Sunday, January 26, 2014

Then There was Paul

I Corinthians 1:10-18

        Last week, following both services, a number of you came up and expressed joy over my suggestion that the disciples were a less than competent bunch. The typical response was, “Wow, looking at the disciples in that light, I feel much better about myself. Maybe I came take my limited talents, and with the help of God, accomplish things I never felt possible.”
        Keep that thought in mind. Do not let anything I say in the next few minutes distract you from attempting something you once felt impossible. If incompetence is your inspiration, by golly there is plenty of that to go around.
Today incompetence is not the issue. Instead, we are going to venture into those dangerous and controversial waters surrounding the Apostle Paul.
I am well aware just the mention of Paul’s name causes some of you to wish you had stayed in bed. Isn’t this the guy who said, “Wives be subject to your husbands?” If Paul wrote Ephesians, which by the way is questionable, he is guilty of those words. Paul certainly gets credit for writing the Book of Romans were he placed gays and lesbians in the same paragraph with folks who were guilty of wickedness, envy, murder, faithlessness, and ruthlessness. It amazes me that the last half of the first chapter of Romans gets quoted more often at Presbytery meetings than Paul’s later proclamation, “There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.” But then that’s just the way it is with Paul. Controversy follows him like flies attraction to fly paper.
Who was this guy? Unlike the disciples, he had quite an impressive resume. He was trained from birth to be a scholar of the Old Testament text. We are told that he was a highly respected Pharisee which meant he was well versed in Hebrew Law. Paul also had one other thing which made his situation a bit unique. He was born in the city of Tarsus, a coastal town in present day Turkey. Paul was born a citizen of the Roman Empire, a caveat that proved quite useful later in life. Paul was present at the stoning of Stephen and quickly rose up the ranks of those who were appointed by the Sanhedrin to persecute the followers of Jesus. His conversion came following amazing event along the road to Damascus. While blind he saw the text he had known from birth in a whole new light. From there he not only took Christianity beyond Jerusalem, he was the chief architect of the new movement’s theological understanding of the man Jesus. Central to his belief was the cross, which Paul claimed to be, “Foolishness for those who are perishing but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”
Those are strong words. This week I took off the better part of Wednesday to ski with a friend who had been the clerk of Session at Bow Creek Presbyterian when I was the minister there in the late 1980’s. Ken was reminding me of the statement of faith that I had presented to the search committee. Paraphrasing Paul, I had somewhat dramatically suggested God called us to be fools for the gospel and I was ready to accept that role.     Ken said he argued against my coming to Bow Creek because, to quote Ken, “He had seen enough ministers make fools of themselves and didn’t care to meet someone who actively bragged about it.”
All kidding aside, how does one approach Paul’s statement concerning the cross? There are those among you who wish we sang more songs like “The Old Rugged Cross”. Others of you cringe when the words, “Blood of the Cross” are spoken. Is there common ground on our understanding of the “Power of the Cross”?  Probably not, and yet the Cross remains the one unique symbol which distinguishes us from other expressions of faith.
Paul was the first theologian of the church. His writings preceded all of the Gospels. One could argue the letters of Paul set the groundwork for the writing of the gospels. The writers of Matthew, Mark and Luke are heavily influenced by the theology of Paul. John’s gospel often finds itself in interesting conversation with the conclusions drawn by Paul.  In the first three Gospels all roads lead to the Cross. In John the resurrection becomes the climax emphasizing the living Word, who was with God in the beginning and continued to be the source of all life. John’s Gospel celebrated a life and a God that could not be overcome by darkness and death. Paul, while grasping the significance of the resurrection, stressed the paradox of cross of Christ.
Paul insists we remember the death of Jesus as an act of humiliation. It would have never occurred to any “sane” individual in the first century to transform the cross into a religious symbol. The cross represented the most shameful form of execution and was used by the Roman justice system primarily to discourage slaves and political insurgents from testing the waters of liberation.  The purpose of cross was to humiliate the dying and frighten the living. During the Jewish wars of 66-77 A.D., thousands of Jews were crucified. From the standpoint of Roman justice, it was proof that resistance was futile.
But instead of being horrified by the cross, Paul wants us to embrace it. Paul preached Christ crucified was not the failure of God’s love but the holiest demonstration of God’s power. In his letter to the Philippians Paul claimed, “Jesus humbled himself and became obedient unto death in order that God could exalt him and give Christ the name that is above every other name.” Instead of being horrified by the cross, Paul both claimed and embraced it, an action that shocked and embarrassed folks intelligent enough to see the failure of his thinking. But Paul did not concern himself with logic, but based his arguments on his faith in a God who had a history of defying human expectations.
Today, among many of my friends and colleagues, the idea of the cross as necessary for the salvation of humankind has fallen on hard times. I was having a conversation with a person under 30 who said his generation sees the church as a place of social action and community restoration. He believes in the grace of God but the details of how that happens aren’t all that important to him. He remarked, “If God can create the world, then why can’t salvation happen without the violence of the cross?” Then he smiled and said, “But then non-violence would be so out of character with the history of the church.”
Ah the subtle sarcasm of youth. To my young friend the cross is both foolishness and a stumbling block in his acceptance of the dogma of the church. But it has not hindered his relationship with God.
I know I am saved by the grace of God. Must that salvation depend on the blood of the cross? Paul, who was initially an orthodox Jew, believed forgiveness came after a sacrifice. It was only logical that Paul would see Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God.  But to my young friend, that image is not only hideous but has become a stumbling block. Is it the theology of Paul or the theology developed by the church’s understanding of Paul that has led to his disillusionment?  I am not sure, but I shall be open enough to continue our conversations.                           Amen

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