Posts Tagged ‘Paul’

The Trinity and Paul – some thoughts

May 30, 2015

Trinity Sunday – 2015

Romans 8

Marian Free

In the name of God who created us, died for us and enlivens us. Amen.

The Apostle Paul gets a lot of bad press. From the time the author of 2 Peter wrote: “There are some things in them (Paul’s letters) hard to understand”, there have been those who accuse Paul of being difficult, culture bound and chauvinistic. As a Pauline scholar I would of course, contest all such negative comments and claim them to be misrepresentations at worst and misinterpretations at best by those who have not taken the time to study and understand the genius that is Paul[1].

I am not saying that the letters of Paul are immediately transparent, or that there are not some parts that require a certain amount of effort to understand, but I would claim that what Paul has to say is absolutely essential for our understanding of the gospel and that he says it in a way that is quite masterful and compelling.

One of the difficulties that we face when we read either Paul’s letters or the gospels is that they were written in the first century for a first century Mediterranean audience. The letters are even more specific. Paul was not writing for our edification. In fact I think that he had no more idea of his letters being turning into Holy Scripture than we would imagine that our assignments in theology would one day be accepted into the canon.

Paul was writing to specific situations that had arisen in communities that had come to faith as a result of his teaching or, as is the case with Romans, a community that he wished to visit. His intention was not to write theology but to set the recipients straight on matters of faith or behaviour. The communities to whom he wrote consisted by and large of people who had had no grounding in the Jewish faith and who therefore had considerable catching up to do in order to begin to understand the gospel.

What I find remarkable is, that in this context and within twenty years of Jesus’ death, Paul – who never met the earthly Jesus – was able to distil the significance of Jesus’ life and teaching and to give them a meaning that continues to inform us today. The gospels give us the story of Jesus (albeit with interpretation). Paul, writing considerably earlier, tells us what it all means. In so doing he foreshadows ideas which later scholars turned into theology and into doctrine.

Take the notion of the Trinity for example. Over the centuries much ink has been spilt in trying to elucidate the nature of God and what it means for God to be both one and three. Paul simply assumes a Trinitarian God – Creator, Son and Spirit. This is particularly evident in Romans 8:9-11. “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” Paul is making an argument about life in the Spirit, but in order to do so he also speaks of God and Christ as if they were all one God.

In verse 9 Paul speaks of “being in the Spirit” because the “Spirit of God dwells in you” and adds “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. He goes on to say “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you”, “the Spirit dwells in you.” The Spirit incorporates believers into the life of Christ that in turn incorporates them into the union between Christ and God. It seems that it is perfectly natural for Paul to think of God as the one who raised Jesus from the dead, as Jesus and as Spirit and that as a result he is able to use the expressions interchangeably.

The notion of God being known as God, as Spirit and as Word is not new to Paul. Genesis 1 introduces the Spirit in the form of ruah or breath and in Ezekiel (37:5) it is God’s ruah (breath) that brings life to the dry bones. The same Spirit animates Ezekiel, transports him to the valley of bones and will give life to the people of Israel. (This is not dissimilar to Paul’s idea that it is the Spirit that gives life to the believer (Rom 8:11)). Proverbs introduces Wisdom (sophia or logos) as co-creator with God. So in the Judeo-Christian from the beginning of creation there has been an implicit notion of the complex nature of the One God.

It would be the Incarnation that would give this idea flesh both literally and figuratively. God in human form proved much more challenging than the less concrete ideas of God as breath and wisdom. How could Jesus be both human and God? How could Jesus be pre-existent? Where did the Spirit fit in all this? It would take the church close to four hundred years to express the idea of the Trinity in theological and doctrinal terms that were universally accepted[2] and many more centuries for scholars to continue to explore and name what it means for God to be both one and three and how to express this without diminishing one of the persons of the Trinity.

For Paul and the early church the nature of God was not something to be intellectualized or argued. It seems to have been taken for granted that God could be known as Father, Son and Spirit, the one who sent Jesus, the one sent (Jesus) and the one whom Jesus sent (Spirit), the one who raised Jesus from the dead, Jesus who was raised from the dead and the Spirit.

