Look, can we just agree that St. Paul is The Worst? I realize he has his good points (Romans 8, FTW, as well as Galatians 3:28) but on the whole, Paul does not come off like a great dude. In Acts, he appears to swagger in and immediately throw his privilege around. In his own letters, it’s even worse. He takes pains to point out how awesome he is at everything, including being humble, so you should probably be taking notes. And his writing is confusing, to put it mildly. After we struggled with a single line from Romans for about 45 minutes one day in Greek, our professor told the class, “Look, there are times when it is you, and there are times when it is Paul. This time, it’s Paul.” For our graduation, we got it engraved on a bookmark as the class gift.
And, of course, Paul also takes credit for the sexism and homophobia that crops up in the NT. His shadow is indeed long and dark.
However, Paul casts too big a shadow to entirely ignore, and from time to time, I do try to work with the guy. He will never be my best friend, but he has graduated into something of a neighborhood crank that I lovingly indulge.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
August 27, 2017
Ordinary Time, Proper 16
Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20
I know he’s our parish namesake, but I must be honest with you all and confess that the Apostle Paul is not my favorite.
While he has good moments in his letters, he also is prone to unfortunate statements about women remaining silent in church, and women should cover their heads, and the like–so I am convinced we probably wouldn’t get along well.
Nevertheless, I am going to do something different today, and preach on Romans. So buckle up.
Romans is Paul’s longest letter, and also one of the letters ascribed to Paul that we know he wrote. (Timothy, Titus, and Hebrews, not so much.) From what we can tell, it was written to the Christians at Rome sometime during the rule of Emperor Nero, so sometime between 54-68 CE.
Several things were happening at this time: There were significant crackdowns on the Jewish community, because we’re almost to the Jewish Revolt of 70. And Nero, in reaction to problems with his own floundering rule, also clamps down on Christians, and anyone who isn’t prepared to worship the Emperor as divine. However, while you’d expect that these persecutions would drive the communities closer together, quite the reverse was happening. Reading between the lines of Paul’s letter, it would appear that the Christians who kept Jewish law did not get along with Gentile converts. And so there was also a lot of infighting to contend with.
So Paul has a lot of ground to cover in his letter. A lot of things are going very wrong.
He starts out by describing the righteousness of God–or faithful justice of God. God, Paul says, has been kind and merciful to everyone alike–Jew and Gentile, because all of us have fallen short of what God wants of us. All of us struggle to do what God would require, and none of us is better than another of us. It was through Judaism that the world first figured out what it was that God wanted, Paul reasons. God gave Moses the law, and so taught humanity what justice was, and so we knew where we were going, sort of where to aim. But that doesn’t mean that we succeeded in achieving it.
Instead, as Paul says, “Since we are justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”
In other words, knowing what it was God wanted of humanity wasn’t enough. Christ had to come and live as human, and die at our human hands in order to reconcile us to God. THAT was what brought us grace. And that sacrifice also equalized the playing field between both Jews and Gentiles. “Just as one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”
We now, all of us, Jew and Gentile, can live vicariously through Christ and be righteous to God.
Whew. That’s just the first six chapters. Paul crams a lot in there.
And it’s important to understand what we mean when we say things like “justification” and “righteousness” because those are some very churchy words that tend to get tossed around, til we just assume everyone knows what we’re talking about.
To justify someone was a legal term–it meant to prove them worthy, or to prove them to be in right relationship. The general idea in those times was that each person owed things. You owed things to society, you owed things to your family and you owed things to God. You owed your parents material support, you owed your civil authorities loyalty and respect. You owed God worship and obedience. You owed the poor care and compassion. Basically, there were expectations laid on each person. To be justified, then, meant that you had met your expectations well. You were justified. You had done what was expected of you. The state of being justified is being righteous. You lived with justice towards all.
I’m saying all this because frequently, when Paul gets preached on (and, not in Episcopal churches) or we talk about justification, it tends to sound like an internal thing. Are you justified? Are you righteous? But Paul is not actually concerned about your internal state. Paul is worried about how you treat other people, when he talks about being justified. He’s talking about justice, not about purity.
So all of that is to say, when Paul starts talking about being conformed to Christ, and not to this world–he is reminding us that this world works differently than God does–the world has a different expectation of justice than God does. What may be acceptable and legal in the world is not what God would consider to be just and righteous, and our job is not to worry about what the world says, but the justice of God.
Don’t worry about the world’s standards; worry about God’s. What does God say is just? What does God say is right? The world asks us to be nice, to be polite. God asks of us something higher, something greater. God’s justice is bigger than the world’s. Paul is writing to a group of people who were being hunted down and killed, and he is reminding them not to worry about it, but to keep their eyes on the prize. God’s justice was on their side, so keep your focus doing God’s work in the world.
Perhaps it’s easier now, in the new world in which we live, here in 2017, to feel ourselves closer to the Christians of Rome, under Nero. Perhaps we feel ourselves closer to their state of fear and anxiety as we watch the news and wonder who, exactly, our government is representing these days. But Christ asks us the same thing he asked his disciples: not who does the world say that I am, but who do you say that I am? God isn’t concerned about the world’s standard’s. And we shouldn’t be either. Lest we forget–when the disciples answered Jesus’ question that day, they didn’t become nicer people. They became outlaws. They literally became criminals in the eyes of Rome. And they were standing in a city named for the empire. Christianity isn’t meant to make us nice. It is meant to make us faithful. Loving. Just.
