The Apostle Paul

            The Apostle Paul is such an extraordinary figure both historically and spiritually. What is it about this man that draws so many people to him, that makes him both so relatable and yet so elusive? Paul follows the trajectory of so many of our favorite hero stories. A man rises up from average, pride propelling him forward until he’s toppled into humility. In this story, our prideful man encounters Jesus and is humbled, and this humility transforms him into one of the best superheroes the world has ever seen: a man trying to model cruciform love for the world. And this encounter, and the love he tries to teach the world, ends up filling up half the New Testament, shaping the faith of Christianity, and setting much of the standard for what it means to follow Christ.

When we look at the world in which Paul lived, it seems very foreign, but there is also something very relatable in it. There are many times when all of us feel as if the world is shrinking and we are surrounded by a multitude of cultures and diversity; the same can be said for the Apostle Paul. As we seek to understand the man, we must first understand his background, the world from which he came. For Paul, it would more aptly be described as worlds: his Mediterranean culture, the Roman Empire’s influence, and his Judaism were the three biggest spheres of influence.

            The Mediterranean was Hellenized starting with the triumph of Alexander the Great and Greek culture continued to spread. “A somewhat simplified form of classical Greek, koine (common) Greek, became the norm for conducting commercial and business affairs, as well as for most other forms of communication; it is the language of the New Testament.” (Gorman, pg. 2) This Greek thought and language even permeated Jewish culture and Scriptures in many regions. Additionally, there was a group identity within the Mediterranean. As we see referenced often in the bible, their was that to live is to be part of the body, not alone as an individual (this is known as a dyadic culture). Feeding into this dyadic culture is a system of esteem from others where honor and shame is highly sought after and “…based primarily on such things as wealth, education, rhetoric skill, family pedigree, and political connections.” (Gorman, pg. 4) Since group solidarity was of the upmost importance, social structure ended up defaulting into very hierarchal structures. At the top were a small elite and at the bottom were the vast and unclean expendables. It is important to note very few in Jewish communities were ever part of the elite; they did, however, have their own hierarchy that operated in a similar fashion. At the center of the hierarchy is, of course, it’s patriarchy. “The male head of household governed his own little universe, with his wife, children, and slaves as personal property. This gave free men power and privilege in their own homes, even if nowhere else.” (Gorman, pg. 6) Another attribute of this hierarchy would be the foundation of it; slavery. “In urban areas a significant percentage of all inhabitants were slaves….even smaller households often had a few slaves…” (Gorman, pg. 7) Slaves in the Mediterranean weren’t based on race, but were made, found, or self-made. Freedom was an option if the person who owned them was willing to grant it.

            The second sphere Paul operated in was the Roman Empire. The phrase pax Romana, or Roman peace, ended the civil unrest in Rome and brought peace to a large swath of land. Born around 27 BC, Roman law, virtues, gods, roads, etc. spread everywhere, as well as the worship of Roman emperors. “…As ancients and moderns alike have often assumed, no one but (a) god could subdue and then control a huge portion of the known world. From the time of Julius on, Caesar was not only the top political but also the top religious figure…” (Gorman, 15) To keep pax Romana, there was a cost and that was subjugation in the form of enslavement of conquered people, taxes and tributes, and crucifixion and other violent deaths for any noncitizen who was a threat to the empire. Honor was a driving force for Rome within this competitive society of those with means; they competed to outdo one another in projects and civil service. There wasn’t a middle class but there were free people and slaves and still a hierarchy maintained, and there was a lot of interaction between classes when it came to the patron-client relations. To that end, there was a tremendous amount of movement around the empire, made easier by the Roman roads. These roads made it easier for Paul to travel during his ministry but were also dangerous and common for robbery and other dangers. At this same time, emperor worship was in full swing, with shrines in temples for other gods and their own temples in most major cities. It was expected for citizens to worship them. “As magnificent benefactors, Augustus and his imperial successors were given (or took for themselves) titles such as Savior, God and Lord.” (Gorman, pg. 18) Jews mostly enjoyed exemption from this requirement but any message that threated this status (like a Jew proclaiming himself Lord or Savior) could be considered a grave threat to pax Romana.

