Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Second Letter to Corinth

My summer travel schedule has put me a bit behind the Westar Institute's 30 Days with Paul reading plan.  I will continue on with Philemon, Philippians, and Romans at my own pace, but first I want to reflect a bit on Paul's Second Letter to his community in Corinth.

Reading 1 Corinthians I was struck by the dualism, and underlying sense of separateness and conflict that engaged Paul so relentlessly.  There were bits of light along the way, but at that point they did not cohere into anything solid.  With 2 Corinthians, that begins to change.

In this letter, Paul still feels separate from the community, and threatened by the appearance of other preachers who apparently want the Corinthian Christians to live by Jewish law in order to be "properly" Christian.  That, however, was not Paul's message, and he pleads with his readers to remember the truth of what he taught them.

The down side?  He nearly drowns those nuggets of truth in a long tirade of self-justification.  To his credit, he justifies his teaching on the basis of his attempt to embody the humility of the crucified Christ in his own experience of hardship and humiliation.  He's on the right track here, I would say, but he's still only beginning to see the truth of Christ's life and message.  He tells his readers that it was 14 years earlier that "someone" was lifted up and given a heavenly vision.  Scholars consider this "someone" to be Paul himself.  And while 14 years may sound like a long time to ponder and digest and make sense of the kind of life-changing revelation Paul received, in the history of the development of new religious movements, it is barely a blink of the Divine eye.  Paul is trying desperately to teach something he barely understands, at least at an intellectual level, to communities that do not have a shared religious vocabulary or worldview.  No wonder he sounds so frustrated!

There is, however, a glimmer of the message Paul tries so desperately to convey to his Corinthian converts.  I find it in these verses:

3:17 -- "...where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom."  In the face of those who would impose the Hebrew Law upon non-Jewish Christians, Paul intuits that there is a freedom to be found in embracing Christ as the embodiment of God.

5:15 -- "...he [Christ] died for all..."  The death of Christ works effectively to bring all persons into a new form of life, if they know this to be true.  No one is left out of the saving work of Christ.

5:19 -- "in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself..."  Again, no part of creation was left out of God's reconciling, I would say unifying, work.

What Paul has not seen yet, or has seen but not yet understood, is that the freedom and the reconciliation are two sides of God's love.  Paul still wants to fence "the community of the saved" with laws and expectations.  He sees other teachers as threats to his own ministry, and to God.  He doesn't yet see that there is no threat to God, and that, in the words of the Lindisfarne Community, all truth is God's truth.  God's love is more than large enough to reconcile all of creation to himself.

At the same time that I was reading this letter, I was coming across statements from other world religions about the essential unity of all persons in Divine Love.  Religions such as Daoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism had been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before Paul's breakthrough revelation.  I see him as groping toward something that requires long years of thought, prayer and struggle to understand and articulate, something that is at the heart of the religious vision: that God's love is neither exclusive nor earned, but given freely to all of God's creatures.  To live in that love, one needs simply to acknowledge and open the gift.  But those who do and those who have not yet are still united by the love God has for them, not separated by the judgments we make about each other.

Christians who root themselves deeply in Pauline writing need to be careful not to stay at a beginner's level of religious understanding.  Paul's fear and self-justification run the risk of creating fearful, self-justifying Christians, even now.  I will be digging into the next few letters, especially Romans, seeking signs of a more nuanced, mature understanding of the Christian revelation.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Paul and the Community in Corinth

The 30 Days with Paul challenge continues from Galatians to the First Letter to the Corinthians.  Blogs on these letters can be found at the Westar Institute site, and at the site presented by my friend and brother, Jack Gillespie, Celtic Odyssey.  There are many useful insights into the Pauline writings at these and other web resources.

I find myself returning to the question of duality in Paul.  It's all over the first several chapters of First Corinthians.  Insiders and outsiders, married or single, believers or not believers.  And if the believers aren't living up to Paul's moral code, "send them off to Satan!"  Wow! I am working very hard to find Good News in here.  Let me point out a few places where I see some light.

