Posts Tagged ‘apostle Paul’

2 CORINTHIANS 8:7-15

Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.

I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. 10 And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— 11 now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. 12 For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. 13 I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. 15 As it is written,

“The one who had much did not have too much,
    and the one who had little did not have too little.”

Our sense of justice when we are very young is centered in our notions of fairness. To be “fair,” all of us around the table needed to get an equal-sized piece of the pie. To be “fair,” everyone needed to get what they deserved (which sometimes worked against us personally). Even after we’ve grown up this early sense of justice continues with us, to shape and condition our adult views of work, wealth, and social equality.

To guess what must have been going on behind the scene there in Corinth, we might suspect that some church members were complaining over the unfairness of having to share their hard-earned wealth with the distant and faceless poor across the sea in Jerusalem. It just didn’t seem right that they should be obligated with charity for people they didn’t even know, and who probably didn’t deserve it anyway.

But Paul held their opinions and excuses against the greatest paradigm of charity the world had ever witnessed – the self-emptying generosity of God revealed in Jesus Christ, who gave everything for the sake of our salvation. What are your meager possessions when compared with the redemptive self-sacrifice made by Jesus on your behalf? What right do you have to withhold your wealth and love from the anonymous poor, when God so loves all of us – maybe especially the poor – with a charity so undeserved that even you fall short of its measure? Grow up!

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2 CORINTHIANS 8:7-15

Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.

I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. 10 And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— 11 now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. 12 For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. 13 I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. 15 As it is written,

“The one who had much did not have too much,
    and the one who had little did not have too little.”

Besides his missionary task of planting Christian communities (churches) throughout the Greek-speaking regions of the Mediterranean world, the apostle Paul also worked diligently to bring a collection from his start-up congregations to the mother church in Jerusalem. As Christianity’s first real inner-city mission, the financial needs of the Jerusalem church were constantly overwhelming the resources of church members. The first mission to the poor and sick, the precursor to our shelters and hospitals, was here in Jerusalem, and Paul sought to enlist the worldwide Christian community in its support.

We can hear a bit of impatience in Paul’s appeal to the Corinthian Christians. The later proverb which states that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” carries his caution nicely. “What you talked about doing last year needs to be completed now,” he advises, “because talk is cheap and safe and easy. Now is the time to act and make a real difference for the kingdom.” 

It seems these Christians were suffering from an ailment that frequently hampers the purpose of God still today: complacency. When we lose the compassion that is the underlying drive of all redemptive justice and social concern, we render ourselves effectively useless to the work of the Holy Spirit in the world.

2 CORINTHIANS 6:1-13

As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,

“At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
    and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”

See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

11 We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you.12 There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. 13 In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.

As we discover the unique powers and talents that God has given us, we become aware also that exercising and investing them can open us to significant risk. What if David had kept his stones in the bag for fear of embarrassment should he wind up but miss his target? What if, for fear of being skewered and squashed by the giant, he had ducked out behind the tents of Israel and cowered with the rest of them? The impulse for self-preservation is strong in all of us, and the risk of losing our standing, our reputation, our control, our security, or our life can sometimes be enough to keep our spiritual gifts tucked away and out of sight.

The Christian community in Corinth had apparently become a hideout for some who didn’t want to expose themselves to the chance of falling victim to shame, blame, or hardship of any sort. Paul’s exhortation for them to “open wide your hearts” saw their rational precaution for what it was – rationalized fear. The apostle wasn’t bragging, but his short list of troubles and persecutions suffered at the hands of the world was the experience behind his testimony to God’s faithfulness and grace. He had taken many risks – some of which we might consider imprudent and foolhardy – in his devotion to the gospel, and was intimately familiar with the dangers of being a Christ-follower. And yet, he insisted, Jesus never promised us a safe haven.

ROMANS 1:16-17, 3:22b-31

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

22For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has the faith of Jesus.

