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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Celebrating St Paul

Patronal Festival for the Conversion of St Paul 2011

On a patronal festival it is fitting that we celebrate St Paul. The truth is that in the church today – and in the popular imagination - Paul has a very mixed reputation. Whereas our Lord Jesus is popularly understood as preaching a simple gospel of love – Paul is usually represented as complicating everything with difficult theology. The often forceful tone of Paul’s letters, the energy and the complex arguments through which he engages with the contradictions he finds in himself, his Jewish tradition, the cultures about him and his experience of Christ – these are amazing documents, but they are not easy to grasp and when we read them in church they are among the most challenging readings to read aloud. The popular picture that we have of Paul tends to include some of these aspects; that he was:

  • A bigoted Jew who became a bigoted Christian.
  • A misogynist and a source of views that represented women as inferior to men; and a biblical source for the arguments used against the ordination of women.
  • Someone who affirmed slavery rather than condemned it.
  • Notorious for his condemnation of homosexuality.

Most of these issues can be explained (and usually are) by paying attention to the cultural norms of Paul’s time and his identity as a Jew but I don’t accept that the picture is as clear as we popularly have understood it. For instance when we associate Paul with the line about women being silent in church[1] – we forget the numerous women Paul mentions in his letters – in some instances women who lead and host the church in their houses and who, with him, are evangelists to the Gentiles (the non-Jewish) world. The picture is not straightforward and Paul is certainly not a misogynist.

So, this morning I want to encourage you to think about Paul ina much more appreciative way.

I’ll begin with a bold statement: Christianity can be understood as the invention of one man – St Paul! Paul’s letters are our earliest Christian writings and without Paul it is unlikely that the Gentile world would ever have adopted Christianity. Without Paul, it is highly unlikely that Christianity would ever have broken away from Judaism – and the world we know would have been entirely different. [2] Christianity would not have reached Europe – let alone the rest of the world. Think of what that would have meant.

  • For instance the whole Jewish inheritance, inseparably woven into our Christian tradition, would never have been available to the western imagination – stories which used to be told to every child would have remained the exclusive preserve of Jews: Adam and Eve, the Fall, the Ark, Daniel in the Lion’s Den.
  • Our understanding of God in the West is the God of Israel: a God who made everything that is and is utterly tied up with his creation.

This entire intellectual and cultural legacy is so easily forgotten and we take it for granted; we assume it and it was the result of Paul’s influence

Luke’s account and Paul’s

Luke tells us the famous story of Saul, the persecutor of the Way, having a vision on the road to Damascus – he gives us a memorable story with wonderful details – but Paul’s own account of what happened is quite different. What occurred to Paul may well have happened on the road to Damascus but even that detail is omitted in his account in Galatians 1. All Paul tells us is that he had a direct revelation of Jesus Christ – a revelation that sent him to the Gentiles – to the non-Jewish world. There was no human intermediary; there was only Jesus Christ. There was no time of instruction, no reception by the apostles, only the revelation of Jesus Christ. Only 3 years later did Paul meet with the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem – with Peter, James and John.

Left to Peter and James and John the Christians in Jerusalem would have remained a Jewish sect, associated with the temple and the synagogue; following Christ certainly but otherwise faithful to Jewish practices; exclusive and shunning the gentiles.Paul changed that.

Paul was the church’s first and most creative theologian. His letters predate the gospels. They are our earliest NT texts. In his letters Paul ‘creates’ Christianity and the faith that was to sweep through the world. (At Evensong this evening I will talk about how Paul can help us find a way through the current debate in our church over same gender relationships and ordination.)

The Transforming Christ

In his letters we see that Paul has a vision of Christ as the One who has transformed everything. Through him the human condition, and all the religious rules of Judaism, have been utterly changed. In the personal encounter with Christ – everything is changed: ‘If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away.’ (2 Cor. 5:17) For that reason Paul has a sweeping vision of humanity and the future: ‘there is no longer Jew of Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal.3:28). There are lines in Paul’s letters that we should carry in us – carved on our hearts!

Conclusion – Christ in Us and the Eucharist

At the heart of it all for Paul is the encounter with Christ – this is the transforming thing for the Paul who says ‘I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’ (Gal.2: 20).

A defining experience – a vision of Christ that it takes a lifetime to embrace – a. the encounter (a conversion experience); but (b) a lifetime conversion as it unfolds in all its implications.

This is what we come to in the Eucharist – Christ in us.



[1] 1 Corinthians 14: 33b-35.

[2] See A.N. Wilson, Paul: The Mind of the Apostle (New York: Norton, 1997) p.14.

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