Monday, May 20, 2019
1. For Paul there was no question about the starting point. It was always Jesus: Jesus as the shocking fulfillment of Israel’s hopes; Jesus as the genuinely human being, the true “image”; Jesus the embodiment of Israel’s God—so that, without leaving Jewish monotheism, one would worship and invoke Jesus as Lord within, not alongside, the service of the “living and true God.” Jesus, the one for whose sake one would forsake all idols, all rival “lords.” Jesus, above all, who had come to his kingdom, the true lordship of the world, in the way that Paul’s friends who were starting to write the Jesus story at that time had emphasized: by dying under the weight of the world’s sin in order to break the power of the dark forces that had enslaved all humans, Israel included.
- In what ways is Jesus the starting point & goal for Christians today?
2.The point of being human, after all, was never simply to be a passive inhabitant of God’s world. As far as Paul was concerned, the point of being human was to be an image-bearer, to reflect God’s wisdom and order into the world and to reflect the praises of creation back to God. Humans were therefore made to stand at the threshold of heaven and earth—like an “image” in a temple, no less—and to be the conduit through which God’s life would come to earth and earth’s praises would rise to God. Here, then, is the point of Paul’s vision of human rescue and renewal (“salvation,” in traditional language): those who are grasped by grace in the gospel and who bear witness to that in their loyal belief in the One God, focused on Jesus, are not merely beneficiaries, recipients of God’s mercy; they are also agents. They are poems in which God is addressing his world, and, as poems are designed to do, they break open existing ways of looking at things and spark the mind to imagine a different way to be human.
- What does it mean to be God’s image-bearers, agents, and poems?
3. Paul directs us to think and act with the “mind of the Messiah.”
- Where are you invited and challenged to think/act in this way?
4. Paul invites us to calculate ourselves as being dead to sin and alive to God in the Messiah, Jesus...and to live accordingly, trusting in the resurrected life to come.
- How does this “calculation” shape your attitudes & expectations when faced with life’s challenges & disappointments?
5. Wright attributes Paul’s success to his sheer energy, his blunt way of telling it as he sees it, as well as many other personality traits.
- Which of Paul’s traits have most affected your faith & your life?
6. Paul’s letters and writings allowed the early churches to flourish and expand...creating a new sense of community, a new definition of family.
- How has Paul’s witness to complete inclusivity in Christ reshaped the Christian landscape of our day?
7. Paul ultimately lived and died in constant prayer.
- How does Paul’s life of prayer motivate us to do the same?
- Looking back over the past 15 weeks of reading, what will you take away from this remarkable book?
* Our next book will be, Incarnation, by William Willimon. Since Pastor Mark is away on sabbatical in July, August & September, we will begin our new book on October 10at Panera Bread.
Wednesday, May 1, 2019
(This is our discussion for May 16!)
(See previous post below for May 9.)
(See previous post below for May 9.)
1. Luke has constructed Acts in such a way that chapter 27, the great voyage and shipwreck, functions as a kind of parallel to the climax of his Gospel, which is obviously the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. That had been the moment when “the power of darkness” did its worst. This, now, is the moment when Paul has to face the worst that the powers can throw at him before he can arrive in Rome to announce Jesus as Lord. His rescue and his arrival in Rome thus have the character of “salvation,” a major theme of the chapter; in fact, Greek words related to “saving” occur seven times in quick succession. Luke seems to view the whole episode as a kind of dramatic enactment of the spiritual battle Paul described in Ephesians 6. It is always risky to jump too quickly to the view that Luke and Paul, being close friends and travel companions, must have held the same views on all subjects, but on this point, I think they would have been close. Nor will Luke have ignored the fact that the shipwreck, with the entire ship’s company in danger of drowning, was like a dramatic though distorted version of the crossing of the Red Sea—a Passover moment, a baptismal image in itself.
- How do these interpretations & parallels help you understand Paul?
2. Fortunately, the centurion has learned a deep respect, perhaps even affection, for his brilliant if bossy prisoner. (Perhaps it was moments like that that made Luke, in his writings, give centurions the benefit of the doubt.) In any case, he gives a different order: those who can swim should swim, and those who can’t should grab a plank and do their best. The ship, their home for the last few terrifying weeks, is falling apart under the battering of the waves. Two hundred and seventy-six frightened men—merchants, businessmen, ship owners, soldiers, apostles, sailors, slaves, and prisoners alike, in the sudden egalitarianism of emergency—gasp and splash their way to shore. There is no distinction: all are soaked, scared, freezing, and exhausted. Rank and wealth mean nothing as they crawl or stagger onto dry land. But the trial by water is over. All have been saved.
- Imagine what it must have been like to be a passenger upon this ship.
- How would you have reacted to your survival in this extreme manner?
3. The book of Acts has focused, up to this point, on the way Paul was perceived in Jerusalem and on the charges that were brought against him in relation to undermining the Torah and defiling the Temple. These were, in other words, charges of radical disloyalty to the Jewish world and its ancestral heritage, charges that of course Paul rebutted in both his letters and the various legal hearings. But there was a large synagogue community in Rome. Having returned from the banishment under Claudius, this community might well have been sensitive about someone who might look outwardly as if he spoke for the Jewish people but who might actually be undermining their ancient culture and threatening their national security. Their question would have been one that resonates to this day: Was Paul really a loyal Jew?
