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Faith, Hope, and Love: One in Christ – Paul’s Letters and Theology (I Corinthians and Galatians)
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"For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." – Galatians 3:26-28
Paul’s Letters – Undisputed and Disputed
As Paul traveled on his missionary journeys through the Mediterranean, spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ, he founded—or with help from fellow missionaries—co-founded quite a number of Christian communities. Once Paul planted any one such gathering (church—in Greek ekklesia—simply means “gathering” or “assembly” and is modeled on the word for synagogue, which also means gathering or assembly) of followers of Jesus, he moved on to plant others. But to stay in touch with the communities of faith that he had helped establish, Paul wrote letters—epistles—to them, not only to stay in touch, but also to continue forming them in faith during his physical absence. Paul’s letters were part of a vibrant tradition of letter writing in the ancient world. We have a body of important letters from Cicero, Pliny the Younger, Ovid, and Seneca, and from examining those one can tell that Paul’s letters lie well within the form—and to a certain extent the purpose—of many of these ancient letters. The usual form of Paul’s letters includes the following sections:
A greeting that names the writer and those written to;
A section of exhortation or admonition—in Greek, parakalo;
A section of thanksgiving—in Greek, eucharisto;
Modern scholars all agree about the authenticity of certain letters that bear Paul’s name in the New Testament, while disputing with one another about the remainder. All agree that Romans, 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1st Thessalonians, and Philemon come from the pen of Paul. Some scholars believe that Colossians, Ephesians, and 2nd Thessalonians were also written by Paul. Virtually all modern scholars contend that 1st and 2nd Timothy, as well as Titus, did not come directly from the hand of Paul, but from later writers who admired Paul, and were writing in his name to carry on and extend his teaching.
Some Themes in Paul’s Letters – Faith, Hope, and Love – and Oneness in Christ
As one reads the letters of Paul, certain themes crop up over and over, and it becomes clear that these lie at the heart of Paul’s concerns. We will tackle a few of these themes this week, and others (the Law, freedom in Christ, the Cross, the Resurrection) next week.
There are two great strands of meaning embedded in the English word faith. The first strand is more a matter of intellect, and revolves round a set of affirmations to which one gives one’s consent. A synonym for this might be belief(s). The second strand of meaning contained in the word faith has to do with complete trust or confidence placed in someone or something, and so is more a matter of relationship and heart.
For Paul, faith has to do with the trustworthiness of God before it has to do with any movement of head or heart on our part. As a good Jew, Paul looks back to the salvation history of his people, and the covenants that God has made with them, as the foundational experiences by which God has shown the utter trustworthiness of the divine commitment to God’s people. Even when the people of Israel broke their side of the covenant, God remained faithful to them. These covenants were forged with individuals and groups of people, and often in challenging times, or eve times of crisis. The covenant with Noah after the flood, the covenant with Abraham, and the covenant with Moses at Sinai are all part of what Paul looks back to when he speaks about faith as a relationship of trust established between God and God’s people.
But Paul’s looking back to the Holy One’s covenanted faithfulness to God’s people does not stop with these ancient covenants. Paul believes that God has offered a new means of covenant, by making a new and decisive offer of relationship through Jesus the Messiah, and through him, has offered to all peoples—and not just the Jewish people—a new and trustworthy covenant. To come into covenant relationship with Jesus begins by hearing the proclamation of the Good News about him, which can be summed up in one brief phrase: Jesus is Lord. This is good news for two reasons. First, it means that Jesus—not the Roman Emperor—is Lord of all. And second, it means that through a trusting relationship with Jesus one can become an inheritor of all that God—as Ruler of the Universe—has to offer, including love, forgiveness, community, and the hope of life beyond death. This relationship of trust in God through Jesus the Christ is shaped and developed, deepened and known in one’s bones not so much as an individual, but through becoming a member with others in the ekklesia, the gathered Body of Christ, that we call church in English.
