Paul’s Letter to the New Yorkers

Good evening. Or perhaps I should say, as Paul the Apostle might, “Brothers and sisters, greetings in the Lord’s name.” Tonight we want to look at Paul. Why is Paul so important? Why do Presbyterians care about this old Jew? Well, Paul in a sense was the first Presbyterian. Long before John Calvin defined Presbyterianism, Paul defined Christianity. Calvin made a few adjustments to how Christianity had developed since Paul’s time. But Calvin’s aim was to bring the Christian religion back to what Paul had defined. So it is proper to think of Paul as the founder of our religion, Christianity.

Tonight I want to do four things with you: First explore a little of Paul’s background: Who was Paul, and where did he come from? Second, what was Paul’s mission? Third, we’ll address some of the complaints and charges leveled against Paul - particularly in recent years - the apparent contradictions, garrulousness and misogyny in Paul’s letters, and in addressing these charges, we’ll try and understand some of the religious and cultural forces acting on early Christianity, and how this might even impact us here today. Fourth, we’ll have a time for discussion, and I’ll try and answer as best I can questions you may have about Paul.

Who was Paul? After Mary and Joseph, no mortal, not even Peter, contributed so much to shaping the Christianity we experience today. This ancient Jew, who many find contentious, narrow, arrogant, argumentative, woman hating -- although otherwise pretty intelligent -- this one man defined and wrote down the theology that we Christians – Methodist, Catholic, Episcopal, Evangelical or Presbyterian, practice here in the 21st Century. Even in Skaneateles. While we have some differences among the Christian churches, these differences are tiny compared to the common bond we share in Christ. While Christ is the heart, the soul and the goal, Paul, the man, laid out the plan and blueprint for this common bond that unites us all in the body of Christ.

Who was Paul, and where did he come from? Saul, his birth name before he received his Christian name, Saul was a Jew descended from the very small tribe of Benjamin. His family settled in the city of Tarsus. This was a Mediterranean port city in what is today Turkey, and was then Syria. This Saul of Tarsus, later called Paul the Apostle, is the man who forged the common bond we share in Christ. Of course Paul was not the foundation of Christianity. Jesus himself, as Paul pointed out in his letter to the Corinthians, Jesus is the one rock on which the Church is built. But Paul, as he also says in his first Letter to the Corinthians, is the Master Builder who constructed the theology and shape of Christianity, which stands on this rock.

Saul was a well educated citizen of the Roman Empire. We don’t know much about his family, but we do know he was fluent at least in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Aramaic and probably Syriac as well. We see in his letters a sophistication of argument, literacy and understanding of legal nuance that could have landed him editor of the Harvard Law Review. So different from the other apostles who were mostly simple, poorly educated country folk, fishermen from the sticks of Galilee, up north. Jewish men and boys back then – much as now in some parts of the world – Jews valued education above everything except God. In fact, education, study, analysis and contemplation of the books of the Law was respected as a high form of piety and prayer. To study the Law is to contemplate the face of God. Maybe this is the underlying cultural reason many Jews today pursue education so religiously.

In those ancient days a man was expected to pursue study as far as his abilities and finances permitted. It was a religious duty. Yes, I said “man”. This is part of the cultural understanding we should have as we look at Paul’s life and teaching. In the ancient world, even among the Jews, women were very much what we would call second-class citizens. In some cultures, they were little more than property. While Jewish women had higher status than chattel – slightly -- one of the daily prayers recited by all Jewish men over the age of thirteen was thanksgiving to God that, “I was not born a woman.” Of course, the intent of this was affirmation and acceptance of the burdens and duty of studying Law and keeping the commandments. This was the culture Saul was born into. We’ll talk more later about women in those days.

Saul may have come from Tarsus, but a good part of his education was in Jerusalem. Saul was not only well educated, he was well connected in Jerusalem. He obviously excelled in his religious and legal studies. On the career move in high religious circles, Saul belonged to a popular, if elite, political-religious party known as the Pharisees. Politics and religion were completely entwined in ancient Israel. So the power of the Pharisees would have been even greater than, say, neo-conservative Republicans in a Bush administration.