27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

The apostle Paul is credited with the “invention” of Christianity. He is the one who proclaimed Jesus as the long-awaited messiah of the Jews and introduced him to non-Jews (Gentiles) as the “Lord and Savior” of a new mystery religion. We need to remember that Paul’s letters to various church-starts and key leaders of the early movement were written 10-20 years before the first Gospel (Mark, c. 70 CE) told the story of Jesus. The canonical Gospels inherited Paul’s makeover of Jesus as Christ (of Jews) and Lord (of Gentiles), and their later elaborations incorporated an oral tradition of Jesus-sayings into this mythological framework.

Being a Jew himself and a member of the puritanical sect of the Pharisees, Paul would have been dead-set against the lifestyle reputed to the actual Jesus who had been indicted and executed under the Law a full generation earlier. Jesus had been an aggressive proponent of desegregation and equal rights under the inclusive and unconditional forgiveness of God. He reached out to “sinners” and kept company with outsiders, insisting that they and not the so-called righteous were closest to God. For his transgression, Jesus was found guilty and paid the penalty of death.

Somewhere on his way to prosecute the fugitive followers of Jesus, Paul underwent a conversion experience whereby he realized that the Law, which was the orthodox definition of righteousness, had condemned a truly perfect and righteous man (Jesus) and thereby nullified its own authority. Jesus had upheld the genuine spirit of the Law (love of God and neighbor) but its heavy net of quibbling rules was used to bring him down. As a consequence, the Law fell victim to its own fatal self-contradiction.

What had seemed a victory for the Law and and orthodoxy was really its terminal defeat, and the one who had been condemned under the Law came out vindicated in the end. (This is likely where the metaphor of resurrection occurred to Paul.) Before he became Christ and Lord, Jesus was the man whose relentless faith and boundless love had saved the world from religion. As Paul saw it, “the faith of Jesus” in his followers upholds, reveals, fulfills and transcends the true intent of the Law. They are free at last.

1 Corinthians 4:1-5

Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.

We are already acquainted with the situation in Corinth where certain factions were forming within the Christian congregation there, tending to pull the larger group into divisions around Paul (the evangelicals), Peter (the traditionalists), Apollos (the intellectuals), or Christ (the charismatics). Each party represented a distinct perspective on what it meant to be a Christian – missionary outreach, a strong tradition, Bible knowledge, or spiritual gifts. Then as now, it was easy for “insiders” (of one of these persuasions) to regard the others as missing the real point.

In this situation, though Paul might well have been flattered by the fact that some church members were championing him and his priority on outreach, the apostle reminded his readers of something Jesus reportedly had taught during his ministry a generation earlier: Don’t judge.

When we judge another person, we take something about that individual – their background, reputation, appearance, socio-economic status, lifestyle, voting preference, sexual orientation, current beliefs, or just about anything else you can imagine – and draw a conclusion concerning their dignity, virtue, and worthiness as a human being. This kind of judgment helps us deal swiftly with people we don’t really know, or care to know. With a strong judgment in place, we now have the justification we need to dismiss them, exclude them, exploit them, violate them, or even destroy them if need be.

Jesus had taught that none of us has the right to judge another person in this way. His entire ministry had been dedicated to reaching out and touching people in their humanity, their brokenness, and their need. Roles and labels and stereotypes are all part of that inhumane way in the world we call prejudice (and all that follows) – pre-judging someone and thereby sinning against their nature as a human being created in the image and likeness of God.

Living by this rule (“Don’t judge!”) gave Jesus the necessary courage to renounce prejudice, along with the freedom to carry on as one beyond the judgment of others. In his time, the apostle Paul found a fresh application for this important rule of the spiritual life.

1 CORINTHIANS 12:3-17

Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?

The influence of the Corinthian church plant on the subsequent history of Christianity cannot be overestimated. It was at once a highlight and a profound burden for the apostle Paul – almost from the day he began the mission. Family disputes, immorality, infighting among rival divisions in the congregation, negotiating tension between wealthy and poor, Gentiles and Jews, men and women, slaves and free citizens – the volatility of this group was at times almost more than Paul could manage.

