October 5, 2014
Remember the song from the Sound of Music where the question was “What do you do with a problem like Maria?” Well, what do you do with a problem like the Apostle Paul? For some in the church he’s the problem and gets the blame for all that they see wrong in conservative Christianity. For others he’s the solution to the problem of liberal Christianity. The truth, most likely, is somewhere in between. I don’t think he deserves either the depth of the vilification that has become a cliché in some circles nor the height of unquestioned authority he receives in others. Today’s passage shows us that there is way more nuance than we often allow for him. We see both the peril and promise he engenders.
This passage doesn’t, initially, seem to be one you would want to highlight in multifaith dialogue. Paul is hard on Jews, and he can’t stop talking about Jesus.
First of all, we can’t get past the fact that we look at this passage through 2000 years of Christian history, some of it unfortunate and tragic when it comes to Christianity’s interaction with Judaism. But none of that was there when Paul was making this testimony he made from his prison cell. Paul, like all early Christians, understood himself as a Jew. And most Jews understood Christians as one of the many sects of Judaism. It wasn’t until gentiles, or folk who hadn’t grown up Jewish, began to become followers of Jesus that people even started asking about whether Christianity and Judaism were separate religions. And it took a long time to settle that question.
We begin to see that debate taking place about this question of Christianity’s relationship to Judaism in some of the later writings of the NT. But archaeologists have found evidence of Christian congregations basically viewing themselves as branches of Judaism up until about 150 C.E. And it wasn’t until the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E that the structures in Judaism began to push back against sects like Christianity. With the Temple destroyed, there was a felt need by many to rein in the varieties of Jewish expression. It was time to circle the wagons and have a clearer definition of what it meant to be Jewish.
So the argument for Paul initially, anyway, was not Christianity vs. Judaism, but a struggle for the future of Judaism. It seems to me to be very similar to what has happened in the history of the Christian church to this very day. Christians continue to discuss, debate, argue, name call, and condemn to hell or some other condemnation if you don’t particularly go along with the idea of hell, other Christians. And there were many times when those disagreements led to violence and death. If I just say names like Pat Robertson or Jerry Fallwell, what kind of feelings arise in you? But I don’t think an outside observer would call me anti-Christian because I believe that Pat Robertson has a wrong view of what Christianity is supposed to be. So I think it is a bit harsh to call Paul anti-Semitic because he had serious disagreements with other Jews about what Judaism is supposed to be.
Another way to look at it is to think about Martin Luther and the other Reformers. They were exactly that–reformers. They weren’t trying to bring down Christianity, just challenge it to be something else, something they saw as truer to what God had in mind. In much the same way, Paul understood himself as a reformer of Judaism, not it’s enemy. Christian Eberhart, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Houston put it this way, ”In the end, Judaism was surprisingly multifaceted (and still is today). The followers of Jesus belonged to the versatile phenomenon of Judaism in the first century C.E.; their attitudes, convictions, and practices should be interpreted in this context.” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2147)
Now in his zeal, and the heat of the moment, Paul may have crossed some lines, which anti-Semites have found helpful helpful. And don’t forget it was folk from his own Jewish tradition who worked to have him imprisoned and eventually martyred. You can imagine how intense their arguments got. But I think the problem may sometimes have been more of how he argued than what his argument really was. And it’s not only the Apostle Paul that has fallen into that kind of thing.
What was obviously more important to Paul, though, than the future of Judaism was the new life he found in Christ Jesus. And he was not shy in his testimony. Last week Mary talked about street cred. Paul had street cred in Jewish life. He came from the right family, he studied with the right teachers. How did he say it, “You know my pedigree, a legitimate birth, circumcised on the eighth day; an Israelite from the elite tribe of Benjamin; a strict and devout adherent to God’s law; a fiery defender of the purity of my religion, even to the point of persecuting the church; a meticulous observer of everything set down in God’s law Book.” Paul, or Saul, as he was known before Jesus changed everything, was on his way. He was one of the golden boys. The Jewish establishment was his to occupy.