- Based on your observations, how would you answer this question?
4. Paul waited two years, under house arrest, for his case to come before the emperor. A strange Jewish prisoner would not have rated highly on Nero’s list of priorities. Paul was, however, free to welcome people to his quarters and to go on making the royal announcement, the true “gospel” of which the imperial “good news” was, as he believed, simply a parody. Nobody stopped him; he told anybody and everybody who would listen that the One God of Israel was the world’s true king and that he had installed his son Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, as Lord of the world. Paul taught, says Luke, “with all boldness.”15 We are not surprised; “boldness” had been the keynote of Paul’s self-description, even in the tense and contested atmosphere of 2 Corinthians 3 when the “boldness” of his apostolic proclamation had been a major theme. He had never tried to hide things. He never tried to curry favor. (Here is, no doubt, one root of what comes across in the account of the voyage as bossiness and interfering; Paul was used to saying what he thought.) He was much more afraid of not being true to the gospel than of any consequences a “bold” proclamation might have had. He was loyal to Israel’s traditions as he had seen them rushing together in the Messiah. He was loyal, ultimately, to the Messiah himself, faithful to the one who had himself been faithful to the point of death.
- Paul was sustained by his unflappable faith during this two-year period of house arrest.
- What has sustained you during long periods of waiting and watching for God’s deliverance?
5. So, as with Paul’s putative trip to Spain, I have become more open to the possibility of a return visit to the East after an initial hearing in Rome. The problem might then be that these two, Spain and the East, might seem to cancel one another out. If Paul was to be back in Rome by the time of Nero’s persecution, facing additional hearings in difficult circumstances, two years would hardly be enough for the relevant trips, both west and east. But perhaps that is the point. Perhaps the persecution would not need any legal trappings. The emperor had laid the blame for the fire on the Christians, and that would be enough. Perhaps, then, one or both trips might after all be feasible; Paul might have been away either in the East or in the West when Nero was rounding up the Christians. Perhaps Paul came back sometime after 64 to find that it was all over, but that the social mood had changed and that, citizen or not, appealing to Caesar or not, he was straightforwardly on trial as a dangerous troublemaker. Perhaps. Paul had to live with a good many “perhaps” clauses in his life. Maybe it is fitting that his biographers should do so as well.
- Where does this shroud of ambiguity surrounding Paul leave us?
- Do you have a sense of direction here?
Tuesday, April 30, 2019
(This is our discussion for May 9!)
(This is our discussion for May 9!)
1. NOW AT LAST it was time for Paul to set off to Jerusalem with the money. In other words, the collection was designed to remind the (largely) Gentile churches of their deep and lasting obligation to the Jewish people in general and the Jerusalem church in particular. And it was designed to communicate to the Jerusalem church, and perhaps to a wider Jewish audience, the fact that the Gentile churches did not see themselves as a “new religion” and had no intention of cutting loose and creating a different kind of community. They were part of the same family and as such were doing what “family” always did — helping one another out as need arose.
- What was unique and new about this approach of lending support?
2.But Paul wasn’t simply reflecting on his own time in Ephesus. He was also warning the elders about what might be waiting for them just around the corner. He had, he says, often warned them with tears about the dangers all around them, and now he could see those dangers looming all the larger. The world of idolatry and immorality was powerful and insidious, and there were many, including perhaps some who had once professed Christian faith, who were being drawn into it. It had happened in Corinth, and it would happen again in various places. Paul grieves over any who even start down that road, and he urges them, with powerful emotion, to turn back. In particular, he has given them an example by his own refusal to be drawn into the snares of materialist culture. He wasn’t in this preaching and teaching business for money, and nor should they be.
- How do Paul’s warnings against “the world of idolatry & immorality...[being] powerful & insidious” remain relevant today?
3. How does Paul react to that small triumph? We watch as the tribune’s men frog-march him back to the barracks and lock him up for the night. Paul is used to this, of course, and at least he and the tribune seem to have established some kind of rapport.
Paul might wish that his own fellow Jews would be more sympathetic, but by now he may be getting a sense that, as in Corinth, a Roman official standing outside the immediate controversy might be a better ally. He prays the evening prayers. The bed is hard, but he has had an exhausting day. He sleeps. And the next thing he knows Jesus is standing there beside him. The last time this happened was in Corinth, and Jesus told him to stay there and not be afraid. Now he’s telling him he will have to move on. He has given his evidence in Jerusalem. Now he will have to do the same thing in Rome. So, Paul thinks, that’s how it’s going to happen. For the last year or two he has had a strong sense that he ought to be heading for Rome, but it had looked as though the Jerusalem visit might put an end to that, and to everything else as well. But now he sees how it might be done. This wasn’t the way he had planned it, but maybe, just maybe, this is what had to happen. Twice now the tribune has rescued him from violence. Perhaps that is a sign.
