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focUS Insights: Let’s Live into Our Motto!

2019-05-29

Results from the focUS Survey conducted in February are available for review, and they highlight the many strengths of our church community, some frustrations, and an eagerness to move forward together to live out our fullest potential.

The survey was delivered as part of Plymouth’s focUS initiative which was designed to help members, staff, and leaders engage in a “conversation about who we are and why we are here.” The hope is that the survey can aid in the ongoing work of the church, especially in the creation of Ministry Action Plans (MAPs) by boards and committees.

The survey gave Plymouth members opportunities to reflect on the value of Plymouth Church in their lives and assess various components of the church. There were 36 questions, including eleven that were open-ended. Survey Monkey was used to design, distribute, and analyze the survey.

In total, 258 members completed the survey giving Plymouth an overall satisfaction rating of 7.64 on a 10-point scale. They also shared their assessments and insights about worship, engagement, communication, strengths, frustrations, and hopes for the future.

Key findings suggest that members really appreciate the quality of worship and music at Plymouth as well as opportunities to learn and serve the larger community. At the same time, we can improve the ways we help members meet and serve each other.  Also, the effects of the Black Lives Matter banner decision from last year along with the politically divisive climate of our society, more generally, are being felt by members of Plymouth, but mostly with the hope that we can move past some of the disappointments and more fully live into our motto to agree to differ, resolve to love, and unite to serve.

2019 focUS Survey Results

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The Walking Dead: Paul’s Theology of Baptism (Romans 6:1-14)

2019-05-27

 

I don’t care what the meteorologists say –Memorial Day is the real start of summer. And so it seems appropriate that we turn our thoughts to water and to baptism.

But for Paul, baptism is not a day at the beach. It is more like that show on AMC that I stopped watching.

Welcome to the ranks of the walking dead.

Romans 6:1-14  

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

12 Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. 13No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. 14For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

We continue in Romans chapter 6. From where we left off last week, we have skipped just a bit of material: 5:12-21. This is the section of the letter in which Paul develops his Adam-Christ typology. Remember, according to Genesis, Adam is the first human. And, according to Paul, all of humanity was implicated in Adam’s sin. Because he sinned, we are sinners.

(You don’t have to agree with this, but you do have to understand it if you want to understand Paul).

But Paul sees Jesus as the second founder of the human race, set up in quite deliberate parallel with Adam. If in Adam, one sin meant judgement, in Christ one good life means salvation for all.

(Again: Does this sound like universalism to you? Because it sure sounds like universalism to me!)

Our reading picks up at the beginning of chapter 6, in which Paul employs one of his favorite rhetorical tricks: Raising a question he imagines the reader may be asking herself and then responding to it. So if you are following Paul’s argument about the universality of sin in Adam and universality of grace in Christ, it may well occur to you to ask: Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 

[Sidebar: So if you understand how Paul uses rhetoric, you can appreciate the opportunity here. If this question has NOT occurrred to us, then we are not tracking with Paul. But if this question makes sense, it suggests we are understanding his argument. I am reminded of physicist Wolfgang Pauli’s famous remark about a paper written by a colleague: “It is not even wrong.”].

Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? Paul produces a two-word answer to his own rhetorical question: μη γενοιτο! My much-loved and very pious college Greek teacher insisted that this phrase was most properly translated as “Hell no.”

(Cue Will Smith)

Watch what happens here: Paul’s theology of grace is so robust that one could assume “anything goes.” But in response, Paul talks about baptism. 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 

We have now arrived at Paul’s theology of baptism. For Paul, baptism is the act that unites our lives with Christ, particularly with Christ’s death. He died; we died. He has been buried; we have been buried.  He lives and we will live with him.

(Sidebar: Ever heard that a lot of scholars dispute claims that Paul authored certain New Testament books, like, for example, Ephesians? Ever wonder why these scholars would think such a thing? This text offers a really good case study in how these authorship questions get debated. In Romans, Paul’s theology of baptism has an already/not yet character: the dying happens to us here and now, the good stuff is yet to come: 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.By contrast, the author of Ephesians thinks the good stuff has already happened. Consider Ephesians chapter 2: But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…This is what scholars call “a realized eschatology,” i.e., the belief that heaven happens now. By contrast, Paul’s Letter to the Romans locates salvation at some future point. This is a pretty significant theological difference and makes many scholars suspect that the author of Ephesians is someone other than the Apostle Paul).

For Paul, our death with Christ in baptism creates a kind of freedom: We don’t have to live according to the (selfish, violent, oppressive) rules of this world. We are free!

