Let’s Preach Paul!
A year and a half ago I attended a conference at the College of Preachers, affiliated with the Washington National Cathedral. The topic was “Preaching Paul.” The leader was Brad Braxton, a newly tenured homiletics and New Testament professor at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee. Is it any surprise that I was the only woman signed up for the conference? Not to me. At the conference it became clear to me, however, that women are not the only ones rolling our eyes at Paul. One man, an Episcopal priest, had to search back through at least 10 years of sermons to find one on a Pauline text. A male Lutheran pastor had to go back to seminary days to find one. I am guessing that could have been 15 plus years for him.
Disdain for Paul can get pretty thick in the “liberal air” and I have heard more times than I can count some version of the statement “I prefer Jesus to Paul” as if to say “I prefer true gospel to false gospel.” Some liberals are strangely much more familiar with the Pauline passages that appear anti-woman, anti-gay or anti-sex- in- general than with the rest of Paul’s writing.
So why dust off Paul and make him more central to our preaching (if we happen to be disinclined to do so)? Why not stick with the gospels and pull out James now and then and leave well enough alone?
I feel like a convert as I prepare to name the reasons I see for preaching Paul. Maybe others have not been living under this veil, but I can say that for a long time I was more irritated than thankful that Paul’s mail was in our canon. And for this experience of conversion I credit first Deb Krause at Eden Seminary, then Brad Braxton whose book “Preaching Paul” I picked up on a whim when it was first published just two years ago. I credit Brad again from the leadership of the conference I attended and especially an exercise he had us do before we arrived at the conference. He asked us to do “homiletical summaries” of 4 of Paul’s letters. Reading a full letter at a sitting was as much a part of my conversion as anything.
So, why preach Paul?
Paul’s writings are our earliest Christian scripture. I don’t want to insult my colleagues by implying that you wouldn’t know this already, but perhaps we don’t usually think of it as a “reason” to work with Pauline texts. Though some of the gospel stories are undoubtedly earlier than Paul prior to their written form, the gospel narratives are not “closer to the real Jesus.”
Paul was a pastor, and as such was heart and soul devoted to the shaping of communities. An imperfect pastor and imperfect faith communities, can we relate? We do a fairly consistent job of complaining that our culture and our congregations are very individualistic. Since Paul spends a great deal of time on how the community can and should hold together, perhaps he can point us in the direction we need to be going as pastors and congregations.
If we really believe, as most around this table would say, that “we take the Bible seriously but not literally,” isn’t it acceptable to present passages from Paul that don’t necessarily match our conclusions on the face, but might offer some important guidance when used as metaphors? Since we tend to be fairly convinced that few in our congregations open their Bibles on their own, I wonder if we worry that if we introduced them to certain parts of scripture they might exclaim, shocked, “that’s in the Bible?!” and shut the Bible, never to open it again.
Paul engages scripture in very creative ways. Or we might say “Paul plays fast and loose with scripture.” Perhaps Paul can free us to make more creative use of scripture in our application to our own experience.
1 Paul is our best scriptural example of doing theology “on the ground.” Though it is tough sometimes to determine the precise nature of the issue or problem to which he is responding, he dives headlong into thinking theologically about everyday issues and dilemmas the church faces in his time. Nothing is outside the realm of faith. Life is not compartmentalized. He is a prime example of what we try to communicate often as pastors/preachers: there is no aspect of life which should be exempt from our faith. Naturally, we encounter different issues than Paul, so as we preach from his letters, we might be best helped by the idea that we are not to “do what Paul says,” but “do what Paul did.” (Braxton).
2 One writer reminded me that Paul’s letters are directed to urban Christians while the gospels tend to have a more rural “bent” (farmers and seeds and so forth). In Paul we see the issues of religious pluralism, multiculturalism, and the clash of class structures and expectations. These issues surface as well in the gospels as Jesus makes his way toward Jerusalem, yet they are overt and raw in Paul’s writing.
