Let’s be fair to Paul of Tarsus Part 2

We’re continuing today to stick up for someone who can’t stick up for himself because, significant writer that he is, he’s been dead for almost 2,000 years. I’m talking about Paul of Tarsus.

Last week we saw that Paul wrote something revolutionary both for that time and for ours: In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:28 The Message). Imagine that. In the first century A.D. there was a clear statement that Jesus followers do not discriminate based on ethnicity, economic status or gender. How might the last 2,000 years have been different if that verse had hung on a plaque on the walls of homes, office cubicles and churches?

We can’t undo the past, but we can move forward. In light of Paul’s clear statement above, there are several confusing verses in 1 Corinthians 14: Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church (14:33-35).

The reason these verses are confusing is that 3 chapters previous Paul had written about the protocols for women speaking in the worship service: But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head…. (1 Corinthians 11:5).
The background to the head covering is a cultural rule of the time. Ewert writes,
“The woman (i.e. the wife),…who prays and prophecies (she participates in worship fully with the man) and doesn’t cover her head, dishonors it (v. 5).
Since it was a disgrace, by general consent, if a married woman appeared in public without her head covering, to do so in church was equally disgraceful” (The Church in a Pagan Society Kindred 1986, 116).

To be very clear, 3 chapters before the surprising words in chapter 14, Paul spoke of men and women participating equally in worship. Leading New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce elaborates:

“That there was liberty in the church…for women to pray or prophesy is necessarily implied by Pal’s argument; he does not suggest that there is anything undesirable about their doing so (whatever the injunction of 14:34f. means, it cannot be understood thus), but requires them to do so with their heads covered. Their praying might be participation in congregational prayer, but prophesying was an individual charismatic exercise (cf. 14:1ff., and especially 14:31, ‘one by one’….
“In Christ she received equality of status with man; she might pray or prophesy at meetings of the church….” (The New Century Bible Commentary: 1&2 Corinthians Eerdmans 1971, 104, 106).

Scholars have theories about the “strange…imposition of silence” in 1 Corinthians 14 (Bruce 135) and we don’t have space for that here. Suffice to say that Paul’s teaching is clear that women and men participate fully in worship.

There’s one more Paul excerpt we need to talk about briefly. A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet (1 Timothy 2:11-12).

Again, there is background we could discuss and there are scholars I could quote, but we’ll stick to the main point, which is that there must be something going on that Paul doesn’t tell us, because that’s not how Paul taught about the nature of relationships in the church. To illustrate, here’s a short story about Priscilla and Aquila, two of Paul’s coworkers: Meanwhile…Apollos…came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately (Acts 18:24-26). Here’s Luke scholar Charles Talbert:

When [in Acts 18] Luke inverts the order of the names of Aquila and Priscilla (vs. 2) to Priscilla and Aquila (vss. 18, 26) it is as significant as the earlier inversion of Barnabas and Saul (13:2, 7) to Paul and his company (13:13) or Paul and Barnabas (13:43, 46, 50). To put one’s name first seems to be the Evangelist’s way of indicating who has the leadership role. If so, then this detail fits into the general Lukan emphasis on women and their ministries (see Luke 8;1-3; 10:38-42; 23:49, 55-56; 24:1-11, 22,23; Acts 1:14; 9:36-43; 12:12-17; 16:14-15; 17:4, 12, 34, etc.)” “In ‘Acts] 18:24-28 a woman teacher instructs a male preacher, showing that in the post-Pauline period 1 Tim 2:12 was not regarded as a guideline for all circumstances” (Knox Preaching guides: Acts John Knox 1984, 79, 81).

Briefly, Paul twice wrote something that appears inconsistent with his general rule that there is no basis for discrimination on the basis of gender in Christians’ interaction with one another. Two thousand years later, we simply don’t know all the dynamics behind these two excerpts, but the principle in clear, and is borne out by Paul’s and Luke’s writings about the way in which men and women interacted with one another in the church. So let’s be fair to Paul of Tarsus, shall we?

