Sunday, April 19, 2015
A Pauline Guide For The Liberal Church: The First Century Teaches The 21st
An Ancient Voice, Revealed Anew, For The 21st Century: A Guide To Faith In The Margins From St. Paul For the Liberal Church Today
Sermon at Unitarian Universalist Church of Stillwater, OK, April 19, 2015
Rev. Ron Robinson
Thank you loyal folks who showed up today, especially if you knew ahead of time a little bit about the subject of the sermon. Not often these days would a Unitarian Universalist minister, or I dare say many others, touch on Paul of Tarsus, for fear of preaching to an empty house. But we have a history, a heresy, of understanding and applying new ideas and realities in religion, and there is so much new about this ancient voice.
A new understanding of Paul, “The Real Paul” as the title of one new book by seminary professor Brandon Scott puts it, is not just about setting the historical record straight on this person who back in the time of the millennial change in 2000 was voted one of the most influential persons of the past 2000 years; as is often cited, letters by him or attributed to him, or stories about him, constitute the largest percent of the officially sanctioned Christian scriptures known as The New Testament.
No, I am mostly interested in how what guided him can be touchstones for a transformative spiritual life and growing communities of justice in our century. He certainly has been this in my own life and my commitments to forming a community of liberation in a place so many seek to abandon. And it strikes me that the kind of fast changing world in which Paul lived, one moving from an oral to a manuscript culture (as we are moving from print to electronic), one of great religious diversity, one of great violence by an Empire, links much of the pre-modern and our post-modern world.
Some 15 years ago, I stood in the pulpit here, newly graduated from seminary, and preached about the top ten lessons I had learned during my studies. Number one was The Real Paul. But since there were ten I covered, my number one didn’t get the full exploration and explanation it, and you, deserved. Since then I have been giving workshops or sermons on Paul, or weaving my continuing study of him, into them; I will be doing so at this upcoming General Assembly of the UUA in Portland in June in one about Faith in the Margins: what the first century church can teach the 21st century church.
Let me start with a little Unitarian Universalist history to let you know I am not too crazy for preaching and looking at Paul, whom so many liberals have dismissed because they think he steered the church from the “religion of Jesus” to the “religion about Jesus.”
Paul’s letters were used by William Ellery Channing in the famous 1819 Unitarian Christianity sermon that helped form our association. A famous quote from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, “as in Adam all fell, so in Christ shall all rise” was often used by the early American Universalist church to defend its belief in universal salvation. Writing after the second world war, one of our famous preachers and authors, A. Powell Davies of All Souls Unitarian in Washington, D.C. wrote a popular and controversial book about the Apostle Paul called “The First Christian.”
Davies was radical for its time because back then, and in some places still today, people would think of Jesus as the First Christian, and Rev. Davies was sharing the news, in that immediate post-Holocaust era, that Jesus was a Jew, and how important for Christianity that fact was, and is, but also how much it was really Paul who shaped Christianity. What I am going to share today though updates much of Rev. Davies contemporary scholarship of his time; we no longer think of Paul as the First Christian, or even as a Christian in the way we commonly think of that term today. Rather Paul lived, wrote, perhaps was killed because he was a follower and leader of one of the several strands of what we might call first century Judaism or ways of following the God of Israel, back when the Second Temple still stood in Jerusalem, back before it and the city itself was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 of the Common Era, a pivotal year for the development and continuation of both Judaism and eventually of its troublesome sect turned then into separate church turned then in its major manifestation as Empire of Christianity, far from the anti-Empire revolutionary life and writing of Paul. And we know better now that Paul was only one of the major shapers of what became later as the early church.
In his latest book, “The Real Paul” Professor Brandon Scott of Tulsa’s Phillips Theological Seminary, summarizes the four decades of the emerging picture of Paul, who was the one who does provide us the oldest, first actual writing we have anyway, about Jesus, itself dating more than a decade after the crucifixion. Paul himself probably wrote earlier letters, but we don’t have them.
