Paul’s Logic

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.

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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.

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Free of Charge?

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It being the last day of the month, payday has arrived for the employees of Christ Episcopal Church.  I enjoy payday.  I suppose most people do.  There is, if only for a moment, infinite hope on payday.  “Imagine what I can do with this money,” I think to myself, before I sit down and pay the bills.  “Wow, that went fast,” is usually my next thought.

There is a certain irony in being a clergy person reading Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 on payday.  As the lesson opens up, Paul talks about his motivation for preaching the Gospel.  His story is about as profound as any.  It is clear that the man who was once a persecutor of the Gospel would have never decided on his own to follow Jesus.  No, for Paul, as for all of us, it is a calling.  The prodding of the Holy Spirit, a deep relationship with Jesus, and a yearning for the Kingdom of God have brought him to the place where he is willing to travel the known world and risk his life to proclaim the Good News.

His reward for faithfully following the call of God?  Well, I’ll let Paul tell us, “that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.”

Free of charge…

I am well paid.  Some days, I think I am too well paid, though my bank account does not reflect that thought, and if you tell my Vestry, I’ll say you are lying.  In more than a decade of being paid while working as a minister of the Gospel, I, like many of my sisters and brothers, have had to work out an understanding of what that means, and how it jives with these words from Paul to the Corinthians.  Others have worked out other understandings, and many pastors out there still follow Paul’s mode and work as 21st century tent makers.  What I have found helpful is the careful use of language.  If you are skeptical of organized religion, you might call it semantics, which I also understand.

We live in a world in which money must be offered in exchange for goods and services.  Over the years, clergy have been paid in various ways from currency to eggs, bread, meat, and wine, but now-a-days, we have to be paid in what former NFL wide receiver, Randy Moss calls “straight cash homie.”  Despite Paul’s own tendency to go without pay, he acknowledges the fact that even church leaders should be paid in 1 Timothy 5:17-18.  Where the challenge lies, I think, is divorcing pay from work done or tasks accomplished.  This is why I prefer to call the money paid to ordained clergy a stipend rather than a salary.

I am not paid by Christ Church to preach a good sermon or to visit someone in the hospital or to plan a decent liturgy.  I am paid by Christ Church so that I don’t have to work somewhere else while trying to follow God’s call to make disciples, preach the Gospel, and care for souls.  The difference is nuanced, and I get that, but I think it is important.  In line with Paul, I believe that clergy are not paid as a reward for preaching the Gospel.  Instead, we are paid in order to have the freedom to fulfill our obligation to preach the Gospel.  Either way, I’m glad its payday.

All Things

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My brain is currently engaged in a seminary cliche.  I am “living in tension” between the scriptures and the realities of life.  This past weekend, I was with the Bishop and Trustees and Council of the Diocese of Kentucky on a retreat.  That word was used in the corporate sense of getting away from everyday life in order to accomplish work, rather than the religious sense of quiet and contemplation.  As such, we did all the things one would expect on a working retreat.  We watched a video, we had small group discussions, and we gave large group feedback.  We ate snacks.  I consumed large amounts of mediocre camp coffee.  Like all good Episcopalians, the group drank plenty of LaCroix.

During one of our breakout sessions, we were discussing the image of the church as hired hand in the Parable of the Sower.  As we talked about what stones needed to be removed from the garden, and how we might offer shade to tender plants threatened by the heat, someone said, “We can’t be all things to all people, even though we have been called to serve all people.”  My ears perked up at that comment.  My gut reaction was to hearken to Paul, who, told the Church in Corinth that, in fact, he had tried to be all things to all people, so that, by all means, he might save some.  “No, I thought to myself, we are called to be all things to all people.”  Then, my brain responded with one of my usual sayings, “We can’t out Baptist the Baptists.”

Like so many working retreats, I didn’t really expect to spend much time thinking about these things once I had reentered real life.  These are, so often, just thought exercises that are not intended to produce any fruit beyond being an excuse to spend more time away from home.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I opened the lessons for Sunday, and read those very words from Paul to the Christians in Corinth.

It is easy to read Paul’s words as hyperbole.  We know, from his other writings, that he did waffle a bit on eating meat, on food sacrificed to idols, and on circumcision.  He did attempt to make room in the reign of Christ for as many people as possible, but even Paul had his limits.  He could never really be all things for all people.  He could, and did, cast a wide net.  One of the gifts that the Episcopal Church has to offer is an ongoing understanding of casting a wide net.  We are willing to allow people the time and the space to work out their salvation in fear and trembling, but even here, there are limits.  Or, at least, there should be.  As has been said, God will accept you right where you are, but loves you to much to let you stay there.

