Monday, July 30, 2007

The Paul Sermon: Why We Do What We Do and Why We Do It The Way We Do

Click below for the longer text from which my sermon "The Revolutionary Paul for the 21st Century" was taken and delivered at All Souls Church, Tulsa, Sunday, July 29. It is about the New Paul Perspective, but ultimately about why we plant new missions/churches, and why we do them or need to do them the way we do now differently than we've done before. I think All Souls may be posting a podcast of the sermon sometime soon and I will post a link to it here. The readings and some more updates to the sermon from what was actually delivered will be posted later so check back. The readings came from Garry Wills book "What Paul Meant," from Brandon Scott's book "Re-imagine the World" in which he writes about the new Paul translations particularly in Stanley Stowers ReReading Romans, that stresses "Jesus' faithfulness" and following its spirit instead of "belief in Jesus" as an object, and from Shane Claiborne's wonderful new book "The Irresistible Revolution: the life of an ordinary radical" (more on that soon too on the blog).

For those of you joining this blog who found out about it at either SWUUSI workshop on Paul or at the All Souls worship service, welcome. The longer bibliography is available two posts below on Apostle Paul and Missional/Church Planting. But my quickie recommendations for finding or ordering a book or two on the New Paul Perspective---"Reinventing Paul" by John Gager, or Wills "What Paul Meant" or go to John Dominic Crossan's "In Search of Paul" or his sections on Jesus and Paul in his latest book "God and Empire." These are some of the most accessible for general readership, or go to the section on Paul in Marcus Borg's Rereading the Bible Again for the First Time, or even the slender section on Paul in John Buehrens Understanding the Bible For Liberals. See the other post below the workshop outline for the full list.

For links to more on The New (original) Paul Perspective, go to: Reading Romans Anew, Sojourners Magazine/March-April 1999 and Paula Fredriksen on Paul,
an older essay by Fredriksen but still good overview
and Reinventing Paul and What Is the New Perspective on Paul?

Now here is the text from which the sermon was taken:

This past week at Lake Murray State Park I taught a course on The New Perspective on Paul during the annual Southwest Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute, or church camp. We were crowded into one of the large cabins. The conversation covered the words and the mission and the world of the man known as the Apostle Paul, and after four days there was so much left to dig into, old images to shake off, new understandings to just begin to glimpse. After whole semesters of study, whole books written, it is the same. And yet, here I stand, with only a fraction of that time, and the title staring back at me: The Revolutionary Paul for the 21st Century.

I take to heart then, and hope you will too, that there is no truer statement than when Paul says, in his great hymn of love’s force found in First Corinthians (from which our hymn sung this morning was made), that “we know in part, we prophesy in part.” Paul wrote this about his own limitations, about all of our inherent limitations, especially when it comes to the mysteries of the Infinite. But perhaps there is no one this applies to more as a subject than Paul himself.

And still Paul beckons. Before the turn of the year 2000, in the millennium fever he would have known so well, news magazines polled historians about the most influential people of the past 2000 years. Paul was near or at the top of the lists. Along with the scholars of the New Paul Perspective, I think he could also claim to be the most misinterpreted of all time.

In hindsight, a part of me wishes now I had chosen to preach this Sunday on the timely topic of The Gospel of Harry Potter instead of The Gospel of Paul. Especially since this past week I also finished the last Harry Potter book. I won’t give anything away, but I will point out that even J.K. Rowling was influenced by Paul and, without attributing it to him, in this final book she uses a fairly famous verse by Paul—it comes also from First Corinthians but the 15th chapter 26th verse.

But, beyond Harry Potter, why else is Paul important?

In part it is a matter of faith, I know, but in part it is a matter of history and culture. Because his writings are the earliest direct words we have about Jesus. And because Paul’s life and work with the early communities of Jesus followers, while not being the only model at the time, became such an inspirational foundation that they helped a “tiny, marginalized Jewish sect become within 300 years time the dominant religious force in the Roman Empire.” (See Rodney Stark’s book The Rise of Christianity which has a subtitle pretty close to that statement)

Let’s begin with a bit of background or refresher:
Let’s say Jesus was active in his rural area around the Sea of Galillee in the mid to late 20s of the first century, is crucified by the Romans around the year 30; small communities of his followers are springing up here and there in the Mediterranean area afterwards, maybe only 1000 total followers though by the year 40, less than the membership of All Souls.

