The Apostle We Love To Hate

I just finished reading Karen Armstrong’s new book, St. Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate, which was part of my wedding anniversary gift from my husband. (What can I say: 25 years of marriage means he knows me well. Accompanying the book were several goat cheeses.)

This is Armstrong’s second book at Paul. Her first, The First Christian, relied heavily on Acts. In this book, she relies mainly on Paul’s letters. (Throughout the book, she points out differences between Luke’s and Paul’s accounts of the same events.) Acknowledging that there is much we will never learn about Paul, she suggests that “his letters bring him to live and are an extraordinary record of the passions that drove this man to change the world.”

I had a hard time putting this book down once I picked it up. Despite its brevity – it is only 125 pages – I found much here that enriched my appreciation of Paul and his letters. Let me share here just a few comments that I hope will entice you to read the book yourselves.

First, Armstrong does a good job of giving the context of Paul’s various letters. In doing so she reminds us that Paul was speaking to particular audiences in response to specific issues. His letters were never intended to lay down doctrine or guidelines for all Christians for all times. (And in this, I think she effectively combats claims that Paul is misogynist.)

Second, although I had already been aware of the view that certain letters historically attributable to Paul – such as Colossians and Ephesians – were not written by Paul, Armstrong has a helpful discussion of how those letters, in fact, misrepresent Paul’s teaching.

Third, the book does an effective job of creating a cohesive picture of Paul’s theology, a theology premised on the centrality of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the belief that if people “imitated Jesus’s kenosis in their daly behavior…they would experience a spiritual resurrection that brought with it a new freedom.”

Armstrong’s conclusion about Paul is that

Paul has been blamed for ideas that he never preached, and some of his best insights about the spiritual life have been ignored by the churches. His passionate identification with the poor is unheeded by those Christians who preach the Prosperity Gospel. His determination to eradicate the ethnic and cultural prejudices that divide us from one another, his rejection of all forms of “boasting” based on a spurious sense of privilege and superiority, and his visceral distrust of a self-indulgent spirituality that turns faith into an ego trip have not become part of the Christian mindset….Above all, we need to take seriously Paul’s insight that no virtue was valid unless it was imbued with a love that was not a luxurious emotion in the heart but must be expressed daily and practically in self-emptying concern for others.

There have been times I’ve heard words of Paul’s (and, as an aside) Armstrong reminds us that Paul’s letters were meant to be read aloud to people) and wondered what to do with them. This book encourages me to want to spend more time with his letters, aided by the context the book provides.

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Apostle to the Jews and Apostle to the Gentiles

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Sts. Paul. I’ve spoken about each of them in different contexts on many occasions. So for today, I’d like to share with you an excerpt from a reflection on this feast day written by my friend Bill Nolan, Pastoral Associate at St. Thomas Apostle church in Minneapolis.

This reflection appeared in the weekly newsletter Bill sends out reflecting on the Sunday Gospel. Here is what he said about Peter and Paul:

Peter and Paul. Apostle to the Jews and Apostle to the Gentiles. One denied knowing Christ, the other relentlessly persecuted followers of The Way. Each had a tendency to speak first and think second, causing them each some trouble. And while no conclusive statement can be made, there is considerable evidence that they didn’t like each other all that much. Yet there they are, standing watch over the political and spiritual center of Roman Catholicism, some might say all of Christianity. Together.

Each heard God’s call in their life. Each made mistakes in interpreting just how to follow that call. Each lead others, each alienated others. Each had an ego. Each defied labels of conservative or liberal in their own time and continue to defy them today. Each wanted some aspects of tradition protected and each wanted the spreading of the Gospel to progress, unburdened by those elements of tradition which no longer served the message of that Gospel. Each was willing to die for their faith. Each did.

The early Church needed both Peter and Paul in order to survive. It needed the tensions that each brought to the table. It needed their respective visions, warnings, and willingness to forge ahead against considerable odds. It needed their holiness as well as their frailty. It needed their humanity.

And how much more the Church of today needs all of these things. So as we celebrate this weekend the Solemnity of these two proud men, let us look for Peter and Paul in our midst. Let us look for the Peter and Paul in ourselves. And let us be grateful for what each continues to bring to the banquet.

Where do you find Peter or Paul in yourself?

Conversion is Always Possible – For Everyone

Today’s first Mass reading is one of the two accounts of the conversion of St. Paul. And it is a story I never tired of hearing.

Saul is a pretty bad guy. Forget the “pretty” – a really bad buy. He is not harmlessly misguided, not just a slackard with no appetite for serious prayer and deepening his life with God, not just a bumbler who doesn’t have a clear sense of the road forward.

Saul is a murderous persecutor of Christians. He stands by watching Stephen stoned to death because of Stephen’s proclamation of his faith in Christ. At the beginning of today’s first Mass reading from Acts, Saul, “still breathing murderous threats” against Jesus’ disciples, “went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that, if he should find any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might arrest them.