3 Because in some instances we would rather argue with Paul than support him, we wonder if we will come off as disrespectful of scripture and either be criticized by some hearers or reminded “see, that’s why I don’t read the Bible” by others. But wouldn’t it be more respectful of the text to engage it in “heated debate” rather than to disregard it altogether as, I confess, I have often done?
4 Paul never met Jesus. Why is this a reason to preach his letters? Because we didn’t either. And yet, as Christians, we proclaim the presence of a risen Christ. And we commonly suggest that transformation through the risen presence of Christ is possible. Which brings us to……
5 Paul had a powerful personal transformation that guides his life and ministry. This personal transformation was a mystical experience of the risen Christ which changed his ethics, his practices, his definition of himself. It was not the shallow transformation of “I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. Whew. Glad I’m saved now.” It was a heartwrenching, redefining, humbling transformation. Many times in his writing he reminds his readers in a sort of confession, how destructive and wrong he had been in those early days. In his story of transformation is also contained a story of the damage that religious fervor can do to others. Paul makes a clear transition from breaking down to building up the community of faith. This is not an absolute transition from Judaism to Christianity as some might suggest. It is a transition from a destructive use of his own tradition to a new use of the same tradition with Christ as the center.
6 Paul gives us possibilities for non-narrative preaching. Why is this a good thing? In the book “Preaching Like Paul” by Thompson, the writer points out that, throughout the last 20 or more years, narrative preaching has taken center stage through the leadership of Fred Craddock and the like. This has greatly enriched and expanded preaching in our time. Yet according to Thompson, there is an important place for exhortation, for naming gospel demands on our lives, directly. Paul’s work lends itself to this.
Our arguments with right wing theologians might be better served by matching their use and interpretation of Paul with our own, better Pauline interpretations of perhaps other sections of Pauline writing. So instead of saying simply “you have to look at the historical context” how about “I see your ‘women keep silent’ and I’ll raise you ‘when women prophecy.’”
If we neglect Paul because we don’t like what he says about
sex (which isn’t tons), is it possible that we are thereby conveniently avoiding a topic we might need to address?
Women, are we losing an opportunity to lift up women’s leadership in Paul’s day and to name what a wonderful transformation we can see in our own churches as the leadership of women is more and more valued and important?
If we neglect Paul because he contradicts himself, are we glossing over the complexities of our own thinking and experience?
But what about Paul and Judaism? Doesn’t he contribute to the historical and continuing contempt of Judaism by Christian believers. If so, better leave well enough alone.
We as Christians must own our collective guilt for the horrors done in the name of Christ throughout the ages, even to today. Some of these horrors have been perpetuated using words of Paul or words from the gospels.
Many religious leaders seem to have an opinion about Paul and his relationship with Judaism that is at one extreme or the other. At one end of the spectrum is the belief that Paul was “converted from Judaism to Christianity” and had no more use for his former tradition.
Another end of the spectrum is the conviction that no, Paul kept his Jewish identity through and through and that any suggestion that Paul moved away from Judaism is a misreading of Paul’s reference to “the law.” This perspective seems to be grounded in an attempt to avoid offending Jewish brothers and sisters and the accompanying embarrassment we carry around with us if we acknowledge that our tradition contains any critique of ancient Judaism.
As is usually the case, the answer probably lies somewhere in between.
Paul was taking the followers of Jesus away from traditional Jewish practice. There is no getting around that. He is shifting the central focus from law to Christ. But why was he doing that? Because he wanted the Gentiles to experience the transformation in Christ. He is primarily addressing Gentiles in his letters. This is his mission and he says so loud and clear. Paul did not completely disregard the tradition and practices of his life before his transformation for he constantly refers to the stories from the Hebrew scriptures as he guides his congregations. And he uses these stories in a thoroughly Jewish way: by doing midrash with them. As the Interpreter’s Bible article on the epistolary literature points out, “Paul reworked the core symbols of his Jewish world, including its ‘foundational story,’ which celebrated God’s creation, God’s promised salvation, and God’s Israel and torah, in radically Christological terms.” Consistent with Pharisaic Judaism, Paul is greatly concerned with the eating practices of the communities. And the only specific Jewish practice that Paul overtly critiques is circumcision. It is always important to remind ourselves and others that Paul’s critique is an “insider’s critique” which we are no longer authorized to make.