Paul, a Jew from the city of Tarsus in what is now Turkey has become one of them say around the year 35. He then eventually helps to form new communities and he writes back and forth with them. The seven authentic letters (not 14 often attributed to him in the New Testament and not the Acts of the Apostles) date during the years say 50 to 57. Paul dies, perhaps is killed by the Empire, sometime say between the year 62 and 66. There are perhaps in all the Empire only 2000 followers of Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, at the time of Paul’s death.

Between 66 and the year 70 is the great Roman-Jewish War that levels Jerusalem and destroys the Second Temple and the Temple-centered focus and practices and identity of Judaism that has been vital even for the Jesus communities. Only after that do you have written the gospels that tell their stories of Jesus. One of them, written around the year 90, the Gospel of Luke, is actually a two-parter. Its second volume is called the Acts of the Apostles, and it is here that Paul, himself, as a historical character shows up in someone else’s, Luke’s, story, 30 years after his own death and 60 years after the events it seeks to use in telling its story of Paul.

The problem is that ever since the invention of the Printing Press we tend to treat a collection of books, composed at varying times by varying peoples, as a single book, with a single plot, meant to be read front to back, Genesis to Revelations. When this happens, Paul’s authentic letters, and authentic perspectives, the earliest about him and about Jesus, come in the book after the gospels and after the Acts of the Apostles have already shaped our images and impressions. And then throw in the tradition stories about him written hundreds of years later, picked up by Hollywood versions, and “who Paul was and what Paul meant” gets seriously twisted around. And they would have been hard enough to begin with since Paul is not intent on writing a systematic theology for the ages but is writing particularly to specific communities in specific contexts and about specific issues.

Getting straight on the chronology and placing more importance on what Paul wrote than on what was written about him is step one in approaching the New Perspective on Paul, which scholars point out, is not new but actually the oldest, the first, perspective.

This task of biblical scholarship is part of the liberal religious tradition of which Unitarian Universalism is a part, and once, when it came to the Bible and scholarship, it was a leading partner. So it has been too with studies of Paul. I stand in a long line of Unitarian and Universalists who have been beckoned by Paul. Let’s take a quick sidestep to acknowledge just a few of them:

Origen, that early third century teacher, church leader, promoter of universal salvation, and therefore heretic, based his beliefs on Paul. So centuries later did the Universalist Church of America, especially when Paul wrote that “as in Adam all died, so in Christ all shall be made alive.”
On the Unitarian side, in 1821, the Rev. William Ellery Channing preached his famous Baltimore Sermon called Unitarian Christianity crystallizing a movement that in 1825 became the American Unitarian Association. His sermon was based on a text from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians: “Test all things. Hold fast to that which is good.”
Later another famous sermon based on a Paul text was delivered at a pivotal national Unitarian assembly in 1870, by the Rev. William Greenleaf Eliot of St. Louis. Eliot’s sermon, called Christ and Liberty, grew from the Second Letter to the Corinthians where Paul says “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is Liberty.” Freedom and God, to Unitarians, always go together. Where there is one, there will be the other.
Many a Unitarian sermon has also been based on Paul’s admonition in Romans that “we be transformed by the renewal of our minds.” If we are accused of being too much in our heads, as we rightly often are, just say we have Paul to blame—that should confound our critics.

And I would be very amiss here in this church not to mention the Unitarian minister Rev. Jenkin Lloyd Jones of the Mid-West and Chicago area in the 1800s who, as one of your own members and one of his descendants wrote about him, was known as “the St. Paul of Unitarianism” for his liberal evangelical zeal in church starting.

In the post-World War Two era, after the Holocaust, when Christian roots of anti-semitism were being explored, comes Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies of Washington, D.C. who wrote a popular and fairly radical for its times book about St. Paul called “The First Christian.” Radical because if Paul were the first Christian that meant Jesus wasn’t, and the full Jewishness of Jesus was news at the time. By “first Christian” Davies really meant founder of Christian religion as it became since there were obviously earlier followers of Jesus than Paul. This sentiment, part of the old perspective, shaped much of the then Unitarian approach to Paul and Christianity. Because, as we will see, we liberals had issues with Paul we therefore had issues with Christianity and tended to leave both behind.