Instead of worrying about how the Trinity works and which analogies are heretical or not, let us take a page out of Paul’s book and assert that God simply is – Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

[1] When I speak of Paul’s letters I refer to the seven letters that are considered genuinely Pauline – Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon.

[2] Some would claim imposed was a better word.


Wisdom and the cross

February 8, 2014

Epiphany 5

1 Corinthians 2:1-13

Marian Free 

In the name of God, whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. Amen.

 If someone were to ask me which of Paul’s letters was my favourite, I think I would say the first letter to the Corinthians for no other reason than it reveals Paul’s profound insight into and interpretation of the cross. The community almost certainly Gentiles so it is not surprising that, as the letter indicates, they were a little confused as to the details of this new faith. It has to be remembered that at that time, there were no Christian scriptures. New converts were entirely dependent on the teaching of itinerant preachers who did not stay long enough in the community to ensure that all possible problems had been dealt with and all questions answered. Even though Paul had spent quite some time among the Corinthians, it seems that confusion reigned once he had left the city.

Paul writes this (possibly his second)[1] letter to Corinth in response to some concerns which had been reported by Chloe’s people[2] and also in response to a letter that the community had written to him[3]. Chloe’s concerns relate to divisions and competition in the community and immoral and un-Christian behaviour. Paul’s deals with issues such as members striving to outdo each other with regard to spiritual gifts, sub-groups following different leaders, a man living with his father’s wife and believers taking one-another to court. The letter also deals with more specific issues, many of which relate to relationships and sex: how to behave towards one’s spouse (whether to have sex or not, whether one should divorce a non-believing partner) and to marry or not to marry.

Even though Paul is addressing these very specific issues, he does so in a way that is theologically insightful and which interprets the cross of Christ is such a way that he can apply it to the community life of the believers in Corinth and to his own ministry.

The Corinthians, as I have said, were a divided community who had not fully grasped Paul’s message of the gospel. Perhaps based on the religions from which they had come, they placed wisdom as the high point of their faith and competed for the distinction of being the wisest or most knowledgeable in the community. It is clear that knowledge or wisdom is at issue. More than once Paul challenges their supposed wisdom with the question: “Do you not know?” (Obviously they do not!)

In order to demonstrate that the Corinthians wisdom is only narrow and partial, Paul points out the absurd contradiction of a crucified man proving to be God’s chosen one. As he says, any self-respecting Jew would have nothing to do with such a person – let alone elevate him to the status of God’s anointed.  On the other hand Greeks would think that to have faith in such a man would be utter foolishness.  To be fair, if we were to strip away sentimentality, dogma and creed, we too would think that a crucified Saviour was both gruesome and ridiculous (and impossible to sell). God, in Christ, has done something absolutely ludicrous. This, Paul claims, this is exactly the point. Christians believe that a man who was condemned to death as a criminal was the one sent by God. God’s action begs the question: Why on earth or in heaven would God chose such a person, or allow such an awful fate to befall the one whom he sent? He provides the answer using the words of Isaiah “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” (29:14)

According to Paul, God’s purpose in presenting us with a crucified Saviour was precisely to confound and unsettle us, to create some sort of cognitive dissonance that would force us to rely, not on ourselves, but on God, to shake us out of our complacency and to open our eyes to a completely different way of seeing, so that instead of being limited and bound by our own intelligence and by the constraints of the human imagination, we might be freed to see and hear what God is actually doing and saying. This, the cross demonstrates, is often the exact reverse of what we expect God to say and do.

In today’s text, Paul extends his argument about the cross to his proclamation of the gospel.  Paul made no attempt to claim power or knowledge for himself as did other preachers. He did not pretend to be anything he was not but allowed the Corinthians to see his weaknesses and imperfections. Paul has no need to compete, to demonstrate that he is wiser, stronger or more knowledgeable than anyone else. He is content to be weak and inarticulate because he knows that this enables him to be used by God and to be receptive to the Spirit. What is more those who come to faith know that they have not been swayed by the power of Paul’s presence and the force of his argument, but by the power of God working through him. Their faith lies where it belongs, in God and not in Paul.

