Tag Archives: Apostle Paul

The Problem with Modern Love

Read 1 Corinthians 13

“Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God.” (1 John 4:7 NLT)

loveAs a Christian pastor in the United Methodist Church, I have officiated in plenty of weddings and funerals. That just goes with the territory and, quite honestly, I am always honored when people seek me out to celebrate in their mutual love, or when people request that I be with them in their times of loss and grief. After all, did not the Lord Jesus Christ do such things?

As any pastor can tell you, one of the most requested (if not THE MOST requested) Scriptures for weddings is 1 Corinthians 13. Because that scripture talks about an enduring love, people automatically link it to the marital union between two loving partners. I think that this, unfortunately, does a disservice to what the Apostle Paul was actually writing about. I can assure you that, as a self-imposed, celibate man, Paul of Tarsus was not thinking about marriage when he penned those immortal words.

As such, whenever I am asked to utilize that particular passage at a wedding, I make a point of bringing the true meaning of the text into my message before tying it into the marital covenant. This is is important because there is huge problem with modern love. What I mean by this is that the modern understanding of love is shallow at best. It is all about peaches and cream, fuzzy bunnies and puppie dogs, kisses and hugs, compliments and unconditional affinity.

This modern understanding has been propagated by enless jewelry advertisements, happily ever-after romance novels/films, motivational speakers, prosperity preachers, societal pressures, and new age and/or civic theology that renders love into an emotional experience to be had within oneself. In a nutshell, love is rendered into a feel-good, warm and fuzzy experience centered around our over-inflated egos.

We tend to see love in those who make us feel good ourselves and in those who tell us how beautiful, great, smart, and awesome we are. Conversely, we tend to not see love in anyone who disagrees with us, calls us out for being wrong, encourages us to change course, or stands in our way from getting we want. After all, how could someone possibly love us and disagree with how great we are,    right?

Let me really clear about this: LOVE IS NOT ABOUT SELF-WORSHIP! It is not about us at all. LOVE IS ABOUT GOD. In fact, GOD IS LOVE. When Paul is writing about the characteristics of love, he is actually writing the characteristics of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. In other words, despite our often misconceptions of God, Jesus revealed to us that God was patient and kind, forgiving, slow to anger, and keeps no record of being wronged. God does not rejoice at injustice, but rejoices whenever truth wins out. God never gives up, never stops being faithful, is always hopeful, and endures through all things.

God loved us so much that, in order to redeem us in that love, God became a human being and lived among us. As that human being, God taught us what TRUE LOVE is all about. Love is sacrificial, it is in service of others, it holds people accountable to who they were created to be as opposed to who they are, and it is persistent in being present with others even when to do so comes at a great cost. Jesus Christ is the embodiment of God, who is love. As Christians, we ough to be the embodiment of Christ, who is Lord, and bear that LOVE out into the world.

Love is not just a verb, but a noun that calls us be verbs.

Lord, you loved me even when I have not loved you back. Help me to model that love in my life and act it out in the world. Amen.

Just Who Do You Think I Am?

Read Romans 7:7-25

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23 NLT)

CrossRedeemedIf you were to ask any of the students I have had over the years for confirmation class, they would tell you that one of the major projects I have them do is write a theological essay on who people say Jesus Christ is, and to also write about who they believe Jesus Christ to be. This essay is based off of the two questions Jesus asked his disciples, “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is? Who do you say that I am’” (Matthew 16:13, 15b)?

There were no wrong answers, and it wasn’t anything they were graded on. The purpose of the required exercise was two-fold: 1) To help them develop the skill of critical theological thinking and the ability to articulate the Christian faith as they have been taught it. 2) To promote critical thinking around their own experiences with Jesus Christ, as well as to give them the opportunity to express those experiences and their own understanding of who Christ is in writing to themselves. Later in life, they can look back on those answers and see how their understanding has grown over the years.

Recently, while driving, I was listening to the Christian metal band Demon Hunter’s album, “Extremist.” The first song on that album is “Death”. This song, to me, is the opposite exercise. Unlike the exercise I have my confirmation students (aka confirmands) go through, this song is not asking the listener who they think Christ is, but rather it is asking that same question in regard to all of the other influences in their lives.

