If you thought yesterday’s Proper Math was challenging, then you must not have read the New Testament lesson appointed for Epiphany 6C. Anyone who has done any reading of Paul’s letters can attest to the fact that he could really spin a yarn. A former Pharisee and a Greek citizen trained in rhetoric, Paul loved to dive into the weeds of logic, and only occasionally came out the other side with something that made any sense. I even saw recently that someone on Facebook had nominated him at the Patron Saint of dependent clauses.
Paul’s penchant for circular arguments is made all the more difficult when the situation which he is addressing is a complicated one, and boy howdy was the church in Corinth a complicated situation. Having dealt with arguments over class and privilege, over apostleship and gift, now Paul finds himself face-to-face with a group of Jesus followers who came from a tradition that didn’t believe in the resurrection from the dead. It is likely that among them were some former Sadducees, a sect within Judaism that didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead.
What makes Paul’s argument so convoluted is the problem that occurs in most religious arguments – they always begin at a point of presumed certainty, which then requires some kind of mental acrobatics to fit within the logic structure of the other. The gospel that Paul proclaims is based on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The basic premise of his interlocutors is that there is no resurrection of the dead. In the world of Venn Diagrams, these are mutually exclusive sets. How then can Paul prove that Jesus’ resurrection is a real thing to someone who doesn’t believe that resurrection is possible? Well, you can read Paul’s attempt and see that it ain’t easy.
What I learn from Paul’s mind experiment is that religious discussion must always begin from a place of vulnerability and humility. Logic is not the way to win a conversation with someone who believes differently than you do. Winning shouldn’t even be the goal. Rather, the goal of any encounter with an “other” is to learn and grow yourself. Conversion is not our main end, that’s God’s work. Ours is only to tell the story of the Gospel as we have experienced it.
Paul may never convince these former Sadducees that the resurrection is real, but he can certainly share with them the power of his own experience of the resurrected Jesus, from the road to Damascus all the way to imprisonment in Rome. That’s the crux of evangelism. Not well crafted apologetics, but a true accounting of the hope in which we, as followers of Jesus Christ, live our lives.