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The Gospel according to Saint Paul

We can only imagine Paul's vision of Jesus
We can only imagine Paul's vision of Jesus

Anyone who knows the New Testament is aware that we do not have a complete statement of what St. Paul was preaching. He was considered the new kid on the block, a near-fanatic who appeared in the early Church preaching a message that he claimed was given to him in a revelation.

It was not before a good fifteen years had gone by that Paul was summoned to Jerusalem to meet with the emerging Church in its headquarters. Of course at that time the keepers of Christian doctrine were the Apostles. St. James, Jesus' brother, was the leader of the group, backed up by St. Peter. Of this incident Paul says:

"For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.

"Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter, and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.

"Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: 'The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.' And they praised God because of me." [Galatians 1: 13-24]

Paul was referring to his startling conversion experience: from a determined persecutor of the Church to a committed follower of the Rabbi from Nazareth. He was an independent fellow, and when he did spend time in Jerusalem, he was given permission--for what it was worth--to go on preaching his "take" on Christianity (I'm sure he would have done it anyway). And what he was preaching was so powerful that he is remembered in most churches almost every week with readings from his Letters. His version of the Gospel can be pretty much summed up in this passage:

"Before the coming of this faith we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

"So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise." [Galatians 3:23-29]

This passage seems to be almost too much for Christianity to take in, considering that we are still seeing status differences between men and women, gay and straight, in the Church today. However, Paul has suffered from several controversies over time, and this passage is the principal quote that has gotten him into trouble:

"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. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety." [I Timothy: 11-15]

But there is good news about this passage, in that Paul did not actually write it. If you read the amazing book Misquoting Jesus by Dr. Bart Ehrman, you will find that the passage simply does not appear in the earliest versions of Paul's letters, which is to say, copies that come from the Third Century.

It is obvious that someone who was making copies of I Timothy inserted the passage because he thought it ought to be there to teach women their place. And of course it was a man, in that age of cloistered monks making copies of Scripture. It also fails to convince scholars internally, in that the passage in I Timothy contradicts the passage from Galatians that is authentic.

This is a good example of how everyone has to choose what s/he wants to believe. If you want to hide behind I Timothy you can do it; many denominations and preachers are doing it right now. But if you let it go, and accept that the existence of that passage is spurious, you can face the real issue: that all are alike in Christ Jesus.

That brings us to what makes Paul so exceptional: he was willing to turn his life upside down over the emerging faith of Christianity. His background, that of an ultra-Orthodox Jew who was scrupulously observant ("...before the Law, blameless.") and who had no problem becoming an enforcer. But when he converted he went all the way. Not only did he go all the way, but he was also educated enough to see exactly where Christianity made a sharp left turn as compared to Judaism. Paul was ecstatic to understand that "if the Law condemn us, God is greater than the Law," as I put it in a previous article.

Paul saw that God's nature has to be unconditionally good, not good in most things but a (literal) holy terror to certain people. This is the part of Christianity that people still cannot get over: our unshakable belief that, as Paul put it, "...nothing can separate us from the love of God." Our flaws are all equal, in the sense I am discussing: to commit the sin of stealing or adultery is no more sinful than committing the sin of hating your cousin or bullying your neighbor--not when you lay these sins before Unconditional Love. It is up to us to get over what we have done, forgive ourselves, amend our lives and move on. Paul tells us that if God could forgive him, he is confident that God can forgive anyone. The most complete statement of Paul's religious feelings is expressed in his Letter to the Romans, which deserves to be studied on its own without being quoted. However, to give you an idea of the breath-taking ideas that Paul was sharing in his day, here is my favorite:

"All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them." [Romans 2:12-15]

Paul was saying something truly revolutionary here: to the Jews, that all Gentiles had God's law "written on their hearts," and that they were capable of following God's law by instinct. Then he says that anyone who obeys the law either way will be "declared righteous," which means that Christianity was in the process of wiping out the distinction between Jews and Gentiles that he described above.

The Christian Church today is still infested with people who have an emotional need to compare themselves with someone favorably, and prop up their belief that they can thank God that they are not as other men, as Jesus said. Groups from Pentecostals to Mormons to Southern Baptists still preach behind the doors of their sanctuaries that although we ought to be kind to everyone, God still favors us above all others. They do not have the strong faith that Paul had; if they did they could live and preach like Paul, who said this once about his adventures as a preacher:

"I repeat: Let no one take me for a fool. But if you do, then tolerate me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting. In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool. Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast. You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise! In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or puts on airs or slaps you in the face. To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that!

"Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—-I am speaking as a fool—-I also dare to boast about. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea, and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

"If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying. In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands." [2 Corinthians 11:16-32]

That is a pretty disturbing claim for anyone to make even today. Paul also hammered home the message that everyone stood before God as equals, differing only in attitude and not merit. Christianity does not preach that human beings are so special that God came down to earth in Jesus to give us a present; it preaches, rather embarrassingly, that we are especially corrupted as it is told symbolically in the story of the Garden of Eden. We lowered our human nature in the famous Fall of Adam, although some writers seem to think that it was somehow a good thing.

The fall from grace only moved the game pieces and made human history even more momentous, in that God redeemed the fallen world all over again. Jesus came into the world with a consciousness that helps us to re-align our relationship to God and live in joy instead of fear. That is what makes it possible for a Christian to worship: that and that alone. This level of spiritual thought is quite apart from speculation about "ancient aliens" and how interplanetary travelers may have tampered with human culture thousands of years ago. Prehistoric human beings may have regarded the aliens as divinities, but the Jews had conceived of one God, a God who was not a star, not an animal, not a superhuman. Jehovah is all-powerful, not "very, very powerful" and he is all-knowing, ever-present and his defining characteristic in the Christian Church is his unconditional love. This theology is not concerned with quasi-humans who once appeared on earth; it is concerned with what is on the other side of the Veil that separates life and death. And with who is there on the other side.

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