January 28, 2017;  The Conversion of St. Paul

 

I’ve mentioned before how important it is to me that I was brought up in the racially segregated South. When I realized how wrong my hometown was about something very important, it opened me to the possibility that there might be other things wrong about what I inherited – values, world-view, morals and perspective. I think that’s why when my inherited understanding about gay people was challenged, I quickly began to ask questions and explore, and I found that what I had been taught from childhood was wrong. I changed my mind. To this day, I walk around expecting to be corrected. That’s a good thing.

 

To understand the apostle Paul, you’ve got to start with his experience of being wrong. He was the most religious person in his age group. He did everything right. He followed the law. And when a heretic group of Christian Jews started a movement challenging his orthodoxy, he went after them. But he discovered he was wrong. He had been wrong all along. He thought God was in the rule-making business, and he discovered God was in the love and mercy business. So Paul changed his whole orientation.

Before, when he was trying to earn his own status before God, he was competitive and self-absorbed. “How am I doing? I’m doing everything right, aren’t I? Look at those others. They are wrong. I know it!”

Paul divided the whole world that way. Right / Wrong. Righteous / Sinner. Orthodox / Heretic. Jew / Gentile. Saved / Lost. But all of a sudden, he found himself on the other side of those dualities. What he experienced on the Damascus Road was a love that eliminated all dualities, transcending them in a unifying love.

He experienced God as infinite love, complete acceptance, pure gift. He had persecuted the Messiah. He had been wrong. Yet God loved him, accepted him, and called him. He didn’t earn that. He didn’t deserve it. It was all a gift. And now he was free. Free from the compulsion of judging himself or judging others. Free to simply be. Free to love.  That is the Good News, which is what the word “Gospel” means—”Good News.”

Now this is important. Paul realized that if God loved and accepted him—an enemy of Christ, an enemy of God—then God loves every human being in the same way. “God shows no partiality.” (Rom. 2:11) There are no human divisions. Everyone is the same before God.

Everybody has failed. No one can appear before God with the claim that God owes them. Everyone is loved infinitely, even enemies like Paul used to be. “God shows no partiality,” but loves every human being infinitely.

Furthermore, Paul is convinced that Christ’s triumph is complete and universal. “For as in Adam all died, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Cor. 15:22) Even enemies.

So Paul started undoing all the false human divisions that we humans have created. There is no longer Jew or Gentile; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male or female. (Gal. 3:28)

No longer Jew or Gentile. Paul broke the Gentile boundary in the early Church. He welcomed Gentiles without expecting them to become Jews or to follow the law. He opened the Church to the outsiders.

No longer male or female. Paul authorized women to lead in his congregations: women like Lydia in Philippi, Phoebe in Cenchreae, Prisca and her husband Aquila in both Corinth and Rome (Paul usually names her first), Chloe, Euodia and Synthche, and his fellow apostle Junia, a woman he speaks of as of equal apostolic rank to Paul. Some men apparently got nervous about Paul’s egalitarian attitude. A later writer inserted a phrase into a copy of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians about women being silent in church. (1 Cor. 15:34f) Other later disciples wrote, in 1 Timothy, Ephesians and Colossians, adopting patriarchal models that neither Paul nor Jesus practiced. Women led and taught in Paul’s churches.

No longer slave or free. When Paul returned the runaway slave Onesimus to his owner Philemon, Paul instructed his disciple Philemon to welcome the slave Onesimus “as you would me” your teacher, “no longer as a slave” but as a welcomed “beloved brother.”

Paul challenged all of the divisions of his contemporary culture. Male-Female; Slave-Free; Jew-Gentile; Roman Citizen-Non-citizen. Paul’s practice gives witness to his belief that any structure that divides human beings is wrong, including structures like slavery imposed by government. Every human being is equal in God’s sight. Thou shall not divide us, in the church or in the state.

Paul dared to make that claim using the same language and symbols for Christ that the Roman civic religion used for the Emperor. “Caesar is Lord,” said Rome. “Caesar is the Son of God, bringing peace to the whole earth, the Pax Romana,” said Rome. The Roman peace enforced by the sword of domination.

Paul challenged Rome’s authority directly using the same political language: “Jesus is Lord. Jesus is the Son of God” who guards “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.” (Phil 4:7) What Rome would oppress, Christ liberates. What Caesar divides by force, Christ unites by love. Faithful Christians must continue to assert the same claims against arrogant government oppression today as Paul did in his day. “For I am convinced,” he said, “that nothing in all creation” – not rulers, or powers, things present or things to come – nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38-39)
So Paul began to expect God’s surprising presence to be everywhere, because God is continually loving everyone without exception. Paul’s eyes were opened to see the fruit of the Holy Spirit present throughout all humanity. “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and temperance. There is no law against such things,” he said (Gal. 5:22-23). These qualities are evidence of the Spirit’s presence. Even when they come from the unexpected person or outsider group.

Paul sought to create communities like this one where these gifts could be nurtured. His essential symbol and strategy was the Eucharistic feast, a table among equals where all are fed on the life of the risen Christ. When some elitist Corinthians used their wealth and power to create an exclusive feast that the poor could not share, Paul condemned them fiercely. He reminded them of the moral obligation for the wealthy to share generously with the poor. Paul spent so much time and energy on his collection for the poor, even shaming the relatively rich Corinthians by boasting about the generous gifts from the poor churches of Macedonia. (1 Cor. 8)

We are all one, he insisted. And the needs of one are the responsibility of us all. We are all one, he insisted, and any dividing of humanity between the in and the out, the us and the them, the acceptable and the unacceptable, is unacceptable. Paul knew, because when he was unacceptable, God had accepted him. Therefore, there is no condemnation.

That is the broad world view that our patron St. Paul invites us to embody here at this church which lives under his name. Be free, for you are loved. Be one, with all humanity. Break down the divisions among humans, and manifest the unqualified love and acceptance that God gives so freely to all.

“Finally, beloved,” to close with Paul’s words, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Phil. 4:8-9)

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