Today I want to talk about someone who is known for being temperamental, authoritarian, bombastic, mercurial, combative, hypersensitive, vindictive, pejorative, self-promotional, insensitive–and- no, I am not talking about the President of the United States. I am talking about the apostle Paul.
Love him or hate him, the apostle Paul has a larger than life personality. He commands our attention. He sucks up all the air in the room. Almost two thousand years after his death Paul is impossible to ignore.
Paul’s personality is so powerful that it can overpower the life and teachings of Jesus. In the New Testament there are 4 gospels about Jesus whereas there are 13 letters attributed to Paul.
Jesus was an oral teacher who never wrote his teachings down on paper. Paul spread his message through letters that could be duplicated for mass distribution.
Just as today a shoe leather politician who campaigns door-to-door can be kicked to the curb by another politician with a Twitter account so too the oral teachings of Jesus find it difficult to compete with the mass communication techniques of Paul. Jesus was called the Christ but many believe it is Paul, who never met Jesus, who has defined Christianity.
I imagine that if Jesus and Paul had ever shared the same stage for a debate Paul would have interrupted Jesus over and over again.
Before I get into some of the more troubling passages of the writing attributed to Paul let me say there are some very beautiful passages in the letters of Paul. The passages of Paul that speak to me most profoundly are those where he tells us that love is more powerful than law.
In the Paul’s letter to the Romans he writes, “The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,”a and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
When we read this passage we can see why Saint Augustine once summarized the message of the scriptures in the sentence, “Love, then do what you like.”
It is ironic that many religious leaders have used Paul’s words to impose a form of religious legalism over others because in his second letter to the Corinthians, a document our president once called “2 Corinthians,” Paul invites us to become “ministers of a new covenant— not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.”
However, the letter of Paul’s writings has often been more dominate in our culture than the Spirit. This week I came across a website called, “Scriptures that Turn Believers into Atheists.” While many of Paul’s teachings are on this website including the following.
“Wives, obey your husbands. This is the right way to live when you belong to the Lord,” Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians, “Slaves obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.” Another verse, “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission.” He goes on to say that if women have any questions about church they can simply ask their husbands about it later. He also told women they needed to cover their heads in church but he told men they did not have to because “men are the glory of God and women the glory of man.”
Suffice it to say that if the apostle Paul were to run for office today he might inspire a Million Woman March. And if he were to try to implement the teaching about slaves obeying their masters then civil rights leaders would not recognize his legitimacy. You can see how the legalistic interpretation of Paul could lead a young woman to pick up a sign that says, “A woman’s place is in the revolution.”
A while back I was talking with a friend who was struggling with forgiveness and he said to me, “I picked up this book about forgiveness but I couldn’t get through it. It had a whole lot of teachings of the apostle Paul.” I understood his dilemma because let’s be honest the apostle Paul can be very difficult to forgive.
So if you’ve been hit over the head with his teachings one too many times I get where you are coming from. If Paul is not your favorite biblical writer I will cut you some slack.
However, one of the strange paradoxes about Paul is his tendency to contradict himself. One moment he is for the submission of women and the obedience of slaves and in another he writes one of the most eloquent Christian arguments against racism and sexism and for human equality ever written.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female but all are one in Christ Jesus.”
This scripture was the central text used by abolitionist in their campaign against slavery and by the first generation of women who broke through the stain glass ceiling in the 19th century in order to become ordained ministers all of whom preached the gospel with their heads held high and their heads uncovered.
And to make matters even more complicated there are passages in Paul’s letter where he praises women for their leadership in the early church – Prisca, Priscilla, Aquila . Mary, Phoebe, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Junia, Chloe, Euodia , Syntyce and Julia using terms of equality calling them co-workers, fellow laborers and in the case of Junia an apostle.
Trying to understand Paul can be quite confusing and even maddening. One minute he is speaking emphatically for one thing and the next he is doing the opposite. In the early days of the church when many people felt it was a small fledgling faith against a hostile world he was combative and would pick fights with other leaders of the church. Trying to understand him can be a very frustrating experience.
Part of the problem is he had a way of adapting his message to different audiences saying, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
So here is an idea that can help make Paul more comprehensible. Recently, I heard a political scientist say something about our new president that I have heard biblical scholars say about the apostle Paul, “Take him seriously but not literally.” When we try to take him literally nothing adds up and confusion reigns. When we try to take him seriously then new avenues of thought become possible.
Now don’t get me wrong taking him seriously and not literally is not going to address all of our concerns but it could set us on a course that lends itself to more personal sanity. Sometimes a personality is so much larger than life that he can work his way into our heads.
It is sort of like the situation with Donald Trump. Love him or hate him, he has a way of working his way into every conversation and every head.
At the risk of TMI – Too much information, the other night I had a dream that my wife Suzanne and I were in the bedroom and Donald Trump was trying to move in with us, moving our bed over to make more room for his bed. Now that is a larger than life personality when someone can work his way into my head like that. It’s crazy making.
And as I look out at the congregation today I think I can see more than a few people who would not want to see the apostle Paul move into their bedrooms not even in your dreams. One verse that has been used to beat people up over the years comes from his letter to the Corinthians; words that have often been hurled at members of the GLBT community.
“Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God”
These words have been used to try to stymie the cause of gay rights for many centuries even though biblical scholars disagree over whether the word translated as homosexual is accurate. Right now there are legalists in our state legislature who are trying undo the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality by ensuring that words husband and wife in Tennessee law are interpreted literally so they don’t have to take the Supreme Court decision seriously.
However, I have always been partial to the words Paul wrote that are an affront to every form of legalism and any kind of legalist religion, “wherever the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty.” Wherever the Spirit is there is freedom. During the civil rights movement, activists evoked the memory of the apostle Paul as they marched for freedom singing,
Paul and Silas bound in jail
Had no money to go their bail
Keep your eyes on the prize
And after the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality and the euphoric rallies where the signs read, “Love Wins,” I began to hear the words of Paul in a different way, words which are so often used in weddings, words that challenge every form of legalism empty of love.
‘If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.’
And as we remind each other every Sunday – it is the truth that sets us free.
Love is the spirit of this church
Love is the fulfillment of the law.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
(This sermon was preached at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday January 29, 2017 by Rev. Chris Buice.)