Posts Tagged ‘unconditional forgiveness’

EPHESIANS 4:25-5:2

25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

What does it mean to be an ‘imitator’ of God? Well, it all depends on whose concept of God you are consulting. In ancient imperial societies where military sovereignty was all the rage, the patron deity of a people was typically imaged as a dread warrior and blood-drunk tyrant. Even after the revolution initiated by Jesus, the so-called Christian civilization that ensued still represented God conceptually in terms of vengeance for sin, condemnation of outsiders and heretics, and justified violence against unbelievers.

If that’s your concept of God, then imitating him is merely a matter of carrying this divine wrath and aggression into the affairs of your daily life. How should you handle the person who has done you wrong? Take God as your model: He couldn’t be appeased until finally His own son was killed and his blood offered up for divine satisfaction. (You may find this language offensive, but that is the prevailing theory in Christian orthodoxy today.)

Jesus revealed God in a new way, not as vindictive and hard to please but as gracious and forgiving. He found this view of God so compelling and inspiring, in fact, that he gave every ounce of his energy and his very last drop of blood in pursuit of its realization in the midst of our dark and violent world. One who is truly a disciple of Jesus is thus also an imitator of the God revealed in his gospel and life. We can forgive others freely, repeatedly, and without conditions because we have been forgiven in the same radical way by God.

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EPHESIANS 1:3-14

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

When we finally see the truth of the equation between the glory of God and the fulfillment of creation, the gospel of Jesus takes on new dimension and power. Upon closer look, we begin to notice how focused he was on awakening the deepest potentialities of the human spirit. His concern was not for doctrinal orthodoxy or ritual purity, but for the full realization of our intended maturity as creatures made in the divine image.

The author of Ephesians believed that in Jesus the Christ, as the glorified New Man, we can see the intended destiny of every human being. We can see the grace of God in the way he lived and loved, laying the path of salvation through the redemptive power of forgiveness. In his willingness to put aside his individual impulse for self-preservation so as to release the creative energy of unconditional forgiveness into the violent and fear-based systems of our fallen world, Jesus revealed what the human being is capable of by God’s grace.

He did everything with a self-transcending reference to what he called ‘the kingdom of God’, which is simply a political metaphor for the depth, power, justice, and joy of genuine community. In following the path of the gospel, we enter more and more into the fullness of our divine potential as human beings. Through our love in community, God is glorified in the highest degree.

PSALM 130

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
    Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
    to the voice of my supplications!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
    Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
    so that you may be revered.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
    more than those who watch for the morning,
    more than those who watch for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
    For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
    and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
    from all its iniquities.

Although David was personally acquainted with King Saul’s corruption, he never asked God to eliminate him from the field, however much simpler and more peaceful that would have made his own life. He understood from experience that God desires faithfulness and full devotion to the purposes we’re called to, but that God also is enough aware of our internal conflicts and external challenges to not expect that we will consistently perform even to a fraction of our capacity. In other words, David knew God to be forgiving, always ready to pick up and try again, to move on and get past the past.

Because God forgives – not conditionally as the reward for genuine repentance, but unconditionally as an act of astounding and undeserved generosity – even old Saul couldn’t be dismissed as beyond hope of redemption. In fact, if we should push this line of thinking to its obvious conclusion, then we would need to restrain our moral impulse to judge the scoundrels and miscreants of the world as worthy only of hell.

God forgives because He perceives the deep and enduring worth in even the most wayward of us. Besides, as the psalmist says, if God should mark iniquities, then who could stand? It’s our tendency to excuse our own sins with a quick reference to the other side of the tracks where others are doing far worse and truly reprehensible things.

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.

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.

ACTS 2:14a, 36-41

14a But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them:

36 “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40 And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

This may be the very point at which early Christianity lost its way. How faithful to the original message and First Voice of Jesus is this exhortation to “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation”? Not close at all! Jesus didn’t proclaim his gospel as a way out, or call on his followers to separate themselves from the world.

And then there’s this: “Repent … and be baptized so that your sins may be forgiven.” In the original gospel of Jesus there was no “so that” – no conditions to be satisfied nor repentance required before God was willing to forgive. His “good news” (gospel) was that it is already done! Forgiveness has been accomplished. God’s love for the world is unconditional, boundless, and preemptive.

So then, why the sudden reversal? How could the revolutionary message of Jesus so quickly get turned into its diametrical opposite – that people still need to be forgiven, and only those who satisfy the conditions against God’s love will be saved (rescued)?

Our clue might be given in this story of Peter’s first “church sermon” during the Jewish feast of Pentecost. Already in the previous chapter a matter of ecclesiastical policy had to be worked out, as a replacement for the traitor Judas needed to be identified and properly installed. The author of Acts (traditionally Luke) wrote the larger narrative in order to give an account of Christianity’s rise from a ragtag band of twelve to the organized religion it would become.

                                                                                                 

How do you get from an itinerant company following the winds of the spirit and going toward human need, to a corporate institution where membership qualifications, a leadership hierarchy, and doctrinal conformity are paramount? The short answer is that you change how you do things.