By the mid-1980s, however, as the New Perspective was still in its embryonic stage, things were beginning to change. And the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship published an essay by a United Church of Christ seminary professor which was called “Paul for Unitarian Universalists” stressing Paul’s monotheism and faith in universal salvation. And this year, the annual Revival sponsored by the UUCF to be held this November at Cleveland’s West Shore UU Church will feature three lectures on Paul by biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan.

Paul is quite a holistic spiritual thinker whose messages echo in much of contemporary religion. For a covenantal faith tradition such as ours, Paul is a good guide. He says no part of our selves, or our societies, can stand alone or be given priority. We need one another, especially those parts that are the most neglected, oppressed. That we each have special gifts to be nurtured and differences respected even as we make up one body, one people. What’s more free church than that? Even more, to times then and now when people were kept apart by racial and ethnic and gender and class divides, Paul not only preached that one’s ultimate identity was neither slave nor free, male nor female, Greek nor Jew, Roman nor barbarian, but he had the commitment to try the messy job of creating human communities of faith in that Truth.

So, why in the world, in Garry Wills words, does such a one with such Good News to share, have such a bad rap, be seen as the Bad News Man, especially among those liberal thinkers who should most be in his camp, and he in theirs? Why is it, for liberals: Jesus Good, Paul Bad? Because we bought into the Old Perspective of Paul, the one shaped by Augustine and Martin Luther and the Empire ways of Christendom (blessed be much of what they wrought, by the way, except for when it comes to basing doctrine on Paul.) What they found good in Paul we found bad and so we looked no further. We left the field. If we used Paul at all, and even there perhaps grudgingly, it was to use his love song for wedding ceremonies---faith hope and love these three, but the greatest of these is love. And even there, I swear, I bet some listeners today in our unchurched culture will think we are quoting not Paul of Tarsus but Paul of McCartney.

But now the new/original perspective on Paul, divergent and still forming as it is, is becoming Bad news for the fundamentalist, the doctrinaire, the biblical literalist and traditionalist who is finding out what true literalism and tradition means. For the new perspective is going deeper than ever in order to reclaim and uncover the authentic Paul who is still one of the most revolutionary religious figures of all time.
Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan actually shows us this kind of uncovering on the cover of his recent book “In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom.” There he depicts a fresco from the sixth century in Turkey. It shows the Apostle Paul and a mirror image of a woman apostle named Thecla; they have equal stature and standing and poses. Originally they would have been seen as equals. However, in later centuries someone has vandalized the eyes and upraised hand of Thecla in an attempt to make her seem less important. That symbolically is what the Old Perspective on Paul did too.

Here is the change, here an all too brief and incomplete, partial summary highlight of the new perspective. Still debated and resisted, to be sure, but growing in scholarly consensus. And I don’t have to agree with Paul in all aspects, from my perspective 2000 years later, to appreciate the essence of Paul’s perspective.
Paul was not the first Christian, let alone did he found a new religion. He did not convert from one religion to another. There wasn’t anything remotely like what is thought of as Christianity today to which Paul could have converted. He was born, lived, died a Jew, and probably was killed because of it. His focus was always on the actions of the God of Israel. He came to a new and powerful understanding that in Jesus and in rewarding Jesus’ faithful life by raising him from the dead, God had started what Crossan calls God’s “great clean-up” of the evils of the age. Soon, for Paul, the full Messianic age of justice and liberation would take place. Because of that, we must act differently in the here and now. Many Jews then and now, of course, didn’t agree with Paul and other Jews about what should constitute the mainstream of Judaism. But there were many streams of it in Paul’s time; his was on the margin, but connected. This example of a stance in the margins has become even more an example for our own times. As a Christian in UUism I know it well (too Christian or not Christian enough, too UU or not UU enough, depending on whom I am with), but I am not alone; progressive or liberal faith is often depicted as a faith of the third way, mediating between the worlds of religious insights and the worlds of secular insights, all for the good of the one world in which all dwell.

