Posts Tagged ‘Paul’

EPHESIANS 2:11-22

11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

We have already commented on how the institutionalization of religion makes it into a ‘tower of privilege’, horizontally separating insiders from outsiders and then dividing insiders into vertical ranks of status and power. In first-century Judaism division was built into the very architecture of the temple in Jerusalem. Different ‘courts’ had been created like concentric circles arranged around the inner sanctum of the Holy of Holies, where the presence of God was believed to be most intensely real. The ‘court of the Gentiles’ was farther out from center than the ‘court of Israel’. Among this more privileged company only priests were allowed to minister at the altar, but only the High Priest could enter the holiest place, and then but once a year on the Day of Atonement.

Paul looked upon the dividing wall between Jews and non-Jews as representative of the basic fault-line that runs through the human family worldwide. The habit of dualistic thinking not only divides groups into bigoted and often violent opposing parties, but it alienates us all from the Truth we mistakenly think we possess. In Paul’s view, Christ Jesus broke down the dividing wall – not only the wall in the Jerusalem temple but the one that fractures in two the truth of what we are together, as children of  God.

Advertisements

2 CORINTHIANS 12:2-10

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows.And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me,but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

The apostle Paul was more than merely the first strategist for the mission and expansion of the early church. He was also a “mystic.” We use that term guardedly, since it has become a catchword in our day for so much that is hokey and superficial. Being a mystic has nothing to do with cards or stones or stars, but is instead the name for those whose spirituality is deeply inward and characterized by contemplative prayer, intuitive vision, and union with the Divine.

This is not to say that the visionary experiences of some mystics are altogether rational, for they typically aren’t. Paul’s mystical vision conveyed him into a realm of such mystery that his rational mind and logical vocabulary were effectively paralyzed by its impenetrable glory.

Being “caught up to the third heaven” is a highly poetic and metaphorical way of describing an experience essentially beyond description. In the sacred cosmology (theory of the universe) of Paul’s day, the “third” or (in other views) “seventh” heaven designated the zenith of the firmament, where the throne of God was believed to be.

In other words, Paul is relating an experience of being elevated to the seat of Truth itself. This was a bona fide revelation, a pulling back of the veil of ignorance and belief, which together separate us from the true reality. When the screen is removed or the curtain pushed aside, what we see is unnameable but supremely real.

EPHESIANS 1:15-23

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

As the decades after Jesus rolled on and Christianity shifted paradigms, from a Hebraic-historical to a Hellenic-metaphysical orientation, the work of Christology (the theory and doctrine concerning Jesus as the Christ) became increasingly other-worldly in focus. Earliest (oral) traditions had tried to continue with the social revolution begun in the life and teachings of Jesus, proclaiming human freedom from guilt and debt by a new dispensation of God’s unconditional forgiveness. As time went on, however, as the religio-political system of oppression continued and grew even more sinister, Christians began turning their hope to other dimensions – first to an end-time apocalypse and then to the realm of metaphysics.

The letter to the congregation in Ephesus (Ephesians) was written in the name of Paul, but not likely by the apostle himself. Its language is freighted with Greek metaphysics, where victory over the axis of evil is less an awaited future event (the Jewish expectation) than a current fact, with Jesus (as Christ) presently exalted over every rule and authority and power and dominion. This is obviously a long way from the gospel guerrilla who was crucified for his perceived role in fomenting revolt against Rome, and a good distance also from the apocalyptic messiah who will come again someday soon.

We’re not saying that a metaphysically oriented religion is bad or wrong, by any means, only that this shift from “what’s ahead” to “what’s above” changed the nature of Christianity in a fundamental way. Indeed Jesus’ kingdom movement, announcing the in-breaking power of God through the surrender of faith, the courageous decision to act, and the generous outreach of love, soon was transformed into an institution of ordained leaders, orthodox doctrines, membership rosters, and operating budgets.

With this shift from history to metaphysics, from the temporal urgency of Jesus to the transcendent deity of Christ, from social revolution in the world to individual salvation from the world, it might be said that Christianity lost its way and became a world religion.

NUMBERS 11:24-30

24 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. 25 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

26 Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27 And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28 And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” 29 But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” 30 And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

The later writer of what is known as the Gospel of Luke used this episode from the Book of Numbers as one of three Old Testament sources for his story of Christianity’s charismatic beginnings (Pentecost, Acts 2) – the other sources being the Genesis myth of Babel (Gen 11) and the prophecy of Joel (2:28-29). The common theme throughout is this gift or visitation of God’s spirit on human beings.

There is a tendency in every religion – even in every form of human organization – to eventually erect out of the spontaneous sympathies of communal life a hierarchy of “command and control.” Those who put themselves or are perhaps elected to occupy the pinnacle of this hierarchy inevitably, it seems, begin taking to themselves certain attributes and privileges that separate them from everyone else farther down. In religion especially, we often find individuals trumpeting themselves as divine mediators, high holy reverends whose god-appointed position makes them exceptional.