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Let’s be fair to Paul of Tarsus Part 1

It’s hard to stick up for yourself when you’re dead. Have you ever thought about that? People can form conclusions about who you were and what you stood for – conclusions completely opposite to what you believed.

What does it matter?

People might use your life and selected parts of what you wrote to advocate for things that are very wrong.

Give me an example, you say? No problem. I read recently that people used to argue that slavery in the United States was Biblical, and that they used some of Paul’s writings in support of their position. Here’s one of the passages they used (Suderman, ‘Becoming a Faithful Church’, Mennonite Church Canada, 2012, p. BFC4.1:3).

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart (Ephesians 6:5-6).

It is most unfortunate that people used these verses to argue for the validity of slavery, because Paul also wrote the following: In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ Galatians 3:38, The Message). Writing about this verse, historian Thomas Cahill says, “’In Christ Jesus’ – in the ultimate cosmic reality – there can be no power relationships. The primitive Church was the world’s first egalitarian society” (Desire of the Everlasting Hills Doubleday 1999, 147-148).

Why did Paul write to slaves in the church in Ephesus and in Colossae, telling them to energetically serve their masters rather than revolt? Scholars write theories about that, and I could give you reasons, but I don’t want that conversation to obscure the fact that Paul taught that there was no basis for discrimination in the church based on ethnicity, economic status or gender.

What is more, the early church understood his teaching very clearly. As one example, New Testament scholar William Barclay writes:

“Ampliatus…is a quite common slave name. Now in…the earliest of the Christian catacombs, there is a decorated tomb with the single name Ampliatus carved on it in bold and decorative lettering. The…single name Ampliatus…-Romans who were citizens would have three names…-would indicate that this Ampliatus was a slave, but the elaborate tomb and the bold lettering would indicate that he was a man of high rank in the Church. From that it is plain to see that in the early days of the Church the distinctions of rank were so completely wiped out that it was possible for a man at one an the same time to be a slave and a prince of the Church. Social distinctions did not exist” Daily Study Bible: Romans Welch 1975, 212

Paul did not engineer a slaves’ revolt, but he did teach that there was to be no discrimination in the church between slave and free person. Let’s be fair to Paul of Tarsus.

Being wise at what is good and innocent about what’s evil – without being an ostrich

I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil. Romans 16:19

That sounds like a nice motherhood kind of statement, doesn’t it? Focus on the positive, don’t major on the negative.

Do you have any concern about living that way? If I simply think about positive things, am I not in danger of being exploited by those looking for gullible victims? Am I not acting like an ostrich, keeping my head in the sand, and liable to get run over?

Fortunately, Jesus made a similar statement using the same verbs “wise” and Innocent” that can help us figure out how to do this: …so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matthew 1:16, New Revised Standard Version, Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 9-16 Word 1988, 905).

How does one act both like a snake and like a dove?
“Christians are not to be gullible simpletons. But neither are they to be rogues. Innocent is literally…pure, transparent; it demands…an irreproachable honesty. The balance of prudence and purity will enable Christians both to survive and to fulfill their mission to the world.” (France, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Matthew Eerdmans 1985, 181-2.)

“Matt. 10:16 refers to [the snake’s] caution in avoiding danger…..” (Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words Zondervan 1952, “Serpent).

Is that helpful?

Perhaps the insights of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. can help as well. He was not only a civil rights leader but also a preacher.

“It is pretty difficult to imagine a single person having, simultaneously, the characteristics of the serpent and the dove, but this is what Jesus expects. We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.

“Let us consider, first, the need for a tough mind, characterized by incisive thinking, realistic appraisal, and decisive judgment….

