Degrees of Separation, Part 4
Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Acts 9:3-6
Saul, soon to be known as Paul, struck terror in the hearts of the early Christians. He was a fiercely loyal Jew, a zealot, and a relentless and often violent persecutor of members of The Way, who were the first followers of Jesus. The story of his conversion to a follower of Jesus is recorded in the ninth chapter of Acts. On his way to Damascus he was blinded by a bright light, accompanied by the disembodied voice of Jesus asking, “Saul, why do you persecute me?” For three days he could not see and did not eat or drink as his companions shepherded him into the city. In Damascus, a disciple named Ananias helped Saul regain his sight and baptized him. Saul/Paul became a passionate worker in the formation of what would become the Christian church. He remains a mighty force in the Christian church, having written many of the books, as letters to churches, of the New Testament.
Some of his writings are brilliant and poetic; some are infuriatingly judgmental and exclusive. Part of the challenge in applying Paul’s letters today is that they were written to specific bodies of followers in specific locations dealing with specific problems at specific points in time. To generalize such targeted teachings can easily lead people astray, particularly those seeking quick certainty in the difficult-to-quantify realm of spirituality. Paul’s letters today are several degrees separated by time, space, context, and translation from even Paul himself. If we are seeking to know Christ through Paul’s letters, we are separated even farther. Which is not to say seeking Christ through Paul’s writings is a fruitless endeavor. Unfortunately, in my opinion, too many churches seek to develop followers of Paul, as they understand Paul, instead of followers of the one Paul tried to follow: Jesus the Christ. Paul, like the rest of us, was a flawed, biased, and fallible human being whose zealotry sometimes isolated the very people Jesus sought to bring into his family of followers.
Last week I mentioned that some churches use certain passages from Paul’s letters to fill in gaps on issues that there is no record of Jesus addressing. Perhaps the most controversial of such issues is homosexuality, which Paul condemns in a couple of his letters. Of course, what is translated as homosexuality in his letters may have been same-sex rape and not a committed and loving relationship between two people of the same sex. Such relationships could not have been safely pursued in his day. When a church takes something written in Paul’s letters and uses it to isolate others, they are applying a Christian teaching in a distinctly non-Christian manner. Jesus never excluded people regardless of their actions, social status, or lifestyle. The challenge is to read Paul in the context of Jesus’ ministry. Indeed, applying Christian teachings in non-Christian ways is at the heart of Churchianity.
Many Christians find Paul’s letters appealing because he wrote with authority, confidence, and commitment. He wrote like a zealot, clearly articulating his positions, even though he surely understood that attempts to reduce spiritual truths to words can both attract and mislead many people. Paul wrote as if God were speaking through him. Instead, I believe God inspired Paul, but as that inspiration was put into words, the result was a product of Paul’s nature, historical and cultural contexts, and Paul’s limited understanding of the uncontainable spiritual wisdom imparted to him.
As enlightening as Paul’s letters can be, when read in their appropriate context, Paul’s conversion can be equally informative. In his zealotry for the Jewish faith, Paul was blind to Jesus’ God-like nature. Because the Jewish and Roman leaders saw Jesus as a threat, Paul also considered Jesus a threat and willingly sought and persecuted Jesus’ followers. At least, that is, until Jesus struck him blind to get his attention and open his eyes to a new way of seeing. Paul had an encounter with the crucified and resurrected Jesus that completely changed his life and his life’s purpose, even though he never met Jesus physically. This is good news for us because just as Jesus converted Paul via direct, albeit non-physical contact with Paul, so Jesus can transform us via direct, non-physical contact. In this way we can build a relationship without the degrees of separation present with the Bible, sermons, and other commentaries. More next week.
This is the 14th in the series of Life Notes titled Churchianity vs Christianity. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning and browse the archives of my Life Notes, Podcasts, music, books, and other musings.