One day, though, on a journey to deliver some Jesus followers over to the law, Jesus knocked him off his horse. Whether that was literally or figuratively, that argument rages, but whatever happened, Paul became a different person. What was once a fast track to a corner office in the Temple was suddenly of no importance to the future Apostle. “I count it all as rubbish,” is how some of the more genteel translators put it. Petersen is getting closer when he says the Apostle Paul thinks of what could have been as nothing more than dog dung. The commentators at girardianlectionary.net put it in an academic framework. “The Greek word skybala is found only here in the NT and very rarely in any other Hellenic literature; some scholars conjecture that it is a slang term for excrement.” (http://girardianlectionary.net/year_a/proper22a.htm)
However you say it, Paul had found something in Jesus that made everything else, all his credibility, all his assumed future, all the power that could have been his, worthless. He felt himself come alive in Christ.
That’s what we bring with us. Christianity has plenty to apologize for when it comes to multifaith dialogue. But we are not the only ones. Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, paganism and atheism have all brought death, destruction, and oppression. But there is so much life in all of those traditions, as well.
Rabbi Brand on campus suggested to me once that one good way of engendering multifaith dialogue is to start talking about some of the ugly parts or our histories and traditions. And he didn’t mean Jews talking about some of the awful things Christians have done, or Christians talking about some of the difficult texts in the Koran, but each faith talking about itself, its own problematic histories and texts.
Now Paul may seem like too much of a Jesus fanboy to be of any help in multifaith dialogue. But I don’t know what we have to bring if we don’t bring Jesus. I don’t think we would legitimately expect Muslims to not talk about Muhammad or Allah if we were going to enter into dialogue with them. We wouldn’t ask Jews to stop talking about God or Moses or the commandments. We wouldn’t look askance because Buddhist were talking about the Buddha, or Hindus were mentioning their gods and goddesses. And I don’t think they are expecting us to not talk about Jesus.
It’s when we bring life into this world that we are being good Christians, good Jews, good Muslims, good Buddhists, good whoever. All that the Apostle Paul could see in Christ was life. And what he objected to most was when people tried to turn Judaism or Christianity toward death. Resurrection was not some theory or theological formulation for Paul. It’s what filled his heart with hope and imagination.
In his more candid moments, like here, Paul admits to his own deficiencies . He didn’t claim to have it all together. But he knew that he was reaching out for the Christ who had grabbed hold of him. He was off and running. And even if he got off the course now and then, he wasn’t turning back, because Jesus kept holding out life before him.
And he did get off the track, for example, when it comes to women in the church. Though not all of the awful things attributed to Paul were really from his own pen, we do get enough to realize that he had a woman problem. But as you keep reading Paul, you see him evolving or growing from “no woman is allowed to speak in the church,” to where he is commending the work of his women co-workers and greeting the churches that are meeting in their homes. He wrote to the Galatians that “in Christ there are neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, neither men nor women.” As he was running that race toward life in Christ, he changed along the way. And I am glad the scriptures let us see that. It’s too bad, though, that people have focused on some of his earlier understandings rather than his later ones.
This, was the guy who wrote 1 Corithians 13, the ‘love chapter.’ This is what we read from him in Romans 12. “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.[e] 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;[f] do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;[g] for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
In Romans 8 he wrote about all of creation longing for the revealing of the children of God and how nothing can ever separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.
He said many provocative things along the way but he also wrote about how it was his job to help Jesus followers provoke one another to love and good works. And then there was that thing he wrote in Ephesians. “Be kind and tender hearted to one another, forgiving each other as God has forgiven us in Jesus Christ.”
Paul neither deserves to be placed on as high of a pedestal as some think nor have his statues torn down. We are all works in progress. What Christians bring to the mix is that we are, like Paul, coming alive in Jesus. And so at communion, as Paul pointed out, and in so many other ways we are simply called to remember Jesus. And we are reminded to remember what Paul knew with all his heart, that Jesus has grabbed hold of us and we are reaching for the life that is in him.