SCRIPTURE – Romans 1:1-7 – Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God — the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power[b] by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from[c] faith for his name’s sake. And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Problem with Paul
Aug. 19, 2012
One summer during seminary, I decided to take a class to eat up a few elective hours. This was an important decision, so I asked one critical question to help me choose which class would best further my knowledge and expertise as a pastor: Which one required the least number of books? As it turns out, that class was “The Theology of Paul,” which only had one book on the reading list. One book for a seminary class? Hoo boy! I hit the summer-class jackpot.
The book was “The Theology of Paul the Apostle,” written by James Dunn, and it clocked in at 737 pages (808 if you include the index and bibliography). I believe the subtitle was “Three Easy Weeks to Your First Hernia.” We slogged through the nine chapters and 25 sub-chapters of the book, each of us drilling deeper down into Paul’s writings and most times coming back up with nothing but confused looks and sore backs. I’ve taken the class, I’ve read the book, but I still don’t know if I understand Paul.
And that’s a bit of a problem when you consider what a huge influence Paul has on our faith. Our primary source of knowledge, inspiration and authority is the Bible, and for Christians our focus is in the section we call the New Testament. The New Testament contains 27 books: four narratives about the life of Jesus we call the Gospels, one history book about the beginning of the church, which is Acts, and then a collections of letters written to churches or individuals. Oh, and then there’s Revelation. Let’s save that for another sermon.
There are a total of 21 letters in the New Testament. We know the authors of some of them because of the book’s name: Jude was written by Jude, James was written by James, and the three letters of John were written by…Steve. OK, it was actually John. Take those out and that leaves 14 letters. One of those, the book of Hebrews, has an unknown author. The other 13 letters? Although this has been argued and debated and then, for good measure, argued and debated some more, the prevailing belief is that all 13 can be attributed to one person: Paul. So almost half of the letters in the Christian part of the most sacred book of all time were written or at least influenced by Paul. And a majority of the book of Acts is about Paul’s conversion and missionary work. That’s 14 out of 27 books. Next to Jesus, Paul has had the most profound influence on the development of the Christian faith for over 2000 years.
Which makes me feel like a real heel when I say…I don’t like him. Not him, per se, but his writings. In our Sermon Talkback session a couple weeks ago one of the members made the observation that I don’t preach very often from Paul’s texts. She’s absolutely right! When I look back over my 11 years of preaching, only a small percentage of my sermons have been based on a scripture from Paul. I love preaching from the gospels, recounting the narratives of Jesus, sitting at his feet as he teaches and heals, walking with him to Golgotha. The Hebrew scriptures provide a wealth of great characters and stories for preaching. But Paul? The guy who says women should be silent in church and slaves should obey their masters and wives must submit to their husbands? We ministers have a saying when we hear something insightful or astute: “That’ll preach.” Well, for me, a lot what Paul has to say won’t preach, so I don’t preach it.
But that’s not right. Just because I struggle with Paul doesn’t mean I can choose to cut him out of the Bible. Wouldn’t that be nice, to go through the Bible with scissors, cutting out the parts that rubbed us the wrong way or challenged us or hit a little too close to home? All we’d be left with is the Holy Pamphlet. Some other people like to take one or two of Paul’s statements, take them out of their context, and lift them up as if they apply to everybody everywhere for all time. Doing that is just as bad as ignoring Paul all together.
That’s the decision that faces us each time we turn to scripture. We either trust that what we have in the Bible is what God intended for us to have, or we scrap the whole thing. If we’re going to accept scripture as authoritative for our faith, then we have to be willing to accept it all, even the parts we don’t like. And since Paul is such a major part of the Bible, I figure I might as well get comfortable with him, or at least try to be on speaking terms.
So what do we know about Paul? He was born in Tarsus and received the finest training in the Jewish religion. He was a good Pharisee who knew the scriptures and sincerely believed the Christian movement was dangerous to Judaism, so much so that he persecuted believers of Christ. Then he had a supernatural conversion and went from being a persecutor of Christians to their greatest cheerleader and ambassador.
