Posts Tagged ‘Paul’

The Conversion of Paul

// March 14th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Last week we talked about the Apostle Paul.  It is hard to read Paul with fresh eyes, without the jaundice of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and the Enlightenment.  Through those interpreters, Paul has become more rigid, shriller, and more pedantic.  It is hard to unhear all of those voices, so I have to reconstruct my apparatus for reading Paul every time the lectionary foists him on us.  To do so, I first turn to John Dominic Crossan because he reminds me of the influence of the Roman Empire on the writings of Paul.

In 70CE, Jerusalem and its temple were utterly destroyed by the Roman Empire.  Much of the Christian Testament was written after that and Jesus’ life and death was interpreted in light of that by those authors.  It seems like fans of the Bible have gotten more sensitive to that in recent years.  I even hear evangelicals talking about colonialism.

But the authentic letters of Paul were written before the fall of Jerusalem, roughly between 50CE and 60CE.  As a result, there wasn’t a single catastrophic event that so clearly focuses the presence of the Roman Empire in the writing of Paul.  This allows us to spiritualize and theologize Paul’s writing.  We imagine that his concerns were those of his later interpreters: faith, grace, law, and works.  However, if we understand the Empire as the backdrop that is present throughout Paul’s writings, we become sensitive to certain language.

On Sunday, I highlighted the possibility that Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus was, in large part, a conversion of his response to the oppression of Rome.  Both the author of Acts and Paul himself (in Galatians 1.14) describes Paul as a “zealot,” which could mean he was a Zealot.  The Zealots had a two-pronged response to Rome: 1) rigid enforcement of the law among the people of Jerusalem (violently, if necessary) to return God’s favor to Israel; and, 2) absolute resistance Roman authority (violently, if necessary).  The Zealots were instrumental in the Jewish insurrection of 66CE, which led to the destruction of Jerusalem.  Paul’s presence at the stoning of Stephen suggests he might be a part of this group.

However, after Paul’s conversion, his posture toward Rome shifts.  He still rejects Roman authority, but eschews violent resistance.  He writes almost fondly of his imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Empire.  He understands that God’s presence in Jesus was marked by suffering for the sake of God’s children, so he takes on that suffering in solidarity with the family of God.  Salvation will come, not through violent resistance and the violent enforcement of his theology, but through non-violent resistance and the practice of justice.  The way of God is marked by humility and vulnerability in contrast to the world’s way of power and strength.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we continue to talk about sin, suffering, and salvation.  This week, we will look at a pseudo-Pauline letter that attempts to summarize Paul’s theology of faith, grace, and works (Ephesians 2.1-10), as well as a portion of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus that contains perhaps the best known Bible verse ever (John 3.14-21).  We hope you’ll add your voice to the conversation.

Grace & Peace,

Taking Up the Cross

// March 5th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Sorry about the cold last Sunday.  Still learning about the building’s reaction to crazy Texas weather.  So our conversation was brief, but good.

I shared a little (maybe a lot) about the context of Romans.  Paul is often read through the eyes of previous interpreters and, in our contemporary context, Romans is often the source of our ideas about what it means to be “saved,” the how and the why.  Every time I read Romans, I encounter one of those verses that would seem to tell us that Jesus died because I am awful, because of something I did or said, because I’m just rotten to the core.  I read Romans and see that Jesus was a sacrifice made for my rottenness, that Jesus stood in my place for what I deserved.  Even after all the study I have done, I still fall into that reading.  However, there are other readings.

The Jewish Christians who started the Roman church had been exiled and now returned to find a church filled with Gentile Christians.  As you might imagine, there is tension.  Paul is writing to address that tension, to unify the church so that they might also unite with him in his proposed mission to Spain.  Thus, it is not a treatise on how and why we might be saved.  Rather, Paul cites the faithfulness that both groups have, the trust in God’s promise that is more foundational than law or conversion or ethnicity or history. Specifically, it is trust in God’s promise that life can come out of death, which was revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ.  Most importantly, the Roman Christians have the opportunity to make that promise come true by being new life for one another.  The struggle and suffering of exile and persecution can be redeemed if they choose to live into that promise, to hold fast to one another in a difficult time.

It is the same in the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus tells us that following him means to take up one’s cross.  If the cross of Jesus was the one cross, if the death of Jesus was the singular event to set things right, why follow him at all?  What is left to be done?  Why are there still crosses to bear?  While Paul uses the language of sacrificial atonement, he does not develop the idea, but instead returns over and over again to the idea of participation, of unity in Christ.  We live into the suffering and death of Christ so that we and our world might be transformed into a new life of love, peace, and justice.  Jesus did not carry that cross so that we wouldn’t have to; he carried it so that we would know the Way.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we continue to discuss the meaning of the suffering and death of Jesus in this Lenten season.  This week, we will discuss the foolish ways of the world and the wisdom of the cross (1 Corinthians 1.18-25) informed by Jesus’ cleansing of the temple as depicted in John 2.13-22.  I figured out how to use the heater.

Grace & Peace,

Progress Report

The workday didn’t happen because it was freezing in the building.  My bad.  However, Mikal Beth got some more painting done this week (thank you!) and I did some odds and ends.  If you’d like to do some work on the building, check out our Google doc task list.  It is fully editable, so feel free to add on if you see something that needs to be done.  No shenanigans!

Fred and Ashley got a lot of stuff for the kitchen (big thanks!), but we still need some stuff from our registry.  We welcome any contributions!