            The final world we want to understand as a background to Paul is his Judaism, which was known as Second Temple Judaism. Obviously as we read the bible we can tell that there were, in fact, many different types of Jewish sects around and so we understand that, “To be Jewish was to confess and worship the one God YHWH, who had graciously chosen Israel to be God’s distinctive people.” (Gorman, pg. 18) This God entered into a covenantal relationship with the people of Israel, through the Law of Moses. While the Jewish people were allowed some freedoms, they were still a subjugated people to the Romans and had attempted revolt. The Messiah they looked for was going to bring revolutionary activity; they were awaiting deliverance and salvation. There were things that separated the Jews from everyone else: boundary markers that were ritual and religio-ethical. Some of these things include fidelity in marriage, keeping all their children, circumcision, food laws, and holiday observances. Observing these things are what is referred to as covenantal nomism, or keeping the law to stay in covenant with a gracious God. Jews at that time had a lot of disagreement with what was required to remain “clean or holy” and thereby remain in covenant with God. The last attribute to examine at this point is apocalypticism. Because of the oppression that seemed to be never-ending and their hope for a Savior, an apocalyptic viewpoint brought hope to many first century Jewish people that a day of both judgement and salvation was on the horizon. This was paired with a cosmic perspective that there was also a current spiritual war being fought and that in the future resolution would result with God defeating evil. These viewpoints lead to a dualistic view of current and future, of a present state of suffering, evil and injustice with a future state of righteousness, liberation and justice for God’s people.

            Now Paul was born a Jew and lived his entire life as a Jew, “from his early years in Diaspora Judaism, to his life as a Pharisee in Palestine, to his zealous commitment to extinguish the early Jesus movement, to his encounter with the resurrected Jesus, to his subsequent life as apostle of the Jewish God and his crucified Messiah among the Gentiles.” (Gorman, pg. 40) He parents would likely have given him two names, the first being Saul (Saulos), a famous ancestor, and the second Paul (Paullus), a common Roman name. Growing up in Tarsus and born somewhere between 5 BC and 10 AD, it’s likely Paul studied Jewish Scriptures in Greek. Since Tarsus was a cosmopolitan university town with schools for rhetoric and stoicism, both of which are evidenced in his writings. It is likely that is where Paul is exposed to them, although he tries to distance himself from rhetorical showmanship specifically in his letters.

            Eventually Paul moved to Palestine and studied under a rabbi named Gamaliel and was greatly influenced by the Palestinian Jewish culture. “It is clear from his letters that he had a apocalyptic perspective similar to that of other apocalyptic Jews, though it is radically reworked in light of God’s intervention in history through the death and resurrection of the Messiah.” (Gorman, pg. 52) Thus, Paul became the Pharisee many knew him to be from the biblical stories. Pharisees are most known for their zealous keeping of the Law, their obsession with the purity of Israel, and the belief in the bodily resurrection of the dead. It was their obsession with the Law and purity that caused them to pursue so aggressively the separation from Gentiles and furthermore the concern of contamination of Israel from the Christians who were violating the Law through their interactions with those they saw as unclean. In the eyes of the Pharisees, the actions of what we might call the Messianic Jews or Christians were pushing them further and further away from God.

            It is for this reason the Paul persecuted the early Church so aggressively. “Acts says he approved the stoning of Stephen (8:1) and ‘voted’ for the deaths of others (26:10)…” (Gorman, 54) This zealousness was seen as necessary and a protection of the Jewish faith and manifested itself in violence towards the apostate Jews who were violating everything that they should have stood for. Therefore, Paul leaves Damascus for Jerusalem within a few years of Jesus’ death to try to stop this movement. On his journey, Paul encounters the resurrected Christ as a divinely granted revelation. This, to a Pharisee, is one of the three biggest thing in that there is a bodily resurrection of the dead. Paul’s transformative encounter leads him to know that God raised Jesus and that Jesus is the Messiah, that his death was for the sins of others, that it was the beginning of the end of days and that Jesus could be encountered as a living being.

            Furthermore, Paul understood the undeserved mercy being experienced through Christ, and that the persecution and zeal in going after the Church and believers was a huge mistake. All of these things need to be re-evaluated in the light of what God did through Christ. Lastly, God had a plan for the Gentiles, who were to come to God in the last days. Paul notes that God called to him to carry out a commission: “proclaim him [God’s Son] among the Gentiles” (Gorman, pg. 58) Paul’s interpretation of this was that those who were at one time excluded were now to be included in God’s Kingdom.