As you can imagine, that made a lot of people unhappy. The Jews didn’t like him because they saw him as a traitor, and the Christians didn’t like him because they didn’t know if they could trust him. But Paul was resolute in his desire to share the good news. Paul went on three separate missionary journeys across the Roman Empire, along the way starting churches in places like Ephesus, Corinth, and Phillipi. Paul had hoped to continue his work into Spain, but was eventually arrested and killed in Rome by the emperor Nero.
Here’s what would typically happen with Paul, and how we have ended up with so many of his writings. Paul would visit a place, let’s say Lexington, would do some preaching and visiting, and eventually would start a church for people who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. Once the church in Lexington was up and running, Paul would make his way to the next region, let’s say Paducah, to do the same thing. Now remember, this whole “Jesus is the Christ” thing was brand new to Paul and his congregations, so they were still sorting out what this looks like in real life – kind of like us. And when Paul left, the churches would begin to run up against the everyday challenges of living out their beliefs. So while in Paducah, Paul would get word that the Lexingtonians were struggling with some aspect of faith. For example, is it OK to skip church if you have tickets to the UK game? We’re talking deep theological issues here.
So Paul would sit down and write a letter back to the church in Lexington giving his answer to their questions and send it back to them (for your information, Paul said if you have tickets you should go to the early service). The church would read the letter, which was simply Paul’s interpretation of a particular set of issues – communion, resurrection, what to do with meat sacrificed to idols – in light of the teachings of Jesus, and that would guide the church on their way until the next crisis of faith arose. Then the process would start all over again. Well, some wise soul decided to hold onto these letters and pass them around, because what Paul was talking about was pretty important stuff. And then a few hundred years later a council got together to create what we know as the Bible and they decided to include some of these letters, and lo and behold you have 1 Lexingtonians as a part of sacred scripture.
Now, was Paul writing these letters with the idea that one day they would be included in the best-selling book of all time and would be treated as sacred and holy? Of course not! He was just firing off an email to a group of friends. Paul’s letters were written to particular individuals and communities, addressing specific topics and issues. Many of them are reactions to something that has happened or advice columns for the work of ministry. So to understand the letters, we have to understand the contexts behind them. If we fail to do that, we do Paul a grave injustice and run the risk of misusing his words.
And unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happened for centuries. People have lifted Paul’s words out of their context and applied them to just about any situation you can think of and then said, “See? I’m right! The Bible says so!” This is why scripture has to be studied and interpreted, especially what Paul has to say. Like I said, Paul’s letters are one person’s perspective on how to live out our faith in Jesus Christ. And these letters are only some of what he wrote. Who knows how his perspectives and interpretations changed with subsequent letters.
Paul was simply a man. A great man of faith, a prolific writer, the best evangelist the church has ever had, but still human. So I believe we must treat his writings as the inspired words of an incredibly faithful and zealous man of God. There is truth in everything Paul wrote, but sometimes we have to do the hard work of understanding the context and situation and author’s intentions in order to get to that truth. That’s what we’ll do these next few weeks as we look at what Paul had to say about women and slavery and the relationship between a husband and a wife. We’re not going to like everything Paul has to say, but I hope we will at least understand why he said it. And we can trust that somewhere in between what Paul says and what we hear is the Holy Spirit, helping us to bridge the gap and open our hearts to receive what God has for us. Yes, Paul can be problematic. So can the rest of the Bible. But so can life, usually on a daily basis. And I believe the Bible has a lot to say about how to deal with life, and our lives help us understand and apply the Bible. Those two things – our lives and the Bible – have to be in conversation with each other. We can’t do this by ourselves. We need God’s guidance and inspiration and challenge. That’s what the Bible is for. So I pray Paul speaks to us in these next few weeks, and I pray we have the ears – and the hearts – to listen. If we do, we just might discover a word from God. We still might not understand it, but that doesn’t mean we’ve failed. We will only fail if we don’t listen at all.