Finally, we have studios to rent.  If you know someone who wants a small studio or office, send them our way.  They are small, about 80sf, but enough room for a desk or wall space for painting.  We’ll try to accommodate people as best we can.  We’re looking for $200/mo in rent.

The Eternal Becoming

// August 1st, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

One of my developing theses in this section on the Apostle Paul is that his hopes were bigger than he was.  His view of the possibilities for his world and his faith was constrained.  For example, we have seen how his understanding of physiology shaped his views of what it means to live a spiritual life.  For Paul, equality operates by everyone moving toward masculinity, which was viewed as more spiritual and rational, less emotional and bound to the demands of the flesh.  So he works with women, considers them equals in Christ, and commends them for their service, but the way he gets there is distasteful to modern readers.  My suggestion has been to let go of the obviously wrong medical “knowledge” and hold on to the ideal of equality.

We can also see some of Paul’s limitations in the way that he casts the spiritual life as a battle.  The Flesh and the Spirit are at war in our bodies and in our world.  This is understandable because Paul lived and worked in an occupied land.  It was tense; it seemed as though a violent uprising – and a violent response – were always on the horizon.  Framing that conflict as the same conflict that humans experience in their own psyches is clever and wise.  However, it limits the story of our faith to a struggle for power – power over ourselves and power over our world.  It is socially and politically divisive and spiritually and psychologically fragmenting.  It ends up drawing lines and building walls rather than expressing Paul’s great hope that lines will be erased, that God can overcome any division.

This week’s lectionary passage, Romans 8.26-39, brings us another example, perhaps driven by Paul’s expectation of a rapid Second Coming.  A great deal of theologians’ ink has been spilled over the question of “the elect.”  Paul’s language indicates that God preselected certain people to be included in this new household, this large family.  There is an inevitability to it, what we might now call God’s irresistible will.  Yet, in the face of a ticking clock counting down to what has been preordained, Paul is writing to the Romans to ask for money to begin a mission to Spain to set up new churches.  He is not shutting down, sitting around waiting.

There is great hope in Paul’s actions that betray his language.  Perhaps he did think that God chose only a few, but he behaved as if there could always be more.  The only thing limiting him was his ability to reach out and the time constraints he thought he was under.  But after two thousand years of waiting for a Second Coming that never comes, we find that we have all kinds of time.  We continue to reach out, to call as we have been called.  Perhaps, as a Calvinist friend of mine once said, we are all the elect.  God has chosen who is in and who is out, but the secret is that we are all in.

But there’s another trick.  Usually, the conversation about the elect is about who gets in.  Specifically, who gets into heaven; it is concerned with who is saved.  However, I notice that Paul’s elect have a lot of work to do.  They are not just bringing people in, putting butts in seats and filling out the membership rolls. They work and share meals and pray together.  They are living the life of justice and peace that they expect to arrive in the Second Coming.  So maybe after two thousand years of waiting for the Second Coming that never comes, Paul would say that the project of Christianity is to live that life of justice and peace so that God’s presence in the world is revealed.  Rather than waiting for the event, rather than focusing on the moment of our salvation, the task is to participate in the process of God coming into the world.  Maybe after two thousand years of waiting for the Second Coming that never comes, Paul would realize that there is no Second Coming;  there is only the Eternal Becoming.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk about love that never fails.  See you there!

Grace & Peace,

Our Bodies, Ourselves

// August 19th, 2011 // No Comments » // Uncategorized

I try to avoid Pauline texts as much as possible. In addition to what in my estimation is a very non-systematic approach, Pauline texts have the unfortunate honor of establishing the language we use to talk about our faith. I say unfortunate because it is impossible to hear these texts without the weight of the entire history of interpretation of the text. When we read Paul, we read him with Augustine and Martin Luther and Rene Descartes and Karl Barth looking over our shoulders, whispering in our ears. And so, one would not normally think a simple word like “bodies” would be an action-packed exegetical summer blockbuster, but, oh-em-gee, one would be so wrong.

First, let’s deal with a little baggage. Western culture has a radical ambivalence toward the body, simultaneously body-obsessed and body-hating. Philosophically and theologically the body is often seen as a burdensome shell to be resisted in life and finally, gloriously, shucked in death. Culturally it is the means by which we judge and are judged. If we pay attention to our bodies, we are vain; if we don’t, we are slovenly or slothful. No matter what we do, our bodies can turn on us when we least expect it and will inevitably wither and die. It is no wonder we want to distance ourselves from our bodies, to hope that, whatever we are, it is not our fickle flesh.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we are our bodies. Don’t worry. It’s not all bad. In fact, it’s quite beautiful. To be embodied is to exist in a particular time and place. Our bodies are a unique point of reference that cannot possibly be duplicated and from which we construct the world around us. As such, our bodies are located in a web of relationships with other bodies. Our “selves” are constructed by those relationships. This is the dance of existence: always constructing and being constructed. Thus our bodies are spiritual, being the locus of transformation through the mind and heart and will. As embodied beings, we press against one another leaving impressions like pieces of soft clay.

It is part of the peculiar beauty of our faith that we are deeply concerned with bodies. Despite the diversity of views in Christendom, past and present, we all agree that there was something so important about bodies that God had to get one. When we speak of the Incarnation, we are talking about the embodiment of God in the world. That embodiment continues in the Church, which, at Paul’s suggestion, we refer to as the Body of Christ. And here, Paul exhorts us to make our bodies a living sacrifice, to be transformed, to be impressed by and impress ourselves on the soft clay of the Body of God.

Join us this Sunday as we try to redeem our attitudes toward bodies, to see them as God does: good and acceptable and perfect.

Grace and Peace,