Saul would have been a young student during Jesus ministry. As he grew in age and ambition, he would have seen the growing presence of the new Christian sect in the streets following the events of the resurrection and Pentecost. The apostles after Pentecost, were filled with the Holy Spirit and preaching in the city. They were having some success, and the number of Jews believing in Jesus was steadily growing. Christianity was just one of several contemporary sects springing up such as the Essenes, and the Qumran sect we know of from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Desperate times, particularly eras of occupation, often bring extreme sects into being and action. Witness the Middle East today.

We first meet Paul in the Book of Acts, written by Paul’s friend Luke. We meet Paul as Stephen, one of the first Christian martyrs, was being stoned to death by an irate mob. Stephen was a leader of the deacons, and had just preached a defense of the faith so powerful and filled with vision, that the ruling council got worked up and had him legally stoned to death for blasphemy. Luke tells us how Saul stood there, watching, approving, even holding the coats of the stone throwers. So we see that Saul was making his way in politics. A cloak carrier.

Much of what we know about Paul - other than from Paul’s letters themselves, comes from the very intimate confidences shared by Paul with Luke. Luke is in effect, Paul’s biographer. The details of Paul’s actions that Luke records are incredible – even Paul’s innermost thoughts. When you take all Paul’s letters together, and add in Luke’s Acts and Luke’s Gospel, we see over half the New Testament was written by these two men. Scholars think Luke was a Greek from his style. Maybe he was a physician. The only way we know anything about Luke is two tiny references Paul makes about his companion, the “beloved physician Luke.” Certainly Luke was not one of the twelve. He would have needed to assemble the details, parables and stories recounted in Luke’s Gospel and Acts from others who were eyewitnesses. We know from Acts that Paul spent time in discussions with the original disciples in Jerusalem. Paul must also have been one of the sources of Luke’s writings since no one but Paul himself would have all the intimate details of what happened to him, including his own interior thoughts.

The two writers share similarities of perspective, theology, even of style and phrase. Some even call Luke’s gospel, the “gospel according to Paul.” Forgive me, but I sometimes wonder whether Luke was a real person… or whether Luke was possibly a pseudonym Paul used to write both a history of Acts of the early church and a gospel oriented to the gentiles. After all, Paul was the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” And Paul did say, “…to the Greek I become a Greek, to the Jew I become a Jew, all so that I might win them for Christ.” I mean no disrespect. Luke’s identity is just a mystery I think about.

Back to Paul’s life story. He is still Saul, breathing murderous rage against this heretical sect of Messianic Jews, the early Christians. Paul here represents the power of the Law to bring sin into the world. At this stage of his life, Paul is the ultimate illustration of rules overcoming the spirit of love. Saul, in a sense, represented the perfection of Israeli legalism, Law, and sin. Let me offer a provocative thought here: The Virgin Mary and Paul. The two are seldom looked at together. But the two are good illustrations of the extremes of Israel as both a holy people and a sinful people. When we think of Mary we think of the female representation of the sinless perfection of Israel, a fitting mother for the Son of God. Yet Paul, in his first life as Saul, is almost the perfect example of the opposite, a man driven by the power of tradition. Contrast this with the same man, reborn as the repentant, converted, or transformed, Paul, who understands the relationship between the Law and Christ. Just something to think about.

In his Book of Acts Luke gives us the scene as Paul speaks to King Herod Agrippa II in Caesarea, on the coast of the Mediterranean, where Paul is bound in chains, imprisoned on charges of blasphemy. Let’s hear Paul describe in his own words his sinful, erroneous past and his astounding transformation:

Paul speaks to Agrippa first about how he persecuted Christians,
“and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. 11: And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities.
12: Whereupon as I went to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests,
13: At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me.
14: And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.
Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me’"

King Herod Agrippa II, a notorious lecher and sinner, King Herod’s great-grandson and the last of the Herods, asks Paul, “Are you trying to convert me, too?” Paul answers: “I would that you and all those in hearing would be like me, except for these chains!” This is all in Acts 26: 13-18. We now have Paul, reborn and transformed.