- How might Paul have reacted to another encounter with Jesus?
4. Once again Luke has presented all this as a fast-paced drama, action packed and with plenty of colorful characters. We can read it through in a few minutes. But we should not lose sight of the fact that it has all taken two years. Paul had written his letter to Rome in 57 and had arrived in Jerusalem late the same year. It was now 59 (Festus’s arrival as governor can be dated to that year). He had, for the moment, escaped death. But Roman custody was still Roman custody, and even though he was clearly allowed to have friends visit him and bring him what he needed, there was a sense of marking time, of an unpleasant and unwanted hiatus. He knew that a belief in providence always constituted a call to patience, but even so, this was getting ridiculous. Jesus had promised him that he would be going to Rome. He had guessed that this might mean that Rome would itself take him there. But how would that happen if Rome kept sending corrupt officials who were uninterested in moving things along?
- How do you imagine Paul kept both his faith and his wits during that long two-year wait?
5. The answer came—and Paul must have been pondering this for quite some time—when the new governor, Festus, held a brief hearing in Caesarea. Jewish speakers once more hurled all kinds of accusations at Paul. He responded by insisting once more on the three all-important points: he had committed no offense against Jewish law or the Temple: or, for that matter, against Caesar. Why he mentioned Caesar at that point is not clear, since so far as we know nobody had suggested that he was guilty of any kind of treason against the emperor. However, the sequel may show what Paul had in mind. But first we see a typical move. Festus, uninterested in justice but wanting to do the Jews a favor, suggested that they should hold a trial in Jerusalem. Paul, remembering the earlier plot, knew perfectly well where that would lead. It was time to play the card he had held up his sleeve all this time:
I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, which is where I ought
to be tried. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you well know. If I have committed any wrong, or if I have done something which means I deserve to die, I’m not trying to escape death. But if I have done none of the things they are accusing me of, nobody can hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar.
- How does this calculated move effectively advance Paul’s agenda?
6. Scholars over the last generation have wrestled with the question of whether the focus of Paul’s gospel was eitherpersonal forgiveness orthe inclusion of the Gentiles. This verse, true to what Paul says in every letter from Galatians right through to Romans, indicates that it is both—and that the two are mutually defining. Since the pagan powers had been defeated, like Pharaoh at the Exodus, all people were free to worship the One God. Since the defeat of the powers had been accomplished by Jesus’s death, through which sins were forgiven (the sins that kept humans enslaved to the powers in the first place), the barrier to Gentile inclusion in a new “sanctified” people had gone. “Forgiveness of sins” thus entails“Gentile inclusion,” and Gentile inclusion happens precisely because of “forgiveness of sins.” This is central to Paul’s understanding of the gospel from the Damascus Road experience on, for the rest of his life. He would say that it was the primary reason behind any “success” his movement would have.
- Why must Paul’s gospel include both forgiveness and inclusion?
7. The royal and official parties get up to leave. They are seen shaking their heads and commenting that this man doesn’t deserve either to die or to be tied up. He could, in fact, have been set free, if only he hadn’t gone and appealed to Caesar. Luke is aware of the multiple ironies here. If Paul hadn’t appealed to Caesar, Festus would have sent him for trial in Jerusalem, and who knows what might have happened then. Because he had appealed, putting Festus in the position of needing to write an official report on the case (and he still doesn’t seem to know what he’s going to say), Festus has brought in Agrippa to hear Paul, giving Paul the opportunity to fulfill what Isaiah had said. And the appeal, though it will send Paul to Rome in chains, will at least send him to Rome. He will stand before the ultimate earthly king, and he will do so as a helpless prisoner. When he is weak, then he will be strong.
- Paul played his hand well, allowing him to proceed to Rome as instructed by Jesus. What do we learn from all this regarding God’s plans and our plans...our intentions and God’s intentions?
Wednesday, April 24, 2019
1. The starting point must be the mingled sense of shock and relief when Paul was released from prison. (I date this to sometime in middle or late 56.) Imprisonment leaves a lasting scar; we today are sadly familiar with the techniques used to break the spirit of “detainees,” and we should not imagine that they were all invented in the last hundred years. Paul was used by now to bodily suffering, but in Ephesus he had experienced torture at a deeper level. His emotions, his imagination, his innermost heart had been unbearably crushed. The fact that someone comes along one day, flings open the prison door, and tells you to be on your way doesn’t mean you can take a deep breath, give yourself a shake, and emerge smiling into the sunlight. The memories are ever present; the voices, both outside and inside; the nightmares, ready to pounce the minute you close your eyes. The mental scars remain after the physical ones have healed.
- What life experiences allow you to identify with Paul in this regard?
2. Then, suddenly, the clouds roll away and the sun comes out again. His beloved churches in Philippi and Thessalonica hadn’t been able to comfort him. Only one thing would do that. At last, it happened: The God who comforts the downcast comforted us by the arrival of Titus, and not only by his arrival but in the comfort he had received from you, as he told us about your longing for us, your lamenting, and your enthusiasm for me personally. The news was good. The Corinthians were appalled to think how badly they had treated him, and they were falling over themselves to apologize. They were doing everything they could to put things right. The underlying problem had involved some actual wrongdoing (what this was, as we saw, it’s impossible now to tell), and they were keen to sort it all out. Their loyalty has been contested, but it has held firm. So Paul, having been downcast beyond measure as he waited for news, is now over the top in his celebration.
