Paul’s Good Vibes
A sermon based on 1st Thessalonians 2:1-8
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 26, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Paul has always seemed to me to be an enigma, a riddle. He is liked and disliked. He seems to believe beautiful, as well as confusing things. He’s on the mark in so many ways for me, yet also seems to me have missed the mark now and then. Paul is an enigma in part because the lengthily documentation in his seven genuine letters and much of the Book of Acts brings to relief his very humanness in the midst of the Sacredness of his endeavors and teachings. That humanness makes him admirable in many instances and at other times he seems (at least from our modern context) a bit stuffy, over the top or just plain odd, or confusing. Plus the truth is, even though we know more about Paul than most Biblical folk, there are still a lot of things not explained or things left unanswered. So at the end of the day he IS a riddle and a mystery… an enigma. But we do know more about him than almost any religious leader in the Bible since there are seven letters written by him and almost half of The Book of Acts is dedicated to stories about Paul.
Because Paul is an important part of the New Testament and talked about a lot still today we should know his story even if there is mystery. I mean, any way we cut it, Paul’s letters, teachings and theology have influenced Christianity; and his heroic efforts helped spread it about the world, and eventually changed the Jesus Following from a small Jewish sect to a thriving large religion.
Today’s short reading has Paul suffering shameful mistreatment, yet standing firm through courage in God, all the while advising followers of Christ that proclaiming the gospel is both “holy privilege” and a dangerous gift requiring courage and costs and character that is pure, selfless and longing to please God so that we develop a willingness to use the caring instincts of a nursing mother. That’s a powerful image. In my experience there is nothing closer or dearer than the love and relationship of a nursing mom to her child. That’s the image of love in action that Paul has backing his faith and wants it to be backing our faith. 1.
I read today’s passage and I found myself reflecting on who is this guy, this Paul fellow we know a bit about, but not enough? This Paul guy with a passion for facing religious tussles head on in a selfless and God oriented way, all the while trying and striving to be centered in love and care? The deepest and most powerful type of love and care. He is not afraid to want to love and hold others as dear as a nursing mother does.
As I considered today’s reading I kept thinking we need to know at least the highlights of Paul’s life. So here’s the sorta biographical highlight reel on Paul gleaned from a number of sources. 2 Paul was born in the first decade of the first century, maybe ten years or so after Jesus. While Paul never met the historical Jesus their life-spans overlapped for maybe twenty or so years. So for most of the second and third decades they were both alive in the flesh at the same time. Jesus was crucified somewhere around 30 A.D. “[E]arly Christian traditions . . . report [Paul] was executed in Rome around the year 64 [A.D.]. . .” 3.
Before he died Paul had one heck of a dynamic life by any standard. He was born in Tarsus, the thriving dynamic metropolitan capital city of a Roman province (Cilicia).
A very fine university was in Tarsus, and the city was at a great crossroads of the empire not far from the Mediterranean, so Paul’s hometown was an important city in his day.
While we know where Paul was born we do not know much about Paul’s upbringing. We can say, though, that his letters evidence he was very well educated. He’s not only literate in a day where that was not the norm, but he appears literate in both Greek and Hebrew. Moreover his letters do not just show he was an educated man, but a very intelligent one adept at using the complex rhetorical style and arguments of his day. Some think Paul’s writings suggest he had legal training (which even today we all know is a sign of pure brilliance).
Tarsus is not in Palestine, it’s located between the Greco-Roman homelands and the Mid-East in what today we call Turkey. See, Paul like most Jews of his day was from Diasporia– the name given to all the area of the world where Jews were dispersed beyond the homeland of Israel. This gave Paul the distinct advantage of understanding Gentiles –since he grew up among them– a people and culture the early church leadership in Jerusalem had a difficult time relating to because their homeland was occupied by foreign Gentile forces, it was more or less not a part of the Gentile world like Tarsus was.
Somewhere along the line, probably from his father, Paul learned the trade of tent and awning making, a valuable skill at the time which allowed him to earn a living in his mission travels.
Paul’s father was said to be a citizen of the Empire of Rome, a privileged status granted to only a few residents. As the son of a Roman citizen Paul would also have been given citizen status. Although Paul never mentions being a citizen in his letters The Book of Acts claims he was.
Paul does mention having a physical infirmity and there have been centuries of theories about what it was. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg speculate that since malaria was common in Tarsus, and Paul’s reoccurring weakness, stabbing pain, and ecstatic experiences match malaria symptoms they suggest that was probably Paul’s lifelong disability. 4
Paul’s dad was not only a citizen, but also said to be a Pharisee. So too is Paul. Pharisaic Judaism emphasized maintaining cultural practices so that Jewish identity and the religion would not be diluted by the Greco -Roman culture. Pharisees were a Jewish sect–what we might call a denomination. Pharisees emphasized obeying the laws of Moses and the tradition of the elders focusing on holiness. Some Pharisees were hostile to Jesus, while others were helpful. 5 Paul was initially of a Pharisaic vein that was hostile to the post-Easter Jesus Movement. Within a few years of Jesus’ crucifixion Paul by his own admission persecuted that small but growing sect of Jews who followed the risen Christ Jesus, a sect that later becomes Christianity.
So the adult Paul started out as a Jewish Pharisee, and as a young man he persecuted the Jewish Jesus Followers for heresy, trying to quell the Greco-Roman influence from diluting and corrupting Judaism. Paul must have been of the mind that Jesus Followers were doing just that by asserting that “Gentiles could become full members of the people of God without following Jewish conversion requirements . . .” 6.