Paul was a powerful, energetic and brilliant figure. His Letters to the newly planted churches of Europe and Asia laid out not only the theology of Christianity, but how the early church should operate. He laid down rules for bishops, for priests, for elders, for social services, for reproving bad actors and for sniffing out fakes and frauds. He describes the goals of the Christian, the fruits of the Spirit, proper behavior for Christian men and women, and the value of each gift as well as the importance of all the different gifts. You might say that Paul, through his work and explained in his letters had three tasks to tackle: to bring the Gentiles into this newly transformed Judaism, Christianity; to blend these new Christians, whether Jews, Gentiles or pagans into a new, harmonious congregation; and to articulate ordinances, theology and encouragement for this new blend of believers to keep them on-course and fervent. He tackles all of these tasks in his Letters to the Churches. You might call Paul the second Christian Authority figure after the Ultimate Authority figure.

The majority of Paul’s letters were written to address particular problems in the early Churches. Christian theology, rules for Christian conduct and church organization were all also dealt with in the letters, but because they were written responsive to particular problems, it is dangerous to take any specific statement or a single letter as definitive on Paul’s views for the Church as a whole. The exceptions to this ‘particularity’ are Ephesians and Hebrews, which were intended to be circular letters, read to all the churches. These two are more holistic statements.

-The Letter to the Romans, for example, was written by Paul both to correct misunderstanding of what the transformed life in Christ really was, and to handle the troubling problem of the relationship between the Christian church and Judaism. ---What’s new?
- 1st Corinthians deals with the problems of factionalism, disorder during services, drunkenness at Eucharist, and civil lawsuits against fellow Christians. What a mess! He also taught about the mystical body of Christ, and the role of the different gifts of the spirit.
- 2nd Corinthians is an emotional, frustrated Paul defending the validity of his Apostolate against the claims of itinerant preachers.
- Galatians – the Galatians were Celts (the Irish) who had earlier successfully invaded that part of Turkey. Now new Christians, the Jewish Christians were trying to circumcise these Irish and get them to eat only Kosher food. Good Luck! “Oh, foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?”
- The letter to a church he founded at Philippi warns of threats to the Philippian church, although overall it is called the “Letter of Joy.” “Rejoice, I say, rejoice…the Lord is near, have no anxiety.”
- The Colossians were slipping into a Gnostic heresy.
- Timothy is warned about Gnostics, and to protect the community from false teachers.

These letters of Paul have come down to us nearly 2000 years farther along our journey. And we criticize him. He is accused of contradiction and inconsistency. He is accused of haranguing, of intolerance, of crankiness. And worst of all, he is accused of putting down WOMEN. In sum, he is accused of being UNCHRISTIAN.

I would like to hear Paul answer these charges in his own words. Now I am not Paul, but I am a Jew in Christ. A Jew and a Christian? With God all things are possible. I cannot speak for Paul, but I can lend a Jewish Christian perspective from Paul’s time. After all, Orthodox Judaism has not changed much since early rabbinic times. I grew up in Orthodox Judaism, and while less dramatically than Paul, I also experienced the transforming presence and command of Christ. So, here is how I believe Paul might answer these complaints. I’ll be paraphrasing Paul’s letters, but summarizing them as Paul might write - in a more modern idiom, say - in a Letter to the New Yorkers.