But God doesn’t discard him. Instead, he has great plans for Saul.

And when Saul encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus, he is irrevocably changed. Jesus appears to him, speaks to him, invites him and he becomes a different man. No longer Saul, he is now Paul, “a chosen instrument of [Jesus] to carry [Jesus’] name before Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel.”

If even someone as seemingly beyond redemption as Saul, can be turned from darkness toward the light, how can we doubt the healing power of Jesus? There are some people who have a tendency to think, “It’s too late for me” or “After what I’ve done, God can’t possibly have any use for me.” The story of the conversion of St. Paul is a vivid demonstration of the fallacy of such thoughts. It is never too late for any of us.

Conversion is always possible – for everyone.

The Love That Converts Us

Today is the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle. This is an event with which we are all familiar. Paul (then Saul), a persecutor of Christians, is on his way to Damascus when “a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him.” At that, Saul falls to the ground and hears a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” When he asks who is speaking to him, he hears, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Jesus continues with instructions, which Saul follows.

What is it about the appearance of Jesus that converts Saul from his life of persecuting Christians to becoming one of the great preachers of Christianity. Heather King offers this thought,

Christ never cuts us down with a gun or sword. He looks at us with love….He looks us in the eye with love and says, “Why are you persecuting me?”

To be forgiven when we know we don’t “deserve” to be forgiven is radically transformative in a way violence can never be. To be forgiven does another kind of violence: to our whole tit-for-tat notion of crime and punishment. To be forgiven makes us realize that, unbelievable as it may seem, God needs us for something. We have a mission.

In Jesus words, Paul hears, not condemnation, but love and forgiveness. And in that look and voice of love and forgiveness is invitation – invitation to conversion, to transformation. Invitation to mission.

As it was for Paul, the invitation is there for each of us.

Sharing Not Only the Gospel, But Ourselves

Today’s second Mass reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians describes Paul’s behavior toward the Thessalonians. It is behavior that stands in sharp contrast to the behavior of the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus criticizes in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew.

The scribes and Pharisees “tip up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulder, but they will not lift a finger to move them.” They take places of honor everywhere they go, clearly viewing themselves as separate and above everyone around them. There is no sense of any relationship between them and the people to whom they preach.

In contrast, Paul describes his behavior as like that of a nursing mother caring for her children, citing his determination “to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us.” Instead of the burden placed on the scribes and Pharisees, Paul describes “working night and day in order not to burden any of you.”

We can contrast two ways of preaching the Gospel. One is to preach words, words that tell others what to do, without any thought of those to whom we speak or their needs. The other is to “share not only the Gospel, but ourselves,” seeing those to whom we preach – by our words and deeds – as our dearly beloved.

I think it is pretty clear which Jesus prefers.

No Longer I, But Christ

Among the lines in St. Paul’s letters that I love is one that comes from Galatians, where Paul says, “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.” It is a line I’ve written about before (for example, here).

The other day I read a beautiful passage from Max Lucado’s Next Door Savior that does a wonderfully elucidates those words of Paul’s. What would it be like, asks Lucado, to have Christ within? He writes

To have my voice, but Him speaking
My Steps, but Christ leading
My heart, but His love beating
in me, through me, with me
What’s it like to have Christ on the inside?

To tap His strength when mine expires
or feel the force of heaven’s fires
raging, purging wrong desires
Could Christ become my entire self?

So much Him, so little me
that in my eyes it’s Him they see
What’s it like to a Mary be?
No longer I, but Christ in me.

Although the entire passage is phrased only as a question, and not the answer to the question, I think prayerful reading of the passage does, in fact, give something of an answer. The words, and the feelings they evoke, give us an experience of what Paul was talking about.

It does a good job, I think, in expressing what it is that we seek – to allow it to be Christ and not me animating my being, more and more each day.

Peter and Paul

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul. Although each of St. Peter and St. Paul have other days associated with them (e.g., Chair of St. Peter, Conversion of St. Paul), today we celebrate the two together.

Why? One was a disciple during the life of Jesus, the other was converted after his resurrection. One went from fisherman to disciple, the other went from persecutor of Christians to discipleship. And we know from Acts that they sometimes disagreed quite strenuously with each other.

But it may be that it is that last that makes it so appropriate that we celebrate the two together. They disagreed, but their disagreements did not tear them apart. And in that, they are a wonderful model for us.

Calling ourselves Christians does not mean we will always see eye to eye on everything. There will be disagreements, and some of those disagreements will be quite serious. But the invitation is to remain united in spite of our diversity, in spite of our disagreements.

That is not always easy. In fact, sometimes it is downright difficult. Yet Peter and Paul remind us that it is possible. That our commitment to Christ is stronger than our disagreements. Let us draw strength from their example.