Actually, the song is a reflection, in part, on the tendency to idolize people like him, as if they are some sort of paragon of perfection. With that said, I also think that this song works beyond just Ryan Clark, but other people and/or influences in our lives that we turn to in order to be “saved” from ourselves and our circumstances. In the song, Ryan Clark screams, “I’m not your gateway. I’m not your prodigal son. I’m the vile lesser-than. Just who do you think I am? I’m not your standard. I’m not your vision divine. I am not sacrificial lamb. Just who do you think I am? I am death.”

Ryan is not stating that he is literally Death, as in the Grim Reaper. Nor is he stating that he is evil or that he has no part to play in helping others. That is not what he is saying at all; rather, he is stating that ONLY CHRIST is the savior. We all, including Ryan, are sinners and we are all in need of being saved. How do I know that’s what Ryan actually meant when writing the song? Here’s what Ryan has to say about it:

‘By our very nature, we are a sinful people. It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you stand on, that will always be the case. If you don’t see it, you’re not paying attention. There is no pretending to be impervious to it. The answer is revealed in the realization of its existence, and the understanding that you are in need of forgiveness. The wages of sin is death. Eternal death. My desire is to be an instrument for this revelation, but my words alone can only point the way. I am no savior.’

Amen. We are all in need of being saved and, for those who recognize that need, salvation rests in Jesus Christ who literally HELD NO BARS in ensuring that  salvation for us, should we desire and ask for it. Our way, apart from the eternal love that is GOD in Jesus Christ, leads to death. This need not merely be in some other-worldly sense either. Just look at the wisdom and “saving plans” of human beings running amok in the world. Look at the broken relationships, the drug addiction, the abject poverty, the abuse and oppression, the genocide and the governing for SELF-INTEREST. It is clear, we humans are not saviors, but lesser-than (to use the lyrics).

We are, apart from Christ, death. Yet, as Ryan rightly points out, those of us who are saved are called to point the way to Christ, who is the revelation of God’s unconditional, saving love. We may not be the savior, but we intimately know the savior and can introduce people to our Lord and Savior. If you feel lost in your life, if you feel surrounded by dead ends and hopelessness, there is a way out of such despair. There is a way to abundant and joyful life. That way is Jesus Christ and I pray that you two get in touch. Find a pastor or someone grounded in faith who can support you in that. If you are a person of faith, be willing to be the vessel that points the least, the last and the lost to the One who LOVES and SAVES THEM beyond all measures!

“He that falls into sin is a [human]; that grieves at it, is a saint; that boasteth of it, is a devil.” – Thomas Fuller

Lord, have mercy on me a sinner. May I always point to your saving grace. Amen.


Read 2 Corinthians 5:13-21

“For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16, NLT)

imagesBack in March of 2014, a Christian film went mainstream and was shown in theaters across the country. The film was called “God’s Not Dead” and chronicled the struggle of a student in college whose philosophy professor asks him and his classmates to write, “God is Dead” on a piece of paper and sign it. Doing so, according to the professor, would get the kids out of having to dredge through the boring nonsense that is the philosophical “proofs” of God and get into the more interesting schools of philosophical thought. Of course, this professor is an antitheist and is a little more than just biased against any and all religious beliefs. An antitheist, for those who don’t know, are atheists who  believe that religion is the cause of the world’s problems, who despise religion, and who seek to “edcuate” people that religion is faulty, prehistoric superstition that needs to be eradicated!

Honestly, I was not all that enthralled with the movie, though as a philosopher I dug the academic debate the film centered on. Still, in a world where Christians are being put to death for being Christian, in a world where millions of Christians are displaced refugees because of radical governments and religious zealots, in a world where such Christian persecution exists, a student’s struggle against an extreme professor seemed a little contrived and, well, superficial. For fans of the movie, hold off on the dislike button, because I’m not done yet.

Just recently a student I know was in a science class learning about the theory of evolution. During that class, the teacher made a comment that religious people don’t believe in evolution because they choose to believe in a God that created everything as it is. Feeling that the comment was a denigration to her both as a Christian and as an intelligent student, she raised her hand and spoke up, stating that the teacher’s comment was untrue. “I’m a Christian, I believe in God, I believe that God created the world, and I have no problem with the theory of evolution. Can’t God create a world that evolves on its own without needing a puppet master pulling the strings?” She also let that teacher know that what he was doing was stereotyping her and other religious people, which in her words, “was not cool.”