We’ll never be able to, as the meme says, “do all the things,” but we can work to make the Kingdom of God as accessible as possible so that by all means we might save some.  In the end, that’s the goal, isn’t it?  To share the Gospel, to make disciples, and to send out Apostle?  In the interim, the details are only a part of the process of formation.

Keeping it Basic

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My favorite lyric right now comes from the track “Mouth of the River” on the new Imagine Dragons album Evolve.  Unfortunately, I can’t share the track with you because of copyright issues, but I promise you, if you buy the album, you won’t be disappointed.  Anyway, the lyric goes like this:

Oh I’m alkaline
I’m always keeping to the basics

I like this line for several reasons.  First, it is really nerdy, which I dig.  Second, it is really fun to sing, which I need right now.  Evolve is my running album and I hate running, so having fun things is good.  Third, it restores the word “basic” which has been co-opted of late as pejorative colloquialism to describe “middle class white women who are perceived to predominantly like mainstream products, trends, or music.” (1) or “someone devoid of defining characteristics that might make a person interesting, extraordinary, or just simply worth devoting time or attention to.” (2)  I’ve never been a fan of taking words that are commonly used and making them mean something negative or hurtful.

As I listened to that lyric this morning, I was reminded of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which we will hear read on Sunday (see point one above).  From this passage, we receive the Christ Hymn, a recounting of not just Paul’s Christology, but his Christian anthropology as well.  In this lesson, heady as it may seem, Paul invites the Christians in Philippi and, by extension, us, to keep it basic.  Rather than thinking we know it all or are living lives that are perfectly in tune with God’s will, Paul calls on disciples of Jesus to humility, which was the example of Christ.  Though he was both God and man, Jesus did not lord his power over us.  Instead, as Paul says so beautifully, Jesus “emptied himself” and “humbled himself” and is therefore “highly exalted.”  Jesus kept it basic: he loved and he showed compassion, and he invites his disciples to do the same.

At the end of this passage, Paul admonishes his readers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  Through Christ, the Spirit continues to be present within us, helping us to keep it to the basics, not worried about what others are doing, but working out our own salvation with fear and trembling.  God at work in us is seen when we love and when we show compassion.  It may seem simple, basic (in the pejorative sense) even, but it is the way in which the Kingdom of God is built, one basic compassionate act at a time.

The Challenge of a 1st Century Sacred Text

I have always struggled with Philippians 1:21.  Paul write this letter from prison, nearly a decade after his first visit to Philippi.  He is, perhaps here more than anywhere else, aware that his life and ministry could soon be coming to an end.  Like any human being, what is on Paul’s mind tends to reoccur in his writings.  As he ponders the reality of his death, he addresses it three times in his letter to the Philippians, the first of which we encounter in the New Testament lesson for Sunday, which begins with that passage that has always puzzled me.

“To me,” Paul writes in 1:21, “living is Christ and dying is gain.”  The second half of this sentence seems self-explanatory.  Realizing that his date with his savior might be coming sooner rather than later, Paul takes comfort in his faith that life beyond this mortal body will be better than anything he has experienced on earth.  Life in paradise, heaven, the bosom of Abraham, or however a first century Jew turned Apostle of Jesus might describe is was ultimately what Paul longed for.  Not that he disliked the life he had.  Not that he was eager to give up preaching the Gospel.  Not that he was sad about the life he had lived.  Rather, Paul knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that life in the fullness of God’s love would be beyond his wildest imagination.

Where I get caught short is this odd turn of phrase, “living is Christ.”  What does that mean?  Is there an idiomatic expression that I am missing?  I went looking for other translations, to very little avail.

  • For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (NIV)
  • You see, for me to live means the Messiah; to die means to make a profit. – N.T. Wright (Paul for Everyone, The Prison Letters, p. 90)
  • For to me, living is for Christ, and dying is even better. (NLT)

The best rendering I could find comes from the CEV, which reads “If I live, it will be for Christ, and if I die, I will gain even more,” but it wasn’t until I opened my old standby The New Daily Study Bible by William Barclay that I found something that made it make sense.  “If Christ were to be taken out of life, for Paul there would be nothing left.” (p. 32)  I commend to you the entire paragraph on this phrase on page 32, but I won’t reprint it here for copyright concerns.