The contradiction of the cross turns everything upside down. In so doing the cross exposes the flaws in what we might have thought we knew and the limitations of human knowledge and understanding – about worldly values, wisdom and strength. Through the cross God makes us aware that our knowledge, however good, is always incomplete and imperfect. The only true wisdom is that of God and the only way to achieve that wisdom is through recognizing the vast gulf between ourselves and the creator of all – who saw fit not to stun us with a triumphant king or a military victory, but a vulnerable, friendless man who died one of the most shocking deaths of all.

The purpose of the cross is to challenge the arrogance and self-conceit that allows us to believe that we know all there is to know about God. A crucified Saviour confronts our need for certainty and our dependence on doctrine, ritual and yes, even scripture and to open us to the power of God working in us and through us.

[1] 1 Corinthians 5:9

[2] 1 Corinthians 1:11

[3] “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote” (7:1, cf 7:25, 8:1).

God’s insistent call

January 25, 2014

Epiphany 3

Paul’s Conversion – Galatians 1:11-24

Marian Free

In the name of God whose insistent call draws us out of ourselves and into God’s service. Amen.

Throughout history there have been numerous accounts of people coming to faith, or coming to what they believe is a deeper and truer understanding of their faith. Many such accounts are dramatic and powerful of the sort that turn a person’s life around and lead them to serve God in ways that are risky and demanding, or that have a profound effect on the world around them and on the church in particular.

One such person was Augustine of Hippo whose spiritual quest had so far failed to satisfy him when his heart was touched by God. His own account goes like this: “As I was weeping in the bitter agony of my heart, suddenly I heard a voice from the nearby house chanting and repeating over and over again. “Pick it up and read, pick it up and read.” I began to think intently whether there might be some sort of children’s game in which such a chant is used. But I could not remember having heard of one. I checked the flood of tears and stood up. I interpreted it solely as a divine command to open the book and read the first chapter I might find. So I hurried back to the place where I had put down the book of the apostle when I got up. I seized it, opened it and in silence read the first passage on which my eyes lit. “Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts.” (Rom 13:13-14) I neither wished nor needed to read further. At once, with the last words of the sentence, it was as if a light relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All shadows of doubt were dispelled” (Chadwick, St Augustines Confessions, 152).

Much later in Germany, Martin Luther, a monk of the Augustinian Order had been going through “hell” obsessed with his own sinfulness and the impossibility of remembering all his sins in order to confess them. He tried all kinds of self-abasement to atone for his perceived sinfulness – sleeping in the snow, lying almost naked in the belfry tower at night – nothing seemed to work.

Part of his struggle was: “ to understand Paul’s expression, ‘the justice of God’ because I took it to mean that God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk I had no confidence that my merit would assuage God. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Night and day I pondered this until I grasped that the justice of God is that the righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into Paradise. The whole of scripture took on a new meaning and whereas before the phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in great love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven ….” (Bainton, R. Here I Stand – The Classic Biography of Martin Luther. Sutherland, NSW: Albatross Books, 1978, 65.)

An encounter with God not only gives relief from anxiety or opens a gate to heaven, it gives new insights, a different perspective of God and the world. An encounter with God can draw people out of their comfort zone and compel them to respond to a call on their lives that they would not have thought possible and of which they would not have believed themselves capable. The Bible is full of such figures. Abraham and Sarah who responded to a God whom they did not know and set off to a place they had never heard of. Moses who protested that he could not speak, liberated God’s people from slavery and led them to the promised land. Isaiah and Jeremiah who likewise did not believe that they were capable of the task God was asking them to fulfill challenged Kings to change their ways. Jonah who ran away, before he did what God required. Mary and Joseph who said “yes” and enabled Jesus to enter the world. Then there was the rag-tag bunch of unlikely people who left all they had to follow Jesus. People from all walks of life drawn out of their comfort zone to serve a God or a Christ whom they did or did not know who might take them who know where.