This student did not lose composure, but remained respectful yet firm in her convictions and that teacher, realizing she was right, acknowledged her point and moved on with the lesson. Despite my gut reaction to “God’s Not Dead” and the theological issues I believe are inherent in that film, there is a truth that Christians are living in an increasingly polarized society that often doesn’t look kindly on religion or faith. In fact, Christians aren’t the only ones who face this, but people of all religions do.

What is important for me to stress here is that this is not a “battlecry” for Christians to rise up and take back what is “rightfully theirs.” If we read the Gospels, and the New Testament as a whole, we quickly realize that the world has NEVER been “rightfully ours.” We live in this world, but we are not of it; rather, we are ambassadors who represent Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven, and we are not called to battle the world in a match of wits, or in senseless debates over who has the truth and who follows the fiction. With that said, we are called to represent the realm and the reign of God and to shine Christ’s light into this world of darkness. That is the heart of what the college student in “God’s Not Dead” was doing, and that is the heart of what the student I know was doing. She was not trying to put him down, or enter into a battle of the wits in order to disgrace him; rather, she was was shining a light on the truth of her faith and, perhaps, encouraging other people of faith in the room along the way. As Christians, Christ has called us all to lovingly stand up for the truth and be witnesses of the hope of God’s presence with us, regardless of what the world does or does not think of it. Remember that we live in this world, but we are not of it. May Christ give us all strength.

“Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.” – John F. Kennedy

Lord, help me to have the courage to represent Christ and to do so in a way that is honest, bold, loving, and tolerant. Amen.

The Search for the Holy Grail

Read 1 Corinthian 11:17-34

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE “For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26 CEB)

The HolyGrailI just recently watched the film, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” This has always been my favorite of the four films because it deals with Indiana Jones’ quest to find the Holy Grail. While I am sure most of you know what the Holy Grail is, for those of you who don’t the Holy Grail is the cup of which Jesus Christ and the Twelve Apostles drank from during the Last Supper. Indiana’s father (played by Sean Connery) had been searching for the Grail his whole life, but when he gets close to finding it he disappears. Indiana then picks up where is father left off in order to not only find the Grail but to also find his father.

Before embarking on the quest, Indy turns to his friend, Marcus Brody, and asks him if he thinks there is actually any truth to the legend of the Holy Grail. Marcus responded, “The search for the Holy Grail is the search for the divine in all of us.” This statement hit me in a way it never really did before. I think as a younger person, I never fully understood the profound implication of that statement; yet, as a grown adult and a trained theologian, the proclamation is actually a revelation of the nature of who we are in Christ Jesus. This is not just some Hollywood-contrived revelation, but is a revelation we find throughout the Bible.

When we think of the Holy Grail, we think of the Last Supper, we think of the Knights of the Round Table, we think of Indiana Jones, we think of Monty Python, and some may even think of Dan Brown’s controversial work of fiction, “The Da Vinci Code.” Almost always, the Holy Grail is thought of as an object, as the cup that held the wine (aka blood) of Jesus Christ. In the case of the Indiana Jones film, the cup itself was holy and had magical powers of healing and rejuvenation as a result of Christ using it it in such a holy moment in history. In books like the Da Vinci Code, the Holy Grail is a woman (going back to Mary Magdalene) who carried on the bloodline of Jesus Christ. Again, like the cup, the woman is merely important because she’s bearing the bloodline of Jesus.

What I noticed was that, when thinking of the Holy Grail, we tend to lose the bigger picture for the smaller details. We lose the significance of the Holy Grail when we cheapen it to being a “cup” or a “womb” or anything else. Marcus Brody points us to a deep truth when he says, “The search for the Holy Grail is the search for the divine in all of us.” Indeed. Jesus didn’t hold The Last Supper in order to turn a cup into an idol. Also, to get caught up in the “married Jesus” debate is to completely miss the entire point of Jesus ministry and the Last Supper.

In the act of “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood”, the disciples are taking Jesus into themselves and making him a part of their own identity. In other words they, in that sacred moment and from that time forward, become the Holy Grail…bearing the grace and the love of Jesus to all the world. Just as Jesus was the Son of God, we who believe in Christ and partake in Holy Communion as a public profession of our faith, take on the identity of sons and daughters of God. I am sure some of my Protestant brothers and sisters might be questioning if I am taking Communion a little too literally. While I am not, I would say that to question that is to miss the truth of the above.