In this passage, Paul shows us what a difference theology can make. If I believe this world is the only world—that I am stuck with the status quo—than my only real choice is to learn to live by the rules of this world: kill or be killed, you gets yours and I’ll get mine, whoever dies with the most toys wins, etc.

But what if there is another world –the one Jesus taught us to pray for? And what if we could live by its rules right now –sharing, making peace, doing justice, loving and serving God?

This old world would not be running our lives. It would be dead to us –and we would be dead to it.

For Paul, to be baptized by Jesus is to join the ranks of the walking dead.

 

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Not Bad for a Fundraising Letter: Romans 5:1-11

2019-05-20

 

It is a book of the Bible, an epistle from a church leader to a congregation. It is also a fundraising letter. It may be the most widely-read fundraising letter in human history.

 

This week we continue in the Book of Romans, skipping ahead to chapter 5.

 

But in order to get this passage, we first have to have some sense of what we skipped.

 

Last week we began at the beginning, with the first 17 verses of Romans. We saw how Paul writes this long letter, to a church he has never met, making an introduction. He wants to set his theology before them.

 

But NOT for some abstract love of theology. Paul has a very specific purpose in writing this letter. He hopes the Roman Christians will give financial to support to two of Paul’s pet projects: 1.) An offering from (mostly) Gentile Christians to support the (mostly) Jewish church in Jerusalem and 2.) His plan to preach in Spain.

 

In other words: this is a fundraising letter.

 

But instead of bold text and and promiscuous underlining (Friend, I need you to help me reach this critical goal!), Paul’s approach to fundraising involved a deep dive into his own theology.

 

Last week I suggested that that 1:16-17 is about the closest Paul comes to a thesis statement:

 

16For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

 

For Paul, the good news is the announcement that, in Jesus Christ, Jews and Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews) can have equal access to the God of Israel. In the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile, the church is a visible sign of this new reality.

Paul takes the next many chapters to unfold this argument.

He begins by asserting the universality of human sin (1:18-3:20). He begins with a polemic against “Gentile sinners” that would have resonated with a 1st century Jewish audience. But then he turns it around. In Paul’s perspective, no one is innocent. There is no advantage in being a Jew, no bonus points for religious observance.

 

Put crudely: everybody sucks.

 

But! In Jesus Christ, God has a solution that is scaled to fit the problem. In chapter 3, Paul writes:

 

 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,

 

All have sinned; all are now justified. A universal problem requires a universal solution. And, as a consequence, NO ONE has any claim to superiority. All sin; all are justified.

 

(If you think this sounds like “universalism”…so do I!).

 

Paul will spend the rest of chapter 3 and all of chapter 4 supporting this sweeping claim with an argument about Abraham and, well,  circumcision. We can, for purposes of this blog post, pass over all of that.

 

(You can thank me later).

This weekend, we will focus on what comes next: 5:1-11. It is an extremely dense bit of Scripture. Here is the whole thing:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.9Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.11But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

And here is my attempt to break it down a bit:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul has been a bit backward-looking up to now, talking about what God has done or what Abraham did in the past. With 5:1, we enter the present.

“Justified” is a really important word for Paul. It means something like “reconciled” or “made right.” Paul begins with a belief that our relationships are badly broken: we are estranged from one another and, ultimately, estranged from God. To be “justified,” for Paul, is to be put back in right relationship –first with God but also with other people. And the result of this—as anyone who has ever reconciled with anyone can tell you—is peace.

2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. Two points to note here: First, “obtaining access” reinforces the idea that in Jesus Christ, Jew and Gentile have equal entreé to God. It’s not like some of us have God’s private cell phone number; in Christ all of us have obtained access. Second, “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God” reminds us how much of Paul’s theology is an in-between theology. In Christ, the healing of the whole world has begun but is not yet concluded. In this in-between time, we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God but we don’t quite share it. Not yet.

3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

We could spend a lot of time unpacking these verses, but I think Simone Weil captured it pretty well: “The supernatural greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering but a supernatural use for it.”

We cannot explain suffering. Attempts to explain suffering are often insulting and hurtful to the person who is suffering. What we can do is use suffering to become the people God intends us to be.

6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.9Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.11But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Paul often employs a particular rhetorical trick: the argument from the lesser to the greater: “If this…how much more, that!” In his theology, Christ’s death is a unilateral act of God to deliver the ungodly (i.e., us). God gave of God’s self for us when we were estranged from God. So how much better will God do for us once we are reconciled.