Among this great crowd of people we find Paul – that passionate, self-assured servant of God whose life radically changed direction after a “revelation of Jesus Christ”. Unlike Augustine and Luther Paul was not troubled by a search for faith or a fear that he could not please God. By all accounts Paul was a proud and confident Jew, absolutely convinced of his righteousness, his place in the world and before God. He was so sure of himself and his beliefs that he set out to persecute the misguided Jews who believed that Jesus was the Christ. He says of himself: “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil 3:4-6). Nothing, so far as Paul could tell, was lacking in his life or faith – his credentials were impeccable, his behaviour exemplary and his actions a clear demonstration of his commitment to the faith of his fathers.

Then all this changed: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ” (Phil 3:7). Those things of which he was so proud now count for nothing, the beliefs that led him to persecute Jesus-followers have been overturned. Now he proclaims the faith that “he once tried to destroy.” What happened? The truth is that we do not really know. Paul provides no more details than those in today’s reading from Galatians. He says only that he received a “revelation of Jesus Christ”, that “God called him through his grace and was pleased  to reveal his Son to him, so that he might proclaim him among the Gentiles,.”

We may not know what form the revelation took but we can see that the results are astounding – the one who persecuted believers is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy. More than that, he is so convinced that there is no other way to understand God’s action in Christ that he will brook no other interpretation or accept any other view. “As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!” (Gal 1:9). Paul preaches as though his life depends on it, and in fact, he does believe that his eternal salvation is intimately bound to that of the communities who have come to faith through him.

Paul’s encounter with God sharpens and refines the faith that he has held from birth. His new, God-revealed perspective allows him to see that God always intended that Gentiles can be included in the Abrahamic faith, that believers be led by the Spirit (not determined by the law) and that God’s grace is not something to be earned, but something that is freely given. Empowered by his experience of God, driven by the conviction that he was called to share what he hd received and enabled by his passion and his great intellect, Paul became a potent force for change in the world. Some twenty years before the Gospels were written, Paul was making sense of Jesus’ life death and resurrection and finding ways in which emerging communities, made of of people who had come from different faiths and different social groupings could worship together.

Paul’s impact on the church is demonstrated by his place in the New Testament – one-fourth of which consists of letters written by or attributed to Paul. Half of the Book of Acts deals with the life and ministry of Paul which means that he accounts for one-third of the New Testament. Paul’s letters are the earliest written documents of the church and provide us with valuable information about the struggles to build community and to come to some consensus as to what faith in Jesus meant for Jew and Gentile alike.

God has ways of getting ours attention, often when we least expect it.  Whether it is a thunder-clap or a whisper, a blinding light or a moment of insight, a call to change the world or a call to change ourselves, a demand to protest against injustice or an insistence to maintain our integrity, empowerment to do something heroic for others or strength to face a personal battle. God’s insistent call will not be denied. We can run, but we cannot hide. God will find us and take us where we do not want or did to expect to go. But whatever it is, whatever God asks of us, we can be sure that God will equip us, support and sustain us and that God will never abandon us until our task is done.

A lesson in letter-writing

January 19, 2014

Epiphany 2 – 2013

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Marian Free

In the name of God who reveals Godself in many and varied ways. Amen.

1:1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 1Cor. 1:2   To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: 1Cor. 1:3   Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus,  5 for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—  6 just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—  7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.  8 He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  9 God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

John and Joan McFee have great pleasure in inviting Mark and Mary de Angelo to the wedding of their daughter Susan Maria to Joseph Anthony on July 31st at St Margaret’s Church, 4 George St, Marland, at 4:00pm and afterwards at Maryville Reception Centre, 23 Victoria St, Marland. RSVP July 17, 33458687.

Times have changed, but when I was at school children were taught how to write letters – personal letters, business letters, job applications, wedding invitations and replies and so on. Each form of communication had its own style. Even the form of letter closure differed according to how formal the letter was and the relationship between the writer and the recipient. It did (and does not) not make immediate sense that personal letters were signed “yours sincerely” and formal letters with “yours faithfully” but that is how it is done. These days there is a lot more flexibility. Text messages and emails have created entirely new and less formal styles of writing. Some forms such as Job Applications still have very structured formats – possibly even more structured than previously. So rigid are these styles that consultants exist to assist people in writing their CVs and job applications.