And then this. Perhaps members were so eager to use their talents and resources for the cause of Christian outreach, that in their enthusiasm to plug in and make a difference the congregation began to divide according to the distribution of what Paul would come to call “spiritual gifts.” Whether a natural talent activated by the Spirit of God or more like a special ability endowed on an individual by the Spirit from outside, Paul at least was persuaded that spiritual gifts were how the Church does its work.

                                                                                                            

Whereas a primary role of God’s Spirit was associated with creativity, life, inspiration and wholeness, the upsetting consequence of all these purpose-driven charismatics contending for influence and recognition was the opposite. Elitism was motivating the like-minded and similarly equipped into competitively higher ranks, to the point where the very integrity of the congregation – not to mention the public image of the emerging Christian movement – was in jeopardy.

This is when Paul came to perhaps his most important insight. The Church, he said, is the resurrected body of Christ, the continuing voice and active work of Jesus in the world. Insofar as Christ lives in the individual believer, his or her spiritual gift will necessarily be used for good, be inspired by love, and build up the body rather than tear it apart. Each member has something to contribute, and the outcome will always be unity.

When members begin to grow possessive of their gifts, however, when they start comparing and competing for the stage, this is not of God.

It wasn’t long before the Christian movement fell apart along these dividing lines, of what each faction felt was most important. Today there are hundreds of separate denominations – some based on the gift of teaching, others on the gift of prophecy, others on healing, others on miracles, and still others on ecstatic utterance. Add to this the further disagreements over doctrines, sacraments, purity, and inclusion, and what you have is more like the dismembered cadaver of Christ.

1 PETER 3:13-22

13 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

You just have to wonder where an author finds the chutzpah to invent a doctrine about Jesus preaching to the departed souls in limbo (which in later doctrine became Purgatory) so they, too, could have a chance to accept the offer of salvation.

Or was it inspiration? Did the Holy Spirit put this idea in his mind by supernatural revelation? If we agree, then the discussion is closed. God said it, I believe it, and that does it.

But this might be another example of the emerging religion of Christianity establishing itself by setting in place the necessary mythological foundations. As the questions came up – Who was Jesus, really, and what was he about? How is our movement connected to our parent religion of Judaism? Did Jesus have to die that way? Did his death mean something? How is the world different after Jesus, and what are we supposed to do now? – a demand for meaningful answers required the tailoring of current myths from elsewhere along with some creative invention of their own.

We can only imagine what the question behind this particular “solution” might have been. What about the people who died before the time of Jesus? If his death fixed the problem (first assumption), and if salvation is dependent on hearing the doctrine (second assumption) and accepting that all this was done for you (third assumption), then they missed out. Are they in hell for something they couldn’t know and have a chance to accept? That wouldn’t be fair! So let’s get Jesus in front of them to proclaim the good news …

The apostle Paul had an easier and more reasonable solution to the problem of salvation before Jesus. If they didn’t have the special revelation of the Law and Prophets (Judaism), then at least God’s “eternal power and divine nature” are evident throughout creation (Romans 1:19-20). Each of us will be held accountable for the choices we make in the light we are given. Fair enough.

But wait a second, already by this time (late 60s CE) Christianity had made a decisive move, from a spiritually grounded moral revolution with dangerous political implications (under the leadership of Jesus) to a messianic sect of Judaism with a strong missionary campaign to win Gentile converts (under the leadership of Paul). As it went on, the new religion needed a devotional focus (Jesus the savior) and an orthodox company line (something like: Confess your sins, believe in Jesus, get baptized, and come aboard).

Now we have insiders (the properly saved) and outsiders (the unrepentant or ignorant throng). One day very soon Jesus is going to swoop down with his angels and take us with him to heaven, leaving the rest for unpleasant times ahead. In the meantime, if anyone interrogates your beliefs, here’s what to say; if they persecute you for what you believe, then you have good precedent in Jesus himself.

