Borden Painter

Epiphany 4C ~ Candlemas
31 January, 2016
Grace Episcopal Church

Some of us here are old enough to remember those quiz shows in the early days of TV — all in black and white. There was “What’s My Line” hosted by John Daly in his black and white tux. The panelists wore blindfolds and had to figure out who the special guest was. In the “Price Is Right” contestants had to come close to the real price of an object. But I think my favorite was TO TELL THE TRUTH. The panel faced three people and had to figure out who was the real person whatever it was that she or he did. At the end of the show the punch line was “WILL THE REAL JOHN DOE PLEASE STAND UP.”

I want to borrow that phrase for this morning in asking WILL THE REAL SAINT PAUL PLEASE STAND UP. Last Monday, January 25, we celebrated the Conversion of Saint Paul. This morning we hear the famous passage from I Corinthians 13 on love with its ringing conclusion: “And now faith, hope, love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

The fact is that there are many St. Pauls, or at least, many different pictures of who people think he is. So we have to grapple with the query, “Who is the real St. Paul?” WILL THE REAL SAINT PAUL PLEASE STAND UP!

For example, a still popular view of Paul is that he changed the nature of the early Jesus movement and transformed it into what became Christianity. The simple teachings of Jesus got hijacked by Paul who substituted his own theology. Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend that Paul was the “first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.” George Bernard Shaw so disliked Paul and his ideas that he said “it would have been better for the world if Paul had never been born.”

In other words Paul had made over the Jesus movement in his own image. If this is the real Paul then we need to take him with many grains of salt and get back to the original message as given in the Gospels. After all, the Acts of the Apostles tell us something of the tension between Paul and his people, on the one hand, and Peter, James and their people in Jerusalem.

A second Paul has grown very popular in our day. This is the POLITICALLY INCORRECT PAUL. He made women subordinate to men; he refused to marry and was puritanical on sex. This neurotic Paul laid a guilt trip on his followers that has had a long life in Christian history. Conservative evangelical Christians do quote him to justify not ordaining women, to condemn homosexuality and a whole host of rules one supposedly has to follow to be a real Christian. So this Paul is politically incorrect for many outside the church and absolutely correct for some inside the churches.

As the Anglican bishop and scholar N. T. Wright put it in a recent book on Paul: “Those who regard Paul as a pestilent, self-contradictory, rambling neurotic are just as eager that their hearers should see him this way … as are those who regard his every word as proceeding directly from the mouth of God. Neutrality is impossible.” Paul in Fresh Perspective, 15).

But in a biblical version of TO TELL THE TRUTH, the real John Doe, the real Saint Paul is someone else. He is, in fact, the one who got it right about Jesus and what he was all about. As the noted historian and maverick Roman Catholic Garry Wills puts in his book What Paul Meant “what he meant was not something other than or contrary to what Jesus meant, but that we can best find out [what Jesus meant] by studying [St. Paul].”

Paul’s letters are the earliest writing in the New Testament that pre-date the Gospels by several decades. They are closer to Jesus and it is difficult to believe that Paul would have been tolerated by others in the Jesus movement if he was so far off base. Paul’s career is given in the Acts of the Apostles, but it seems the author of Acts did not have copies of Paul’s letters. So Paul’s letters give us a more accurate picture of Paul than all the stories in Acts.

Scholars believe, with ample evidence, that only seven of the letters attributed to Paul were completely his. The others were probably followers who thought their letters were compatible with Paul. In fact it is in some of those letters that we find the passages about women.

The essence of the real Paul fits with the essence of Jesus as given in the Gospels. The passage from First Corinthians articulates perfectly the centrality of LOVE, of love of God and neighbor embodied in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. “Love is patient’ love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

Doesn’t all that fit nice with the Summary of the Law, to love God and neighbor with all our hearts, minds and souls: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

And what’s “politically incorrect” about Paul’s declaration: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ Jesus have put on Christ. There is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)

Paul got it right. His great innovation was not some alien interpretation of Jesus, but his insistence that the truth embodied in Jesus was open to all, Jew and Gentile alike. All the laws and strictures of the Old Covenant did not apply in the New Covenant established by Jesus. It is Paul’s words that we most often use in celebrating the Lord’s Supper: “On the night in which he was betrayed, he took bread….(I Cor 11: 23ff)

Again Garry Wills puts it well: “If Paul was such a foe and underminer of Jesus, why was he accepted so soon and broadly by those who knew Jesus? The answer is that Paul was not a counterforce to Jesus but one of the early believers who together bore witness to him. The Jesus gatherings in the Diaspora [in the Roman Empire] proved more fertile and lasting than those in Judaea itself, not because of any one man’s brilliance, energy, or deceptions, but because they were more vitally expressive of what Jesus meant. Paul was part of this explosion of belief. His letters are dispatches from that hurricane of activity.”

TO TELL THE TRUTH the real John Doe in this story is this third St. Paul, the one who got it right about Jesus and knew that the Jesus movement had a message and a way of life that knew no boundaries of nation, race, or ethnicity, but was universal, catholic to the core.

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