Given that in our more informal world we continue to have set formats for at least some style of letters, we should not be surprised that the Greek world also had criteria for writing different forms of communication. It is important to understand these forms when we read the letters in the New Testament. Paul’s letters exhibit a uniformity of style because Paul is using the letter-writing format common to educated people of his time. That said, there are some immediately obvious differences between first century Greek letters and twenty-first Australian letters. Our form of letter-writing might have an address at the beginning but with some exceptions (wedding invitations) the author is generally not identified until the end of the letter – “yours faithfully, Marian Free”. When we write a letter, we usually begin with an address to the recipient – “Dear Sam”. Greek letters reverse this pattern and begin with the name of the author and some means of identifying that person. In the letter to the Corinthians we read – “Paul, called to be an Apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God”.

Unless we use a line that indicates what the letter is in regard to, the reader has to wait for the body of the letter to discover why we have written. In Greek letter writing and certainly in the letters of Paul, the greeting prepares us for what is to follow. In his first letter to Corinth, Paul appears to be laying claim to his authority. Not only is he “an apostle of Christ Jesus”, he is an apostle by “the will of God”. This provides much more detail than is provided in the first letter to the Thessalonians which reads very simply: “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy”. It is only as the letter progresses that we understand that Paul is drawing on his God-given authority in order to pull the Corinthians into line. No doubt the Corinthians were immediately aware of the tone that Paul was setting. He is making it clear that he is an apostle and that his authority comes directly from God.

Having begun with an introduction to the author, the letter introduces us to the recipients. Again, if we compare 1 Corinthians with 1 Thessalonians, we notice a significant difference. The Thessalonians are addressed quite simply: “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. The letter to Corinth includes much more detail:  “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” Compared with the Thessalonians where the address is purely descriptive, here there is not only more detail, there is a degree of flattery. Those in Corinth are described as “sanctified, called to be saints” what is more, they are skilfully connected with all the other believing communities,  “together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” How do we explain the difference in detail? Is it because the lives of the Corinthians exhibit a deeper spirituality than those in Thessalonica? As we read on, this conclusion seems unlikely. The letter reveals that the Corinthians are a divided congregation who compete with each other and whose members engage in immoral behaviour. A more plausible explanation for the long greeting is that Paul, who will later castigate this community, is using both flattery (saints, sanctified) and coercion (with all who call on the name of our Lord). Paul uses flattery because he wants them on side, open to what he has to say. At the same time, he is drawing on the practices of all the other churches to pull them into line, to make them conform.

As you can see, already, in just three verses, we suspect that Paul has something difficult to tell the Corinthians and that he will use the example of other churches to pressure them to change their behaviour. Paul follows the introduction with a standard greeting: “Grace to you and peace.” Paul adapts the usual greeting (charein – hello) to a term associated with the gospel (charis – grace) and adds the Semitic greeting of peace (shalom).

In most letters, the greeting is followed by a Thanksgiving. This serves to get the reader on side and to ensure that they are receptive to what is to follow. (The absence of a Thanksgiving rings alarm bells. For example, there is no thanksgiving in the letter to the Galatians. As we read that letter we can see that Paul has nothing for which to be thankful – he is very angry.)

Again, the content of the thanksgiving provides an introduction to the content of the letter as a whole. In this instance Paul says: “you have been enriched in him in speech and knowledge of every kind”; “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift”. As we read on, we cannot help but wonder if Paul is being sarcastic here. The Corinthians it seems put a great emphasis on wisdom, knowledge and spiritual gifts. They think that they have already achieved some sort of spiritual perfection (“Already you are rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings!” 4:8). In chapter 12, Paul tries to put their spiritual gifts into perspective – no gift is more significant than any other. Over and over again, Paul confronts the arrogance of the Corinthians, their belief in their own wisdom and knowledge and the fact that they compete with one another in areas of knowledge and spirituality. The refrain: “Do you not know?” is used repeatedly in Chapter 6 in which Paul exposes the fact that they do not know. “Do you not know the saints will judge the world?” Do you not know that we are to judge angels?” (6:2,3) and so on.