Paul is foremost the Apostle to the Gentiles, all those non-Jews of the Roman Empire. Paul says salvation has already come to the Jews, through the gift of the covenant and Torah; by “Christing” Jesus, God does not take that away. God extends the gift to others. Instead, through following Jesus’ faithfulness, Gentiles become a part of God’s covenant people. Among Paul’s problem with his fellow Jews, including those who were also followers of Jesus as the Messiah, is that Paul sought full fellowship in the covenant for the Gentiles, and without their having to keep kosher and for the males to be circumcised. In that debate, and over the whole Messiah issue, harsh things were said; we have Paul’s but not surely much of what was said against and about him. But the thing to remember is that it was a family quarrel. Only years later, when the church and synagogue were more officially separated, and when letters were written by others attributed to Paul, did the family quarrel become a kind of conflict between groups.

Paul is not an early kind of tele-evangelist concerned with individual souls. He is always focused on the cosmic and on whole communities and social justice and God’s ridding the earth of the oppressive powers and principalities, the Caesers. When he talks about the new age coming, it is nothing like the Left Behind Rapture Myth where what you merely profess to believe determines whether or not you are spirited out of your body and off to some other-world. For Paul, the Messiah’s return will usher in a new world of peace and justice here for all, and those who have died already will be a part of a general spiritual bodily raising up to life again, as God had shown in the example of Jesus. Paul is opposed to the Platonic worldview of abstract disembodied perfection and the immortality of the soul in a nether region.

Paul is a counter-cultural figure indeed. For what could be in the world’s eyes, then and unfortunately now, less a symbol and source of the divine, the Good, than a poor rural Jewish radical criminal executed by the State, hung on the cross with the intent to shame him and his followers and to expose the weakness and failure and helplessness and the end to all which that life pointed. But Paul says what the world finds foolish, God finds wise; what the world finds wise, God finds foolish. It is in our very helplessness and isolation that the God of transformation is present. In that way, the Left Behind folks with their emphasis on violence and victory, are more followers of Ceaser than of the Christ. In this way Paul has also taken the lessons of Jesus’ parables about a God similarly turned upside down and inside out, and Paul, from his experience, has made a parable for others out of what God has done with Jesus.

So Paul is not the perverter of Jesus’ message, but its promoter to others in different settings who might not ever have encountered it. Contrary to what is depicted in later English translations, Paul is not substituting Jesus’ focus on right living for correct belief in Jesus as an object of faith. And he is not making a duality out of faith and works. The new and improved and more independent translations and readings of Paul paint a different picture. For him what’s important is how the faithfulness of Jesus in living a divine mission in alignment with God’s liberating mission, even in the face of Empire power and the cross, was rewarded by God. And so all who live likewise with similar trusting will be rewarded. Do you get how radical and foundation-shaking the new Paul Perspective is, especially for faiths, personal or communal, built on the shaky sands of salvation by creedalism alone?.

But what of Paul and women, Paul and homosexuality, Paul and slavery? Paul was influenced by two things: one was certainly his immediate time and context and cultural understandings and the controversies then; he was, surprise, a finite human being; the other was his conviction that all of that was about to be changed and righted by God very soon and so don’t get diverted by the deeper mission of letting people see how those in Christ, in the new reality, lived and cared for one another as God did. I might wish he had written manifestos against the status quo, but he thought it would soon be a moot issue. In Paul’s authentic letters we see him fully working with many women as leaders, having no problem with them speaking as long as they wore headcovers as was the custom, saying that wives should be subject to husbands but also that husbands should be subject to wives. The evidence is so overwhelming that scholars believe the one place in the authentic letters where Paul says women in the assemblies should be silent is likely a scribal insertion from the later times to tame Paul’s radical message. Slavery is a similar issue. Paul assumes it as a given in the outside world but says that in the communities it doesn’t exist because it doesn’t exist for God, and says that in the outside world followers should treat slaves with respect. And Paul doesn’t know something called homosexuality, as a human condition, as we know it today. For him it is a practice associated with the power imbalances of the dominant Gentile culture full of sexual violence and of extreme urges that reflected an idolatry of passions toward the self and away from God. Just as for Paul Gentiles didn’t have to take on certain ethnic practices of Jews to be a part of the covenant with the God of Israel, he did want them to give up certain practices reflective of their own culture.