The fact is, Jesus’ gospel of unconditional forgiveness doesn’t fly well inside a church where there’s no wind. Churches, denominations, and religions are inevitably faced with the challenge of defining the difference between insiders and outsiders. For Jesus there were no outsiders, which made it meaningless to speak of insiders. By opening one’s life to the liberating power of God’s love and living courageously in that freedom for the purpose of liberating others, Jesus would sometimes say that a person “entered” the kingdom of God. But this kingdom has no membership.

It’s not easy for people to get their minds around this concept of community as a spreading organism rather than an enclosed membership, but Jesus repeatedly pushed back on demands that he should set up a board of directors, organize the roster, and publish an orthodoxy. When he died, however, the demands won out and Jesus’ kingdom movement became an established religion.

That’s the sociopolitical explanation, but there is also a psychospiritual one. It has to do with the fact that unconditional forgiveness, genuine community, and a relentless pursuit of human liberation are impossible for our egos to accept. If God has forgiven me without conditions, then in accepting it I will be empowered to do the same on behalf of my enemy. But loving my enemy will require that I let go of my self-definition as the righteous and innocent opponent of my enemy.

The problem is that my ego has no reality underneath these labels of self-definition; it is a pure construct. Letting go is certain death.

To love as Jesus said God loves, and to forgive regardless of whether our enemies see their error and repent, requires too much of us. Who I am must be given up on the cross (released, set aside, transcended) so that a greater love can move through me (resurrection).

Frankly, I’d rather not. Please change the message and compensate me with the salvation I have earned by repenting, getting baptized, and believing the right things.

Thankfully, the Christian Church obliged.

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.

PSALM 118:1-2, 14-24

1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever!

2 Let Israel say,
    “His steadfast love endures forever.”

14 The Lord is my strength and my might;
    he has become my salvation.

15 There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;
16     the right hand of the Lord is exalted;
    the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”
17 I shall not die, but I shall live,
    and recount the deeds of the Lord.
18 The Lord has punished me severely,
    but he did not give me over to death.

19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
    that I may enter through them
    and give thanks to the Lord.

20 This is the gate of the Lord;
    the righteous shall enter through it.

21 I thank you that you have answered me
    and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the chief cornerstone.
23 This is the Lord’s doing;
    it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.

This passage from the Psalms would become one of those privileged texts that early Christians used as  “prophecies” of Jesus. “I shall not die, but I shall live” and mention of a rejected building stone becoming the chief cornerstone are references vague enough to be applied in any number of ways, which is a virtue that makes them readily adaptable to a variety of situations.

The theme of being punished by God was another feature with direct transfer value to early Christian theories of atonement – of how Jesus’ suffering and death was somehow instrumental in world salvation. An assumption that reality is moral in nature is deep in the cultural DNA of ethical monotheism, which is behind the Bible’s heavy accent on obedience, responsibility, justice and equality – but also our perennial struggle with guilt, forgiveness, retribution and punishment in Western society.

For the longest time, and still for a large majority of  believers, “steadfast love” and “punishing severity” were held in tension in the orthodox concept of God. It was not an overt contradiction to regard the same personality (divine or human) as compassionate and merciful one moment, vengeful and punitive the next. This bi-polar tension in theology worked its way out as alternating anxiety and despondency in the human psyche – or perhaps the conflicted human psyche projected this bipolarity into the nature of God.

Still, by the time of the Protestant Reformation (16th century CE) this internal conflict was driving denominational development. Martin Luther’s evident concern over the security of salvation was answered by John Calvin’s doctrines of predestination and the perseverance of the saved. And across all denominations the belief in God’s universal and irresistible grace has run up against the conviction that unrepentant sinners (that is, those able somehow to resist God’s grace) will suffer everlasting punishment.

Jesus would later proclaim a radical revision to this ethical concept of God, with his gospel of unconditional forgiveness. Sadly, Christian orthodoxy buried his teaching under layers of interpretation that effectively canceled out his message and reaffirmed God as a retributive deity who used redemptive violence (in Jesus’ death on the cross) to “save” the world.

 

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.

 

MATTHEW 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way before you.’

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

As the forerunner of Jesus, John the baptist was early on forced into a paradigm shift with respect to how his personal expectations matched up with the living reality of Jesus himself.

John had preached the coming of God’s messiah, who would ring down the curtain on history, bring divine vengeance on a sinful world, and make everything right. What he witnessed instead was a spiritual teacher and activist who called people to the compassionate life, proclaimed the universal and unconditional forgiveness of God, and challenged us to be more concerned with being true (authentic, genuine, real) than being right.

Quietly John dispatched a delegation of disciples to inquire of Jesus whether he was or was not in fact the one they had been stumping for. In reply Jesus simply asked, “What do you see?”

John had been anticipating the end of the age by way of an intervention from outside the world-system, as it were. Sinners would pay, pagan kingdoms would fall, and everything would be put in order once again. Jesus, however, followed a different path because he also had a very different vision of reality.

According to his gospel (“good news”), the New Reality that brings the end of this present age is not breaking in from outside but breaking through from within. His work was to empower the poor, not make them rich; to heal the body, not simply rescue the soul; to restore outcasts to full community and personal value in this life, not simply promise them heaven and beatitude in the next.