Paul might say in his Letter to the New Yorkers: “I have heard all manner of complaint about the substance of the letters I wrote to the early churches. I want to clear matters up for you who live here in New York, more than nineteen hundred years later. While many among you are powerful in faith in Christ, you still harbor doubts about my person and intent. It means nothing to me to be regarded as the lowliest of persons, since I, a sinner, am the basest and least worthy of all men. However, I will answer the charges tonight for the sake of the gospel you have received. Your complaints are these:
- First, that I am contradictory. Inconsistent. That I say one thing to one and another to another.
- That I am a prickly person, haranguing in tone, brusque and dismissive in manner, impolite, cranky. In a word, “unchristian”.
- You even complain that I set out rules and doctrines of my own, beyond the teaching of my Lord, Jesus Christ.
- Also you complain I demean women. That I diminish their role in the Church, in the family and as human persons fully equal to men. Oy, if you only knew!
All of these complaints I will address.”

[LDW] But to answer the complainers, Paul would probably first explain his purpose in writing to the churches in Greece and Asia Minor.
Paul would probably remind us, as he did in his letters to the Hebrews and the Romans [Paul] “… In the appointed time God reached down from above, to our prophets and psalmists, first giving us the Law as a schoolteacher and tutor, preparing us for the moment when God himself would appear to us in the form of a man. We Jews were appointed to be a light to the Gentiles, to acquaint the pagan nations with the existence of the one God the father, and his purpose for each of their lives.
“In the beginning of our Church the believers in Christ were Jews. But God’s purpose was to draw ALL humanity upward to him. Thus it is necessary to spread the truth first revealed to the Jews, the faith of our fathers and mothers, to the gentile nations. It is necessary to open Judaism’s door so all gentiles might come to the truth of God through Jesus Christ. And to open the windows of Judaism, to let the truth of God flow out to the gentile nations through knowledge of Jesus Christ.

"My purpose, shown me by Jesus by revelation, was to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, and once having done so, to bring unity and harmony and peace to this new synagogue, a congregation formed of Jews and Gentiles. My mission is to preach Unity in Christ. How will the gentiles and unbelievers be saved if they see you squabbling and contending with one another.

What will the heathen think when they see you excluding one another from your tables, arguing incessantly about rules. Is this what our salvation is? A new enslavement to a new Law. God Forbid. We are given the freedom of Christ. But we must share in the unity, the one-ness of Christ. As I wrote to the foolish Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” I seek this unity in the Church because of Jesus’ prayer to the Father, in John’s gospel, ‘…so that they may be one, Father, as we are one.’ ”

“I am accused of inconsistency. That I say one thing to one and one to another. I have one word to respond. ‘Guilty.’ Yes, I say one thing to one and one to another that I might approach each person AS THEY ARE, to open their ears. To the Jew I become as a Jew, to the Greek I become as a Greek. I say this openly. My purpose, as I wrote to the Romans, is not to deceive, but that I might win them to Christ and thus save them. Remember brothers and sisters, I am a Jew - and a Greek - and a citizen of Rome, - and a follower of Christ. I am all these things. To the Greek who seeks wisdom, I teach wisdom. To the Jew who seeks signs, I show signs. But my purpose is clear. First, that they might see that the Word which is Christ is spoken to each in their own language. And, they hearing the Word, they might believe the Good News, and become a single congregation in love for one another.”

[LDW]Let me pause for a few of my own reflections: Paul’s mission was to see the Word of Christ spread among the Gentiles that all might be transformed, so that all might be saved. What does Paul mean by “saved”. From the fires of Hell? Well yes, in a manner of speaking. Another word would be, “Rescued”. Paul compared salvation with being rescued. To be rescued is to be snatched from prison, bondage or onrushing death – and given another chance to live. And this is what the LORD promises. This life, its valley of tears, its decay of body and onset of old age, and finally death is carnal flesh life we share with other animals. But we have the possibility of Transformation. What is transformation. Transformation is one thing becoming another thing. As Paul taught the Romans,

[PAUL] “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be TRANSFORMED by the renewing of your mind.” That which conforms to this world, which shapes itself to it will die as this life dictates. This is the power of death. Death overcomes those who cling to this world. But I have urged you brothers and sisters, to not be conformed to this world, but to be transformed. Then you will see the purpose of God for you in your life. This is not easy to understand. When the butterfly breaks open the cocoon, you see transformation. When a newborn infant is finally transformed into a thinking mature adult, you see transformation. We don’t truly understand how this happens, but we see the results. But what can transformation mean for a mature human adult? Ah, this is the mystery to which we are called. We are called to become as different from what we are today as the mature adult is from the infant. We are called to join the new and eternal life we plead for in our prayer, “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.”


