Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

1 JOHN 5:9-13

If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. 10 Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. 11 And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.

13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

The wonderful universal message of Jesus is that “God gave us eternal life” – all of us, the whole world. There remains, however, the necessity for each of us to choose God’s gift and receive it for ourselves personally. For Christians, our reception of this gift is an act that goes by several names: believing in Jesus, following Jesus, abiding in Jesus, becoming as Jesus.

The human extension toward God in self-transcending gratitude and surrender was incarnated in Jesus to such a degree that he became for us not merely one example but its definitive prototype. Therefore, “whoever does not have the Son does not have life,” which is to say that real life is found only as we willingly step into the mold of Jesus and conform our minds to the mind of Christ.

For the writer, anyone who really knows God will immediately recognize the presence and work of God in Jesus. It’s like a masterwork of some great artist. You can identify the telltale marks of a painter’s style and personality throughout the gallery, but in the masterpiece it is as if the canvas opens up to the artist’s soul and you encounter his or her “truth.”

In a similar way, the Christian belief is that Jesus (his life, his message, his example, his personality, his enduring presence) reveals to us the very heart of God, as God’s “masterpiece.” Anyone who is familiar with the works of, say, Rembrandt van Rijn will instantly recognize the man in his greatest work. So also will anyone familiar with the works of God, evident throughout the universe and in the evolutionary promise of our own species, see in the Son the inherited traits of the Father.

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I JOHN 1:1-2:2

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that ourjoy may be complete.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true;but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

Christian community reaches back for its anchor in the life and ministry of Jesus. The longer history of covenant that lay behind Jesus had impressed upon him the importance of fidelity in the formation and longevity of healthy relationships. It was fidelity, or covenant faithfulness, that held God and the desert nation of Israel in a bond of partnership based on Law. And there were times, as mentioned in the First Testament writings, when even God had been prevented by the constraint of covenant obligation from acting impulsively against the people. On one occasion Moses finally succeeded in getting God to repent from His plan to destroy the sinful nation by reminding Him that no one would respect a deity with a reputation for unfaithfulness.

The writer of this epistle reminds his audience that “doing what is true” is essential to the business of being a Christian who lives in the light. It is not enough to merely profess with the lips that you believe this or belong to that; the proof is in your commitments. When the impulse for self-protection or self-promotion begins to tempt your focus away from the bonds of relationship, covenant fidelity is to act instead for the health and future of your union with others and with God.

MATTHEW 25:31-46

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

More kind and reasonable people these days are having difficulty with the classical doctrine of the Last Judgment, where the righteous are granted access to heaven and sinners are thrown into hell based on the moral record of their life on Earth. For some, it’s not so much the incentive system they have a problem with – though it does have a very juvenile feel to it. Instead it’s the idea that someone who sins, even 24/7 over an entire lifetime, might “justly” be punished forever as a consequence. That seems like a very unfair justice system.

Now add to this what we’re told in a prophetic parable put into the mouth of Jesus, where people will be punished for eternity in hell simply because they neglected (overlooked or ignored) the basic needs of others for food, water, clothing and human contact. By not doing something, you can wind up in merciless torment – forever. That’s not just unfair; it’s sick. Who can possibly get into heaven with such standards in place?

But let’s not stop there on our downward slide into the ridiculous and ethically offensive. Later Christians (including the majority today) would even go so far as to say that not holding the proper doctrine warrants everlasting suffering in hell. Conscious refusal to believe a statement of orthodoxy – but worse, not believing because you were never made aware of it in the first place – is apparently grounds for the cruelest punishment imaginable. This goes to show how “top heavy” and gnostic (primary value in head knowledge) Christianity has become – and how far from Jesus it has strayed.

A second look at the parable put in Jesus’ mouth – and there’s too much about it that sounds Matthean to confidently attribute it to Jesus himself – might help us get past the diabolical and twisted sense of justice it seems to be promoting. It’s very likely that Christianity already back then (in Matthew’s day) had started to forget the original company mission of Jesus, which had nothing to do with the arrangement of doctrines in your head, but rather with how far your compassion can reach into the needs of those around you.

