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.

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.

Justification by Grace

My friend and colleague Tom Berg gave a talk during the week about the doctrine of justification by grace. The talk included a passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the subject, in which Bonhoeffer explains why the doctrine is not only consistent with community but explains why Christian community is so important.

This is a doctrine that is spoken about far more frequently by my Protestant friends than by my Catholic ones. And today’s first Mass reading, from the Letter of Paul to the Romans, is oft-cited in those discussions. Paul tells us in today’s passage that all have sinned and all “are justified freely by [God’s] grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus….For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

I confess that I am not totally comfortable with how the doctrine gets expressed and understood by people.

One the one hand, the idea that our ultimate salvation comes from something outside and greater than us – God – is something I have no quarrel with. That is, one way of understanding the doctrine is that it expresses essentially the message of the first Beatitude, which addresses poverty of spirit: it acknowledges our ultimate dependence on God. Our understanding that we can do nothing on our own, but that everything we are and do is through the grace of God.

On the other hand, justification by faith can too easily be twisted to suggest that all one needs to do is express one’s faith in God and one is golden. And that, it seems to me, ignores the message in today’s Gospel from Matthew. Jesus is quite explicit in telling his disciples that “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father.” He goes on to talk about listening to His words AND acting on them.

Faith and words have never struck me as inconsistent. Perhaps one way of expressing that is to say that if one truly has faith, then works will follow. If I have faith in God – if I live with the knowldge of God’s love and grace, then I will naturally do the kinds of things Jesus asks of us in the Gospels, will naturally try to be the hands and feet of Jesus on earth. Undestood that way, works are not a separate requirement for salvation so much as a manifestation of our faith. If, on the other hand, all I do is verbally express my faith, without any change in my behavior, well…then, perhaps my expression of faith is not all that sincere.

That is an understanding of justification by faith I can understand and live by.

The Power of God At Work Within Us

Today’s first Mass reading is a passage in the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians that is a favorite of mine. It is Paul’s prayer for the people of Ephesus. There are two parts of the reading that I sometimes take to prayer.

The first is image of God’s love contained in Paul’s wish that the people “rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with the fullness of God.” I read those words and am filled with the sense of God’s love pervading everything.

The second part is the words of praise contained in the final paragraph of the passage: “Now to him who is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imaging, by the power at work within us, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.” That is the portion of the reading I try to keep in mind, especially when I’m facing something that seems insurmountable.

It is a reminder that we all need – the reminder that we do nothing on our own. When we think we have to do it all on our own, our limits can easily frighten us. But if we can remember that we have more than our own strength and abilities at our disposal, then we can also remember that with the power of God at work within us we can accomplish far more than we could ask or imagine.

What We are Asked to Do in Remembrance of Jesus

Today’s first Mass reading, from the first Letter to the Corinthians, gives us St. Paul’s account of the institution of the Eucharist.

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my Body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my Blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.

Just as St. John’s Gospel gives content to the meaning of “Do this in memory of me,” by including the description of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, the context of Paul’s account of the instituion of the Eucharist also helps us to understand what we are asked to do in Jesus’ memory.

Immediately preceding the passage I just quoted, St. Paul comments on the fact that what, from what he has heard, the meetings of the Christian community in Corinth are doing more harm than good. He tells them that while they might think they are meeting “to eat the Lord’s supper,” they are doing no such thing. Rather, when they gather together, “each one goes ahead with his own supper, and one goes hungry while another gets drunk.” If that is what they are going to do, he suggests, they might as well stay home rather than “show contempt for the Church of God and make those who have nothing feel ashamed.” It is immediately after that criticism that Paul recounts Christ’s actions at the Last Supper, after which he tells the Corinthians, “when you come together to eat, wait for one another.”

Paul’s message is clear. “Do this in remembrance of me” means more than eating and drinking Christ’s body and blood. It means making sure all of our brothers and sisters are fed. If we fail to take care of those in need, our receipt of the Eucharist is no less an act of “contempt for the Church of God” than the actions of the Corinthians.