- How makes reconciliation within the church family unique?
3. From what he says it appears that they have been “boasting” of their status, their achievements, their methods, and maybe other things as well. And they are angry because Paul refuses to dance to their tunes. He will not play their games. He had seen that problem coming a long time before, which is why, though he has accepted financial support from the churches of Macedonia in northern Greece, he has always refused such help from Corinth itself. He said this already in 1 Corinthians 9, and now he reemphasizes it in 2 Corinthians 11. This was, and is, his “boast”: that he has made the gospel what it really is, “free of charge.” And now he is himself accused of being standoffish, of not really loving them. Nobody will be able to “buy” him, to pay the piper and then call the tunes. Anyone who has had to deal with the complexities of church finances, especially in a community with wide differences of wealth, knows that the mixture of money and ministry can easily cause tension, especially where, underneath it all, there is a question of social status.
- Where, if ever, have you experienced such church politics?
4. There were specific reasons for writing Romans at that moment (probably in the spring or summer of 57). We will come to those presently. But why write it like this? Romans is in a different category from Paul’s other letters for many reasons, but particularly because of its careful and powerful structure. It comes in four sections, each of which has its own integrity, underlying argument, and inner movement. Together these four sections form a single line of thought, rising and falling but always on the way to the particular points that he wants to make. It remains an open question (at least for me) whether Paul was aware of literary models or precedents for this kind of thing. What cannot be doubted is that he had thought it through very carefully and knew exactly what he was doing. Scholars and preachers sometimes speak and write as though Paul just made things up on the fly. There may be passages like that—one thinks of some of the sharp phrases in Galatians, for instance, which a cooler editorial eye might have struck out—but not in Romans. He has thought, prayed, and taught this material again and again. He has now decided to pour this distilled essence of his biblical and Jesus-focused teaching into these four jars and place them in a row where together they will say more than the sum of their parts.
- To what other masterpieces might you compare Romans? Why?
5. Paul, coming to Rome for the first time but hoping to use it as a base for mission farther west, could not build on a foundation like that. He could not simply align himself with one or two of the Roman house-churches and ignore the rest. The unity he so passionately advocated was not just a pleasant ideal. It was vital for the coherence of his own mission. It was also, as he had said in Ephesians, the way in which God’s wisdom in all its rich variety would be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. If Caesar and the dark powers that stood behind him were to be confronted with the “good news” that there was “another king, Jesus,” the community that was living by that message had to be united. This would of course be a differentiated unity (“God’s wisdom in all its rich variety”; and we may compare the vivid lists of ministries in 1 Cor. 12 and Eph. 4). But if it was all differentiation and no unity, Caesar need take no notice; they were just a few more peculiar eastern cults come to town.
- What dangers and threats awaited Paul in unifying the church?
6. Romans, then, is a many-sided letter, but with a single line of thought. It would be silly to try to give an adequate summary of it in a book like the present one. Those who want to do business with Paul the man, Paul the thinker, Paul the pastor and preacher will sooner or later want to sit down and try to figure it all out for themselves. Reading it straight through at a sitting, perhaps often, is something few modern readers attempt, though it is of course how it would first have been heard, when Phoebe from Cenchreae, having been entrusted with it by Paul, read it out loud in the congregations in Rome. She probably expounded it too, answering the questions that would naturally arise. It would then have been copied and read again and again, normally straight through. We may then assume that it was studied in shorter sections by some at least, particularly the teachers, in the Roman congregations, and indeed in the other churches to which copies would have been sent (we have early evidence of a copy in Ephesus from which the long list of greetings to Rome was omitted). That discipline, of reading straight through and then studying section by section, all bathed in the praying and worshipping life of the community, remains essential to this day.
- What is the value of reading & studying Romans in its entirety?
7. Jesus, then, had not started a “new religion,” and Paul was not offering one. Either Jesus was Israel’s Messiah—which means, as any first-century Jew would know, that God was reconstituting “Israel” around him—or he was an imposter and his followers were blaspheming. There was no middle ground. And it was because of this Jewish, scripturally based vision of covenant fulfilled, of messianic reality come to birth, that there was such a thing as apostleship; in other words, Paul is saying to the church in Rome, “This is why I do what I do, and why I want you to back me as I do it all the way to Spain.” How are the nations to call on the Messiah without believing in him? How are they to believe if they don’t hear? “And how will they hear without someone announcing it to them? And how will people make that announcement unless they are sent?” Paul once again links his vocation to the “servant” passages in Isaiah and then pans back to show from the Psalms, Isaiah, and Deuteronomy (Writings, Prophets, and Torah) that God has done what he always said he would, however shocking and unexpected it now appears. And this brings us, he implies, to where we are today.
- How does this argument address the problem of lukewarm faith?