Helping a person in need is serving Jesus. A proper Christian is one who loves others and does good in the world. We need to stop complicating things.

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 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.

JOHN 17:1-11

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

We know from early Christian history that the emerging religion took root in different geographical locations and among communities very divergent in matters of worldview, morality, and politics. Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus and Rome were not only city centers in the spread of Christianity, but to some extent competing voices in the struggle toward orthodoxy.

Scholars believe that the Gospel of John grew out of a Greek-Christian community in the region of Asia Minor, likely centered in the coastal city of Ephesus. In view of his audience, John downplays the identity of Jesus as the Jewish messiah, in favor of the more philosophical and universally appealing title of God’s personified wisdom (the incarnate Word or logos) whose manifested work is the cosmos itself. (As a point of clarification, the author of the fourth Gospel and the Apocalypse of John (Revelation) were not the same person.)

John’s Jesus isn’t driven by the same urgency as the Son of Man of the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke). Their apocalyptic expectation of a future judgment is entirely displaced by his more vertical (present-time) and mystical orientation. This alternation between end-time anticipation and present-time contemplation has defined Christianity through its adverse and stable periods, down to our day.

But with different traditions competing for the heritage of Jesus’ kingdom movement, the challenge facing the author of this Gospel is to give authority to his (John’s) particular angle. How did he do this? As in the other Gospels (and their background traditions) John scripted the authorization of his own tradition as coming directly out of the mouth of Jesus himself:

Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.

As we overhear Jesus speaking to God, he confirms the orthodoxy of John’s tradition/community over all others. God’s truth was given to Jesus, and Jesus gave it to us. To doubt our word is to deny Jesus, which is tantamount to rejecting God since Jesus came from God.

Once the scriptural canon was closed, Christian orthodoxy would use the same pressure-tactic in its doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Questioning church doctrine is disbelieving the Bible, and since the Bible is the infallible word of God, it’s the same as disobeying God himself – and THAT will get you in a lot of trouble!

LUKE 24:44-53

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

The transition from the kingdom movement of Jesus to the religion of Christianity required some major shifts in accent.

  • From Jesus as messenger, spiritual travel guide and teacher, to Christ as the object of stationary worship.
  • From an accent on faith as full release to the present power of God, to beliefs as truth-statements necessary for salvation.
  • From promoting human liberation above every system, to a system of control ordained by god.
  • From an ethic of love and full inclusion, to a morality of judgment and separation.
  • From a revolution in human consciousness, to an institution of traditions and regulations.

The list could go on, but the point is made. Jesus’ gospel (good news) was simple and straightforward: You are already forgiven, and now the liberated life waits on you to let go of your neighbor’s guilt. Repentance for Jesus was not about confessing your sins, crawling shamefully back to God, and satisfying the conditions against his love and acceptance. God has no interest in punishing you, but only to be reconciled again. To that end, he has dropped the charges and is inviting you back. Repentance is the “turn-around” of surprise, joy, gratitude and love.

For obvious reasons, this is something that cannot be regulated. If the debt has been forgiven, the guilt released, and the past left in the past, then whatever leverage we might have had on each other is gone as well. How can we continue to segregate the sinners from the saints, if God’s preference for one over the other is no longer in play? What’s to become of the mechanism of retribution (payback) that informs so much of religion? How can we motivate contrition and obedience in new believers if the “wild card” of hell is off the table?

Early Christian mythographers rose to the challenge by reconstructing the backstory of salvation. Soon biographies of Jesus were showing up everywhere – not only our four canonical Gospels, but accounts that fit Jesus into a messianic, apocalyptic, gnostic, monastic, or charismatic framework of values and beliefs. He was made to say things and do things that “fulfilled” prophetic texts or popular expectations. The “thus it is written” in the above passage was put in the mouth of Jesus himself so as to remove any question of its authority.