He had to suffer for our salvation, an innocent victim for the sinful race. There is no forgiveness without repentance, no pardon without satisfaction. Redemption through violence: it is God’s way.

Never mind that it contradicted the original gospel of Jesus himself.

 

ACTS 17:22-31

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’

29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

It’s questionable whether a lot of religious “objects” – presumably temples, altars, and idols – directly translates into a population being “extremely religious.” We know from our own day that the paraphernalia and even the practices of religious life do not necessarily correlate to a vibrant spirituality. A religion can be dead inside, underneath all the elaborate display and outward activity.

The gods of Greek culture were associated with the wide range of concerns in daily life. There was a god of commerce and a goddess of marriage, a god of wine and a goddess of the hunt, a god of war and a goddess of love, a god of healing and a goddess of the harvest; on and on across many domains of nature and society. Each god or goddess was represented by an emblem or idol, and since most Greek deities were anthropomorphic (human-like) in character, their associated idols were commonly statues – “formed by the art and imagination of mortals” –  set up in temples or sacred locations.

The Hebrews, on the other hand, had been a nomadic federation of tribes in their early history. Carting around an idol would have been a logistical challenge – although Yahweh’s war-box (the ark of the covenant) did serve as, or at least slip into the function of, an idol during that time. Eventually graven images and artistic likenesses of Yahweh were prohibited and violently rejected as idolatry, which refers to worshiping an idol.

A danger for the Jews, and for the Christians after them, was more a conceptual than physical idolatry – becoming so enamored of and devoted to a particular mental representation of God (in idea and doctrine), that it effectively closes down access to the divine presence. This is the mystery “in which we live and move and have our being,” which is really a definition that defies definition when you think about it.

How can you picture this mystery? How do you symbolize being itself? It would seem that the mere attempt would amount to constructing an idol.

                                                                                           

Jewish religion was really the first example of what is called ethical monotheism, a belief in one god whose primary relationship to humans is as the absolute moral authority. Yahweh demanded purity, obedience, retribution and repentance; and at some fateful time in the future, he will judge all people according to their righteousness or sin, rewarding or condemning them as they deserve.

As Christianity began as a messianic sect within Judaism, this was its basic worldview and expectation as well. As the religion got going, Jesus was simply inserted into the existing program as the long-anticipated savior and final judge. His death on the cross had paid the penalty for sin, but only for those who believe. For everyone else – all those nonbelievers – things would continue as before, with them punished according to the principle “You get what you deserve.”

Had Christianity stayed true to the life and gospel of Jesus himself, this entire system would have been thrown off by the radical force of his insistence that we don’t get what we deserve – none of us do. Instead we get grace, love and forgiveness out of the generous initiative of God. Nothing has to be earned, paid, or believed; and no membership is necessary – if it’s even possible to talk of insiders and outsiders any longer.

In fact, it could even be said that our belief in God is the last idol to set aside.

1 PETER 2:2-10

Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:

“See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
    a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,

“The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,”

and

“A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.”

They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

The apostle Paul also used this metaphor of “milk” in reference to the teachings he first delivered to the converts in Corinth (1 Corinthians 3:2). This was in contrast to the “solid food” that he thought would have been too much for them to digest (i.e., understand).

Milk is gentle on the stomach, but really only for newborns, since the production of the enzyme lactase, which is needed to break down the sugar found in milk, decreases significantly into adulthood. Research is showing how many health complications today might be traceable to the persistence of dairy in the adult diet.

With that in mind, we should question the wisdom of feeding a “milky” gospel to adults who are looking for authentic meaning in their lives. Could the significant arrest in church growth over the past several decades have something to do with the fact that preachers, teachers, and evangelists are serving an essentially tasteless and indigestible message to people who are looking for relevancy and substance?