So it is not fair to say of Paul that his thinking is continuous with Judaism. It is not fair to our Jewish brothers and sisters to say to them “Christianity is just a logical continuation of Judaism” and it is not authentic Christianity to say that Hebrew scriptures have no more meaning for us after Christ. It is a hard balance to strike.
As pastors and congregations we need Paul. We need him because he was a passionate, devoted pastor, who evidenced extraordinary personal transformation. Could we use some of his passion, devotion and transformation?
We need Paul because he hung in there with conflicted and confused congregations and was not shy about taking on risky challenges in the church. He believed passionately that the Holy Spirit had provided the believing communities with the gifts necessary to be living examples of the dying and rising of Christ. This confidence in the spiritual giftedness of faith communities might be a handy “hedge” against the cynicism we as pastors can so easily slip into.
Paul revealed a vulnerability that is a great challenge to many of us. His mood swings reassure us of his humanity and ours as we put our hearts and souls into the care and feeding of congregations who respond with varying degrees of faithfulness and love.
Let’s look at two of Paul’s letters and see some possibilities for preaching.
These two sections come from two of the homiletical summaries I was asked to prepare before the conference.
Homiletical Synopsis: I Corinthians
I suggest that the theological focus of First Corinthians is the response to the question “What does it mean that the church is the Body of Christ?” Though it is late in the letter when Paul gives a particular description of the church “as” the Body of Christ, the many implications of this reality (as far as Paul is concerned) make up the bulk of the letter. In responding to this larger question, Paul addresses numerous smaller ones, which might be summed up as “How then are believers to relate to the larger culture? How then are believers to relate to sister and brother believers? How are we to relate to the self? And How should the body of believers be built up in this day and time?”
Images/metaphors with promise for preaching
1. The equalizing force of the gospel of Jesus Christ
This theme comes out in Paul’s critique of the culture’s ways of handling leadership and how those are manifesting in the Christian community in harmful ways (people lining up with one leader or another –Apollos or Paul). It also comes out in Paul’s comments on the foolishness and wisdom of the cross. So those who have thought they were wise are brought low and those who have been seen as foolish are lifted up in this new “world” of Christ crucified and risen. The redefining of labels so important to cultural stability and function (slave/free for example) lose force. Finally, a pointed question asked by Paul in 4:7 “What do you have that you did not receive?” reminds readers/hearers that all is gift and therefore no claim to superiority is warranted.
2. The Gifted Community
Paul goes to great lengths throughout the letter to remind and convince the Corinthian church that they have the spiritual gifts necessary to be fully the Body of Christ in the world. Early on he remarks that they are “not lacking in any spiritual gift (1:4-9).” In chapter 3 he reminds them that Apollos and Paul are simply “servants through whom you came to believe” and urges them to understand that they are “God’s growth” and “God’s messengers,” even “God’s temple.” The community is surely gifted enough to resolve its own disputes, Paul argues, without resorting to outside counsel (6:1-8). It is trust in these gifts the community appears to lack. When Paul gets to a discussion of the Lord’s Supper he wonders whether they are able to “discern the body.” I wonder, is this his challenge to them to understand more fully that through the risen Christ they are “the body” of which he speaks. Lots of grist for preaching here!