            Following his encounter, Paul began to live the life of Apostleship. Although there are several benefits that come with being an Apostle, Paul denied them. For him, the responsibility of the Apostle was, “…not primarily about power or authority as they are normally understood. To be an apostle is not merely to preach, but also to live, the gospel.” (Gorman, pg. 61) And live the gospel Paul did. 1 Corinthians 4:12-13 “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day.” He lived out a cruciform love in his daily life, demonstrating suffering, sacrifice and weakness.

            Paul does this by doing three things in his travels of over 10,000 miles: “proclaiming the good news, forming communities of Jews and especially Gentiles who believe the good news, and suffering for the good news.” (Gorman, pg. 65) When establishing communities, he had coworkers, three dozen are referenced within his letters. The number of coworkers changed as did their abilities, but Paul was rarely alone in his work. This meant that there were additional costs, and Paul did not rely on the financial support he was owed as an Apostle because he didn’t want to burden the community in which he was working which left him with tent making. Paul did, however, accept financial support from communities that they had already set-up.

            So Paul and his co-workers would find a Jewish community and a place to stay and set-up shop for his tent business. Then he would begin his evangelistic work with the Gentiles in public, accompanied by deeds of Power. He would build community, with Churches meeting in homes and new relationships between people of all types of social and economic backgrounds forming.

            This brought a lot of persecution onto Paul, who experienced a lot of prison and trial time. Although he suffers, he considers it an honor because his suffering brings him closer to the suffering of Christ. “In weakness he finds strength and effectiveness (2 Cor 12:10); in suffering he sees the manifestation of the power of God for the salvation of Gentiles and Jews.” (Gorman, 71) While some believe that Paul was sure that he would see the coming of Christ, others hypothesize that Paul knew he, too, would die for his beliefs. Regardless of Paul’s expectation, based on the history of his life and the relationship he had with God, I would not be surprised to learn that Paul viewed it as an honor to be sacrificed in the shape of Christ’s cruciform love.

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Reflections on I Corinthians

I CORINTHIANS

As we begin I Corinthians, we begin to see a pattern with Paul’s writing in that he foreshadows much of his letter within his greeting. In this instance, he reminds the Corinthians both of his apostleship and of their call in I Corinthians 1:1-2 “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God…to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy…” Gorman’s emphasis on the Corinthian’s failure to love and Paul’s repeated emphasis of the holiness of humility and love in the Story of Christ becomes readily apparent as we work our way through this letter. The countercultural nature of the letter is clear; Paul is serious and moves quickly into addressing some of the major issues.

“I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.” (I Cor 1:10) Paul is focused on unity here; division is a massive problem and Paul is deeply concerned. He spends a long time addressing it, first through relating how he heard of it then tying it back to Christ and his own story. He tries through various means to communicate to them that the paradigm they are used to has shifted. “Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are already something, so that no human being might boast before God.” (I Cor 1:27-29)

As Gorman calls out, wisdom and power might have been elements that Corinthians were well familiar with, and shifting their understanding that what it meant in God’s Kingdom proved to be a challenge. Paul tried to demonstrate God’s preference for the other through his own story in I Corinthians 2:2-5, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive [words of] wisdom, but with a demonstration of spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” Then Paul tells them that he couldn’t talk to them as spiritual people but as people of the flesh. Gorman points to the fact that Paul reforms their view of ministers, apostle’s and the Church at this point, and points not to man but to God for boasting. Corinthians 3:9 “For we are God’s co-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” Furthermore, he reminds them of their own holiness in their relationship with God: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.” (I Cor 4:16-17)

Paul goes on to address things like factionalism and incest and, as Gorman puts it, “Paul hopes that removing this man from the sphere of the Lord Jesus and remitting him to the sphere of Satan will eventually terminate his behavior so that he will finally be saved.” (Gorman, pg. 247) Paul challenges the Corinthians spirit of “toleration,” recognizing it instead as a spirit of pride in extreme libertinism. Believing they could do what they wanted sexually with their bodies, Paul quickly moves to address this and all misunderstandings of what freedom meant in I Corinthians 6:12, “’Everything is lawful for me,’ but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is lawful for me,’ but I will not let myself be dominated by anything.’” He goes on to say that the body is not for immorality but for God; remembering earlier that the Spirit is now in us. He reminds them that their bodies are members of Christ and questions how they would treat members of Christ’s body. “For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body.” (I Cor 6:20) He goes on to explain that if you are married, sex within marriage is perfectly acceptable and expected so as not to be tempted to do anything sinful.