The “spiritual milk” of the emerging Christian religion was focused on Jesus whose death had made atonement for the sins of the world. What we were unable to do – pay the penalty for sin and satisfy the conditions against God’s forgiveness – Jesus did on our behalf. Christianity made Jesus into its object of worship, eventually merging him into God as the Second Person of the Trinity. His divinity, virgin birth, miraculous powers, atoning death, literal resurrection, ascension into heaven and future return to earth became the diet of doctrines proclaimed as necessary for salvation.

And so it is to this day.

Jesus himself had spread a table of “solid food” – literally bread and wine, as the tradition goes. But intellectually speaking, he didn’t dumb things down or reduce his kingdom movement to a set of beliefs and a closed membership. Neither did he put himself at the center of devotion for his followers to worship. He didn’t let people rest in their assumptions and take the easy way. Instead he challenged them to give up everything and not look back.

Even more significantly, the gospel of Jesus was not about paying a penalty for sin or getting on God’s good side. His message was that God has already forgiven – everyone!  Jesus knew that the human future depends on our willingness to let go of resentment, set aside our demand for retribution, and let the spirit of love (rather than the demon of vengeance) move us back into relationship with our enemies. Don’t wait for repentance, he said. Just forgive, and don’t stop. This is God’s way.

Christianity would soon become an elitist religion of true believers with a  mission to save the world. The kingdom movement of Jesus, however, was an ordinary company of forgiven sinners, on fire with a joy they just had to share.

If Christianity is to become a creative force for the liberation of humanity, it’s time for a change of menu.

JOHN 20:19-31

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

One advantage the Gospel writers had over the apostle Paul was access to early collections of Jesus’ teachings. The earthly life and ministry of Jesus weren’t as important to Paul as were his death, resurrection and intercession on behalf of believers. Largely through the influence of Paul’s focus on the atonement of the cross, some of the first storied accounts of Jesus’ life to emerge were passion narratives, featuring his redemptive suffering for our salvation.

The author of Mark’s Gospel may have been the first to expand this narrative treatment into a fuller “life of Jesus.” By composing an action plot and sprinkling in available teaching material where he saw fit, Mark produced what could be the earliest hero myth of Christianity. Incorporating the oral tradition of anecdotes and remembrances concerning Jesus, as well as borrowing from the wider stage of world mythology, Mark built out the contextual scenes that interpreted this teaching and further developed the messianic identity of Jesus himself.

As time went on and more “biographies” of Jesus emerged (Matthew, Luke and John, but many others that didn’t get included in the scriptural canon of the early Church) this teaching material was expanded, embellished, supplemented and refined. In the end it becomes very difficult to distinguish the First Voice of Jesus from that of the authors who tell his story. And when you add in the layer upon layer of translations, word studies, commentaries, creeds, and Sunday sermons, really hearing what Jesus had to say requires some serious pick-and-shovel work.

The Gospel of John is the last-written of our canonical four, which also means that its presentation of the life and teaching of Jesus has had the most time to develop – both into obscurity and clarification. His Jesus is a long leap from the earthy messianic conspirator of Mark’s story. Now (but only 25 or so years after Mark) Jesus has become the incarnate Word and divine Son of God whose mission is to reveal his Father’s great love for the world.

In this passage we have what amounts to John’s reworking of the Pentecost scene in Acts 2, but focused down from a large festival gathering to the private company of Jesus’ disciples. The Pentecostal descent of the Holy Spirit as wind and fire becomes Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit upon his followers, and whereas the Spirit in Luke’s story inspires recipients to share the gospel in other languages (an evangelistic theme), the gift of the Spirit in John empowers the disciples with the authority to forgive sins (an emancipation theme).

This authority, by the way, had been the exclusive prerogative of God up to this point, so John is suggesting something remarkable here – and wildly controversial. “God’s power is yours now,” Jesus is saying. “Go out and set people free!”