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All this to say just a few things.  First, sometimes, dealing with a first century sacred text is difficult.  Taking the time to do a bit of research on what it is the original author was trying to say is never a waste of time.  Second, when we do that digging on this passage, it reveals to us that for Paul, and presumably for all who follow Jesus, the life we live should be defined entirely on our relationship with Christ.  Literally, “to live is Christ,” such that we know no other existence but that which has been made real in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Every moment brings another opportunity to choose life in Christ, and we won’t always be successful, but at its heart, following Jesus is handing our lives, our whole lives, over to him.

The religion on the Greeks

“Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way…” (Acts 17:22)

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That’s one long word!

It seems as though religion has always been a neutral word, even if it can be taken with either positive or negative connotations.  When Paul begins his famous sermon in front of the Areopagus (Mars’ Hill for my King James friends), I tend to hear him with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.  “I see how extremely religious you are in every way,” doesn’t exactly sound like a genuine compliment.  Of course, one could read it just as easily the other way.  A.T. Robertson says that “the way one takes this adjective here colours Paul’s whole speech…”  It would behoove the preacher, if she is looking at Acts this Sunday, to take some time an consider whether Paul means religious as a good or not.

The word Luke uses that gets translated as “religious” is that crazy long Greek word above.  Like it is in English usage, it can mean a genuine piety – devotion to one’s belief system.  Or, it can mean superstition or slavish rigidity to system of faith.  As Robertson notes, “Thayer suggests that Paul uses it ‘with kindly ambiguity.'”  The Vulgate and the King James Version both choose to read it negatively, translating the Greek to mean “superstition,” while most modern translations choose “religious” with all its inherent ambiguity.

So what are we to do with it?  First, I would say that I agree with Robertson in thinking that Paul wouldn’t have been helped by being overtly negative toward his crowd.  Paul was a smart man, and a wise preacher.  He had studied rhetoric and knew how to work a room.  I doubt highly that he would have chosen a word that undermined the religious sensibilities of the audience he was trying to convert.  Still, as I noted above, in his mind, I’m willing to believe that there is no way Paul would have held the religion of the Athenians on par with his beloved Judaism or the fledgling faith tradition of Christianity.  I’d be willing to suppose that Paul used this word, with all its ambiguity, very intentionally; in order to keep the ears of his audience open while not also betraying his own theological understandings.

This, then, is where we can learn a thing or two about evangelism from Paul.  As I noted earlier this week, evangelism requires that we be fully committed to the validity of our own faith tradition while entering into conversation with the faith of the other with humility and reverence.  Paul didn’t start a riot by calling the people of Athens no good pagans.  Instead, he lifted up their hunger for faith and communion with their gods as an opportunity then to think more fully about the God that Paul would present, whose Son came to redeem the world.

Father

By the standards of this world, this blog has a pretty meager following.  On any given day, not counting those who read posts in their email box or through an RSS feed, only about 80 or 90 sets of eyes lay upon my words.  As I’ve said, however, this blog is such a part of my own spiritual practice that I would write it even if nobody read it.  Still, it is nice to receive feedback from time to time.  Overnight, one of my parishioners read my blog and offered some thoughts on the opening line of the Lord’s Prayer from her reading of CS Lewis.

“Its very first words are Our Father. Do you now see what those words mean? They mean quite frankly, that you are putting yourself in the place of a son of God. To put it bluntly, you are dressing up as Christ. If you like, you are pretending. Because, of course, the moment you realise what the words mean, you realise that you are not a son of God. You are not being like The Son of God, whose will and interests are at one with those of the Father: you are a bundle of self-centred fears, hopes, greeds, jealousies, and self-conceit, all doomed to death. So that, in a way, this dressing up as Christ is a piece of outrageous cheek. But the odd thing is that He has ordered us to do it.” (From Mere Christianity Compiled in Words to Live By)

I find these words from Lewis to be quite interesting in light of the Apostle Paul who, in his letter to the Romans, suggests an alternative way of looking at our calling God “Father.”  In a lesson that will be very familiar to Episcopalians who attend funerals, Paul suggests that we do not approach God as “Father” or “Abba” of our own volition, but through the power of the Spirit.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

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When Jesus suggests to his disciples that they begin their prayers by addressing God in the same manner he does, it isn’t, I don’t think, about taking on the veil of Christ and thereby being convicted of our own inadequacies.  Rather, to approach God as Father is to come before him with the boldness of faith in the power of the Spirit.  It is to stake our claim as adopted children and co-heirs with Christ.  To begin the prayer of the kingdom by simply calling God “Father” is to embrace our position in the kingdom which should convict us not of our own sinfulness but of our high calling as brother and sister disciples of Jesus and sons and daughters, first-order heirs of God, who are committed to the spread of the kingdom of God throughout the world.