There are seven letters in the Bible considered authentic Paul, half of the ones attributed to him. Those who read about Paul in the Acts of the Apostles—half of it is devoted to him---before reading his own letters will greatly misunderstand him. Acts was likely written some three or more decades after Paul died. One scholar, Scott says, maintains the differences are so great that Acts may have been written by an opponent of Paul. Take away Acts and you don’t have Saul converting to Paul, converting from Judaism to Christianity on the road to Damascus; instead his own language and story is about being called, about coming to know his purpose that he, who always names himself Paul, felt was instilled in him from the time he was in his mother’s womb. How much of religious history in the West might have been altered if one of our formative narratives had not been about conversion, but about, as our tradition over the centuries has sought to make ultimate instead, honoring and discovering ours and others’ inherent worth and calling? In Paul’s own writing, in fact, we have his depiction of his previous life as a religious zealot, persecuting others, but then after his mysterious encounter with what he calls the Risen Anointed One of the God of Israel, he writes that even he is worthy of receiving, as the Blues Brother put it, a Mission from God. And if he is, he maintains, everyone is.
So conversion becomes calling, and that is one of the touchstones for our lives and communities today; how are we all, not just ordained ministers, being called into mission? One of Paul’s first conflicts was over whether he had authority to do what he was doing, and reliance on what we would say is the role of personal experience in religion; he is a forerunner of our own theologian James Luther Adams who calls all to understand themselves as part of the priesthood and prophethood of all.
But Paul’s specific mission is to be, he says, an Apostle, literally an Envoy, to be Sent. And to whom is he sent? This is the critical step. To the nations, “the gentiles”, to those who are not already a part of Israel, who are not, like his fellow ethnic people, already in covenant with Israel’s God. Everything flows from this for Paul. Far from having left Judaism behind, he takes for granted that they are part of God’s covenant and what he sees as the imminent future transformation of the world by God’s loving and liberating justice for those Rome has vanquished (For him the world equaled the Roman Empire.) True Paul had his disputes with Jewish authorities, and of course most of them did not share his experience of the crucified Anointed One, but he is not an apostle to them, to try to get them to necessarily change in order to be a part of God’s future, as so much of the tradition has cast his thought. Rather, he is concerned about the gentiles, the nations, the peoples under and following Caeser’s oppressive rule and values, and he isn’t writing either for a universal self or about what God is doing for this or that person. His concern is about peoples, and not about what centuries later would become notions of individual, personal salvation.
So that is the next touchstone from Paul: our concern and commitments should be with and for communities, especially with communities that have been oppressed, left out of power; and our understanding of our self should be understood as being communal beings, part of one another, in community, and even, as he writes in his theoloy, as being part of God’s New Anointing. He has an expansive sense of this community too: he says Jew and Greek, meaning Jew and notJew, slave and free, male and female. No one is left out. And those with this new communal identity, while being different in the eyes of the Empire, and with their differences maintained and their own special gifts of difference acknowledged and honored, now can have, he says, a new deeper, more liberating, common identity apart from the Empire’s.
An aside on how we have come to these new understandings; with the rise of non-dogmatic independent academic and inter-disciplinary study in particular, we not only were able to come to a broad consensus on the seven letters—1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, and Romans, but also how to read these ancient texts written as other ancient texts, often not as single arguments like a newspaper editorial, but what are called diatribes, dialogues and debates within them like Socratic interrogations. Recast in this light, Paul’s thought begins to emerge from seeming major inconsistencies. Of course important to note too that Paul is not writing to us, or even to an Empire-wide audience, but to specific groups in specific places about specific problems, many of which we don’t fully understand because we only have one side of the correspondence. And even in the authentic letters are woven other letters, and later additions that are trying to tame down the original radical Paul.
So exactly what is his good news he is sent to share with the nations, and that calls forth these new egalitarian-inspired communities? Communities of vulnerability and conflict of all sorts, but communities who, beyond their own existence, have had a lasting legacy. This good news from Paul, after centuries of misreadings, is where, then and especially now I think, he is at his most radical. In some ways all of this is why Professor Scott calls Paul even more radical than Jesus. And it leads to one of the most crucial touchstones for churches today.