A good way to begin to understand Paul and his letters is to read the Greetings and Thanksgivings of his letters and to identify the similarities and differences between them. In so doing, it is essential to remember that Paul did not set out to write theology. He wrote letters to communities of faith, communities that – with the exception of Romans – he himself founded. Paul’s intention and deepest desire is that these communities share his faith, his knowledge of God and Christ, his conviction that faith in Jesus leads to freedom and that a life that is Spirit-led is a life that most closely conforms to the will of God. What is amazing is that these letters that were written to encourage, to chide and to correct, express the most profound theology and that over two thousand years later, these letters have become an integral part of our Holy Scriptures. Not before or since has one person’s letter-writing had such a profound effect.

Paul and Galatia

June 8, 2013

Pentecost 3 2013

Galatians (Paul)

Marian Free 

In the name of God who speaks to us in many and various ways. Amen.

Reading the letters of Paul is rather like going on an archeological dig. Apart from the book of Acts, our only information about Paul and about his message is in the letters. What we now accept as holy scripture were the writings of a travelling missionary to the communities that he had founded. Very often Paul writes in reaction to something that has happened in his absence or to a question that the community would like answered.  If we look below the surface of the text it is possible to a limited extent to reconstruct what is going on, to learn something about the community itself and something about the gospel which Paul preached.

Paul tells us very little about himself in the letters. There is no need – the recipients already know who he is. That said, we know that he was passionate about the gospel, that there was some event in his life which turned him from a persecutor to a believer and that he cared deeply for the communities he founded.

For the next few weeks the lectionary is going to take us through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It is in this letter that most appears to be at stake, and in which Paul reveals the most about himself. By his own admission Paul was a zealous Jew who persecuted those who believed in Jesus. This came to an end when God revealed himself to him. The letters also tell us that Paul had too some sort of physical ailment and that this was the reason that he stopped in Galatia. He is not explicit as to the nature of the complaint, but the fact that he claims that the Galatians would have plucked out their eyes for him, leads us to believe that the problem was with his vision.

While Galatians provides a fair amount of information about Paul (in comparison to the other letters), there is much less detail about the recipients of the letter and where they actually were. There are a number of problems when it comes to identifying to whom Paul is writing. First of all, Galatia is a region not a city. Secondly, Galatia could be one of two places – one in the north and one in the south. Southern Galatia makes most sense as the letter’s destination as Paul may well have passed through the area on one of his journeys. However, references to mountains in the letter point to a northern hypothesis as the local religion of the north related to a mountain. Whether north or south, the letter does not provide many clues as to the nature of the community. Were they a largely Gentile community or were they a mixed community of Jews and Gentiles?

The introduction to the letter tells us that other teachers have come to the community. They are confusing the new believers and, in Paul’s terms: “perverting the gospel of Christ”. Who these people might be creates another puzzle for the reader. Are they travelling preachers like Paul who have a different view of the gospel? Are they Jewish members of the community who want the Gentiles to become like them? or Are they members of the local cult who are trying to persuade the community to return to the faith of their ancestors?

These might seem to be minor details, but trying to resolve these sorts of questions helps us to better understand Paul’s arguments in the letter and to appreciate that Paul is not sitting down writing reasoned theology, but responding to a crisis and defending his position with regard to the issue at hand.

So in order to understand the letter to the Galatians we have to peel back the layers to see if we can work out what is going on. In the letter we have what could be described as Act three of a three-part drama.[1]. In Act one Paul, forced to stop in Galatia for health reasons, takes advantage of the situation to preach the gospel to the people there. Some come to faith and form a worshipping community. Act two sees the arrival of other teachers who, the letter tells us, teach things contrary to Paul’s teaching and unsettle the Galatians to the point that they appear to be considering the radical step of circumcision – something Paul strenuously objects to. Finally, in Act three Paul, hearing that the Galatians are being convinced to abandon the gospel he preached, puts pen to paper and writes what turns out to be his most caustic letter

In order to understand Paul’s argument, we have to work backwards from the letter. Paul’s response to those whom he labels “false prophets” tells us something of what they were teaching. In turn, if these other teachers were teaching something different from Paul, it is possible, though somewhat speculative, to work out what it was that Paul had first taught.