8. He wants the members of the Roman churches to respect one another across these differences. (We note, to ward off a very different problem in today’s contemporary Western churches, that this supposed “tolerance” does not extend to all areas of behavior, as the closing lines of chapter 13 and the equivalent sections of other letters make abundantly clear.) And, once again, he reminds them they are living out the pattern of the Messiah. The death and resurrection of Jesus is, for Paul, not simply a historical reality that has created a new situation, but a pattern that must be woven into every aspect of church life. For Paul, what matters is the life of praise and worship that now, in the spirit, couples Jesus with God the father himself. This is the worship that, when united across traditional barriers, will shake Caesar’s ideology to its foundations:
Whatever was written ahead of time, you see, was written for us to learn from, so that through patience, and through the encouragement of the Bible, we might have hope. May the God of patience and encouragement grant you to come to a common mind among yourselves, in accordance with the Messiah, Jesus, so that, with one mind and one mouth, you may glorify the God and father of our Lord Jesus the Messiah.
- How does the Easter event forever “connect” Jesus with the Father?
Tuesday, April 9, 2019
1. Once again, Paul is using letters to teach his churches not just what to think, but how to think. He cannot tell them everything he would like to tell them. He would run out of papyrus scrolls long before he got to the end. But that wasn’t his job. His job was to inculcate in them the mind of the Messiah. If that happened, then it would show that he had not after all been wasting his time (that old worry again; Paul never seems to have shaken it off). And Paul, I suggest, came to this extraordinary expression of the Messiah’s mind not least through the combination of his Jesus-focused scriptural meditation, on the one hand, and his own involuntary imitation of the Jesus pattern, on the other. He too had been humbled under the weight of suffering. He had pondered the fact that this was the means by which Jesus had attained his exaltation as Lord.
- How would you describe the nuances of what and how to think?
- How have these dual approaches affected your belief system?
2.“We are the ‘circumcision’ ” is a breathtaking claim, but utterly consistent with Paul’s whole stance, ever since the road to Damascus. Once again, this is not about comparative religion. He is not saying, “We Jesus-followers have found a better sort of religion than the old Jewish one.” It is about messianic eschatology. This was the ultimate fulfillment of Israel’s hope: Messiah and resurrection! He is not saying, “I’ve decided to move from my old house to a nicer one down the road.” He is saying that his own home has been taken over by the architect who built it in the first place and that it is now being rebuilt around him. He intends to stay and see the business through. If others are saying they prefer the old house the way it was, they are missing the point: if Israel’s Messiah has come and has been raised from the dead, then those who follow him are the true people of God. The followers of other first-century Jewish leaders would have said the same. This is not disloyalty to Israel’s God. It is the contested messianic loyalty that has characterized Paul throughout.
- How does Paul connect & implement, “Messiah and Resurrection?”
3. Then comes the point of all this: the Philippians must learn to imitate him, as he is imitating the Messiah. But how can they imitate him? They have not been zealous Jews, eager for the Torah. No, but they all have their own status, their own personal or civic pride. And even if they don’t have any (because they are poor, or slaves, or women—though some women, like Lydia, were independent and free), they all have the standing temptation to lapse back into pagan lifestyles. So, whether they are Romans reverting to proud colonial ways or simply people who find themselves lured back into sensual indulgence, all must resist and find instead the way of holiness and unity that is shaped by the Messiah himself, by his choice of the way of the cross, by his status as the truly human one, the true embodiment of the One God.
- How do you find yourself imitating Paul and Jesus? Examples?
4. Paul’s aim is higher and deeper. He has been meditating in prison, as he worked through the shock and horror of his own plight, on the way in which God himself was present in the Messiah, reconciling the world to himself. Now, perhaps, God would be present in him, Paul, reconciling these two dear people through a high-risk pastoral strategy. Onesimus will go back to Philemon (accompanied, so it seems from Col. 4:7–9, by Paul’s friend Tychicus) with a letter from Paul. It is asking a lot of them both. It is dangerous for Onesimus and extremely awkward for Philemon. But perhaps the letter will not only explain what ought to happen, but actually help to bring it about.
- How does Paul model effective Christian reconciliation?
5. With this brief but breathtaking vision of Jesus, Paul puts the Colossians and himself into the picture. They have come to be part of it all, and Paul’s own sufferings too are part of the way in which Jesus’s lordship is implemented in the world. The Messiah, indeed, is living within them, just as Paul had said to the Galatians. The ancient Jewish hope that the glory of the One God would return and fill the world is thus starting to come true.
It may not look like it in Colossae, as ten or twenty oddly assorted people crowd into Philemon’s house to pray, to invoke Jesus as they worship the One God, to break bread together, and to intercede for one another and the world; but actually, the Messiah, there in their midst, is “the hope of glory.” One day the whole creation will be flooded with his presence. Then they will look back and realize that they, like the Temple itself, had been a small working model, an advance blueprint, of that renewed creation.
- What has sustained/empowered Christians from that day to this?