“…But [t]he gospel also demands a tender heart. Toughmindedness without tenderheartedness is cold and detached, leaving one’s life in a perpetual winter devoid of the warmth of spring and the gentle heat of summer. What is more tragic than to see a person who has risen to the disciplined heights of toughmindedness but has at the same time sunk to the passionless depths of hardheartedness?…

“…Jesus reminds us that the good life combines the toughness of the serpent and the tenderness of the dove. To have serpentlike qualities devoid of dovelike qualities is to be passionless, mean, and selfish. To have dovelike without serpentlike qualities is to be sentimental, anaemic, and aimless….

“…A third way is open to our quest for freedom, namely, non-violent resistance, that combines toughmindedness and tender-heartedness and avoids the complacency and do-nothingness of the softminded and the violence and bitterness of the hardhearted….Through non-violent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system.” M.L. King, Jr., Strength to Love, Fortress Press, 1981, 9-15.

Wise as a snake, innocent as a dove. Be excellent at what is good and innocent of evil. That doesn’t sound like an ostrich to me. How does it sound to you?

enemies welcome, no preferential treatment

Do you like getting preferential treatment? There’s employee pricing, family discounts, fast-track lanes for those with special cards at airport security and busy border crossings, first-class seating on airplanes with service the rest of us never receive. Doesn’t it feel good when you experience special treatment?

The relationship between the nation of Israel and of Syria (Aram) was long, complex, and often hostile. There was a lot of war between the two. Three key figures in an Israel-Syria story in 2 Kings 5 are Elisha the Israeli prophet of God, Naaman the Syrian general and a nameless young Israeli girl enslaved in Syria.

Here’s how we meet the general: Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the LORD had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy (2 Kings 5:1).

And now meet the young girl: Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, ‘If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy’ (2 Kings 5:2-3).

On the strength of the little slave girl’s word, Naaman consulted with his king and set out to seek the help of this foreign man of God from the nation that his own people had raided not so long ago, kidnapping citizens and making them slaves. He took with him an entourage that included servants, mules, chariots, plus a lot of clothing and a huge amount of money to be used as gifts or for negotiation.

He had expectations. ‘I thought that he [the prophet] would come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy’ (5:11).

First of all, it seems that it didn’t occur to him that, as a leader of a hostile power, the king might kick him out of the country or the prophet might refuse to meet with him. That’s because the little slave girl had it right. God loves every human, including humans who invade other nations and kidnap innocent children. There’s good news here. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. God still loves you and wants to heal all the brokenness and pain in your life.

But let’s return to Naaman’s expectations. Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, ‘Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed’ (5:10) Elisha didn’t come to meet him, and he didn’t call on the name of God, wave his hand over the spot and cure him. Expectations were dashed on all counts.

Naaman went away angry…’Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?’ So he turned and went off in a rage (5:11-12).

Fortunately, Naaman’s attendants were able to talk him out of his rage. So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.
Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said, ‘Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. So please accept a gift from your servant’ (5:14-15).

Did you see that?
1. Naaman is no longer elevating himself as an important general. Now he refers to himself as the prophet’s servant.
2. Naaman has now abandoned the faith of his nation to become the committed follower of the God of the nation to the southwest – a nation with which his country was often at war.
3. While God loved Naaman and was willing to heal him, Naaman received no special treatment because he was an important person. This is the second important thing to see in this story, because it’s a consistent message throughout the Bible. No one gets preferential treatment. No one is in a position to negotiate the terms of God’s rescue. Everyone stands on level ground before God.

Everyone is welcome to receive God’s healing and love.
No one gets a special track to God’s healing and love. No family discounts. No employee pricing. But everyone is welcome, everyone is loved.. That’s an important message in the week of Remembrance Day.

your truth is good for you, my truth is good for me

What do you see in the photograph below? Two thermometers giving different readings. Both are Celsius thermometers. I watch them record the temperature in my back yard, always 18 degrees Celsius apart.

1. First, is it possible that both Celsius thermometers are telling the truth? Can it be both zero Celsius and 18 Celsius in the same place at the same time? Of course not!

2. The photograph was taken in Winnipeg on November 2. Which thermometer is telling the truth? How do you decide?

You can look at surrounding evidence. For example, the snow on the deck is a strong indicator that the thermometer on the left is in error.

