in many ways it is the most problematic part of Paul's story.'

 It is problematic not because of the historical questions it raises: Did it happen the way Acts describes it? Why does Paul himself not tell this story? And so on.

 It is problematic because for many Christians, especially for evangelicals and charismatics, the story of Paul's conversion, his "Damascus road experience," has become a paradigm, a model, for the way that we are supposed to become Christians.

 To be a Christian is to be converted from our sins and wickedness, to give up our vices and embrace virtue.

 It reminds me of the time that Mark Twain went to see his doctor. The doctor said, "Mr. Twain, if you want to continue living, you must stop drinking whisky and smoking cigars." So Twain promptly did that. An elderly widowed school teacher went to the same doctor, who told her, "Madam, if you want to continue living, you must stop drinking whisky and smoking cigars." She said, "But I don't drink whisky or smoke cigars." To which the doctor replied, "Then I'm afraid there's no hope for you." You should always have some vices to give up!

 A lot of evangelicals tell us that to become a Christian is to go through emotional agonies about our sinful past, to undergo a cathartic experience, to kneel in the divine presence and confess our sins and repent of them. It is to walk the aisle at a crusade by Billy Graham or another evangelist and say the so-called "sinners' prayer" with a counselor and sign a card saying that we have turned our life over to God, or made a decision for Christ, or something like that.

 But it is precisely at this point that Paul himself comes to our rescue, because Paul says nothing of the sort is necessary to become a Christian. Paul says that what is important is not our choice, our decision, but God's choice. The important thing is not what we do for God but what God does for us.

 Think back to what I said earlier about the unflattering comparisons made between Paul and the gospels. Paul, it is often said, is the legalist, the Pharisee, the corruptor of the pure teaching of Christ. The gospels, esp John, teach the doctrine of "gentle Jesus, meek and mild." But where is the verse so often held up at the Super Bowl and World Series, "You must be born again"? It is not in Paul; it is in John's gospel.

 Instead, Paul says, "If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old has passed away, behold, the new has come.  All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation;  that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself..."

 So is conversion necessary? Absolutely. But the conversion we need is not the kind of experience that Paul had on the road to Damascus.

 Make no mistake: there are many people who have had the kind of experience that Paul had on the way to Damascus - a sudden, cathartic, wrenching emotional experience when you see that you had been headed in the wrong direction and God sets your feet on a new and better path. Or in a flash you see the world in a new light, God's truth becomes plain to you. Perhaps some of you have had this kind of experience.

 But the conversion that we all need is of a more mundane variety. Conversion simply means to turn around, to go in a new direction. We all need that conversion. We need it every day. And every day God will supply it, if only we will be attentive, if only we will ask. Because every single day of our lives we find ourselves going in the wrong direction, and we need to turn around, retrace our steps, ask God's forgiveness, and set off again in the right direction.

 Not for a single minute do I believe that there is a single way of becoming or being a Christian. It is different for every single one of us because God made each us different and unique. I believe that most Christians grow into the Christian life from the beginning to the end of their lives. For most Christians, the Christian life begins with baptism and continues with what we are taught by our parents and Sunday school teachers and clergy.

 In most of us the Christian life grows as quietly and gently as the flowers and trees and grass. God does not coerce; God invites. God rarely hits us over the head or blinds us with a heavenly light or deafens us with a thunderous voice from above. Rather, God speaks to us with the "still, small voice" that the prophet Elijah heard. Sometimes the faint light of a distant star is all that we have but even that was enough to guide the wise men to the manger in Bethlehem.

 So, thank God for the gospels and thank God for Paul. One witnesses to the life of Christ and his teachings and the other to what the Spirit has revealed about the significance of that life.

 But it was Paul - apostle of the heart set free - whose own heart was set on fire with the love of God who took the Christian faith throughout the ancient world, making Christianity into a faith that would spread throughout the world.

 "Facing danger at sea, and fearful persecution, Paul became a chosen vessel of the Savior. With his sermons he enlightened the nations, and to the Athenians he revealed the unknown God. Teacher of the nations, Saint Paul, the Apostle, protector of us all, keep us who honor you, safe from every trial and danger."