We are gathered here in a Christian church as participants in a Christian memorial service to honor the life of Richard, a man who said that he did not believe in God. What right have we to do this? It would certainly be an affront to his memory were we, by this service, to deny him the right to have been the man he was. We cannot pretend or even suggest that he really was somehow, despite his insistence to the contrary, a Christian believer. Indeed, it would be a scandal if we who claim to honor Richard’s memory did not allow him, by his unbelief, to call into question our Christian belief.
Paul is the New Testament figure that many Christians love to hate. To gain a new hearing for the apostle, Beverly Roberts Gaventa, professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, offers a new way to think about him: by means of his mothering imagery.
The Jews of Jesus’ time, the preacher intoned, were slavishly devoted to the practices of their ancestors. They studied scripture but did not apply it. Their temple was “rotten to the core.” Ancient Judaism was a religion whose rituals were “impressive, inspiring and empty.” It was a faith preoccupied with the superficial and lacking in substance.
When I read the lectionary texts for this week, I was disappointed. Give me texts of David sinning, Amos raging against the “cows” of Bashan or Jesus again in trouble for loving outcasts. These I can run with. But don’t give me Paul always confident, walking by faith and not sight, apparently really feeling he’d rather be at home with the Lord than in his body, regarding no one from a human point of view.
For many people the phrase “Paul and politics” refers to nothing more than Romans 13 and the common conclusion that Paul was basically a conservative supporter of government as a divinely appointed institution.
To be a Christian is to suffer like the Lord. Or so St. Paul thought. Or so Michael Gorman thinks Paul thought. If there is a unifying theme to this nearly 700-page “introduction” to Paul, it is the cruciform shape of the apostle’s thought, which is also the pattern for Christian life.
Christians tend to compare their personal conversion experiences to Saul’s encounter on the road to Damascus. Not all of us, of course, talk freely about what happened in us and to us on the way to becoming Christian. Our levels of comfort with such talk vary widely depending on our congregational culture, our notions of evangelism and our ability to be self-revelatory. But when we do think about that journey, and when we’re willing to talk about it, we say that our conversion was—or was not—a Damascus Road. We tell our young people that their experience does not need to be a Damascus Road experience, although it can be. There are many paths of Christian transformation—and the light from heaven is only one of them.
It was a sad day in the history of the church when Paul’s statement about being “all things to all men” first came to be seen not as a call to diversity but as a claim of versatility. St. Paul the Jewish apostle to the gentiles turned into Reverend Paul the Jack of all trades.