Listen!Psalm 149 | Romans 13:8-10
It’s a common complaint – and one with a certain amount of validity to it – that Paul, in the writing of his letters, ended up making the gospel, Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God more complicated, less inclusive, more rule-bound, than Jesus ever intended it to be.
In this reading of the events of the first half of the first century, Jesus came and preached a message of love, against the hard rules of the Pharisees, of acceptance, against the withdrawl and isolation of the Essene, of spirituality, against the sacrificial system of the Saducees, of non-violence, against the revolutionary Zealots. His message ended up upsetting almost everyone, and led to his eventual arrest and execution.
But Paul, converted on the road to Damascus, brought his Pharisaical past into the new faith and, through his energetic and, clearly very effective, spreading of the message, shaped the growing Church into a new movement, with its own rules and regulations, its own structures and processes, its own doctrines and dogmas. A movement based on the message of Jesus, but now taking the shape of a formal religion, in place of the simpler, gentler, less structured faith that Jesus proclaimed.
And, as I say, it’s a complaint not entirely without merit; although I suspect that for the most part it is a complaint levelled at the wrong generation: while Paul certainly seems to lay down the law about what people should believe and how they should act, there was clearly a wide diversity of belief and practice in the early Church, a diversity that came under pressure as the Church became an institution, but which was not subject to outright attack until the Church councils following the adoption of Christianity as the official faith of the Roman empire in the early fourth century.
Even when we consider the more legalistic writings in the epistles, it’s worth remembering that many of the letters that bear Paul’s name may well have been written by the generation which came after him – for someone who learnt the faith at Paul’s feet might quite legitimately, in the mode of the day, have used his name – today we might consider that fraudulent, but in the thinking of the day it was more like an act of humility; not claiming these things for yourself but giving the credit to your teacher.
And in the writings that are widely accepted as from the pen of Paul himself, we find a number of gems of faith which reflect a much simpler form of the faith (and note, simpler does not mean the same as easier), a faith much more obviously derived from the life and teaching of Jesus. In the book of Galatians we have his revolutionary claim that in Christ there is neither male nor female, greek nor jew, slave nor free; in the letter to Philemon the request that a slave owner take back his runaway slave as a brother in Christ; and here in the book of Romans – a book full of complex theological and philosophical argument – Paul’s summary of the law: “The commandments are summed up in this phrase – love your neighbour as yourself… love is the fulfilling of the law”.
So what are we to make of this character, Paul? And, perhaps first, does it matter?
Well, yes, I think it does. Because unless you take a view of scripture in which every word is directly inspired by God, inerrant and infalliable – a view, which you’ve probably worked out by now, I don’t share – understanding the author is an essential part of understanding the text, and of making it mean something for our generation.
What we seem to me to find in the writings of Paul is the thinking and teaching of a man who has seen something totally mind blowingly new to him – a God who treats all people as equals (male and female, Jew and gentile, slave and free) – it’s almost impossible for us to understand how radical such an idea was to a man of Paul’s era. And a way of reading the law, that the whole law is fulfilled by the commandment to love – so totally alien to his culture, his teaching, his life.
And so we find in his writings a mixture – moments of incredible, radical clarity, such as our reading today, times when he is clearly struggling to make sense of those moment in his world, his context, and times when falls back into old understandings.
And in a sense, this is the story of the whole of the Bible – a collection of writings by people who have seen something amazing, something world changing; understood something about themselves, about the world, about God, and then struggled to understand it, to make sense of it in their culture, their context.
So the people of Israel, in the Old Testament, grasp this incredible truth – that there are not many Gods, one for each tribe, one for each nation, but all of God is everywhere. And yet, living as they do in an age of tribal Gods, they still fall back into speaking as if God was specially for them; their God, to the exclusion of others.
Or the disciples, as we’ve talked about in recent weeks, getting that Jesus was the Messiah, but struggling to take on board a new sense of what that might mean.
And of course, the history of the Church has been the history of steps forward and back; of genuine, passionate people struggling to make sense of what they have seen and heard of God, sometimes getting it right, often getting it wrong, but, under the gentle guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, I believe, gradually moving forwards.
And the thing is, we are still doing the same thing today.
Our job as a Church is to be the bearers of this story; the story of God, of the people of God, the story of Jesus Christ. We receive that story from those who have come before us; bear it, keep it alive, make it somehow new and real for ourselves and for the generation that is to come. Around the walls of this Church are windows and plaques commemorating some of those who have carried the story before us (including some of Poppy’s anscestors) – we are surrounded by our past, the tradition that has shaped us and gifted us with the story of God, the story of Jesus; and today in baptism we have promised to continue to be part of that story, that tradition, another link in the chain passing the story on to the next generation.
Of course there is a lot else that we do as a Church – caring for one another, fighting for justice, working to look out for the poor, the needy, the oppressed, the marginalised, the young, the old. Doing all these things is a direct consequence of who we are as the people of God. But we join in those tasks with others; with those of other faiths and none, with government and non-government organisations, who share the calling to care for those in need.
The one things that we do uniquely as the Church is to carry forward the story of Jesus; to work out and share what it means for us, in Australia, in the world, today. We will, no doubt, make just as many mistakes as every generation before us; different ones, probably, but just as many.
And all we can do is keep on bringing ourselves back to the one we follow, the one whose life Paul was reflecting upon when he wrote “In Christ there is neither male nor female, jews nor foreigner, slave nor free”; the who he was quoting (more or less) when he wrote “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law”.
To keep alive that story, and try to make sense of it for ourselves, our children, our society. Amen