Paul is not the inventor of the theology of depravity and original sin and the vicarious atonement of Jesus’s death on the cross to take away those sins for all who believe in Jesus as part of the Trinity of God Himself. It took us centuries of fallibility and the Church becoming one and the same with the Empire and State for that to take hold. That and misunderstanding Paul. For one, remember that Paul doesn’t have individuals in mind. He had more an approach of inevitable sin, that all the world is out of alignment, and that God had begun with Jesus to bring it into alignment, to justify it, the way lines of type are said to be justified. Paul is not Mel Gibson either. Jesus’ death on the cross is never seen by Paul as a final or ultimate act, but always as act two with the third act being the raising up to life again by God. Crossan is right when he talks about how Paul sees Jesus’ life and his death, stemming from that life, as like that of a firefighter who ends up giving up his life, sacrificing it, making it sacred, to save another because that is his mission, how we treat all life as sacred. It isn’t the horribleness of the death in a fire that makes it a special sacrifice, either, and we wouldn’t say the firefighter is taking the place of someone else who has been destined otherwise to die in the fire. Later theology, not Paul, makes that abusive theological move. No, the death happened because of the way the firefighter chose to live his life, to what he was ultimately faithful, and while all life is sacred, in staying ultimately faithful to his life and mission, the firefighter gained a particular kind of sacredness. When Paul says Jesus died “for us” he meant not “in place of” but “on behalf of.” And specifically on behalf of the Gentiles, who through this action and the coming new age would be a part of the transformed world. In trying to make sense of what didn’t make sense--a crucified Messiah--Paul comes to understand that by God joining with us in our suffering at our most terrible moments the Messiah’s power would actually grow and extend to all. For Paul, because God through the life, death, and raising of Jesus participated in humanity, Gentiles would be able to participate in everlasting relationship with God, just as through the Creation and the Torah Jews participated in God’s everlasting relationship.

So that is Paul then. What does that have to do with the 21st century?
Paul and his communities existed before Christendom, and now we and ours exist after Christendom. We have pluralistic unchurched culture not seen since the crossroads of the Middle East in the first century, roads Paul journeyed alongside. Religions compete for attention and commitment in the world today in ways not experienced until you go back to the days before the Emperor Constantine, to the days of Paul. Then Paul sought to find and serve a counter-cultural God of liberation in the omnipresent and oppressive Roman Empire, and to build communities based on values opposite of its dominant culture. Today we struggle to shape spiritual faith and communities in the midst of and often against the reach of the dehumanizing aspects of what is becoming known as the American Empire, especially since the fall of communism left it as the single largest influence in ways not known since the Romans. Against the American Empire super-sized values of over-consumption, over-indulgence, over-control, fear, apathy, despair, addictions of all kinds, and immersion in Spectacle, Fantasy, and Distraction, how do people of faith respond?
Through the new perspectives on Jesus and now on Paul, as Brandon Scott wrote, we can see how it has worked before, admittedly as long as you aren’t short-sighted and in need of quick fixes, how there is power in reimaging our world and our lives, changing our default modes of what is ultimately of value and worth. Paul’s perspective particularly calls us in this century to change our default mode of what it means to be a transformed upside down and inside out church in order to be able to be effective in continuing transformation of our new era and helping people initiate such transformation in their lives and their families and their workplaces and neighborhoods.
All across this world the word church is taking on an ancient-future meaning, harkening back to the days of Paul when it meant small groups of radically inclusive people practicing radical acts of hospitality within and particularly outside of their group, living on the margins, often without buildings, bylaws, budgets, signs, names, paid leaders, committees, members, Sunday morning one-hour gatherings and sermons and spectator-oriented worship, but instead bound together by relationship and mission, not trying to attract people with the right message to come inside something known as the church but interact with them by incarnating ourselves in various ways to live with them, serve them. And the spirit of Paul, known or unknown, is continuing the revolution, picking up after a few millennium, being raised to life again.
I try to keep up with much of this emergent organic simple revolutionary church on my blog called Planting God Communities. And in some ways this whole sermon has been about what motivates me theologically as a church planter. If you want to see an attempt at putting Paul at work in the 21st century, I invite you to come down to the northern end of Peoria, where in new and larger space given over to others, those few of us known as part of The Living Room Church are creating our first site, first of many we hope, of a liberal expression of organic Paul-inspired church through the new community space called “A Third Place” and through our partnerships and simple acts of ordinary revolution designed to show that hope and love and faithfulness are still possible, still spreading, especially as Paul discovered in surprising places and peoples.


tarvid said...

The words of a prophet.

May more of us become prophets too.

Anonymous said...
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