Whether we believe in Transubstantiation, Consubstantiation, or we believe that the Sacrament of Holy Communion is a symbol of God’s grace and forgiveness for us, the fact remains that Holy Communion is a reminder that we are called to be the Holy Grails of Christ. We are called to be the vessels that bear Christ’s love in the world. We are called to be Sacramental and to be transformational. We are called to be agents of Christ’s grace and witnesses to the presence of God. Remember this the next time you partake in communion and be transformed.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY “The search for the Holy Grail is the search for the divine in all of us.” – Marcus Brody in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”.

PRAYER Lord, I am your vessel fill me with your grace so that I may bear witness to your grace in the lives of others. Amen.

Understanding Paul, part 6

Read Romans 15:22-33; Acts 21-22

“There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28 CEB).

Decapitación_de_San_Pablo_-_Simonet_-_1887To sum up this series, I think it is beyond doubt that Paul is the most influential theologian in the history of Christianity. As this series has attempted to show, much of the problems that Christians run into when it comes to interpreting Paul arise directly because Paul is interpreted as a “Christian” theologian. Yet, the truth of the matter is that, while he was an Apostle of the Risen Christ, the Apostle Paul was NOT a Christian but a Jewish theologian. He just happened to subscribe to the Jewish sect known as “the Way” and believed that Jesus had called him to preach the Good News of an open Jewish covenant, through Christ, to all the Gentile world.

Throughout the centuries and especially in Christianity Today, Paul has become a conservative icon of the church and a guardian of the faith. Thus, his words and writings have been used to uphold church doctrine and dogma in support of slavery, against women clergy, and for the definition of marriage between a man and a woman. In fact, the Apostle Paul’s words on marriage are also the foundation of the Roman Catholic doctrine on clerical celibacy. For those supporting such doctrines and positions, Paul’s words have become a rallying cry; however, by and large the Apostle Paul’s writings have divided more people than they have united. While those seeking to keep things as the perceive they’ve always been find Paul to be their champion, others who are frustrated by the Church’s resistance to change find Paul to be irritating at best and downright egregious at worst.

All of this division, all of this animosity, all of this tension coming from a man who literally spent his life trying to unite people in Christ Jesus. While Paul was Jewish and firmly believed that Jesus was the JEWISH MESSIAH, he also firmly believed that this Christ, through his death and resurrection, had opened up the Jewish covenant to all Gentiles, through their faith in Jesus Christ. This set him at odds with both the Jerusalem church, as well as with the majority of Jewish people as a whole. Yet, rather than abandon one side for the other, Paul spent the rest of his shortened life and ministry trying to make peace with all parties and he tried to unite them in the grace, peace and love of the Risen Christ.

Throughout his ministry, Paul collected money from his Gentile church communities in order that he might bring a peace offering and financial support for the church in Jerusalem. In Romans 15 he wrote to the church community in Rome to pray not only that he be rescued from those who don’t believe in Judea, but that the leaders of the church in Jerusalem (e.g. Jesus brother, James, among others) find his monetary gift to be acceptable. We also learn, in Acts 21, that Paul’s worries were founded as the church wanted him to prove he was a committed Jew by going to the Temple and going through a purification ritual with his fellow Gentile travelers. In complying with them to solidify the unity he was seeking, Paul sealed his own fate, was arrested by the Temple guards, was sent to Rome and was, eventually, martyred.

Paul literally died in order to bring unity to an already divided church. He was not the conservative icon of the church in his day, but a progressive (to use today’s language) visionary of an INCLUSIVE church. He believed and died for a church that would INCLUDE all people who share faith in Jesus Christ. He strived for a church that would live in LOVE and live out Christ’s commandment for us to LOVE ONE ANOTHER. Paul died to witness to his belief that we “all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 5:28). This, for Paul, was the Gospel message and it should be the message that we, too, embrace as the Gospel Message.

“Talent perceives differences; genius, unity.” – William Butler Yeats

Lord, build me into a peacemaker. Even as I hold firm to my convictions, keep me convicted to bear your grace in all things. Amen.