[LDW] Paul’s hope and mission is we all begin the process of spiritual transformation, of a change in consciousness, awareness, that joins us to that life. This is the mystical body of Christ. There was never language adequate to describe this, so Paul spoke to each using different language, different means, different exhortations. He scolded, encouraged, he pleaded, he cheered, he whispered, he yelled.
Paul might say, [PAUL] “Forgive me if I seem inconsistent or shrill or haranguing. But perhaps one message will be the one for you. And you will be united in Christ. That the Master's Church might be well founded on the rock that is Himself. That they all might be one. For my part I was called to bring a new community into life. Jews who formerly were forbidden to even eat a meal with gentiles now are called to live with their gentile brothers as social equals.”

[LDW] Let’s take a moment to remember that at that time, Jews already had centuries of both ceremonial Torah and faith that observance of the Law - Torah - would save them. The Law was a great tutor, teaching us, educating us about what God is and God's hopes for us. Those Orthodox Jews who understood and accepted with joy the long awaited coming of the Lord, those Jews who were the first Christians, welcomed the gentiles into this transformed Judaism. But, they did not all understand that the purpose of the ceremonial ritual rules of Torah had been completed in the coming of the Promised Messiah, Jesus Christ. The moral law remains. It is eternal. But the ritual courtship and ceremonial rules were no longer necessary now that the bridegroom had come.

So Paul, in his letter to the Galatian Jewish Christians, taught them to let go of the ritual rules, but with generosity. [PAUL] “I urged them not to cause their newly converted pagan brothers to be circumcised. I also urged they eat whatever is put before them, and do not require pagan Christians to eat Kosher meat. But, I told them I understood, that only the Jews strong in their new faith would be able to put off old customs and exercise their new freedom to eat anything sold in the market. But I also urged them, for the sake of their weaker Jewish brothers and sisters, not to offend them by eating what used to be forbidden food right in front of them. Do not exercise your freedom if it is a stumbling block to your brother or sister. And you weaker brothers, learn to get along with fellow Jewish Christians who now eat non-kosher meat. I only warn you all, do not eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols, and don’t drink blood. Others might think you approve idol worship.

“And that is my teaching. Yes you have the freedom, but in love, restrain yourself from exercising your freedom for the sake of the other person. And you Greeks who became Jews the hard way, through the pain of adult circumcision, I understand why you might say, ‘If we had to go through pain to become Jewish, why should newly converted pagans get off so easy?’ I say to you brothers, this is the meaning of Jesus’ parable of the hired laborers who only worked an hour being paid for a full day. As Jesus said, ‘What is it to you? Didn’t you receive what we agreed, a full day’s pay? What I give them is my business.’ Rather you should rejoice that both you and they are saved.

“I desire above all to bring peace and unity, first to our new congregation in Christ, then later to the whole world, so that they may all be one in Christ. But we must show what unity means. How are we to be an example of unity and oneness to the pagans, the godless, if we quarrel with each other over points of doctrine, over traditions, over meat, over vegetables? So, I urge today as I urged the churches of the ancient world, yield your point of view and actions to the other. Do not insist on your own way. In my letters I gave example after example of yielding to one another, so that none would be offended. Yield tenderly and in love. As I wrote to the Ephesians, ‘Be ye therefore kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another even as God, for Christ’s sake, has forgiven you.’ ”

[LDW] So Paul taught, away with the rituals of separation, kosher food, separate plates, women separated in worship from the men. Away with the daily ‘thanks to God you have made me a man and not a woman.’ Away with inferior status for women in religious matters. In Christ there is no male or female just as Jew is no longer separate from Greek. For the first time all are equal in Christ.