6. This is exactly, we may suppose, the place Paul has come to after the terrible experience to which he refers in 2 Corinthians 1. His sustained meditation on the sovereignty of Jesus, rooted in his earlier prayer life, which, growing out of its deep Jewish roots, celebrated Jesus as the humble Servant, as the truly human Image, as the exalted Lord, as the place where “the full measure of divinity has taken up bodily residence”—all this has helped him finally to climb out of the dark interior prison before he is released from the exterior one. But he has not forgotten the way in which the principalities and powers, so openly challenged in the early days of his work in Ephesus, were able to strike back.
He sensed it, he smelled it, the whiff of sulfur surrounding the hard faces of the magistrates, the diabolical glee of the guards entrusted with whipping or beating their new prisoner, perhaps even the smug faces of people he had thought might be friends but turned out to be enemies. He knows, he has learned, that when you celebrate all the truths that he rehearses in chapters 1–3, particularly the truth that “God’s wisdom, in all its rich variety, was to be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places—through the church!” then the rulers and authorities are unlikely to take this kindly. As he explains in that same passage, his own suffering itself is making the point. The victory that was won by the cross must be implemented through the cross.
- How does the cross of Christ confront such opposition today?
- Where do you experience opposition because of your faith?
Saturday, March 23, 2019
1. I therefore agree with the several scholars who have insisted that Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus, and I suggest that this makes best sense of all the evidence—as well as providing a location from which he wrote not only his letter to Philemon but also the other Prison Letters, including Ephesians itself. That letter, as I shall suggest presently, is a circular written to churches in the area and is therefore couched in more general terms than normal. But it was also in Ephesus that Paul experienced what we might call the “Corinthian crisis.” This had several elements, and though it may now be impossible to ascertain all the details of what had happened, the key points stand out. For our purposes, what really matters is the effect all this had on Paul himself and the way he responded to it. Because these two things are going on at the same time—trouble in Ephesus itself and trouble in relation to Corinth—we will have to move backward and forward between the two in order to understand why Paul felt as if he had received the death sentence.
- How would you describe the magnitude of complexity for Paul here?
2. But the dark powers do not give up so easily. Something terrible happened that resulted not only in imprisonment, but in crushing despair. Since Luke has foreshortened his account here as elsewhere, we cannot be sure exactly when this took place. The positive, early phase of Paul’s time in Ephesus ends with the burning of the magic books. That is when Paul decides to revisit Greece, going overland through Macedonia and then down to Corinth; so he sends Timothy and Erastus on ahead. All Luke says then is that Paul “spent a little more time in Asia,” and that may be when everything suddenly went horribly wrong. On balance, though, I think it more likely that the catastrophe happened after the riot that Luke so graphically describes in Acts 19:23–41. Luke says that Paul was able to leave town “after the hue and cry had died down,” but that hue and cry might well have included not only the riot he describes, one of his splendid set pieces, but also the time that he does not describe, the disaster that struck, perhaps in the aftermath of the riot, just when Paul thought he had once again escaped real trouble. If you take on the shadowy powers that stand behind the corruption and wickedness of the world, you can expect the struggle to take unexpected and very nasty turns.
- How do you imagine Paul’s reaction to this sudden change?
3. This must mean—this can only mean—that when Paul goes to a dinner with Jewish friends (or when he invites them to share his own meal), they will eat kosher food, and he will do the same. But it must mean—it can only mean—that when Paul goes to dinner with non-Jewish friends, he will eat whatever they put in front of him. What would then make the difference is “conscience”—not Paul’s, but that of anyone else who might be offended, who might be led back into idolatry. This must have been a much harder path to tread than that sketched in the apostolic letter issued after the Jerusalem Conference. There, simple abstinence from all relevant foods was enjoined. But Paul has seen that this is not only unnecessary; it violates the foundational principles of Jewish belief itself. His own pragmatic solution must have seemed not just paradoxical, but perverse to some.
Think, for instance, of a Jewish family in Corinth who had shared a meal with Paul and watched him keep all the Jewish customs, only to find out that the same week he had dined with a Gentile family and eaten what they were eating. One might imagine a certain surprise in the other direction too, though the Gentile family would most likely just shrug their shoulders and see no harm in it. But, once again, what Paul is doing in writing this letter is teaching the Corinthians to think as Messiah people; he is building on the foundation of Israel’s scriptures, interpreting them afresh in the light of the crucified and risen Messiah himself.
-How have you experienced similar resistance to cherished traditions?
4. Love is not just a duty. Paul’s point is that love is the believer’s destiny. It is the reality that belongs to God’s future, glimpsed in the present like a puzzling reflection, but waiting there in full reality for the face-to-face future. And the point is that this future has come forward into the present time in the events involving Jesus and in the power of the spirit.
That is why love matters for Paul—more even than “faith,” which many have seen as his central theme. Love is the present virtue in which believers anticipate, and practice, the life of the ultimate age to come.
- Why is this conclusion so profound…both then and now?