Understanding Paul, part 5

Read 1 Corinthians 4

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE “I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little.” (Philippians 4:12 NLT)

Probably_Valentin_de_Boulogne_-_Saint_Paul_Writing_His_Epistles_-_Google_Art_ProjectOver the past four devotions we have explored the Apostle Paul, we discussed how he is the most influential person in Christian history, discussed how he was practicing “situational theology” in order to address specific issues that had risen up in his church communities, how he sacrificed his life in order to unify the church in the midst of divisive opposition, and how he more than likely did not write all of the letters in the New Testament that are attributed to him. At this point, one may be still trying to understand what all of this means for us today. What can we actually know about Paul if we are not even sure what he did or didn’t write? Also, how do we know what Paul actually believed if his letters are merely responses to specific and contextual situations as they were arising in his church communities? In the end, I believe the best way to understand Paul and what he believed is to look at the undisputed letters, the ones that are universally accepted as being his, and see what key recurring theological components make themselves known to us.

When we read Paul’s undisputed letters of 1 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, Philemon and Philippians we notice certain things that are central to Pauline theological understanding. Paul believes that his authority as an Apostle comes from a private revelation of the risen Christ (Galatians 1:11-12, 15-17) and not from the approval of any other human being. Paul believes that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise to bless the world through Abraham. Through faith in Christ, the whole world can now  be included in the Jewish covenant. What this means is that God, through Jesus Christ, brings about the salvation of the whole world (Galatians 3:3-9, 14; Romans 14:11; Philippians 2:10-11). What’s more, Paul believed that Christ would return and bring with him the reign and eternal presence of God (1 Thessalonians 4:15-18). While all of this is now taken for granted, or completely overlooked, this is the beginning of the more profound and radical views that Paul held.

Paul is often held up as the conservative icon of the church, as partner in ministry with Peter, the reality is that Paul was pushing the envelope in ways that often set him apart from and in opposition to Peter (Galatians 2:11-16). He believed that God created all people equal. Where the world segregates and divides, Paul believed that in Christ was freedom and equality (Galatians 3:25-29). In an age that accepted slavery, Paul challenged a church leader to release his slave and accept them in an equal (Philemon 1:16). In an age where women were property, Paul viewed women as co-workers, deacons, and leaders in the church. He even acknowledged being personally supported by Phoebe (Romans 16:1). Most important, Paul believed in the unity of believers and he literally died trying to make that a reality (Romans 15:30-32). He believed that the spirit of Christ is the spirit of love, and that we Christians have been filled with that spirit (1 Corinthians 13). He saw all believers as making up the resurrected body of Christ. He also believed that, as the body of Christ, all Christians are called to serve the poor, heal the sick, and carry on the ministry of Christ in the world.

If we as Christians are going to take Paul seriously and take his writings as Scripture, we need to open ourselves to the kind of transformation he advocated. We need to begin to work for hope, healing, and wholeness in the name of Christ Jesus our Lord. We need to start working toward the Kingdom of Heaven as revealed to us by Christ through his servant Paul. As can be seen, there is no doubt that without Paul, Christianity would not be the same. With that said, the truth is (and I believe Paul would agree) that the same is true about you and me. Without us, the body of Christ, there would be no church. Let us realize this, pick up the torch, and carry it forward brining the light of Christ into the darkness.

“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

Lord, strengthen me in my faith so that I may, like your servant Paul, bring your light into this dark and broken world. Amen.

Understanding Paul, part 4

Read Romans 1:1-7


PWPaulInPrisonIf you have ever gone through high school or college you will most definitely remember that there were strict rules and regulations set to avoid academic dishonesty. When it came to test taking you weren’t allowed to be sitting too closely to anyone else, there was no talking allowed, and if you even dared to look over at someone else’s desk,  your grade would be forfeit. When it came to writing research papers, those rules and regulations got even stricter. You had to work on your own, you had to cite every idea you paraphrased or quoted, and your work absolutely had to be your own. In other words, stealing the paper from the internet or someone else writing the paper for you in your name would be unacceptable.

While these standards hold true today, they are relatively new in the world of academia. It used to be common practice that students of great teachers would continue on the legacy of their teacher by writing new material in that teacher’s name. This was both a way to show honor toward one’s teacher; however, it was also a way of lending credibility and authority to one’s own teaching. One of the most famous examples of a student doing this is Plato, who wrote a series of “dialogues” wherein he wrote as the great philosopher. This was so common place and accepted that we even have a pithy statement that highlights the practice, “Mimicry is the best form of flattery.”

