Paulianity, Part 2
But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house,; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison. Acts 8:3
Before I continue this series about the teachings of the apostle Paul, I wish to issue a clarification from last week’s Life Note. I stated my belief that Paul’s teachings should not be used as our primary source of guidance regarding what is or is not a Christian life. Rather, I wrote, that we should use the life and teachings of Jesus, as recorded in the gospels, as a primary source, using the writings of Paul as a secondary source to help clarify and apply the life and teachings of Jesus. Saying that implies that the gospels preceded Paul’s writings, which is nottrue. Paul’s New Testament letters were written around 50 CE, where the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written around and after 70 CE, with the gospel of John written sometime after that. The writers of the gospels, while not the early disciples for whom they are named, would almost certainly have been aware of and influenced by Paul’s writings. As such, we cannot look at Paul’s letters and the gospel texts as two separate strains of Christian writing, although there were certainly theological and practical differences in thought and application, then as now. The writings often have a different focus, with the gospels relating stories about Jesus’ life and teachings and Paul’s serving more as commentary on what the life and teachings of Jesus mean.
Paul’s writings encourage intellectual thought about Christianity. Jesus’ life and teachings invite us into a lived experience of the Christian life. Let me affirm that both are important! My belief, however, and my purpose in writing about Paulianity is that too many contemporary Christians are focused too narrowly on thinking about the life of Christ and too little on rearranging their lived experience to reflect the life of Christ. It is the difference between thinking and acting. When we lean too far towards one, we fall out of balance. Certainly, in my own unbalanced spiritual life, I tend toward the intellectual life, which I find to be easier and more comfortable. My personal challenge is to establish a better balance with experiential spirituality.
Prior to his conversion, Saul (as Paul was named then) was a persecutor of Christians. He was a Roman citizen and a violent Jewish zealot who saw the Christian sects forming throughout the land as heretical threats to good Jewish society, but also as intolerable insurrectionists. Saul approved of the killing of early Christian leaders (Acts 8:1). Acts 8:3 documents, “…Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” As a Pharisee, Paul believed the Old Testament law should be followed to the letter. Even though Jesus was also a Jew, his focus was less on the letter of the law and more on the spirit of the law. If a law specified a certain behavior, but when that behavior ran counter to what loving behavior towards another would demand, the law should be set aside in favor of the loving and inclusive behavior. Jesus often restated the law to better reflect the love of God (see Matthew 5:21-48, for example). Saul persecuted early followers of Jesus because they were encouraging people away from the strict Jewish traditions upheld by the Pharisees. They were heretical renegades deserving punishment.
And then one day on the road to Damascus to arrest followers of Jesus, Saul was struck blind by a light from heaven (Acts 9:1-31). A voice said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Paul answered, “Who are you, Lord?” The voice replied, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Saul received instructions to continue into Damascus and await further instructions. Saul was led to a disciple named Ananias who had received instructions on how to deal with Saul. Ananias laid his hands on Saul, saying, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Saul regained his sight, spent time with the disciples there, and began proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God and the Messiah with the same fervor and passion he had denied Jesus a few days earlier. Sometime after that he adopted a new name, Paul.
God found a way to turn this man with a harmful and violent past from arguably the worst persecutor of early Christians into arguably the most fervent promoter of Christianity. If nothing else, the life of Saul/Paul should give everyone hope that God can use our unique, sometimes annoying and detrimental passions in unfathomable ways for good.
This is the 41st 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.