This passage comes out of a minority report which was critical of what must have been the Old Testament’s equivalent to our pompous evangelical stage performers of today. Moses was the archetype of charismatic liberators: standing against Egypt’s pharaoh, calling down plagues, and ascending the holy mountain to meet with Yahweh, the Sinai warrior deity who rescued the Hebrews and helped them conquer settled villages on their rampage through Canaan.

Moses was a stand-alone leader. He didn’t meet with committees or consult the people in deciding his next course of action. God spoke and he did as commanded, regardless the human cost in victims.  The message: You don’t mess with Moses.

But out of this minority tradition comes a story of a time when Yahweh’s spirit was taken from Moses and distributed among seventy second-tier leaders – seventy-two (a symbolic number throughout near-eastern religions) if we count Eldad and Medad who were not with the group at the time. And we need to count them, for they are what makes the story both controversial and instructive. They were not among the Mosaic Pentecostals when the spirit was parsed out, and yet they were given the ability to prophesy.

                                                                                               

The power to prophesy is not quite the same as the ability to “speak in tongues” (or other known languages) as happened in Luke’s story. And neither is it anything like what confronted the apostle Paul in that Corinthian congregation where individuals began “speaking” ecstatically in a private “language” no one else could understand. In fact, Paul puts his favor on the gift of prophecy over that of ecstasy, since it is something intended for the edification of the community rather than the validation of an individual’s uniqueness.

In the Bible, to prophesy is literally to “speak before” – announcing, predicting, or forecasting something before it happens. This is what Moses had done, and so consistently that it became his identity. He announced the day of liberation (exodus) and spoke to the people of what Yahweh would do with them and through them – or to them, if they didn’t cooperate. Prophets were men and women who reputedly had a god-given ability to foresee what is coming and help people anticipate, prepare, or change their ways so as to avoid it.

This ability can be highly coveted, as you might imagine. The one who can put an ear to the ground or see changes on the horizon of the future is typically someone you want to listen to. Unless he’s a fraud, where he might manage to pick your pockets before you even realize he’s skipped town. To put some controls around this, Christianity (for instance) has tended to elevate prophets to a special status, regulating them with education and ordination requirements even as it venerates them as supernaturally gifted.

So when Eldad and Medad started demonstrating prophetic abilities outside of Moses’ awareness or consent, the lesson was simple: The spirit of God moves of its own will and is not a respecter of titles, reputations, or positions. Just like that, the hierarchy is pulled down and everyone stands equally before God.

EPHESIANS 1:15-23

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

To say that “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead” (and so forth) might lead us to think that the resurrection was the decisive moment when Jesus became Lord and Son of God. Christian orthodoxy insists that he was Son of God since before the beginning, tending to blur even this distinction in its doctrine of Jesus as God. But this wasn’t Paul’s view. Jesus – Christ, Lord, and Savior to use some of Paul’s favorite designations – was not himself God, but rather was “declared” Son of God by the power of his resurrection (see Romans 1:4).

For Paul, everything changed at the resurrection – which wasn’t a mere miracle, but the transforming moment when Jesus was set free, raised up, and granted authority over the nations. Whereas the cross had been the world’s “No” to Jesus, the resurrection was God’s “Yes.” By declaring (which is more than just making an announcement, but making it so) Jesus his Son, God gave warrant to what Jesus had been all about.

The contrast between the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was even more significant to Paul, however, for it wasn’t simply “the world” that rejected Jesus, but the Law that had put him away. The accusation, rationale, and judgment that had sentenced him to die was based on and justified by the Mosaic Law at the heart of Paul’s own religion. Jesus’ kingdom movement had promoted the values of human dignity, liberty and neighborly love over the authority of Tradition, Temple and Torah (Jewish orthodoxy).

The Law wasn’t against these values, we should be clear. But in defending itself – as orthodoxy and empire are wont to do – it forced the condemnation of Jesus, an innocent and truly righteous man of God. For that reason, the merit system of purity and obedience informed by and organized around the Law was nullified, undermined and rendered invalid by its own self-contradiction.

                                                                                                     

It doesn’t appear that Paul was personally familiar with the early history of Jesus and his kingdom movement. Nowhere in his letters does he refer to Jesus’ teachings or notorious way of life. He started out as a “bounty hunter” for Christians, taking them into custody for prosecution. As a Pharisee, Paul (as Saul) was deeply devoted to his religion and upholding its Law. The followers of Jesus broke the Law, or at least didn’t observe it to the extent Paul knew they should, and so they needed to be brought to justice – just as Jesus himself had been.

Tradition has it that the young Pharisee was looking after the cloaks of those who started stoning a Jesus follower named Stephen. As he looked on (with approval, we presume), Paul heard Stephen call to God in his last breath, to forgive those who were taking his life. It may well be that this (admittedly reconstructed) encounter with the kingdom movement in the martyrdom of Stephen impressed Paul in a way he wasn’t yet ready to acknowledge or fully understand. But the seed of revolution was sown.

