Dec. 5, 2021
There’s an author I like who was recently interviewed in The Christian Century magazine. The question concerned this author’s particular distaste for scholarly attempts to assemble a systematic theology of Paul from the various letters attributed to him in the bible. The problem in doing that, he argues, is that it ignores who Paul was as an evangelist, what he did in planting churches around the Roman empire, and how each of those churches experienced different needs and different challenges, which called for different pastoral responses. The letters of Paul that we have are all highly contextual and to distill a theology from them apart from the unique circumstances that inspired their writing is to make them less applicable, less real, and less true to a God whose whole m.o. is incarnation; that is, a God who is revealed in the mess of life, and not above and beyond it or in some theoretical realm.
Generally, it’s probably not a great preaching move to begin a sermon with an argument that church members likely don’t care much about. But, I’ve done that this morning because 1. We don’t often focus on Paul or his letters, and 2. The author’s concern is an important one, whether we know it or not.
My New Testament professor at Yale was a man named Leander Keck. By the time of my arrival he had achieved as much academic renown and respect as any professional scholar might hope for. I’ll spare you all the accolades, but I tell you this because it makes what I’m about to say all the more meaningful, in my opinion. He used to give these remarkably profound and moving lectures. Often they would end in spontaneous ovations from the 100 or so students seated in the auditorium. It didn’t matter which book of the New Testament he was teaching either. His capacity to convey the truths of scripture was powerful, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that on occasion those ovations were also colored with tears. When asked how he stays so inspired after all these years (and all that he had accomplished) he offered a response that has remained with me long after any of his lectures. He said, “Every time I open scripture I’m reminded of the miracle that I hold in my hands.” He was holding the sacred messages of an eternal God. He was holding divine inspiration spoken through the mouths of real people from ancient times passed from generation to generation all the way down to us so that we might pass it along to those who come after us so that they too might learn to discern something of a grace greater than any mind might hold.
Inspiration! I think that’s what’s at stake for the guy in the Christian Century who was so concerned about how we read the writings of Paul. Let’s not make Paul a theology. Let’s not make him abstract and theoretical. Let’s make him a man of faith talking to people, planting churches in real and foreign lands, for men and women whose lives we can only glimpse but who like us and anyone else who has ever lived needed to know that there’s more – more meaning, more purpose, more hope, more life – than what the world and its ways often offer.
We’re learning to pray the scriptures in our Monday night book group, and so that’s what I was doing with this Philippians passage when I was struck not so much by the reality of Paul’s message, but by the reality of his life. It was the word “imprisonment” that made the passage come alive. You might miss it or think nothing of it because it’s kind of tucked away and because Paul doesn’t dwell much on it. But, the reality is that he is writing to these Philippians from prison. He literally doesn’t know if he will live or die. I’ve read that Nero, the Emperor at the time, was known for throwing garden parties with light from Christians burning at the stake. It’s likely, in fact, that Paul was afforded the courtesy of a beheading – rather than a crucifixion – because of his citizenship as a Roman. But, it’s also likely that his execution didn’t happen until a decade or so after this particular imprisonment that we find him experiencing in Philippians. So, he wrote under the weight of uncertainty with death’s very real threat before him. And, what he said to this small group of Christians in Philippi despite the peril he faced hits me as being just remarkably generous and outward looking, so stunningly unencumbered by self, and inspiringly free for the expression love.
“I thank God every time I remember you.”
“I constantly pray for all of you with joy.”
“I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ.”
“I pray that your love may overflow more and more so that you may know what is best.”
It is a unique kind of power, it seems to me, on display in Paul’s words. If you read the rest of the letter you’ll see the words “joy” and “rejoice” repeated multiple times. It’s likely that his confinement was the result of a miraculous healing that he performed for a young girl in Jesus’ name. Injustice, therefore, is part of the misery of his setting, yet in it he has real joy, and love to give, and a longing that others might know the gift of his God. (He’s even managed to bring some of his jailors to faith.)
Now, this is not to say that he didn’t also know anguish. There are places in the letter that sound like concern and places in other letters that indicate real despair. So, what I’m NOT saying is that Paul is a hero for burying his pain. What I’m saying is that Paul knew God’s love as a truth more powerful than any circumstance he might face, and that truth inspired his life so that he might live it fully and in ways that tied him inextricably to God’s movement and God’s “more” for the world beyond himself.
Not always to my liking, the middle two Sundays of Advent – regardless of the year – always focus on John the Baptist. Sometimes it feels like an overdose to me, especially as we’re supposed to start feeling the inspiration of Christmas time coming. But, these kinds of challenges can be good for us, and as we hear John telling us to “prepare the way” again, part of his message is most certainly that God arrives in unexpected places – maybe even in the passages we think we’ve already exhausted.
Luke begins, “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius,” (whatever he was like!) “when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee,” (okay, we know a little about them,) “when Philip was ruler of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,” (we have no clue about these people and so we start skimming because the rest of these people and places mean very little to us as well and we just want to get to the point.) But, they matter to Luke. He names 7 dignitaries – 7 people of power in important places – and the word of God comes to exactly none of them. Instead, it comes to a guy named John out in the wilderness.
I’m used to thinking of the wilderness in scripture as a place of chaos, an untamed and unsafe place, the place where Jesus is tempted by the devil before entering his ministry. As I’ve thought of it in relation to John in the past his wilderness location is just a part of his eccentricity, like his camel hair shirt and locust diet. But, how about this for a thought: the wilderness is a place removed from the trappings of the world, unencumbered by human assumptions about the way power works, or who matters most, or what success looks like. Rev. Willie Francois writes, “The wilderness setting exists independent of imperial power, market values, and religious hegemony.” It is a chaotic place in the sense that being unencumbered by humanity’s systems it’s available to the wildness of God and God’s utter goodness beyond what the world presents. Francois continues, “The people beat a path to nowhere with John to find themselves, to hear something that elevates their sense of self and of God. Away from the trappings of the society that has poisoned their thinking and contaminated their spirits, John fills the airways of the wilderness with a voice of personal and social liberation. The contagious movement of life transforms a wilderness into a sanctuary.”
It seems to me like it can’t be too difficult for any of us to relate to the crowds who followed John out into that nowhere. When life seems to move for many of us at the speed of light and when keeping up with all its demands is a relentless requirement, how could you not want the wilderness space for something different? Or, when the world tells you that you are valuable in as much as you earn or produce how could you not feel threatened or defensive and wanting instead for some kind of sanctuary? Or, when there’s so much out there that feels wrong or misguided or troubling or broken, how could you not find hope in a voice that calls you to a place where there’s room for something holy?
As Francois says, we all need an “elsewhere, a place where we go to be ourselves radically, to laugh full-bellied laughs, to affirm our imperfections as narrow windows into our widening humanity.” “We need a place where we can breathe freely and act authentically.” “We need God-saturated places!”
So, how’s this sound: In the 22nd year of the twenty-first century, when Joseph Biden was president of the United States, and Ned Lamont was governor of Connecticut, and Vicki Tesoro was First Selectman for the town of Trumbull, and John Dorhauer was President and General Minister of the UCC, the word of God came to the Trumbull Congregational Church! And, it is there that people found God’s unconditional love. It’s there that they found a truth that would sustain them for life. It’s there they learned to live that truth in a way that brought them out of themselves and into the “more” of God’s work in the world.
I think it sounds pretty good. I think the Apostle Paul would think so too. I’m pretty sure that’s why he spent so much time traveling the world and bringing people together as church.