3. Which thermometer do you wish was telling the truth? The one reporting 18 degrees Celsius or the one reporting zero Celsius?

But what’s the relevance of my wishes? Can my wishes affect the temperature?

4. Is it OK for me to pick one thermometer and for you to choose the other?

“Don’t be silly,” you say. “The temperature is what it is. One of those thermometers is wrong, and it’s important to find out which one is wrong because how you dress in a Winnipeg late fall is important for your health.”

I agree.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus of Nazareth said, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the World to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son’ (John 3:16-18).

In other words, Jesus said

– humans are perishing because of their own choices

– life continues after we die

– God loves humans no matter what they’ve done

– Jesus of Nazareth, who claimed to be God’s one and only Son, is the only way to avoid perishing and to receive eternal life.

– any way of finding meaning in life that does not have Jesus of Nazareth at its centre is incomplete.

Now that, like the thermometers in the picture, is either true or it’s not. The Gospel (Good News) at which we’ve looked in the last couple of weeks, says that Jesus of Nazareth died as predicted, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day as predicted and that He appeared to many people after He rose from the dead (i Corinthians 15:1-8). That is to say, you can check out whether Jesus was telling the truth by checking to see whether He rose from the dead as He predicted He would and as His followers claimed that He did.

Many people believe that Jesus was a great man. But He didn’t claim to merely be a great man, but to be the only solution for human failure, brokenness and death. Either that’s true or it’s not. The Gospel gives you a way to check out the truth of His claims. Either it’s true or it’s not. If Jesus rose from the dead, that means that life on the other side of death is a reality. If another belief system and Jesus of Nazareth disagree about this or anything else, they can’t both be true. Shouldn’t you check it out to see which one is true? “Your truth is good for you and my truth is good for me” doesn’t work for thermometers. Can it affect what happens to you after you die?

A monument to your life

How do you measure success in life?

Years ago someone gave me a copy of a Dan Piraro (Bizarro) cartoon. It shows a frail old man lying in bed, two or three generations of loved ones bent over him. The old man speaks. “I watched a lot of TV, ate a lot of fast food & sold more laminated counter tops in June of 1973 than anyone else in the Southeast region. My work here is done.”

Does that cartoon make you want to laugh or cry?

The great Catholic writer Ignatius of Loyola said that people should make decisions by imagining themselves on their death bed and asking themselves from that perspective what decision they wish they had made (The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola Press, 1951, 77).

What’s a fitting objective for life?

Paul of Tarsus wrote, So I have reason to be enthusiastic about all Christ Jesus has done through me in my service to God. Yet I dare not boast about anything except what Christ has done through me, bringing the Gentiles to God by my message and by the way I worked among them. They were convinced by the power of miraculous signs and wonders and by the power of God’s Spirit. In this way, I have fully presented the Good News of Christ from Jerusalem all the way to Illyricum Romans 15:17-19, New Living Translation.

Looking back, Paul felt satisfied with his achievements.

However, he’s not bragging, because he’s convinced that it wasn’t about him. It happened by Jesus working through him. So the first part of the inscription on his monument would say, “I achieved amazing things because I was so closely in tune with Jesus’ impulses in my mind, directing my choices.”

Secondly, he counts not laminated countertops, but people brought to God. Last week I summarized the Gospel, or the Good News about Jesus, which comes up here as well.
The Good News about Jesus, again, begins with bad news; namely, that humans created for relationship with God are hopelessly separated from God’s life-giving power by their own brokenness, failure and defiance.
However, the good news is that God, as an expression of love, became a human named Jesus of Nazareth, showed humans how to live, died in their place and rose again, thus making possible relationship with the Creator God. This relationship is not automatic – no healthy relationship is. A healthy relationship is based upon choices to be in relationship – and a relationship with God requires surrender to His plans for your life, which plans include living a life of love with other Jesus followers, expressing that love in a broken, hurting world. That’s the Good News that Paul has proclaimed all the way from Jerusalem on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean to Illyricum, a region northeast of Italy (New Living Translation footnote to Romans 15:19).