An even greater example of this being done is in the case of the Apostle Paul. Traditionally, Paul is credited with writing Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. Some even credit him with writing Hebrews, but that contention is rejected by most theologians and scholars across the board. What’s more, Paul’s ministry is detailed in the book of Acts which was written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke. Some of the details are consistent with Paul’s own account, others are not exactly the same. Even more than that, Paul’s authorship is in dispute over Colossians and 2 Thessalonians and most mainline theologians reject Pauline authorship in regard to Ephesians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus. There are a number of reasons why these letters are disputed, including difference of style, structure and a lack of the central, theological components that were so vital to Paul.

What is likely is that someone who was either taught by Paul and/or who was from one of his communities wrote these letters, giving him credit for the authorship and lending authority to it as well. Whoever the people were that wrote these letters, they were writing from within the Pauline tradition, even if their views sometimes opposed that of Paul’s. What’s more, whether or not Paul wrote them does not take away from them being authoritative as the communities that they were written in and, eventually, the Christian church as a whole found divine authority within them.

It is impossible to have a full discussion on Pauline authorship in this limited space. There’s lots of scholarship on both sides of the authorship dispute. What I am hoping to impart here, is that there’s more to reading and interpreting the Bible than just simply reading it. It is absolutely important to our faith that we do read it as a part of our spiritual discipline; however, it is equally important to understand who’s writing, to whom they are writing, and the various contexts surrounding the writing. Once that understanding has been attained, it is then possible to apply the texts in ways that are both true to the intent of the author and transformative to us in our context. Next, to conclude this series, we will look at the authentic letters of Paul and gain an understanding of what he felt was vital to being Christian.

“For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better.” (Philippians 1:21-22 NLT)

Lord, as I discipline myself in reading the Scriptures, also give me wisdom and discernment so that I may understand and apply it. Amen.

Understanding Paul, part 3

Read 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stay true to the Lord. I love you and long to see you, dear friends, for you are my joy and the crown I receive for my work.” (Philippians 4:1 NLT)

SAN PABLO10When we read the Christian Scriptures, what has become known as the New Testament, we tend to read it as one narrative written either by the hand of God, or by hands that were dictated to and put into motion by God. In fact, all of the Bible is really read that way. While it is certainly true that the authors of the Bible were inspired by God and by there relationship with God, I think that the way we typically read the Bible takes away from the richness of the individuals who wrote it, as well as their individual contexts and communities. This is no more true than it is with Paul and his letters.

When we read Paul’s letters we read them as Scripture. We look to them for authoritative doctrine and structure for the church. We read them looking for how God wants us, as the church, to live and act. We look to them for the boundaries that make up “the church”, and we look to define what is Christian and contrast it to what IS NOT Christian. When someone says or believes something that seems to go against the rubric of the Pauline Scripture as we interpret it, we tend to distance ourselves from that person and his or her beliefs. Often time the word “heresy” will get thrown away and the label of “false teacher” or “false Christian” will get thrown around.

While I am not saying that we shouldn’t be looking toward Paul’s letters for spiritual guidance, and I am not saying that Paul’s writings aren’t authoritative or useful as a rubric against false beliefs, I am also cautious about using any Paul’s writings, or any Scripture, that way. Paul, at the time, was doing what I like to call “Situational Theology”. He had started a number of Christian communities around Asia Minor and other parts of the Roman Empire and, like in all churches, conflicts and theological disputes arose between different factions (aka cliques) in the church. In the Galatian church, he had Jewish Christians not wanting to accept uncircumcised Gentile Christians into their church community. In the church in Rome, he was dealing with Gentile Christians who were being inhospitable to the Jews in their community, among other things. In another letter, Paul is letting Philemon know that it is not cool to own slaves and that Philemon should let his slave, Onesimus, go free.

Paul, in essences, is writing Christian theological responses to specific situations within specific circumstances. As a Pharisee-turned-Apostle, he is using his understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures, in light of Christ’s death and resurrection, to address the behaviors, conflicts and situations in the local church communities he established. I do not, for one minute, believe that Paul ever foresaw his letters being called “Scripture.” Nor do I think he’d be comfortable with that, especially in light of how his words have often been interpreted.