Two quick concluding theological points: a lot about a theology of atonement and a little about being “saved.”

ATONEMENT: This passage obviously raises the question of the atonement in theology: Why did Jesus die and how does his death help or benefit us? It is a huge topic in theology. If you grew up going to church in North America, you probably learned some version of what we call “substitutionary atonement.” The idea, first formulated by an 11th century monk named Anselm of Canterbury, holds that Jesus died to pay a debt we owed to God. Sometimes it is developed in ways that place undue emphasize on the suffering of Jesus or the bloodiness of his death. (Think Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ).

In my experience, many progressive Christians, dismayed by all the blood and gore, disavow the atonement altogether. But I believe it is a mistake to throw out the baby with the bathwater here. There are other ways to understand the death of Jesus, some of which I find tremendously helpful.

Permit me to plagiarize myself:

But if we do not deal with the death of Jesus, we are missing a major part of his significance. And just because some of the theology on this topic has been done poorly does not mean we should refrain from doing it at all.

 

So what is the theological significance of the death of Jesus? Interestingly, the ecumenical church has never laid down a theory of the atonement with the sort of precision seen, for example, in Christology.  Within the broad boundaries of the New Testament claim that Christ died “for us,” the church has entertained a diversity of understandings of the atonement. 

 

Gustaf Aulen’s Christus Victor remains the most helpful survey of various atonement theologies.  Aulen argues that the ancient church held to what he calls the “Christus Victor” model, in which Christ’s cross and resurrection are a triumph over sin and death. The medieval period witness the rise of the judicial model, first advanced by Anselm, in which the cross is understood as an offering made to God by Christ to wipe out human sin; and the moral influence model, first formulated by Abelard in response to Anselm, in which Christ’s death is seen as a spur to human repentance and return to God.

 

I take these three different models, not as competing exhaustive descriptions of the atonement, but rather as complementary heuristic devices.  Each model has well-known problems; each of the three points to some significant aspect of God’s saving work in Christ; yet the sum total of the three cannot fully exhaust the mystery of God’s saving work.  The atonement is “thick” with significance, and the church is the poorer when it reduces the atonement to this or that “thin” interpretation.  Moreover, holding these images together allows one’s view to be enriched by emerging models in new theology, e.g., the liberation theologies of various oppressed groups.  It seems advisable to resist reductionism and instead play host to the diverse perspectives of the universal church.

 

That’s great, Matt, but, what do you really believe?

 

This post is already way too long, so let me do this quickly: My preferred understanding of the atonement draws on the work of René Girard and Walter Wink to see Jesus’ death as an act of nonviolent resistance to the powers oppressing humanity, particularly the Roman Empire and the religious establishment. In this view, the work of Jesus is in some continuity with the work of GhandiKing and others who mobilized nonviolent resistance to injustice and evil.

 

One strength of this perspective: it understands Jesus’ death as an extension of his life’s work, resisting the powers oppressing the human race and demanding justice.

SAVED is a word that seems to rub some people the wrong way. (Also: a pretty good movie!). But I learned something recently. Back in the 14th century—this is 300 years before the King James Version—John Wycliffe produced some of the very first vernacular translations of the Bible into English.

(You can read it here!)

And his translation has helped me to hear “salvation” language a little differently. Consider the Wycliffe translation of Romans 5: 8-9:

8 But God comendith his charite in vs; for if whanne we weren yit synneris,

9 aftir the tyme Crist was deed for vs, thanne myche more now we iustified in his blood, schulen be saaf fro wraththe bi him.

 

Safe. To be saved is to be safe. I can get to next to theology like that.

Not bad for a fundraising letter!

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Spending Some Time with the Apostle Paul

2019-05-13

 

Time to spend some time with Paul.

Paul? Yes, Paul.

This will be better than you think, I promise.

Romans 1:1-17

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, 7To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

8First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. 9For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, 10asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. 11For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles. 14I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish 15—hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

16For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

Do the people of Plymouth have a problem with Paul?

If so, let me clear: I am here to convert you.

I get it. Paul has a bad reputation –seen as arrogant, sexist, out of touchy and maybe a little judge-y. Lots of progressive/liberal/mainline Protestants tend to see Jesus as the good cop and Paul as the bad cop.

I think I am so aware of this because it reminds me that I am not in Kansas anymore. I was raised in an evangelical tradition that revered Paul. Growing up, I heard a lot more preaching on the letter of Paul than I ever did on the Gospels.