Eventually (and it didn’t take long) his death was interpreted as the turning-point in human salvation, where the penalty for sin was paid and God’s need for vengeance satisfied. Or maybe God’s love was behind it, as the Gospel of John claims (Jn 3:16), though the prospect of perishing for doubt or disbelief still keeps control comfortably in the hands of church managers.

The purpose here is not to bash Christianity, but rather to suggest where it got off the path of the original Jesus – and why. Nothing is served by the exposé if the only reasonable outcome is total abandonment. The First Voice of Jesus is down there – somewhere. We need to dig beneath the accretions of church doctrine and sweep aside the corruptions of inferior motives, in order to hear again the good news.

 

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 CORINTHIANS 5:6b-8

Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? 7 Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. 8 Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

The Christian congregation in the Greek city of Corinth was a church-start that Paul struggled to keep together. This was the group that fell into tribal factions, with some claiming the authority of Paul, others Apollos, others Cephas (Peter), and still others Christ.

Each faction defined Christian identity in elitist terms. As Paul was the missionary, the subgroup that identified with him could be called in today’s terms “evangelicals.” Apollos was a respected Bible scholar and teacher, and so his faction were the “intellectuals.” The reputation around Peter had to do with institutional leadership, which made his supporters the “traditionalists.” Finally, the Christ party were most likely those who identified themselves – and by extension the true believer – with various ecstatic expressions of spirituality, making them the “charismatics.”

As church planter and manager of the Corinthian experiment, Paul put a good deal of energy into the effort of maintaining unity in this bunch.

If that wasn’t enough, they also tended to let their sacred meals (Communion) degenerate into drinking parties, which only made the conditions more favorable for the loosening of their already liberal sexual ethics as sophisticated Greeks. One guy, for instance, was in a relationship with his step-mother while everyone else simply looked on.

This matter of sexuality was a bugaboo for Paul, and some scholars speculate that he may have had hang-ups of his own, perhaps as a closet homosexual or a less restrained misogynist. The fact of the matter was that Greek were more liberal than the folks back in the holy land – much more liberal when it came to matters of sexual orientation, gender roles, familial obligations, and marital fidelity.

                                                                                            

Hopefully this is sufficient information to put some context around the above passage. The specific concern of Paul’s has to do with the lackadaisical attitude among the Corinthian Christians over a case of reported “sexual immorality” – that this man was “living with” his father’s wife. He regarded this as a pinch of bad yeast that could spoil the entire recipe.

Without getting involved in a discussion of the divergences between Hellenic (Greek) and Hebraic (Jewish) morality, the point can be made that every society requires a set of moral guidelines to define the roles and rules of acceptable behavior. We can’t ignore the fact that Christianity began as a moral revolution in Judaism, inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus (a Jew).

Despite his radical message of unconditional forgiveness and loving one’s enemy, most of the moral regulations in family management and daily life remained unchallenged and unchanged. Jewish family relations were much more conservative and patriarchal, carefully defining the lines of submission and respect between husbands and wives, parents and children, and across the birth order among male and female siblings.

Whether or not a man living with his father’s wife was considered wrong in the larger (Greek) society of Corinth, the fact that the Christian movement was still Jewish in its basic moral values put this man’s behavior under judgment.

Was it wrong in some universal sense? Maybe not, but that wasn’t really the point. The ethical vision of Judaism, centered on the providence of God, his covenant with the Jewish people, and his redemptive purpose through them for the rest of the world – in which Paul understood his calling as “apostle to the Gentiles” – rested (or fell apart) on the day-to-day integrity of the family.

We may not agree with Paul’s tactic for dealing with this problem, which was to have the “wicked person” (verse 13) thrown out of the community. Nevertheless his deep concern over the issue is understandable given the context, along with the fact that Christianity was still a messianic sect within Judaism and not a separate “religion” at the time of his writing.

Paul was worried that compromises in the basic unit of family relations would cause everything else around and higher up to lose its moral tether. Condoning this individual case was de facto weakening the moral foundations of the community and larger culture.