5. It was at this point that the enemy struck and struck hard. I explained earlier why I am convinced that Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus. Some suggest that this occurred at least twice. We know enough about the sort of things that happened to Paul from one place to another to guess what may have landed him in jail. In Philippi it was an exorcism that ruined a business whose owners said that Paul was teaching Jewish customs illegal for Romans, in other words, a spiritual battle with economic consequences framed as a religious problem with political implications. In Thessalonica he was accused of turning the world upside down by saying that there was “another king.” In one place after another, Jewish horror at the message of a crucified Messiah—and, we may suppose, at the teaching that this Messiah was now welcoming non-Jews without circumcision—led to opposition, which was sometimes augmented by local hostility from non-Jews who may have had no special sympathy for the Jewish people, but who saw Paul as a social and cultural threat. Sometimes, in other words, opposition was aroused because pagans saw him as a dangerous kind of Jew; sometimes it was because Jews saw him as flirting dangerously with paganism. The irony, surely not wasted on Paul, did not make it any easier for him when facing violence.
- Why was the gospel such a huge threat? What did it require?
6. For reasons that will become clear, I think Paul interpreted his imprisonment as the revenge of the powers into whose world he had been making inroads. He was used to confronting synagogue authorities; he knew how to deal with Roman magistrates. He knew Jewish law and Roman law just as well as they did. He was easily able to turn a phrase and win a rhetorical point and perhaps a legal one too. But in this case, he had sensed that something else was going on. The forces ranged against him were not simply human. He had stirred up a hornets’ nest with his powerful ministry in Ephesus.
Think of all those magic books going up in smoke. Just as Jesus warned his followers not to fear those who could merely kill the body, but rather to fear the dark power that could wreak a more terrible destruction, so Paul was learning that human authorities, though important in themselves, might sometimes be acting merely as a front for other powers that would attack through them. And, though he had taught, preached, and celebrated the fact that in his death Jesus had defeated all the dark powers and that in his resurrection he had launched God’s new creation, that dogged belief, seen from the cold and smelly depths of a prison, with no light at night, flies and vermin for company, and little food in his stomach, must have been tested to the uttermost and beyond. Hence the despair.
- How does your experience with despair compare to Paul’s?
7. I think that, like a plant in harsh winter, Paul in prison was forced to put his roots down even deeper than he had yet gone into the biblical tradition, and deeper again, still within that tradition, into the meaning of Jesus and his death. The roots slowly found moisture. From the depth of that dark soil, way below previous consciousness, he drew hope and new possibilities. The fruit of that labor remains to this day near the heart of Christian belief. I think, in other words, not only that the four Prison Letters were all written from Ephesus, but that the writing of them grew directly out of the struggle Paul had experienced. Their vision of Jesus the Messiah, sovereign over all the powers of the world, was Paul’s hard-won affirmation of the truth he had believed all along but had never before had to explore in such unpromising circumstances. And I think that as he pondered, prayed, and heard in his mind’s ear phrases and biblical echoes turning into poetry, he began to long once more to share this vision with those around him. And with that longing and that prayer he found he was, at an even deeper level than he had known before, trusting in the God who raises the dead. The poems of Philippians 2 and Colossians 1 and the sustained liturgical drama of the first three chapters of Ephesians all bear witness to this celebration—not of Paul’s faith or stamina, but of the victory of God and the lordship of Jesus.
As he says in 2 Corinthians 4, right after a passage that belongs very closely with the poem in Colossians 1, “We have this treasure in earthenware pots, so that the extraordinary quality of the power may belong to God, not to us.” That, I think, was what was going on while Paul was in prison. Some have suggested that this whole experience was in effect a “second conversion,” in which Paul finally learned the humility that had previously eluded him. I do not subscribe to this view. Things are more complicated, and indeed more interesting, than that. But I do think that his long-held practice of Jesus-focused prayer, taking the ancient scriptural poems and patterns and finding Jesus at their heart, was crucial in helping him to find his way out of despair and back into hope. Christology and therapy go well together, even if, like Jacob, an apostle may limp, in style and perhaps also in body, after the dark night spent wrestling with the angel.
- Like Paul, how have you arrived at a deeper level of humility?
Wednesday, March 20, 2019
1. Aquila and Priscilla (in Paul’s letters he abbreviates her name as Prisca) were a Jewish couple who came from Pontus, on the Black Sea shore of ancient Turkey. They had, however, been living in Rome until Claudius banished the Jews for rioting. It is hard to pin down exactly what had gone on, or indeed when. Suetonius gives no date for the incident, but the convergence of other evidence makes it likely that it happened around AD 49, and that Aquila and Priscilla arrived in Corinth—adding to the many Roman businesspeople already there—not long before Paul did himself. Like him, they were tentmakers. They seem not only to have struck up an instant friendship, but to have become sufficiently close for Paul to lodge in their house, share in their business, and also travel with them to Ephesus. By the time Paul wrote Romans, they were back in Rome again. The way Luke tells the story of their first meeting and going into business together makes the moment seem full of hope and fresh possibility.
- Think back to when you began worshiping at St. Mark. Who do you recall took the initiative to welcome you and to extend friendship?