Paul is thinking like a paramedic; that is, “I have a life-giving message for people headed to a hopeless future. My significance is in bringing as many of them as possible to safety.”

One more thing. How does Paul achieve his objective? By my message and by the way I worked among them. In other words, by giving them the right information and by living in a way consistent with that message. Paul lived a fully integrated life, and in this way was able to convince people that the Good News about Jesus (or gospel) was exactly what they needed for a fulfilled life.

Paul sounds content with his achievement. How about you?
– Looking back, how do your achievements look to you?
– If you were writing the summary of your life’s achievements today, what would the summary say?
– How do your achievements look in light of the Gospel, or Good News about Jesus?

a powerful brain space

Where would you expect the author of ‘The Letter of Joy,” also called “The Letter of Excellent Things,” to be when writing a letter so named? On a mountain top on a sunny day? Relaxing on a beach, cold drink in hand?

There is a letter so nicknamed (Barclay, Daily Study Bible: Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians Welch 1975, 8). It was written almost 2000 years ago by the eloquent Paul of Tarsus. But he was not on a sunny mountain top or relaxing on a beach. He was in Rome – and not as a tourist. He was in a Roman prison aware of the possibility that this imprisonment might lead to his execution (Martin, New Century Bible Commentary: Philippians Eerdmans 1980, 38). He was in prison for his insistence on announcing that Jesus of Nazareth, executed in Jerusalem on a Roman cross some years earlier, had risen from the dead, that this Jesus of Nazareth is the Creator God, ruler of the universe, that He died voluntarily to rescue humanity as an expression of God’s love for humans and that humankind’s only hope is to individually surrender one’s life to Jesus’ leadership. That announcement, which Paul called “the gospel,” was his crime. No bank robbery, no violence, no crimes against the environment.

In this short letter of 4 chapters, Paul used the word “joy” five times and “rejoice” eight times.

How does someone pen such a positive letter in such a negative situation? The best way to answer that question is to carefully read his letter, in which he freely writes about his imprisonment and about the possibility that death could be his fate in the near future. But to fan your interest, here are a couple of things that gave him the ability to be positive in prison for a speech crime that slandered no one.

1. He considered his physical location as yet another opportunity to give the good news about Jesus to someone.
Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. (Philippians 1:12-13) “Is there any doubt that in the long hours Paul would open up a discussion about Jesus with the soldier to whose wrist he was chained?” (Barclay 22). Paul was able to be positive in a negative environment because he saw it as an opportunity to give the good news about Jesus to people he had not previously met. He was able to be a positive presence to the people in that negative environment, and that excited him.

2. He wasn’t afraid of whatever the future might hold, including death. He was convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead and that life beyond death was therefore waiting for him as well, since he was a Jesus follower. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body (1:22-24).

3. He chose not to worry about what might happen, confident in God’s power to take care of him. Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. If you do this, you will experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus (4:6-7, New Living Translation 1996). Don’t worry, not because things will probably turn out happily (because in a Roman prison there was lots of evidence that things wouldn’t turn out well at all!) but because the God who loves you and rose from the dead is taking care of your future if you’re a Jesus follower. If you trust Him, you’ll be at peace even if you’re in prison facing possible death.

4. He chose to think positive thoughts in that place of negativity. Fix your thoughts on what is true and honorable and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise (4:8, New Living). Really! Think positive thoughts in prison? This again is rooted in the conviction that God is in control of both Paul’s present and his future, and that he has nothing to fear even from capital punishment. He’s determined that whatever other people do to him, he will be a positive presence to them, expressing the positive thoughts he’s thinking in that house of bondage and death.

That message, the gospel, that got Paul into trouble seems to be very powerful, doesn’t it? It seems to be one powerful brain space!