I Corinthians 8 really comes down to, as we said in the beginning, what Gorman points out as the Corinthians unlovingness towards one another. Paul would not need to address either insufficient knowledge or practical rules if the Corinthians were able to love each other more than they loved themselves. I Corinthians 8:1 “Now in regard to meat sacrificed to idols: we realize that ‘all of us have knowledge’: knowledge inflates with pride, but love builds up.” So he goes on to say that yes, while you can eat meat sacrificed to other gods because there are, in fact, no other gods, if doing so puts those who are weak in faith at risk, then a loving response is to not eat that meat in that circumstance. “But make sure that this liberty of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak… Thus through your knowledge, the weak person is brought to destruction, the brother for whom Christ died.” (I Corinthians 8:8-11) Paul goes so far as to say “Therefore, if food causes my brother to sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I may not cause my brother to sin.” (I Cor 8:13) In other words, I would rather practice cruciform love for my brother by not eating meat than risk a brothers salvation through my meat eating.

Paul proceeds with was foreshadowed in the Greeting, to establish his Apostleship, and why he refrains from the rights he has as an Apostle for which some criticize him (he refrains for the good of the Gospel and sees the financial sacrifice as a reflection of Christ’s cruciform love). “I have become all things to all, to save at least some. All this I do for the sake of the gospel, so that I too may have a share in it.” (I Cor 9:23) He warns them against being overconfident; that past Israelites had relationship and no faith because of the traps of idolatry and God was displeased and so they should always be cautious. In Corinthians 10:12-13 “Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall. No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.” He continues to warn against idolatry and encourage fellowship through things like the Lord’s Supper.

Paul returns again to, as Gorman points out, the Corinth slogan of “Everything is lawful.” Here he reminds them that it might be lawful but it doesn’t necessarily build up. Again, cruciform love is held up as the standard for a response to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Avoid giving offense, whether to Jews or Greeks or the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in every way, not seeking my own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved.” (I Cor 10:31-33) He ends it to imitate him as he imitates Christ.

Then Paul talks about liturgical assemblies, and the abuse of the Lord’s Supper which really just traces back to the Corinthian’s inability to love one another with compassion or cruciform love. As Gorman wrote, Paul saw it as an event of solidarity with no division or neglect and yet it had become a time of division and exclusion. Paul issues a high challenge to the Corinthians within this section, saying in I Corinthians 11:27-29, “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself…For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.” Then he instructs them on how to properly care for one another during the Lord’s Supper.

Next Paul writes about spiritual gifts, because everyone was thinking that certain gifts were better than others. Paul emphasizes that, “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also is Christ.” (I Cor 12:12) Additionally, everyone is where they are supposed to be with the gifts that are meant to have. “But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body… Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary.” (I Cor 12:18-22) Every gift is necessary and those that seem weakest are the most necessary to the body. Love, above all things, is most important, and all gifts must be practiced with love. Since it seems to be the greatest challenge for the Corinthians, Paul describes love in detail and then names some of the gifts and how worthless they are if they are done without love. After clearly emphasizing the importance of these things, he says, “Pursue love, but strive eagerly for the spiritual gifts, above all that you may prophesy…for their building up, encouragement and solace. Whoever speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but whoever prophesies builds up the church.” (I Cor 13:1-4)

Later he says “Thus, tongues are a sign not for those who believe but for unbelievers, whereas prophecy is not for unbelievers but for those who believe.” (I Cor 14:22) I find this really interesting because I can see where this is actually true; where tongues might have been something that would have pulled in someone who was a skeptic but for a believer, prophetic words then and now would have great value to their life. A non-believer on the other hand would have no use for prophecy, because there wouldn’t be any faith or action behind it.