6:19 - Do you not know that your body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit within you?  My mom used to use that phrase, "your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit," when I was young.  As a child, it made no sense to me. Now, however, I think of it as the indwelling presence of holiness that connects me in a visceral way to God, and draws me toward body practices like conscious breathing and yoga that help me experience the Divine in a wide range of ways.  Paul limits his scope of concern here to sexual behavior, but I think it has a much wider application.

5:9 - If you try to avoid all sinners in the world, you would need to leave the world completely.  Paul is struggling here to maintain a firm line between sin in the world, which is inescapable, and sin within the community of believers.  Two thousand years later, we must admit that the sin of the world, while redeemed by Christ in his sacrifice of love, has not in fact been removed from among the community of followers.  I would update Paul's statement to say that if you want to avoid all the sinners in the church, you'd need to leave the church as well!

4:5 - Do not judge (others) until God has a chance to offer judgement.  One's inward moral stance may feel authentic and genuine, but we do not know all that God knows -- even about ourselves!  Patience and forbearance are necessary parts of life in community as well as life in the world.

I may, perhaps, see some of these "inside/outside" dynamics differently from Paul because of my efforts to live a secular monastic life, to weave together a contemplative way of living with ministry and activity in the world.  Paul is trying so hard to make life within the nascent Christian community look different and BE different from all else around it, and of course, in some ways it is and should be.  But he reminds me of a child coloring with their crayon so vigorously that the crayon breaks.  The lines need not be as dark as Paul draws them.

I will be traveling for the next week or so, and will most likely not be writing about my readings with Paul.  I will continue on the 30 Day challenge, though, and will look forward to catching up with other followers when I return.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

5 Days with (St) Paul, so far...

The Westar Institute has initiated a 30-day reading plan designed to cover all of the undisputed letters of Paul in the New Testament.  I found out about on the first day, and have been trying to catch up ever since.  Sunday afternoon seemed like a good opportunity to read not only the first few days' worth of Pauline entries, but to see what the Westar blog, along with my dear friend Jack, have been saying in response to the readings.

First, I should say that I have typically focused on the Gospels, particularly as a preacher, and haven't paid close attention to Paul since the one course I had on the Epistles in seminary.  (Anyone out there remember 'Romans to Revelation' at Garrett Evangelical?)  So I took this on as a personal challenge to actually read through these letters in a somewhat systematic fashion.  (As an aside, I'll be travelling mid-month, and will most likely be doing well if I keep up with the readings.  I don't expect to be able to comment on them often.)

Thus far we have read 1 Thessalonians and Galatians, and tomorrow we move on to 1 Corinthians.  That's helpful right there, since we're reading the letters in the order in which current scholarship suggests they were actually written. That allows me to imagine that Paul's thought is developing in response to his own experience of life in faith, as well as in response to the questions he is being asked, or the news he is receiving from the various communities to which the letters are addressed.

What surprises me so far is the degree to which Paul is #1, anxious, and #2, concerned to explain himself more than actually reiterate what he considers to be the Gospel message. While he frequently counsels others to live quiet, restrained lives, his own urgency and anxiety fairly jumps off the page.  A friend who is also following the 30-day plan observed, "He has no idea of what a non-anxious presence might be."    Honestly, I'd rather hear him calmly pointing to Jesus as the model for our lives than to hear him frantically pointing to himself as the model, which is what he mostly does.

Then there's the whole section in Galatians that addresses the dichotomy of "flesh" and "Spirit."  I wish he weren't so polarized in his description here.  Richard Rohr presents Paul as a non-dual thinker, although I suspect Paul comes to a non-dual awareness later in his development.  The best I can do with the "flesh" and "Spirit" section is to posit that Paul saw "flesh" as the working metaphor for limited, self-driven, egoistic awareness, a way of being that could not be open to others, or to God's presence in love, and "Spirit" as the softer, kinder, wider, way of being that allows grace and compassion to lead.  

I'm sure there are other voices that will help me come to a fresh understanding of Paul as this month goes along.  Comments on the 30-day challenge are welcome!