On his way to find more Christians, the inner tension caused by the polarity of his fanatical devotion to God’s Law and the unconditional forgiveness of Stephen finally “broke” (resolved itself) in the realization that the spirit of Jesus was still alive and active, even after his crucifixion. Although Paul recounts this experience as more like a mystical illumination than a supernatural encounter, the distillation of its significance was symbolized as resurrection.

Perhaps we can state Paul’s transforming experience as simply as this: in a moment that would become the turning-point of his life, Paul understood that God’s love is freely given (grace) and unconditional (forgiveness) – not in some abstract sense, but personally, for him (Paul), the one who had been fighting against this love with all his religious conviction.

Resurrection, then, marked the threshold into a new age. The cross had canceled out the validity of the Law as a way of salvation; now grace, and the trusting response of full acceptance called faith, is the path for everyone – Jews and Gentiles, male and female, saints and sinners alike.

The resurrection is not some miraculous event locked in the past, and it’s not merely something that happened to Jesus. Rather it is that decisive and life-changing moment when a person fully accepts his or her acceptance by God. Love wins.

ROMANS 8:6-11

6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Earlier the point was made that resurrection is different than recovery, revival, or resuscitation, in that it involves not just a “return to life” but a transformation through life to a higher level of freedom, fulfillment, and joy. In myth and literature it is commonly represented metaphorically in the raising of a dead body back to life, but what resurrection symbolizes is much more than a mere miracle.

We also learned that in Hebrew anthropology (view of human nature) the familiar split of body and soul, favoring soul as the real and immortal identity of a person, has no support. (The split and bias towards the soul came into Western thinking from the Greek and oriental cultures.) Hebrew thought regarded “soul” (nephesh) as the temporary and inherently conflicted “agreement” of two more primary things coming together, body (basar) and breath (ruach). These two “things” were later abstracted in Hebrew thought into matter and spirit,”or the material and spiritual principles coming together in and as the living person, or soul.

Paul considered these principles as opposing forces, acting on the personality from “below” (flesh, body, instinct) and from “above” (breath, spirit, wisdom). While the soul (ego, person) is the product of these two forces coming together, it is also where they are experienced as counter-forces pulling the soul in one direction or the other. So Paul would sometimes speak of life “according to the flesh” and life “according to the spirit,” by which he meant two opposite ways of living depending on whether your focus and commitment are on the “lusts” of the flesh or the “gifts” of the spirit.

So, you can give in to the flesh and allow the cravings and lusts of the body to drive your life (to selfishness and ruin, in Paul’s opinion), or you can surrender yourself to the spirit and allow the will and wisdom of God to guide you. Attachment to a life according to the flesh only brings suffering in the meantime, to the extent that its cravings can never be fully satisfied, and catastrophe in the end, since the body must eventually expire. And yet (as Paul sees it) this is where each of us is, until we can open ourselves to the breath (spirit) of God and be filled with new life from above.

We must “die” to the flesh and be “raised” in the spirit. That is resurrection.

EPHESIANS 5:8-14

8 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

“Sleeper, awake!
    Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

The last quoted phrase was likely a piece of baptismal liturgy used in Paul’s mission churches, marking the moment of a new convert’s crossover into New Life. It was a sacrament, not magic, and the ritual was conducted as a way of demonstrating publicly what was happening in the depths of the person.

The dramatic contrast of light and darkness is certainly the most ancient and universal polarity found throughout the world cultures. Its power and attraction is likely rooted in our evolutionary past, when the darkness of night, forest interiors, and storm-laden skies represented dangers our daytime intelligence couldn’t easily detect or comprehend.

Darkness came eventually to represent not only obscurity and potential dangers, but savagery (our earliest predators were probably night-stalkers), chaos and ignorance (since order and distinction are lost in the dark), irrationality and insanity (the moon, Luna, was the inspiration of lunacy), as well as criminal behavior, secrecy, and sin.

The forces, conditions, and virtues associated with the light come to mind intuitively – probably even instinctively: clarity, order, knowledge, enlightenment, rationality, decency, righteousness, rebirth (think sunrise and winter solstice), vision – and by extension, foresight, prophecy, planning and purpose.

Light-and-dark as a polarity is what’s known as an archetype, or First Form, which lies deep in the primitive layers of consciousness and functions as a catalyst for the creative imagination. Insofar as religion is a symbol system that ties the conventional arrangement of life to the primal force and primordial mystery that is life itself, the contrasting interplay of light and darkness can be discerned in its art, mythology, ceremony, and doctrines.

New converts to the Christ movement – we hesitate to call it “Christianity” at this point since it still lacked the internal coherence, widespread agreement, and a centralized authority that eventually developed into the “official” Christian religion – needed confirmation in their dramatic life-change.

Paul exhorted them to dedicate their lives to the good, the right, and the true. While it may sound as if he is pushing for a strong definition of early Christian orthodoxy, Paul is really encouraging these new Christ-followers to become promoters of what is life-affirming and wholesome, advocates for decency and fairness, and seekers after what is genuine, authentic and real.

It’s not about what you believe, so much as how you live. “Christian” is more a verb than a noun.