If we’re going to change things, then let’s proceed in a way that honors life, protects human dignity, safeguards the family, and supports the greater welfare of all.

This might have been some of what was going on in Paul’s mind.

ROMANS 5:1-11

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9 Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. 11 But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Paul was the architect of an early and influential doctrinal system in the Christian movement, before there was a centralized authority, official canon of scriptures, or singular tradition to identify it. We need to keep this in mind because even though Pauline theology would significantly shape and determine the emerging orthodoxy of the later empire of Christianity (known as Christendom), as he writes he is just one of several creative voices in the early Christian conversation.

Paul’s acquaintance with Jesus of Nazareth was not by way of a personal relationship with the Galilean, nor does he seem to have known much at all about the teachings of Jesus that were circulating by oral transmission in and around Jerusalem. By his own confession, Paul had encountered a light and/or a voice (the accounts differ) that identified itself as the living spirit of the crucified Jesus.

Following this encounter, and after a lengthy retreat of some years where he worked out its theological foundations and implications, Paul began an aggressive missionary campaign throughout Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) and established numerous congregations under his unique Christian brand.

Paul’s brand of Christianity was marked by some strong dualisms: law-versus-gospel, merit-versus-grace, works-versus-faith, and (containing all the rest in horizons as big as God himself) wrath-versus-love.

Here’s a summary of how he put it all together:

  1. Jesus was condemned under the Jewish law for living according to the will of God, which effectively rendered the Law useless as a definition of righteousness.
  2. In raising Jesus to life again, God provided a way of salvation outside of the Law, which also means outside of religion (Judaism) and “religious” requirements.
  3. One has only to identify with Jesus in faith and be filled with his spirit, the spirit of Christ.
  4. By that identification and total surrender, a person is saved from judgment (wrath) and reconciled to God.

One far-reaching implication of Paul’s brand of Christian mythology was its bold disregard for ethnic, class, gender or even religious divisions. All people – Gentiles and not just Jews, slaves and not just free citizens, women and not only men – are the beneficiaries of God’s gracious offer in Christ Jesus. This also explains his untiring passion for the missionary spread of Christianity throughout the world.

Whatever may be said about the limitations of Paul’s theology, and there are some significant ones, his vision of a world united by the revelation of God in Jesus was a game-changing revolution in early Christianity.

                                                                                                   

We might try to reconstruct the process that could have inspired and guided the apostle Paul in his invention of Christianity – or at least his brand of Christianity. Much about it is very different from other developing streams in the first-century movement.

His explanation of how Jesus was lifted to divine status when he was “declared son of God by resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4) is different from the storyline of Mark’s Gospel, for instance, where this happens at his baptism by John in the Jordan, or, according to the similar storylines of Matthew and Luke, at his conception inside a virgin mother. The Fourth Gospel moves this cursor to the very beginning of creation, with the divine Word of Genesis becoming flesh in Jesus.

It’s important to understand that these are all metaphors, worked out in some cases into elaborate myths. Probably none of them have roots in the teachings of Jesus. The impulse to begin expanding the meaning of Jesus into stories about him began very early on, and we should not be surprised.

But there may be something that traces back into the gospel of Jesus himself. Paul’s conversion experience apparently turned on the pivot of a breakthrough realization, which for him translated into a very personal calling: the good news of human liberation and new life is for everyone.

As a “deep insider” of a rather puritanical sect of Judaism (Pharisee), Paul experienced the transforming power of Jesus’ gospel. It reached into the tight knot of his religious convictions with a revolutionary message of universal grace, radical love, and unconditional forgiveness. The knot loosened and Paul was forever changed.

In conscious defiance of religion’s own tendency toward exclusion and “salvation management,” Jesus’ gospel – now conferred to Paul as his appointed “apostle to the Gentiles” – put the invitation out to any and all who would listen. This universal offer and world-wide evangelistic vision, perhaps more than anything else about the early Christian trajectory from Jesus to Paul, contributed to the movement’s dramatic burst on the first-century cultural scene.