3. The inseparable relationship between personal conduct and well being and community conduct and well being
This connection comes out strongly as Paul discusses things that trouble him about the functioning of individuals within the community. He describes the effects of even one person’s behavior as “yeast” (5:6). In his diatribe about someone’s relationship with a prostitute, Paul suggests what one does has much larger impact that one might believe. Paul described both the body as a temple and the people of God as a temple. Paul speaks of what people do with their bodies as a spiritual matter and vice versa, that what we do spiritually is a “bodily” matter (having bodily implications). Paul sees too much liberty as a stumbling block, as something which potentially fractures the community.
4. Engagement with, not withdrawal from the world as the appropriate stance for Christians
In chapter 5, Paul makes the point that the community should separate itself from one who is destructive within the community, but makes sure they understand he does NOT mean for them to separate from the greedy, idolaters, etc. who are “in the world.” He wants believers to stay married or not marry (stay in “worldly” status). Yet Paul urges believers not to be overly attached to the world (as time is short he supposes). So as they engage in the world, they are to be free of the kind of anxieties people would normally carry.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians
Theological focus of the letter:
Life in Christ results in a new freedom rooted in love. To what then are we bound, and from what are we freed in this new existence? Paul is sorting out these questions as he writes to the Galatian Christians. This would be my summary of the letter to the Galatians. Paul believes that the Galatians are not sufficiently claiming and living in this freedom, but instead reflecting a “spirit of slavery.” This spirit of slavery, or of “the flesh” churns up divisions and conflicts within the believing community. Paul sees himself as “giving birth” to Christ in them and this spirit of external obedience, a kind of false sign of faith, is keeping the pain of childbirth constant for Paul. In Romans, Paul uses a similar image of creation groaning in labor until the fulfillment of time.
It strikes me that Paul uses his own experience as a mirror for what he sees in the church(es?) in Galatia. The transformation that he experienced was a “releasing” from his former life and system of belief. Thus for him, the “law,” because it was the supposed basis for his persecution of the church, was an obstacle rather than a guide for his life of faith. He projects the need for this same experience (for good or ill) on his readers/hearers. He was in dire need of a full reorientation from his former model of faith. Is that true for everyone else?
Possibilities for preaching:
What are the effects of our beliefs and faith practices? As Paul looks at the issues around circumcision, he sees that the consequences of a focus on this particular practice are division and enmity, rather than love and peace. He asks believers, in the section on the “works of the flesh” and the “fruit of the spirit” in chapter 5 to consider the effects of their beliefs and actions and to use those effects as a filter to set priorities of faith. Perhaps this is the true freedom of the Christian, the freedom to carefully discern what Christianity means in a given situation. We are entrusted, through the spirit to “work out our own salvation,” that is, how to claim wholeness for the worshipping community and beyond.
Paul’s transformation and our need for /experiences of transformation. Paul reveals his story as a great “transgressor” in his passionate persecution of the church. We see how convinced he was that he was right. He had to “die” to his whole approach to faith in order to truly live in the spirit. This holds great possibility for preaching in that often people in US culture are not moving from atheism or “nonbelief” into a vibrant faith, they are moving from one form of faith –perhaps one that has been destructive or unfulfilling, to a new form of faith. How are experiences of transformation like deaths for us?
Paul’s mission to the Gentiles as distinct from Peter’s mission to the Jews. Paul affirms early in the letter these two forms of mission which include different sets of practices and different types of outreach. Yet when others attempt to pit one against the other, or to suggest that one is right and one is wrong, then he sees problems. Is different bad? Or when is different bad?
Paul roots much of his understanding of faith in the Abraham story, though many have interpreted Paul as anti-Jewish. Following Paul’s lead in keeping the Hebrew scripture text front and center as we wrestle with our own faith identity is important guidance for preaching.
5. The problems of faith which is rooted in judging the “other guy.” Paul implies in several places that those who are adamant about circumcision are not themselves shining examples of following the law (2:14 and 6:13 especially). So they, in effect, distract themselves and others from true practice of faith by their focus on pointing their finger at others. Hmm. So many possibilities here.