We can see it most clearly in Paul’s letter to the gathered ones in Rome, his last one written that we have, and the one that has long been considered the most theologically concerned of all the letters and so is the one used to make statements of belief. Origen did so before the Empire took over the Christian way. Augustine after it did after. Luther used Romans extensively in the Reformation. Barth used Romans in the 20th century rise of neo-orthodoxy after the destruction of world war one. And this is still true with the New Perspective. It is in Romans that we have this groundbreaking new way of looking at Paul and the other anti-Empire Christians.
If you pick up most Bibles today, which by the way are mostly published by religious associations, you are going to read something like the following in Romans, third chapter: “The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction.” See how that seems to emphasize first righteousness, which to our ears might conjure up a narrow sense of morality and even self-righteousness; to emphasize next “faith in Jesus” as a kind of mental act of thought giving allegiance to a certain object of that thought, in this case Jesus; and finally, to drive it home, to emphasize “for all who believe”, as if already here there is the creed; what one does to receive righteousness is to believe in Jesus.
How widespread now and through the years has been that kind of translation and interpretation? It has been what many see as the essence of their faith, and it has been what has driven many from their faith, or from being drawn to Jesus, the Bible, the church. Religion is about what you think, so you better think the right thing, and if that is what religion is about then the church better be focused on enforcing that right thinking. Orthodoxy.
But that hasn’t always been the translation of that writing of Paul’s in Romans. Even the King James Version, in all its poetic beauty, captured some of the ambiguity in the Greek by translating it as “faith of Jesus.” Just with that slight change we begin to sense some major theological shifts. Even when faith was still seen as a synonym for belief, and belief was seen as all about a mental proposition and affirmation, even then we could read the King James Version from the 1600s and see the difference between a focus on what Jesus believed and a belief in Jesus. But the scholars of the New Perspective, freed from the dogmatic restraints that shaped so much of the earlier translations of Greek, have helped us see the full impact of Paul’s revolutionary thought.
In “The Real Paul” Professor Scott gives us the following Scholars Version of this passage, this key central passage of the scriptural foundations of much of Christian theology [for the full Scholars Version see The Authentic Letters of Paul; the NRSV uses something close to the Scholars Version but puts it in a footnote, not in a new translation): “God’s reliability has now been made clear through the unconditional confidence in God of Jesus, God’s Anointed, for the benefit of all who come to have such confidence—no exceptions!” It is not faith or belief IN Jesus as some object of faith, but rather Paul says God’s spirit of right relations, of being in right alignment with God’s justice, comes to all those who have the confidence or faithfulness that Jesus had. And how was Jesus faithful? Not by what he thought, but by what he did, how he was faithful not to Caesar and his Empire and what it valued, violence and wealth and power-over, but to the God of the oppressed and that God’s Empire, or Kingdom which was in fact the opposite of an Empire or Kingdom, being instead a beloved community, a kin-dom.
Think what a difference this better freer translation would have made had it been the dominant cornerstone of Christian theology from the time of Paul to ours today? We wouldn’t have been heretics, we who stressed character and deeds over creeds. Think what a difference it would make now if this were adopted, to shift religion from a competitiveness over ideas and right thinking, to a cooperation in bringing about living justice.
That is the next Pauline touchstone for our spiritual lives and church today: live your God, your ultimate concern, if you love your God, your ultimate concern.
All else of the real Paul flows from this radical stance. In fact, in 1988 a biblical scholar, not a Unitarian Universalist, wrote an essay called “A Paul for Unitarian Universalists” (Robin Scroggs in the UU Christian Journal) that talked about how small u unitarian and small u universalist Paul was. Paul was a monotheist. He was also what became known as an adoptionist, understanding that God adopted Jesus, or Anointed him, Christed him, made or revealed him as Messiah when God raised him, he who had been faithful even in the depths of the Empire’s effort of shaming him with weakness and crucifixion. And that what God did in and for Jesus he would soon do for all, transforming the world. And, with Earth Day coming up this week, let me emphasize that it is this world that Paul believed would be the place of the new, as the old, paradise, not some ethereal region known as Heaven.
