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,