I had the privilege of worshipping with a Palestinian Anglican community this summer in Zababyeh, in the West Bank. The church was packed on Sunday morning, and the priest had generously preparered us an English bulletin so we could follow the Arabic service. As we began the Eucharistic Prayer, and the priest prayed over the bread and wine, several Israeli fighter jets buzzed the building, low enough that the windows shook. My American friends visibly quaked in their seats. The Christians of Palestine went right on praying, that they, along with the gifts, would be acceptable to God as a living sacrifice.
We don’t get buzzed by weapons of war here. But we are posed with the same question: shall we be nice, or shall we be faithful? Shall we be conformed to the world, it’s forces of empire, or shall we follow Christ, and his justice and love for all people?
To seek out those places of injustice in the world and set them right, because any system that abuses the children of God, allows hatred to fester, or encourages division, racism and bigotry is not worthy of our Creator.
God calls us as his children to something better than the world does. God promises us we are more, we are greater than the world does. . God asks us to be worthy of the justification he gave all of us in Christ. The world asks us to be nice to one another, but God asks us to regard one another as images of God himself. THAT is God’s justice. That is a reflection of the infite worth we have been given.
Today, we are asked the same question as those disciples at Caesarea Phillipi and those Christians at Rome. It is up to us how we answer.
The firs paragrah alone…yaaaassssss
^^ Yes, many will love it the louder you reassure them that 1/4 of the NT can be dismissed as the whining of some mega-douche. But it does come with it’s downside–like what if, quite apart from remarks about women etc. (which have some pretty striking contradiction from *within* the Pauline corpus — complexity and difficulty sometimes being what is rich about Scripture), the Gospel Paul presents actually is the same as the Gospel Christ presents? Is that idea among The Worst things that the church has endorsed from Nicene times? Speaking very personally, I carried on in just the popular “Paul vs Jesus” belief you imply here through a PhD in ancient Mediterranean cultural studies, an academic career, and into my late 30s. But at a certain point “my heart was strangely warmed” and I came in from the cold (and remain happily in the TEC lest you mistake me).
I recommend you leave open the perhaps shocking, to you, idea that you may move in this direction rather than the opposite one. (Of course, there is plenty of room to travel in the opposite direction within the liberal mainline — I think of one UCC sermon I heard in Vermont that really reminds me of this in tone, except its punch line was “You know, Jesus could really be a jerk.” As long as we don’t go that far I think I’ll remain your faithful reader.)
I dunno, maybe read some good NT Wright (I think he is the guy you actually meant when you described Paul here — has some good points, can be guilty of being a windbag, a little narrow and uptight and less worth heeding in some areas like sexuality).Speaking of sexuality, don’t saddle Paul with the church’s homophobia, please. The only homosexual relationships he knew about (pace the half-informed musings of NT Wright and so many other scholars) involved children, slaves, and/or prostitutes. And what he has to say has to be gotten at over the obstacle that he has no concept or word that corresponds to our idea of sexual orientation.
Now, since I’ve already shown myself Very Square, I want to say, I see up there in the sermon where you actually endorsed the idea of conforming ourselves to something besides the world. To this I can say yaaaassssss! It makes me wonder if the whole trashing Paul thing is functioning as a captatio benevolentiae — reassure the Good Episcopalians that you hate the guy’s guts so that they might give you a hearing about whether anything of value can be found there nonetheless. If that’s where your parish (under his patronage I gather?) is right now, you have a lot of work before you.
Well, goodness. Thank you for your lengthy and clearly heartfelt thoughts on this piece!
Rest assured that I studied Paul and his writings quite a bit in my life–both during my undergraduate studies in Religious Studies and in seminary. Those years also included a hefty dose of NT Wright and his thoughts. As you say, NT Wright is great on bodily resurrection and the afterlife, but somewhat lacking on human sexuality, but we are none of us perfect.
When it comes to that, indeed, neither is Paul, for as I believe you would agree, Paul was not attempting to construct a systematic theology for the Church to abide by, but rather to address specific issues as they arose in the churches he had started. His letters cannot be dismissed out of hand, but neither can they be taken as blanket statements applicable in all times, in all places, for all people. Like the rest of Holy Scripture, they must be read in context, with a discerning and inquiring heart and mind, and appreciated in all its depth.
As to Paul and current social matters, while Paul alone is not responsible for the church’s egregious history with regards to homophobia and sexism, Paul’s statements have been interpreted in such a way as to condone the same for generations. That baggage, for many modern hearers, has to be addressed before anything else can be said. If the church is going to overcome this history, we need to address it.
Finally, let me assure you that I’m glad you read my blog, but if there should arrive a time when you find that reading it no longer is spiritually edifying, you are perfectly free to stop, and depart to friendlier shores with all good wishes on your journey.