2. As for the non-Jewish world—well, the suggestion that a Jew might be the new “Lord” over all other Lords was bad enough, but a crucifiedman? Everybody knew that was the most shameful and horrible death imaginable. How could such a person then be hailed as Kyrios? And if the answer was (as it would be for Paul) that God had raised this man from the dead, that would merely convince his hearers that he was indeed out of his mind. Everybody knew resurrection didn’t happen. A nice dream, perhaps—though many would have said they’d prefer to leave the body behind for good, thank you very much. Anyway, there’s no point living in fantasy land.
- Where does this mindset exist today? How do we address it?
3. This reminds us, as Paul is writing from Corinth, just what a challenge he faced in city after city. It is hard for any Christian worker today in all but the newest mission fields to imagine this. After two thousand years, most people in most cultures have at least a sketchy idea of what a Christian way of life might be, at least in theory and allowing for cynicism about actual Christian practice. But when Paul arrived in a new town, there was no expectation. Nobody had the slightest idea that there was a new way of life suddenly available, let alone what it might look like. Paul had to model it from scratch. He had done so, and he was naturally overjoyed that it had worked; they were copying him, not least in facing up to suffering. He was overflowing with joy and clearly regarded the Thessalonian church as a pinnacle of his life’s work so far.
- What are the challenges of modeling the Christian life today?
4. There are three matters about which Paul is eager to say more. Each of these will be important—and more than important—in Corinth, and here we get an early taste of them. It looks as though these are issues that were bound to come up precisely because the early Christian worldview was so radically different from anything people had imagined before. If we make a list of three topics beginning with “sex” and “money,” we might expect the third to be “power,” but in this case it is the parousia, the “appearing” of Jesus.
- How does Paul characterize each of these for Christians?
5. So—back to the Thessalonians’ question—what should one think about believers who had died before the Lord’s return? It is significant that Paul is writing about this while in Corinth, because it is in the two letters to Corinth later on that he gives the fullest account of these important matters. But here in 1 Thessalonians he makes a start. Speaking pastorally, Paul distinguishes between two different types of grief. He tells the Thessalonians that they do not have the hopeless kind of grief, the bleak, dark horror of loss with no mitigating circumstances or beliefs, but rather a hopeful grief, which, although there is still the tearing, wrenching sense of loss, has within it the strong and clear hope of reunion. Paul doesn’t say exactly when the reunion will occur, because that’s not where he wants the focus to be. The point is that all will in the end be together “with the Lord.”
- How do you distinguish between these two types of grief personally?
6. Followers of Jesus, then, must get used to living with a form of theological jet lag. The world all around is still in darkness, but they have set their clocks for a different time zone. It is already daytime on their worldview clock, and they must live as daytime people. This is one of the greatest challenges Paul faced: how to teach people who had never thought eschatologically that time is going somewhere and they must learn how to reset their watches; how to teach Jews who had thought the ultimate kingdom was going to come all at once that the kingdom had already broken in to world history with Jesus, but that it was not yet consummated and wouldn’t be until his return and the renewal of all things. This is a more familiar challenge to us in the modern West, though it isn’t always thought of in this way.
- What opportunities await for our light to shine in the darkness?
7. He had one more message for them, again reminding us that the church was from the first a community of mutual support. Here, within twenty years of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, was a “family” already running into the problem of people taking advantage of generosity, of agapē! Paul’s instruction here is brisk: those who won’t work shouldn’t eat. This no doubt made the point at the time, but for us the important thing is perhaps what Paul and the Thessalonians were all taking for granted: that the followers of Jesus were to live as “family,” with all that this entailed in mutual support. Paul stressed the responsibilities of the individual: “Do your own work in peace” (as Paul himself had done, deliberately setting the example), “and eat your own bread.” The modern Western church has taken individualism to an extreme, and there are great strengths in focusing on the challenge to every single church member, both to believe and to work. But for Paul this did not undermine, but rather gave appropriate balance to, the more foundational reality, that those who belonged to the Messiah were “brothers and sisters.”
- How do we find appropriate balance regarding these issues today?
8. While he was traveling—on the sea, on the roads—he prayed. When he tells people that they should “never stop praying,” this can hardly be something that applies to everybody else but not to himself. But how do you go on praying all the time? Is it simply ceaseless chatter, a stream-of-consciousness monologue (or indeed dialogue) with the God who through the spirit was as present as breath itself? This may have been part of it, but reading back from the letters Paul wrote over the next three or four years I think we can be much more precise and focused. At several points in his letters he seems to be adapting Jewish prayers and liturgies to include Jesus in recognition of the new life that had erupted into the ancient tradition.
- How has our Lutheran liturgy provided you with prayer material?
9. It is easy as we follow the outward course of Paul’s life to forget that the inward course was just as important. But unless we step to one side from his relentless journeyings and imagine him praying like this, praying as he and his friends break bread in Jesus’s name; praying as he waits for the next ship, for the turn of the tide, for the right weather to sail; praying for sick friends and for newly founded little churches; praying as he makes his way toward what may be a wonderful reunion with old friends or an awkward confrontation with old enemies—unless we build this into the very heart of our picture of this extraordinary, energetic, bold, and yet vulnerable man, we will not understand him at all. In particular, we will not understand what happened next.
- To what extent does your prayer life mimic Paul’s?
- How is your prayer life different?