Nicolas Stebbing CR urges us to see past St Paul’s difficult reputation to appreciate his grasp of God’s glory and love
A priest I know used to describe St Paul’s writings as rather like a currant bun! If you have tried reading straight through any of the epistles you will know what he meant. Much of it is pretty hard work, quite stodgy and not very easy to follow, and then you hit one of his marvellous passages which just sing out to you of the glory of God. Something like ‘I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom. 8.38ff).
There are lots of those sort of passages. Paul had a grasp of the amazing glory of God and a grasp on the kindness and love of God, and Paul was absolutely amazed that this God, in the form of Jesus Christ, had taken the trouble to knock him off his horse and show him a far better way of following him than the one that had taken up his life so far. Paul never, ever got over that; he never stopped thanking God for it. Read through his Epistles and you find that every one of them begins ‘I thank God…’ He really did. It was one of the most attractive things about him.
Yet St Paul has a bad reputation. People say his writings are unintelligible. They have a point. He can be difficult. He was struggling to write Christian theology for the first time. He was having to get his mind around totally incomprehensible ideas like the Trinity. He had to invent new ideas, drag old words into new meanings. He did an amazing job. His writings take up a mere 60 pages of the average Bible and yet thousands and thousands of books have been written about him.
People say he was bad tempered. Well, maybe, but when you look at the reasons for his anger you see he is angry because people were destroying the Gospel, trying to steal the freedom away from these sons and daughters of God. Yes, he says, ‘You stupid Galatians; Who has bewitched you?’ (Gal. 3.1). They were being stupid.
They were letting men persuade them to take on all the 600 rules and regulations of the Jewish law, abandoning the wonderful freedom of being saved by Christ. That was stupid! Paul loved his Christian brothers and sisters. He cared passionately when they did stupid things. He cared most of all when people came and corrupted their faith and took away their hope of salvation. Paul got angry and sarcastic, because he loved people. He was not going to stand back politely and let them be carried off to hell.
Following his example
So when we think of criticizing Paul, we need to ask whether we can even hold a candle to his example. Do we preach Christ as he did? Do we tell our friends about this Jesus whom we meet in church? Do we show by the quality of our lives that Jesus lives in us, in such a way that people will say to us ‘Tell us about Jesus’? I can’t answer ‘yes’ to any of those questions. I need to ask myself how I could do that better. Well, I think I know how we could all do it better. We could follow Paul’s example and really think about Jesus, let Jesus come into every part of our life. We could look at him every day in the Gospel and see what he is saying. We can ask him to set us on fire with love for him, as he set Paul on fire, and then people will see Jesus in us and ask to know more about him.
A divided Church
Will they see Jesus in us? If they look at us what will they see? Two of the best letters Paul wrote were his letters to the Christians in Corinth. They were a wildly enthusiastic congregation who were badly divided. Even within our own Anglican church we are sadly divided: between sound Catholics and Aff Caths, between low church and high church, between evangelicals and others, between priests and laity.
All these different groups have gifts, insights, virtues which we all need. It is not easy to bring them together. I do not myself see how it can be done. It requires love, hope, vision and a great longing to bring the divided Christ back together again. We must not settle contentedly into our little divisions. We must weep over them, repent of the part we have played in creating them, pray to know how we can heal them.
St Paul knew what it was to have a divided Church. He saw divisions in Corinth. He saw divisions between Jews and Greeks and he found the way of unity was simply in Christ: ‘Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Greeks but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (I Cor. 1.22ff). ND
A Sermon preached at the church of St Paul, Brierley
on their Patronal Festival, 25 January 2014