Our best guess as to what was going on is this: after Paul left Galatia, other teachers arrived and persuaded the Galatians that in order to be truly members of the faith, to be really children of Abraham, they needed to adopt the Jewish law and to be circumcised. The Galatians, whose faith was only new, were easily persuaded by these new arguments and are either considering circumcision, or are planning to abandon their new-found faith because circumcision was too hard. Paul feels betrayed by their prevarication, but his greater concern is that by accepting the teaching of his opponents, the Galatians have jeopardized their hope of salvation.

Paul uses a number of tactics to try to bring the Galatians back to what he calls “his gospel”. Firstly, as we heard this morning, he makes it clear that his gospel (which does not compel Gentiles to be circumcised or to keep the law) came directly from God and not from any human source. Secondly, he reports that the so-called leaders of the church in Jerusalem gave this circumcision-free gospel their stamp of approval. Thirdly, Paul recounts how he stood up to Peter to defend his position. Having established his credentials Paul moves on to question the Galatians and to counter the arguments of the “false apostles”. He wants to know if they received the Spirit as a result of keeping the law or through faith, knowing before he asks that the answer is the latter.

The central argument of the opponents seems to be that Abraham and his descendants were circumcised therefore if the new believers want to truly belong, they too must be circumcised. Paul however, is able to demonstrate that circumcision was only the seal of a prior promise – that Abraham would be the father of all nations. Further, Paul argues that it was Abraham’s faith which saved him (not circumcision). The logical conclusion is that justification/salvation is based on faith not law. As the Galatians have demonstrated that they have faith they have no need now to adopt the law. This is a great equalizer as we shall see in chapter three in which Paul proclaims: “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.” (3:25)

Paul then uses two arguments to defend his point that the law enslaves rather than liberates – it acts in a custodial role for those who do not have the Spirit and it binds one to an earthly rather than a heavenly existence. After his great battle cry: “For freedom, Christ has set us free” (5:1), Paul concludes the letter by exhorting the Galatians to allow their lives to be directed by the Spirit and by teaching them how to live in community.

Of course, I have only skimmed the surface of a complex, yet profound argument.  At the heart of the letter to Galatia is Paul’s argument that faith is the primary criterion for membership in the community that followed Christ and the fact that this opened the way for Gentiles to join the new faith without first becoming Jews. Along the way Paul provides some profound insights into the gospel as he understood it.

Paul writes not theology, but occasional letters aimed at particular communities with particular issues. For centuries Paul has been misrepresented, misused and misunderstood. Many people have written him off as too difficult to understand. Yet the communities to whom he wrote these letters were convinced that their contents would benefit a much wider audience. The letters were shared, collected and considered so important that they were finally included in what we call the New Testament.

Isn’t it time we took the trouble to get to know him and to discover the treasures for ourselves?

[1] I am indebted to Winger for this concept. Winger, Michael. “Act 1, Paul arrives in Galatia.” New Testament Studies 48 (2002):548-567.

An unusual body

January 26, 2013

Epiphany 3

1 Corinthians 12

Marian Free


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

In December 2009, in Melbourne, conjoined twins – Trishna and Krishna – were separated in a complex process that took a large team of people thirty-two hours to complete.  You will all remember the details. As the twins were joined at the head, it was a particularly difficult operation. Doctors had studied the brains of both children to identify where the blood vessels and brain material needed to be separated. For months they had practiced on models of the twins until they were sure that they knew exactly what they had to do and how to position the girls at exactly the right angle in order to be able to carry out the operation with sufficient skill to cause the least amount of damage to their brains and to give the twins the best chance at survival.

The surgery required a team of sixteen surgeons including plastic surgeons and neuro-surgeons. Also taking part in the marathon event were anaesthetists, cardiologists, doctors nurses and goodness knows who else. Each member of the team would have been trained over a long period of time to ensure that everyone was proficient and knew exactly what their role was and how to carry it out. The absence of any one member of the team could have jeopardized or delayed the whole operation.

