I have always had ambivalent feelings about St Paul. As one reads the New Testament, Paul emerges as a contradictory figure if one believes the tradition which imputes him to be the author of 13 of the New Testament’s 27 book. Herein lies the problem. For if this is true, Paul clearly changed his mind a lot.
Ancient conventions dictated that disciples wrote in the name of their master. A number of letters in the New Testament once attributed to Paul’s own hand are clearly of a later date, reflecting later developments in church communities, now large and secure enough to concern themselves with matters of good order and hierarchies of authority. These are not the communities Paul writes for in the middle decades of the 1st-century.
Therefore, scholars now universally agree that Paul did not write First and Second Timothy, nor Titus or Hebrews. Many scholars question his direct authorship of Second Thessalonians, Colossians and Ephesians. This leaves seven undisputed letters: Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Philemon, Galatians, Philippians and First Thessalonians as displaying the characteristics of Paul’s own concerns. I want to cry out -would the real Paul please stand up.
Paul was once Saul. Saul was a man who had blood on his hands. Saul was the young man who was more than complicit in the stoning to death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Saul not only approved of Stephen’s death but held the cloaks of the men who murdered Stephen; hard men consumed, like Saul with righteous indignation. Saul is the man who breathes fire and murder as he relentlessly pursues the followers of the Way, seeking out both men and women for imprisonment and in some cases death. History contains a sorry record of the results of righteous indignation masquerading as religious faith.
This Saul while traveling to Damascus has an encounter with Jesus that contains all the elements of the theophany that stopped Moses in his tracks before the burning bush. Saul is blinded by a divine light. He hears the voice of the Lord searing every fiber of his consciousness. Following his devastating encounter with the voice of the Lord, his companions pick him up off the ground and lead him, a man now helpless into the city. Here, Saul spends a symbolic three days neither eating nor drinking and probably not sleeping either. His three days of blindness are symbolic of Jesus’ three days in the tomb. With the arrival of one Ananias, a messenger sent by the Lord, Saul arises and receives back his sight and much more through the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
A Damascus road experience has found its way into the language as an idiom for a 180-degree change in someone’s life or view of the world. After his experience on the road to Damascus, Saul has a kind of death, resurrection, and Penetcost experience rolled into one. Now he too can claim to have experienced the risen Lord. Like Peter and the other disciples he is changed, no longer a persecutor of the Church, but one of its apostles. Saul becomes Paul.
During the 40 days of Lent, we walked with Jesus on his road to Jerusalem and the cross. Our human experience well acquaints us with grief and suffering, and so we have little difficulty identifying with Jesus on the road from Galilee to Jerusalem. Eastertide is a season that also lasts 40 days, but is for us a road less travelled. Resurrection is beyond the normal repertoire of our emotional experience. How can we emulate the transformation of the disciples into apostles? This is a process we are totally unfamiliar with because the road from the empty tomb is very much a road less travelled. How can what happened for the first followers of Jesus, happen for us?
And so, I breathe a sigh of relief that Lent and Easter are behind us as the temptation to return to business as usual takes hold. I know this feeling intimately, and it disturbs me because if it’s just to return to business as usual what has been the point of the spiritual effort I’ve made during Lent and Easter? I don’t want to return to business as usual. I’ve invested a lot and I long for some kind of change. After all is this not the promised result of the resurrection – new life, lived abundantly?
Luke describes this process of transformation through the narrative he weaves in The Acts of the Apostles. At times, his account smacks a little of Early Christian propaganda. Yet, behind the dramatic inflation lies the reality that lives were changed by the resurrection. New attitudes were embraced, and as in the case of Paul, a 180-degree change in worldview took place. Paul left behind the God of righteous anger and rage, the God who needs us to find an endless supply of scapegoats to carry our own unacknowledged guilt and fear – and encountered the God of acceptance and love.
I am struck by Jesus’s question to Saul. He asks not why do you not believe in me, but why are you persecuting me? Jesus questions not Saul’s faith but his action. After Damascus, Paul is changed, his view of God and his sense of himself is utterly altered and he begins to live a different life.
Our experience of the world is articulated through the stories we tell, both to ourselves and to one another. We are shaped and our world is given meaning by their telling. This is a good and a bad thing, because if the story is a poor one, by which I mean it does not have enough room in it, we become constrained in our sense of identity and worldview. On the other hand, if the story is an expansive one, allowing us space to grow then our sense of self and view of the world expands to include more and more of what is needed.
The resurrection is an expansive story. It’s not a story to be believed or explained but to be lived. In living it, the resurrection story shapes the way we understand the nature of the world around us. So the question I ask myself is one I also put to you – how do we live the resurrection story?
What might some of the signs be of living into the resurrection story?
- Do we believe that some objects are more special than others or that all objects are made holy through their use and debased by our misuse of them?
- Do we believe that actions speak louder than words?
- Do we accept that belonging precedes believing, or put another way believing flows from belonging?
- Do we agree with Tertullian that one Christian is no Christian, meaning being Christian necessitates membership of the community that is Christian?
- Are we committed to being present within the community when it gathers for worship to hear the Gospel message and to break the bread?
- Can we live as those who genuinely respect the dignity of every other human being?
You can see these as a list of requirements to be fulfilled or as signs of God’s invitation to come into the promise of a new story. This is nothing short of an invitation to become:
- the eyes that behold Christ in everyone we meet
- the lips that speak nothing but the Gospel of love
- the ears that hear the cries of the poor
- the hands that reach out to others in need
- and the feet that run to those who love us without stumbling
For some of us like Saul, being changed by an encounter with the risen Christ is a dramatic and devastating indictment on our former lives. Yet, for most of us, we encounter the risen Christ in the subtle opportunities for change amidst the routines of everyday life. We encounter the power of the resurrection story:
- when we chose to be more courageous and less risk adverse
- when we become more accepting and less judgmental of difference
- when we face down our fears and cease being driven by them to seek others to blame
Today as we look at our world, among those who claim to speak for God it’s not hard to distinguish Saul’s voice from Paul’s. So many politicians and church people speak with the voice of Saul. This is the paranoid voice that demands the protection of religious liberty as the fig leaf for continuing to discriminate against LGBT people. This week Pope Francis confronted those among his brothers who would champion purity of doctrine heedless of the need for compassion in the face of human emotional and spiritual pain.
For Saul, persecution, imprisonment and murder were all necessary tools to protect an angry God not able to withstand the imagined trauma of human questioning. For Paul, all that was needed was the law of love made manifest in vulnerability. After his experience on the Damascus road, Paul knew that it was because of his vulnreability and weakness that God chose him to be the greatest apostle of the law of love.
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become a sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
Perhaps thinking of his former self, Paul says:
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. First Corinthians 13 NKJV