Paul and some–but not all– Pharisees were trying to stop them from changing Judaism into something other than what he and those who thought like him believed it should be. (We see this kind of still going on in Christianity today, right?). Paul sums what he was doing up like this in Galatians (1:13), “I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.” The Book of Acts claims Paul (who was then called Saul) was at the stoning of Stephen and approved of it (7:58-8:1) and that later Paul was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” (Acts 9:1).
Paul was doing his persecution stuff in and around Damascus when something extraordinary happened in the mid-30s. Paul had an intense life altering vision. Marcus Borg puts it like this:
According to Acts, Paul saw a great light, and the light identified itself as Jesus. According to Paul’s letters, Paul saw Jesus . . .What he saw and experienced convinced him that we was wrong, that the Jesus who he had been persecuting was not only alive, but Lord. 7
From this mystical and marvelous event forward Paul becomes an apostle of Jesus. 8 An Apostle is someone sent. According to Paul he is an apostle sent directly by Christ to form new communities. First he goes to what we now call Jordan, we know almost nothing about what he did there. We do know that later in the 40s Paul traveled to a mission field in Turkey as a subordinate of Barnabas. Later Paul and Barnabas, split up with Paul going to Asia Minor and Greece spending a good deal of his time in Corinth and Ephesus. 9.
Paul traveled on foot and by boat. He walked over mountains and long dusty roads and he traveled over water by boat. A lot of it was dangerous journeying. Geography is not the only threat. Unlike our culture, free speech and religious choice are not legal rights. So Paul’s work leads to arrests, beatings and imprisonment.
Paul provides a summary of the dangers he experienced in 2 Corinthians (11:23-28). After generally asserting he’s had to experience great labors, imprisonment, countless floggings and near death he list these examples:
Five times I have received . . . the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked . . . In Damascus, the governor . . . guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands. (2Co 11:21-1 NRS) . .
. (THAT’s PAUL WRITING)
Whenever I get a mean or snarky comment about practicing, preaching and teaching Christ’s love-centered theology, I try to remember to compare them to Paul’s or Jesus’ list of abuses, and I smile with relief that my work has not exposed me to anything near the list of abuses they endured. Paul faces so much danger that he is nothing short of heroic by any standards in his mission work.
Paul experiences some hellish stuff in part because he starts doing what he once persecuting others for. Paul is now the one promoting a form of Judaism that allows Gentiles in without following long established Jewish rules. 10 So he’s persecuted like he persecuted. But another part of the turbulence Paul faces is likely due to his not corrupting Judaism, but going into synagogues and syphoning off Gentiles community members who were participating, but not converting because they found the Jewish rites and rituals unacceptable.
Paul goes in, offers a way to be Jewish without concern and requests to comply with the unacceptable rites and rituals. So Gentiles join the Jewish Jesus Movement and leave the synagogue taking their time, talent and treasures with them. The is understandably not cool with some of the local synagogues making Paul very unpopular.
On top of which Paul gets into tiffs with the early leaders of the church. They argue mostly over the same stuff that gets him in trouble elsewhere. It is the same stuff that got Jesus in trouble and still gets us in trouble: the practice, preaching and teaching of a wide open embrace for all, love for everyone, equality, egalitarism and a God who’s love has no strings attached regardless of what ancient scripture said or how others interpreted it.
Paul is NOT following a number of Biblical dictates in order to spread God’s love far and wide, in particular to the Gentiles. Paul is given charge over converting Gentiles, that’s his audience in the mission field–and he ignores scriptural edicts that are not core to the practice of loving neighbors.
Paul knows his audience and what will work. He argues with early church leaders that Gentile Jesus Followers do not have to follow Jewish ritual and dietary rules. The leaders on the other hand argue Gentiles do have to follow them. As we see in his letters Paul also argues with leaders and members in churches he’s founded or giving advice to. Plus Roman officials arrest and imprison and eventually kill him.
Paul can be understood as embroiled in conflict almost everywhere he turns. He experiences conflict with some Pharisees; synagogues; church leaders; church members; and with Romans too.
Paul’s conflicts and his life ends – it is believed– when Nero has him executed in 64 AD as a part of Nero falsely blaming Christians for a great fire that raged through Rome.
If you read Paul’s letters and The Book of Acts you can get a feel for a lot of the conflict Paul encounters, the scars and wounds and his strength and resolve in providing loving responses as a part of his theology. Paul sums up this core theology in Romans 13:10 like this, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
In today’s reading if we listen carefully we can hear some of this biographical stuff vibrating still in his words as he eludes to some of what he went through some wounds and scars affect him still. What I love best, though, is that he overlooks the wounds and scars we so that can experience in Paul’s writing even stronger vibrations of the light and love that he first encountered on the road to Emmaus– it still dances off the page and sings in the love song of his prose:
You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.
For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.
As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ.
But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
(Paul of Tarsus. Paul an Apostle of Christ).
May we overlook our wounds and scars and learn to so deeply care for others that we become determined to share with them not only the gospel of God but our own selves through our loving acts and our loving words. May we aim to treat others as dearly and as precious as a nursing mom treats her child. And may the reason be that others actually become that dear and that precious to us. AMEN!
1. Feasting on the Word commentary for year A, vol iv, p 208-210)
2. Including Borg, Marcus, Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written; Crossan, John Dominic & Reed, Jonathan, In Search of Paul; Borg Marcus, Crossan Dominic, The First Paul.
3. Borg, “Evolution of the Word” at 24
4. The First Paul, at 63-65.
5. Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms
6. The First Paul, at 69
7. Evolution of the Word at 23
8 The First Paul at 72
9. Evolution of the Word at 23
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