But when my theology changed—when my journey led me out of evangelical Christianity and into the United Church of Christ—Paul was THE key to my thinking. Because I grew up thinking Paul taught one thing but when I finally dug in and wrestled with his thought on its own terms, I found something very different. As my understanding of Paul changed, so did my understanding of God, the church and God’s call on my life.

I owe a lot to the Apostle Paul. So I am eager to introduce you to him. And for the next couple of weeks I have an opportunity to do just that. I will try to make good use of it.

Between now and Pentecost, the Narrative Lectionary will devote four weeks to Paul’s Letter to the Romans. The schedule looks like this:

May 19:           Romans 1:1-17

May 26:           Romans 5:1-11

June 2:             Romans 6:14

June 9:             Romans 8: 14-39

As it so happens, this same four weeks will be a busy time in the life of Plymouth Church. We will say goodbye to 3 members of our staff team in three consecutive weeks; celebrate our graduating seniors on Baccalaureate weekend and celebrate with the Matins choir as they get ready to go out on tour; hold a Discover Plymouth New Member Class and participate in Pride 2019.

I can see how Paul might get squeezed out by some of these other events. But I hope to at least use this blog to delve a little deeper into his thinking.

Let’s start by getting oriented to the Epistle to the Romans. A couple of features make it unique among Paul’s letters. For one thing, it is the longest letter we have from his pen. And, for another, he wrote this letter to people he had never met. But he wants their support for the next phase of his missionary work. He lays it all out near the end of the letter, in chapter 15:

23But now, with no further place for me in these regions, I desire, as I have for many years, to come to you 24when I go to Spain. For I do hope to see you on my journey and to be sent on by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little while. 25At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem in a ministry to the saints; 26for Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to share their resources with the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. 27They were pleased to do this, and indeed they owe it to them; for if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material things.28So, when I have completed this, and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will set out by way of you to Spain; 29and I know that when I come to you, I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.

So, Paul has two goals in mind and he wants the Christians in Rome to help with both of them:

  1. He is taking up a collection from predominantly Gentile churches to support the mostly Jewish church in Jerusalem. This offering, to Paul, is an important symbol of the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile in the church.
  2. He also hopes the Christians in Rome will support him in his attempt to push west, into Spain.

But since he has never met the Christians in Rome, Paul uses this letter to lay out his own beliefs as thoroughly as possible. It is the closest thing we have to a “systematic theology” from Paul.

And this week we begin at the beginning, with the first 17 verses of the letter. Paul is well-schooled in 1st century Greco-Roman epistolary conventions –in other words, he knows how to write a letter. But he takes the conventions and bends them to serve his purpose.

So an outline of this portion of the book might look like this:

1:1-6                Introduction: Who is Paul?

1:7                   Recipients

1:8-15              Prayer of Thanksgiving

1:16-17            Thesis

Let’s examine each section in a little more detail.

INTRODUCTION (v.1-6) Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

It is customary to open a letter by identifying the sender. Sometimes (Galatians is a notable example), Paul will expand this section to serve some purpose. In this case, having never met the Christians in Rome, he wants to credential himself as an apostle, “set apart for the Gospel of God.” And he specifies his mission as focused on “the Gentiles.”

RECIPIENTS 7To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 Then one names the recipients of the letter. And Paul’s typical blessing (“grace and peace”) perfectly marries Greek and Jewish sensibilities. “Grace” is closely related to the Greek word for “greeting” (think: “Hello!”) while “peace” evokes the Hebrew word shalom, designating, not mere inner tranquility, but comprehensive well-being for all of God’s creation.

THANKSGIVING 8First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. 9For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, 10asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. 11For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles. 14I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish 15—hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

Whereas a conventional Greco-Roman epistle would offer some sort of kind words for the recipient (essentially the 1st century equivalent of “I hope this email finds you well”), Paul takes this section and makes it into a “prayer wish” –telling the Christians in Rome how, specifically, he prays for them. There is also, in this section, a delightful sort of awkwardness in which Paul initially presents his preaching a little one-sidedly (“…that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you”), but then, perhaps remembering that he has never met these people and he needs to be a little more diplomatic, reverses himself (“or, rather, so that we may be mutually encouraged…”).

THESIS 16For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

According to some outlines of Romans, Paul here introduces the idea that he will unpack all the way to the end of chapter 11: The Gospel is God’s salvation for Jew and Greek.