Surgery, particularly complex surgery, is not the only example situation in which individuals have to put their egos aside to work together to achieve a common goal. Fire-fighting, rescue work and the distribution of aid all have the best results when no one person is striving to stand out from the crowd and when each person is carrying out their allotted task to the best of their ability in order to contribute to a successful outcome. The reverse is also true, when teams do not work together or when one individual is seeking their own aggrandisement, the effort is at best ineffective and at worst damaging.

Good team work can save lives. Failure to work as a team can cost lives. Working together can achieve a desired result. Working against each other can be totally unproductive.

There are a variety of ways to talk about working together (or not). We talk about team-work, team building or pulling together. If a team is not working, we use language that refers to the weak link in the chain or to people not pulling their weight. In 1 Corinthians Paul uses the image of body to capture the idea of the interdependence of members of the Christian community. In using the term body, Paul is not being original. The term was used by the Greeks as a symbol of social unity. In fact “body” was the most common expression for unity as was the idea that all people are different and that all members of the body should work together for the greater good.

While it is not original, Paul’s use of the body imagery differs from that of his contemporaries in a number of ways. Firstly, Paul identifies God as the source of both difference and of unity. Second, rather than urging some (usually the less gifted) individuals to subordinate themselves for the sake of the body, Paul argues not only that members of the body should work together in such a way that everyone would benefit, but he makes the extraordinary claim that the weaker members are indispensable and deserve greater honour and respect. Further, when Paul suggests that the Corinthians are one body, he doesn’t mean just any body or the sum total of the community. The body that the Corinthians are called to be is Christ’s body.

Transferred to our time and place, the implications of Paul’s discussion on the body are profound and deserve some serious consideration. For a start, it means that on our own, you and I are not Christ’s body. The body of Christ on earth is expressed best when Christians together exemplify Christ. It means too that we are called collectively and not individually to be the presence of Christ in the world. It means that the community that formed in Christ’s name – the church – has to recognise that each member is dependent on all the other members, and how much Christ’s continuing mission relies on the efforts of the community as a whole and not on our individual efforts. Our part in Christ’s body, our contribution to the continuation of Christ’s mission on earth depends not just on what we ourselves do, but on what the community – with our help – does. What is more, the body of Christ is dependent on our recognition of the value of the contribution of every other member  – not just those whose contribution stands out or is more obvious. “We simply cannot afford for any part of the body to consider themselves unnecessary to the whole[1].” Nor can we allow ourselves to believe that our contribution is more significant than that of anyone else – that we alone make the difference.

In some ways the image of the body is comforting. It is reassuring to know that the continuation of Christ’s mission in the world does not stand or fall according to what I do – or for that matter what you do. At the same time the image is challenging. In order for Christ’s body to be a living reality, we all have to learn to work and grow together, to value, support and encourage each other.

In this individualistic, privatized western world, it is easy to think that it is our personal relationship with God that is all important, that our salvation stands or falls on what we do and how we behave. It is easy to convince ourselves that we can be a Christian without coming to church or that developing our personal spirituality is as important, if not more so than participating in the spiritual growth of the body as a whole. However, the opposite is true. Not only do we need the body, but the body needs us. Whether we are a foot or a heart, an arm or a nose, our contribution is essential to the proper functioning of the body. When we are not functioning, when we are absent or when we are suffering, the body as a whole suffers. Equally, whether we are a brain or a toe, a hip or an eye we will be unable to function properly if we are not connected to and working with the remainder of the body.

Our life in Christ is just that – in Christ – and therefore in the body of Christ – the gathered community of believers. One of the challenges for the twenty first century church is to recover a sense of our interdependence, to learn to recognise and value our place in the whole, to celebrate each other no matter how great or small, how visible or invisible their contribution and to understand that without us (or for that matter without any one of us) the gathered community is in some way diminished and impoverished. Unlike a surgical team, or a rescue crew, our commitment to the body doesn’t end when the job is done. Being part of the body is our life, our Christian responsibility and God’s gift to us.


Week after week we affirm “We are the body of Christ.” Let us do all that we can to ensure that that is in fact our lived reality.

[1] Gooder, Paula. Everyday God: The Spirit of the Ordinary.Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2012, 113.

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