[LDW] Paul’s teaching went on: just as Jew must accommodate the sensibilities of Greek, so must gentile accommodate the historical traditions of the Jews and not give unnecessary offense to their elder brothers in the faith. Jewish women had never worshiped in the synagogue with men. In Paul’s time, women were little more than chattel, subject to divorce at a man's whim. And that was among the Jews. With the pagans, it was even worse for women. You don’t need me to remind you of the lot of women in the ancient world. So when Paul instructed the churches ‘there is no male or female in Christ,’ he welcomed women fully into the synagogue, into the full life of the Church. Christian women now joined the men in prayer at synagogue.
I can hear Paul say, “But still I cautioned these newly liberated faithful women not to exercise their new liberation defiantly. I urged the women, who are now free to attend worship service as equals with men, not to disrupt the services asking loud questions, not to try to catch up on years of being excluded from religious instruction while in public worship service. Instead, I instructed them to ask their husbands at home what everything meant and symbolized. My purpose was that there be order in the service, and not disruption. I did not mean to, as you say, ‘put women down.’

“So too, I asked the women to cover their hair. Why? To not distract the piously worshipping Jewish Christian men, who were not used to seeing women in synagogue. Yes, they should get over it! But it’s not easy. How many changes can you make at once? I asked the women to help. I asked the women, newly free to attend services as equals, to hide their glory, the beauty of their long hair, so the men could focus on the glory of God. The next generation will be used to women in the services and you will be free to let your hair down. Surely this does not make me a woman hater. I made a revolution, I welcomed women into the church, and they blame me because I didn’t cure every other social practice of the time. Oy.

“I want to build this Church! You who are strong in your faith – yield, I say again, yield for the salvation of the other person. To the Jew become a Jew, to the Greek, a Greek. Give way to their sensibilities. Do not demand they overturn all their foundations immediately. It is sufficient they be first transformed in Christ. Then, the power of the Spirit will make clear to them which old customs can easily be discarded as ragged old clothing which has outlived its usefulness. Give no cause of offense or scandal to our enemies and persecutors, those who do not wish us well. It is good to have this freedom, but folly to flaunt it at this perilous time for the Church. Later, perhaps in the 19th or 20th century it will be time for women to be full and complete partners in leadership, in priesthood, in authority with men. But the Church needs to feel itself soundly established before that day.”

[LDW] So, as we conclude, let’s go beyond Paul’s harangues for just now. It’s all written down in the book. Throughout all, his teaching was utterly consistent: to bring this newly transformed Judaism to the gentiles and pagans as well as Jews and to blend these lovers of God into a harmonious lasting congregation. All of his teaching, theology and encouragement were to this end. Paul took his lead from Christ’s prayer to His Father in John 17:22-23, “… that they may be one as we are one. I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

So finally, Paul, the persecutor of Jewish Christians, becomes the founder of Christianity. Paul’s goal was to bring the gospel to the nations, and then unity to Christ’s church on earth. How well did he do bringing harmony to the Church? The story isn’t over yet. I think it’s important to hear all of Paul’s message, and understand the battle for one-ness for which Jesus prayed and Paul struggled is not only not over, it has barely begun. Maybe Paul’s teaching can help us transform ourselves and all the Christian churches beyond “business as usual” prayer and worship service… transform us into more spiritually enlightened individuals and Church seeking union with the mind of Christ. Maybe Paul’s teaching can move us toward mutual encouragement of all Christians – more – all lovers of God. This is beyond tolerance or worse, our present divisiveness. Maybe Paul’s teaching can introduce a new tone of forgiveness, kindness and tender-heartedness into our churches. As Jesus prayed to the Father, “So that they may be One, as we are one.”