Lastly, if we look at the resurrection, Paul was unsure if the Corinthians really believed in the resurrection. This is understandable; for Paul it was the crux of his faith in Christ and in fact when we look at the disciples, it was the changing point for all their behavior. But Paul sees the Corinthians still behaving as pagans. We’re really getting to the point of Paul’s entire letter. If they truly did believe, they would be living as if they believed. This is why Paul warns them in I Corinthians 15:2 “Through it you were also being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.” He explains the ins and out of bodily resurrection and why it is important (namely, there is no reason for faith or hope or love without it) and that because of it we are called to those things and to live a life like Christ. He wraps up the resurrection section by stating in I Corinthians 15:56-58 “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Then he wraps up with some final exhortations and greetings. When Paul writes, “Be on your guard, stand firm in the faith, be courageous, be strong. Your every act should be love.” (I Cor 16:13-14) it can feel like a call to action! Gorman writes that Paul ends with a common early Christian prayer for the Parousia which I also think is beautiful, “Our Lord, come” or Maranatha in Aramaic (pg. 283)

Grace and Mercy

     In the 6th chapter about grace and mercy, I was mostly drawn more to the section about the interaction of prayer with God. It starts by revisiting the idea of the collective unconsciousness by starting with the psychedelics in the 1960s and moving forward to the field of quantum mechanics which soon helped come up with a “scientific” name for divine consciousness: the nonlocal mind. Nonlocal, “refers to a field that cannot be represented or measured in the typical space-time continuum… the human mind is an extension of the nonlocal mind-which is not simply localized in the body.” (pg. 203) What does this have to do with grace and prayer?

     According to Seaward, when we pray, we send our thoughts out as a type of energy, because all things are energy. Beyond that, that prayer also enters the nonlocal mind. So prayers don’t necessarily go from sender to godhead to receiver but instead go everywhere; as the author demonstrates through several studies where distance is made irrelevant. To this end, prayer is an effective coping technique for stress, but open-ended prayer vs. goal or reciting words (think rosary or the same prayer before a meal) appears to be the most effective; I wonder if this is because it is less about the self (ego) and more about the divine. As it explains later in the reading,“Surrender does not mean to give in or give up. ‘Surrender to the will of God’ is an invitation to work with, rather than in opposition to, the divine game plan. Think of surrender as flowing with the current.” (pg. 212) So rather than praying to God FOR something, or repeating a prayer on autopilot, in an open-ended prayer it is more thoughtful, immersive and gratitude filled. This could go back to the four processes; the repetitive prayers may be good for the “emptying” process of clearing your mind, but not for the “connecting” process of relating to the divine. 

     Do we not see this told to us by Jesus in Matthew 6:5-8“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees you in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not heap empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Do we think that God needs us to repeat empty words again and again? That God does not know what we need before we ask? Jesus tells us to pray “to the Father” not in front of many, because if you are putting on a show, that will be your only reward, but in private, where it is clear your prayers are for God. And Jesus says “do not heap empty phrases” thinking we’ll be “heard for their many words” but gives us clear instruction on how to pray. Then we are given the “Lord’s Prayer.”

     But even here Jesus says Matthew 6:9-10 “Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus says to pray LIKE this, not to recite this prayer repeated. Jesus is giving us instructions (because the disciples asked) on how to pray. So he’s saying, acknowledge God as your Father, praise his holiness. Pray that God’s Kingdom and Will be on earth as it is in heaven. Matthew 11-12 “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Then Jesus says ask God to provide for your needs daily, to acknowledge that it is God and not you who sustains you. Pray that God forgives your sins as you have forgiven those who have sinned against you (loving all people and showing compassion). Matthew 6:13 “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Pray that God help you to avoid the things that tempt you away from relationship with your heavenly Father, and protect you from evil.

     Jesus then goes on to remind them that if you forgive others, God will forgive you but if you don’t, neither will God forgive you. What is that about? Why would Jesus tell us that God forgiving us is contingent upon us forgiving others? I think this traces back to my reading in Cannato, where we must redeem all creation. Love everyone. Our salvation is found in loving each other and in God. Jesus, in forgiving and loving us and sacrificing himself for the world is the ultimate example of this. Perhaps that is why reciting prayers in front of many doesn’t impress God, or repeating the same prayer over and over doesn’t resonate in God’s heart the way Jesus’ instruction on prayer does. If we pray the way Jesus’ calls us to, we can’t help but enter into a deeper relationship with God and all those around us whom we have wronged or who have wronged us.