Don’t get me wrong. I am NOT saying that Paul’s letter’s aren’t Scripture. They are because Christians have and continue to be divinely guided by Paul’s words. Nor am I saying that Paul’s words have no relevance to the church today. They obviously do, and they will continue to for all time. What I am suggesting, however, is that we need to understand the context of Paul’s letters, we need to understand the key theological components of Paul’s central and core beliefs as a Christian Apostle, in order for us to be able to appropriately interpret them in today’s time and context. As with all Scripture, it is not enough to just take the word’s of Paul literally and apply them in heavy-handed and graceless ways; rather, we need to be prayerful and open in our approach to understanding the divine wisdom in the words of Christianity’s most influential theologian.

“Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives.” (Galatians 5:25 NLT)

Lord, raise me up into a messenger such as Paul. Fill me with your hope and send me to proclaim that hope, the hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all who are hunger and thirst for it. Amen.

Understanding Paul, part 2

Read Romans 15:25-33

“From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.” (Galatians 6:17 NRSV)

paulWhen you count the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline Epistles, over half of the New Testament was either written about him or by him. What’s more, every writer in the New Testament came after him and were influenced by his ministry in one way or the other. What that means is that when we read the Gospels, when we read the stories of Jesus in Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, we are reading accounts by people who were writing after Paul, and they were writing from a Christian perspective that was informed by Paul and his mission to the Gentiles.

Of course, this does not necessarily help us to understand who Paul actually was or what he actually believed. Furthermore, this doesn’t help us to better interpret Paul for Christianity today. Over the last two millenia, Paul has been interpreted and reinterpreted. In fact, often times, Paul has even been misinterpreted. As a result of the misinterpretation of Paul’s theology, other people will flat out reject Paul. I have often heard people say that what Paul thought didn’t matter. I have heard some say, “We should be following the teachings of Christ, not of Paul.” While I think that, on the surface, Paul would agree with that statement, I also think it comes from an ignorance of just who Paul the Apostle is, and how he came to believe what he did.

While Paul didn’t spend time writing about the life of Jesus, it would be a huge mistake to say that he wasn’t influenced by the life and teachings of Jesus. He was a Pharisee, knowledgeable in the law of Moses and steeped in traditional Judaism, who came to experience the risen Christ and believe that Jesus was the fulfillment of Judaism. He spent years in Arabia (Galatian 1:17) learning of this Jesus and his teachings, before returning to Damascus to begin teaching about Christ himself. Paul felt strongly that, through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, the Jewish covenant had been opened up to Gentiles as well. What’s more, the Gentile didn’t have to be circumcised or follow special dietary laws. They were accepted by God by virtue of their belief in Jesus.

While many Gentiles were glad to be accepted into the Jewish covenant by virtue of their newfound belief in Jesus as Savior and Lord, many of the Jewish Christians were not so certain that this Paul’s teachings were so correct. They argued that Jesus was a Jew who came to the Jews. While they were completely okay with accepting Gentiles in should they decide to convert to Judaism, these Jewish Christians were not okay with accepting them in willy nilly, just because they “believe” in Jesus. As such, there arose a division between Paul and those Christians who disagreed with him.

Paul stood up against opposition and, in his letters, defended not only his position but also his authority as an apostle. At the same time, he also respected those who opposed him, such as Jesus’ half-brother James, and did all he could to find common ground with them. He even raised money to support the Jerusalem church and chose to deliver that monetary support of the Jerusalem Church’s ministry himself, at risk to his own life. While firm in his convictions, Paul always sought to be a uniter, regardless of the cost. The question for us Christians today is this, are we up to that challenge? Do we firmly believe in the Gospel o Jesus Christ? Are we firm in our convictions of Christ’s radical love and inclusivity of all people who accept him as Lord and Savior? Are we committed to being an agent of unity even amidst opposition? This is what Paul lived and died for, and what we are called to live and die for as well.

“I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised Him from the dead. I want to suffer with Him, sharing in His death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!” – Paul of Tarsus (Philippians 3:10-11 NLT)

Lord, strengthen me to be not only firm in my convictions, but also humble enough to seek unity in mission with those who may not share in them. Amen.