I can’t possibly do it justice now—this is, after all, in invitation to a journey—so let me hit two key concepts very quickly.

Gospel (τὸ εὐαγγέλιον) is a word derived from the context of battle. When an army was victorious, a messenger would run and proclaim “Good news!” to the people back home. In the context of Paul’s thought, his message is announcing a new state of affairs which God has unilaterally brought about.

Jew and Greek            are THE key to Paul’s thought. He believes that, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has opened a way for non-Jewish people (“Gentiles” or “Greeks” = Hebrew goyim) to have a relationship with the God of Israel. The church exists to be one community in which Jews and Gentiles are reconciled to one another and stand on equal footing before God.

So permit to finish where I started: with a bit of autobiography. I grew up thinking Christian faith in general, and Paul very particularly, relentlessly focused on the need for individuals to be reconciled with God. Think about the language of “being born again.” Think about Billy Graham (whom I saw at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh I 1993). Think about “The 4 Spiritual Laws.”

(This might be a good time to mention that links to other sites on this blog do not constitute endorsements).

I suspect others have this same impression of Paul. Maybe that is why people at Plymouth think Paul is not their guy.

But here is what I discovered when I began to study Paul for myself: There is no reconciliation with God without reconciliation between people. That is THE key to understanding his thought.

And once I saw it, everything began to change for me.

Maybe the same thing could happen to you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Preaching of Paul and a Punk Rock Song: Acts 13 and 14

2019-05-06

 

This week’s Scripture reading reminds me of a punk rock song.

No, seriously.

Belfast’s own Stiff Little Fingers has a song called “Nobody’s Hero.” It’s a (loud, angry) reminder that human beings have a habit of trusting too much in mere mortals.

But the thing is: you don’t need a punk rock song to remind you of that. You can just ask the Apostle Paul.

Acts 13:1-3; 14:8-18

Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. 2While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ 3Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

8 In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. 9He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, 10said in a loud voice, ‘Stand upright on your feet.’ And the man sprang up and began to walk. 11When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’ 12Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice. 14When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, 15‘Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. 16In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; 17yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.’18Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.

Love him (which I sort of do) or hate him (which lots of progressive Christians seem to do), Saul/Paul is THE central figure in the life and theology of the 1st generation of Christians. Like the wheat field on the bear hunt, Paul’s theology is something we cannot go over or under –only through.

And Saul/Paul’s own story is the key to his theology. He was a zealous young religious leader who believed that God was glorified in his persecution of Christians. But when the Risen Christ appeared to him on the Damascus Road, he joined the movement he had hounded. (The change in his name—from Saul to Paul—is an outward symbol of his conversion to an entirely new identity in Christ).

Sau/Paul became a faithful member of the Christian church in Antioch, a Greek city located in modern day Turkey. In today’s reading, we hear how he and Barnabas are identified, set apart and sent out to do the work for which Saul/Paul will become famous: starting church, specifically churches for Gentile followers of Jesus Christ.

But the rest of the passage demonstrates just how difficult it will be to work with non-Jewish (“pagan” folks). For one thing, some of them are very polytheistic –something that no doubt offends Saul/Paul’s Jewish sensibilities.

So, in the city of Lystra, Saul/Paul performs a healing. But then he and Barnabas are mistaken for gods; the people try to worship them. Horrified, Saul/Paul preaches a little sermon in which he insists that he and Barnabas are “mortals just like you.” (Literally, “of the same nature as you”).

And this brings me back to the punk rock song.

Religion is notorious for generating cults of personality. (OK, not, strictly speaking, a punk band but still a pretty great song). Congregations, denominations, whole traditions gather around some one charismatic figure. But in response to just such a situation, Saul/Paul preaches his own version of Paul Tillich’s Protestant Principle. We are fallible; we are just like you. Turn away from us and from all idols in favor of the living God.

(I find it interesting, in this brief snippet of Paul’s peaching, that there is no specifically Christian content. He could have said all of that before his Damascus Road experience. But that is another blog post for another day).

This is why I am a progressive Christian generally and a Congregational Christian specifically. So many facets of our life—the role of doubt and critical thought in the life of faith, our insistence that church most basically happens at the level of the local congregation, our deep commitment to social justice work—many facets of our life can be seen as corollaries or entailments from our basic belief in our own fallibility and limitations.

As we move through the Easter season, I find myself wondering what it means for my leadership and for our shared experience of life at Plymouth that none of us is divine; we are all mortal and, perhaps, nobody’s hero.

But the great foolishness of God is to work in and with and through –us!