(NB: You may notice similarities with my sermon from today)
“How many people here hate Paul?” my professor asked, beginning his unit on Paul's writings.
About half of the class's hands when up. A larger number than I expected. Although I had come to learn that Paul received mixed reviews from Christians.
“Why do you hate Paul? Give me some reasons,” he said.
“He hates women, demanding that they be silent in church” one person shouted.
“He's a reactionary, blesses right wing politics,” another blasted.
“He's the reason gay people are treated so badly by some Christians,” still another howled.
“He's authoritarian, tells people to be submissive to people in authority, no matter how tyrannical,” yet another yawped.
“He's anti-Semitic, a self-hating Jew who betrayed his faith, causing Christian atrocities against Jews for centuries,” another shrieked.
“He turned Jesus' message of God's kingdom of justice, peace, mercy, forgiveness for the world into a mere transaction between God and the individual. He didn't get what Jesus was all about.”
I could go on. But you get the idea. This was, of course, a more left-leaning crowd. If the class was of a more conservative bent they would find other issues with Paul to complain about:
He's morally lax, they might say. Justification by Faith lets people off the sin hook too easily. He picks and chooses what he likes from the Tradition and discards the rest. He's slippery with the Old Testament, often taking passages out of context to prove a point. He too egalitarian in how he structures his churches, preferring an organic system to a ordered one. He sticks his nose into politics where it doesn't belong.
Paul is an equal opportunity offender.
The problem is, these people are not wrong. Paul CAN be accused of all these things. If you want I can give you chapters and verses where Paul would plead guilty to these charges.
But other problem is that these people are not right, either. Paul is more than these things. And together, as we read Romans, we'll see how Paul's message of New Life and New Creation transcended the individual issues that people lob at his sandals. We'll see that Paul's message has so many layers that we need to look at the whole of this theology to understand what he has to say to us. His theology is greater than the chapters and verses of his writings.
One thing you can say about Paul is that his theology will not fit on a bumper sticker.
Last year when I was in Mexico, I spent a morning reading through Paul's letters. Spending a morning on a Mexican beach with the apostle Paul was an exercise in contradiction. Paul was writing from prison. I was at 5 star hotel with people waiting on me. Paul used every ounce of his physical and mental energy to proclaim the gospel. I was lazing under an umbrella with a drink in my hand. Paul described a different reality than the one the world gave. I was luxuriating in the world's pleasures, suppressing any guilt that tried to emerge.
And as I kept reading, I found Paul's voice unsettling. But in a good way. Being unsettled is not necessarily a bad thing. Especially when Paul is doing the unsettling. Paul understands that we human beings fail in living how God wants us to live. Paul knows that we hurt ourselves and each other. He knows that a life of faith is not one big climb up to the mountain top, but that a life of faith is a series of fits and starts, of climbing and falling, of wounding and being wounded. Paul has no illusions about what resides in the human heart.
Which is why, at the heart of his message is that we come into a right relationship with God not through any good works, proper prayers, moral behaviour, or church going. But we come into a right relationship with God by God's grace through faith. And even that faith is a gift. Because faith comes by hearing God's Word, through the power of the Holy Spirit, who “calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies us” as Luther's catechism says.
We don't accept God's grace. We can only receive it. We don't choose to be God's people. God chooses us. We are not in the driver's seat of our salvation. God is.
That means that we don't have to be perfect. That means we have the freedom to live how God wants us to live without fear of failure. Because we WILL fail. And that's okay. Perfection is not the point. Simply being God's child is Paul's gospel point.
If I can sum up Paul's message it would be this: Because of what God has done in Jesus, you are forgiven. You are free. Now live in the forgiveness and freedom that God wants for you.
Maybe we can put Paul on a bumper sticker after all.