The Apostle Paul

Conversion of Paul 2009
Luke 24:24-28 Marian Free

In the name of God, who calls us into a new relationship with him and with the world God loves. Amen.

“For freedom, Christ has set us free”. Today we celebrate that giant of the early church, the apostle and writer Paul. Paul’s passion for the gospel, his conviction that it was open to the Gentiles, his ability to interpret the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and his boundless energy for mission have shaped the church as we now know it. More than that, it is in Paul’s letters to the communities which he founded that we find are the earliest written accounts of the emerging faith. Through Paul’s letters we discover the earliest statements of faith, hymns and prayers used by the early community and the first written account of the Lord’s Supper. We learn too of the difficulties faced by the early church and the tensions which threatened to destroy the inclusive nature of Paul’s gospel and to lead to not one, but two expressions of the faith.

Paul wrote to chide, to correct and to encourage those who came to faith through his preaching. Though his letters reveal very little of his personal life they are provide the most direct information of any one person in the New Testament. So we know that Paul was and remained a good Jew (in fact a Pharisee). He was proud of his heritage and of his faithfulness to its traditions (Phil 3:4, cf 2 Cor 11:22). So strong was his sense of identity that, according to his own account, he persecuted those who believed Jesus to be the Christ (Gal 1:3, Phil 3:4). Paul did not come to believe in Jesus from intellectual conviction or through having met him during his earthly ministry. Paul had some sort of direct experience to which he refers obliquely in Galatians and 2nd Corinthians. He describes this elsewhere as a resurrection experience. His belief that his gospel came directly from God, gave him an imperative to preach it, even in the face of opposition from the apostle Peter, and the constant risk of beatings and imprisonment.

It is clear Paul was utterly confident of his message. He wrote not to inform, but to transform his addressees, so he pulled no punches, but used every technique at his disposal to convince his communities of the message as he saw it. His letters abound with examples of the type of rhetoric at use in that time.

Paul believed himself to be appointed as the apostle to the Gentiles (Gal 1:1, 16, Rom 1:5) that through him non-Jews would become followers of Jesus and fully integrated into the community of followers without the necessity of circumcision or of being bound by the Jewish law. It was this latter that caused the greatest amount of tension in the early communities and it is in relation to this that a great deal of Paul’s theology is worked out – in particular his notion of grace and justification by faith..

His passion for his message is reflected in his concern for the members of the communities he founds. Even when the tone of the letter is one of anger and frustration his care is obvious. He speaks both as a mother and a father, as a guardian and a nurse. He can say for example: “We were gentle among you like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” (1 Thess 2:7). At the same time he believed that his own salvation was tied up to that of his communities (2 Cor 1:6; 1:14, Phil 2:17, 1 Thess 2:19) which made it all the more important that they hold to the faith.

His parental care for his communities did not prevent him from, at times, being bull headed and uncompromising. He was capable of biting sarcasm (1 Cor 4:8), deep disappointment (Gal 1:6), frustration and even anger (Gal 1:9). He was not afraid to pull his congregations into line or to take on those who preached a differing point of view – even when those preachers were Peter or other so-called “pillars of the church”.

Paul’s reputation as a misogynist is unfounded. In fact his style of leadership was surprisingly egalitarian and non-sexist. Those who worked with him included both men and women and the language he uses to refer to them is that of equals fellow-workers. In his communities women were co-workers for the gospel, they prayed and prophesied and exercised leadership in the churches. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a response to a report by Chloe and the letter to the Romans is delivered by Phoebe who Paul designates as a deacon. (It is only much later that those who claimed to be writing in his name began to put restrictions on the contributions of women in the churches.)

In terms of his person, Paul’s letters indicate that he has some sort of problem with his health which affects his work both positively and negatively –negatively in that he refers to a thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12:7) and positively in that it forced an unexpected stay in Galatia (Gal 4:13). He himself says that he does not speak well (2 Cor 11:6) and his opponents accuse him of being weak (Cor 10:10; 1 Cor 2:4). We have only one description of his physical appearance and that not flattering. The Apocryphal Paul describes him as “small in stature, bald headed, bowlegged, of vigorous physique, with a slightly crooked nose and full of grace” (Buckel, 22). Whether or not he was a tent-maker as Luke records, Paul himself declares that he worked for his living rather than depending on the good will of the communities who he served (1 Cor 9:3; 2 Cor 11:7; 1 Thess 1:9).

Paul’s influence on the church is immeasurable. Not only did he forge a new way of belonging to the people of God, but his letters have been determinate for such influential figures as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther and Wesley all of whom came to a deeper understanding of faith on the basis of Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Without Paul, the Christian faith would have been not only remarkably different, but also remarkably poorer. Paul is not only a passionate evangelist, but also a proficient theologian and intellectual. Though he did not meet Jesus, he manages to distil the key aspects of Jesus’ teaching and leaves the church with a theological foundation on which to build the faith. Without Paul we would not have his understanding of the contradiction of the cross, his arguments about justification and the place of the law, his discussions on the nature of humanity and his belief that in weakness there is strength. Without Paul the resurrection might have been simply a proof text rather than a lived experience. Without Paul we would have no idea about the nature of the church and the relationships between Christians which are expressed as the Body of Christ and we may have misunderstood the freedom of the gospel or the role of the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s personal experience of Jesus drives him to explore and share that relationship, to defend the gospel which he believes came directly from God, to preach to those outside the Jewish faith and to include non-Jews in the people of God. His passion for the gospel is unmistakable and infectious. From him we have much to learn – not simply through his theology, but also his enthusiasm and commitment.

The church today is built on the faith and drive of those who came before us. The responsibility for the church of tomorrow rests with us. How will we respond to the call?

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