Our experience of death and our questions about our future with God are intensely personal. No question should be off the table as we wrestle with this in our death denying culture. In this respect, it can be helpful to study the development of Paul’s thought as he considers his Pharisaic belief in the resurrection, Greek beliefs that our imperishable souls are confined in our perishable bodies, and the experience of suffering and death. In all such formulations, we’re reaching beyond what we can clearly see or articulate. Our hope is that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ.
The partisan political divide in our country is ugly and it also runs through our churches. We’re complicit in the sexual violence and other forms of brokenness that feed this acrimony. We therefore enter the process of reconciliation with a sense of our own sin and limitations. It forces us to recognize the ways we depersonalize “others” in situations of conflict. We cannot achieve reconciliation through our own resources; it’s God who initiates and brings about reconciliation. In that sense, it’s something we discover rather than achieve, and it’s more of a spirituality than a strategy.
Paul’s understanding of being saved by faith needs to be disentangled from the Protestant understanding of being saved by faith “alone.” Paul’s concern in his letter to the Romans was not about being judged by an angry God when we die. It was rather about God’s purpose in repairing the earth and about healing the relationship between Gentiles and Jews. He paints the human condition of sin in dark hues and, as a counterpoint, he paints our new life in Christ in vivid colors. This speaks powerfully to congregations in our day that recognize that there is something profoundly wrong with civilization as we know it. Our communal life and our faith in action is the vanguard of God’s new world coming.
Unity is not uniformity; it is instead negotiating the essentials and non-essentials in a diverse fellowship. For Paul, one of those essentials was a fellowship where Gentiles are not forced to be Jews and vice versa. How is such unity in diversity expressed in our American society and in our American churches? According to Iris De León-Hartshorn, God’s Spirit is blowing things together that don’t naturally belong together and we now need to figure out how to live together as part of God’s reconciling mission for the world.
We now take the role of a woman as a pastor for granted but that has only changed in our lifetime. Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus was the first woman to be ordained by Virginia Mennonite Conference in 1989. I still remember those heated debates about the ordination of women when I was a seminary student in the 80s. Paul’s letters were at the center of that controversy. Several questions predominate. How do we make sense of the contrasting views in the letters attributed to Paul? How did Paul relate to women in the church? Finally, what can we learn from this as we strive for gender equality on the church today?
Paul’s teaching that there is no longer slave or free is part of an early baptismal rite. Slavery in the Roman Empire, as in the American South, was brutal and afforded slaves no legal rights. In this respect, Paul’s appeal to Philemon to do his duty and receive his former slave Onesimus back as a brother was a radical claim that slavery had no place in a fellowship where being one in Christ transforms all social relationships.
An we commemorate Labor Day on this weekend, we will want to explore Paul’s understanding of the dignity of manual work. He tells us not to be conformed to self-serving and violent systems of exploitation but to be transformed by a mind oriented to our loving and self-giving God as seen in Jesus. For Paul, this meant working with his hands to support himself as a tentmaker. Our wealth does not consist in money and power but in relationships of “peace with justice, equity, working collaboratively and sharing power, respecting the individual while also keeping the needs of the community at the center, servant leadership, public engagement for the common good, and nurturing a culture of service.”
It’s hard for us to imagine the working-class tenements in the Roman cities where Paul planted his churches. People literally lived on top of each other in small one-room apartments and worked together in the shops below. They had migrated there from all over the empire—pushed out of their former villages because of the Roman practice of consolidating rural land into large estates. Paul’s message and the creation of caring and sharing churches that gathered weekly around a common meal was indeed good news to these people.
Paul was about ten years younger than Jesus, but they came from quite different social contexts. Jesus was from the village of Nazareth and spent most of his life in Galilee. Paul was born in the city of Tarsus and was most at home in the cities of the Roman Empire. Both were passionately Jewish. The young Paul was a zealot who persecuted followers of Jesus because he believed they were a threat to Judaism. This was turned on its head when Paul met the risen Christ on the Damascus road and he received the call to be an apostle to the gentiles.
This the first of a series of sermons on Paul who has been a controversial figure throughout church history. This is partially because of the radical way that he used the transformative way of Jesus to plant churches among the gentiles and his insistence that there can be no distinction between Jews and gentiles in his churches. Other things such as the teaching that women are to remain silent and that slaves are to obey their masters, were by later authors writing in Paul’s name. A central question therefore is, “Who is the real Paul?”