Paul ties together Jesus’s death and raising, and the future of the nations, with the story in the Hebrew scriptures of Abraham, saying that even as God chose Abraham because of his faithfulness even before there were the Mosaic commandments, so too the nations, as Abraham’s children too had become part of the covenant with God now because of God’s valuing Jesus’ life and message through the raising of him. We can obviously disagree, from our vantage point if we wish, with Paul on the specifics of his experience and theology, but give him credit especially for its spirit.
For Paul, Jesus’ death had not been to atone for anything either, though, or to be a substitute for anyone’s else death. Scott says that Paul saw the death as one of the long line of particularly Jewish faithful martyrs “suffering noble deaths”, that Jesus died because he had challenged the Empire through trying to show the nations that God wanted them to be righteous and faithful to God’s way and not Caeser’s way. And so in raising Jesus and Christing him, Paul felt God was rewarding Jesus and also revealing this truth to the nations, that they too were now part of the God of Israel’s new promised life. It is a very different understanding or theology of the cross then the one the Empire Christian culture later produced.
It leads to our next touchstone from Paul, that God favors those who have been shamed, God in fact favors the ones the Empire considers ungodly, he writes in Romans, and God favors non-violence and will act to restore those who have been violated.
Paul thought, wrongly, that this new social transformation would happen in his lifetime, but he sought to create communities, in the very midst of the Empire, that would imitate and help initiate this social transformation, as a testament to its power and truth, while living in the in-between time. Imitating and initiating social transformation of the world. It is a good mission and way of being for communities today. Perhaps we need a sense of urgency about creating free communities for growing justice around us, particularly in places and peoples and ways we don’t have.
Whether or not Paul actually wrote the great love hymn in First Corinthians or borrowed and placed it in from an earlier poet is debatable, but it captures much of this ultimate focus of his for how to stress the essentials in community. Faith is important--what you trust, or believe; hope is important--how you feel and approach the world and sustain yourself; but the greatest is Love--how you act, how you relate, how you open up to vulnerability and risk and cooperation and a honor diversity of gifts (1 Corinthians 12) and see yourself in others, and them in you, and see your community as part of the movement of God’s way, not Caeser’s in whatever guise Caeser comes, even one that comes in the name of God, Christ, and the church. That too is a healthy reminder for our communities today in a world looking for authenticity.
What about Paul and sexuality, Paul and women, Paul and slavery? Each are worthy of sermons on their own. While Paul, like all of us, is a product of his time, limited in his understanding, in most cases the way he has been used for the exact opposite of what he stood for has come again from bad translations, from the later letters much after his death attributed to him that are actually against the real Paul, and by insertions into the actual letters by later scribes, or by not understanding that the sins he lifts up are again characteristics of sins of the Empire and not about individuals.
About much of Paul’s context and ideas, Scott says we will likely always be uncertain from the mystery in the evidence of the letters we have. But, he wraps up his book by talking about how for Paul God sides with the losers. And if that is the case, as he believes it to be, then all such striving to be right and mighty in the eyes of God is the wrong kind of faithfulness. And it is a challenge to us today to see whose side we are on, who are we spending time and support with.
So much of the Empire way and values that shaped Christianity long after Paul have also tremendously shaped today much of our culture, way beyond Christianity as well. Recapturing the real Paul, and revealing his good news message again---that real active responsive liberating and justice-making love, not wealth or power or achievements or knowledge or feeling good, is how the Sacred is made real--- that this good news from Paul and about Paul, this new news, will, if adopted, not only lead to what Scott calls the needed “fundamental reconstruction of Christianity,” as important as that is, but it will lead to the reconstruction, the social transformation, of the world itself—ironically, that is what Paul himself envisioned two thousand years ago.
Posted by Ron at 4:54 PM