What convinces the believer—the one who puts his/her trust in Jesus the Christ—that God is trustworthy and true is the experience of love within the Body of Christ, the church. Experiencing that the same love which God poured into the world and was embodied in Jesus is still alive and flourishing in life-giving ways in the community of faith: this is what convinces the believer that s/he has come home to a trustworthy community in the midst of the vagaries of life. It is within the ekklesia that the love of God is experienced in multiple ways. It is experienced in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that bestows various palpable gifts among the members of the Body: leadership, teaching, prophecy, miracles, healing, unselfish help of others, administration, and speaking in tongues. It is experienced in the humility of one member not puffing him or herself up as greater than another. It is tasted in the shared food of the Eucharist. This sort of love is felt in patience and kindness; the absence of jealousy or boastfulness; in members not being arrogant or rude with one another; in the absence of irritability and resentfulness among fellow believers; in its power to bear and hope, and endure all things. This love is not romantic. It is not biological or familial. It is not even about friendship. It is nothing short of divine love, which in Greek is expressed through the word agape. A short definition for this sort of love would be: love that has “no strings attached” and that wants the best for the beloved. (see I Corinthian 12-13)
For Paul, hope has to do with the ultimate triumph of God over all that is opposed to God and God’s ways. Among the things that God will overthrow in the Last Day are: sin, and all forms of brokenness and separation; illness; death itself. When all things are brought to their end at the eschaton, God will subsume all things under the rule of Christ, and then Christ will give all things up to the rule of God. (I Corinthians 15, and I Thessalonians 4-5.) The destruction of sin and death, and the triumph of God’s goodness in giving life to all who have put their faith in Christ, are the final things for which a Christian is to hope. To be able to hope in these things as the promised final end of everything also makes it possible for members of the Body to endure whatever is broken by sin and death in the meantime. In Paul’s own life, this meant that hope in God’s trustworthiness allowed him to endure the many trials and tribulations of his life: prison, shipwreck, persecution, being put on trial, and eventually martyrdom.
Oneness in Christ
Last week, we touched upon the passionate commitment Paul had to welcoming everyone into the Body of Christ, no matter what their religious background. But Paul was also unwaveringly committed to making sure that his communities welcomed people from every walk of life: slave or free, Greek or Jew, male or female. (Galatians 3:26-28) No matter what religious background; no matter what gender; no matter what socioeconomic status: all are one in Christ, and equal heirs of Christ’s kingdom of life eternal with God.
There were several barriers that Paul condemned as contrary to this oneness in Christ. The two greatest barriers he tackled are: insistence on keeping the entirety of the Jewish Law as a prerequisite for becoming a member of the Body of Christ (see Galatians 3); and the arrogance of the wealthy lording it over the poorer members of the community, as evidenced in selfish behavior at the communal meal, the Eucharist embedded in a communal feast often called an agape meal (see I Corinthians 11:17-34).
The divisions that Paul observed in his own communities continue to plague us as Christians down to this day, if in somewhat different forms. If we are truly to be one in Christ, then there is much work for us in breaking down the many walls that separate us. One of my favorite prayers form The Book of Common Prayer begs that God help us in breaking down these many barriers. Perhaps together with me, you could pray this prayer throughout the coming weeks, as we move towards the defeat of sin on the Cross and the triumph of God’s goodness and life at Easter.
For the Human Family (BCP, p. 815)
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us
through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole
human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which
infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us;
unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and
confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in
your good time, all nations and races may serve you in
harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ
our Lord. Amen.
– The Rev. Bill Rich
“The Conversion of St. Paul” – John Keble (1792-1866)
The mid-day sun, with fiercest glare,
Broods o'er the hazy twinkling air:
Along the level sand
The palm-tree's shade unwavering lies,
Just as thy towers, Damascus, rise
To greet you wearied band.
The leader of that martial crew
Seems bent some mighty deed to do,
So steadily he speeds,
With lips firm closed and fixed eye,
Like warrior when the fight is nigh,
Nor talk nor landscape heeds.
What sudden blaze is round him poured,
As though all Heaven's refulgent hoard
In one rich glory shone?
One moment--and to earth he falls:
What voice his inmost heart appalls? –
Voice heard by him alone.
For to the rest both words and form
Seem lost in lightning and in storm,
While Saul, in wakeful trance,
Sees deep within that dazzling field
His persecuted Lord revealed,
With keen yet pitying glance:
And hears time meek upbraiding call
As gently on his spirit fall,
As if th' Almighty Son
Were prisoner yet in this dark earth,
Nor had proclaimed His royal birth,
Nor His great power begun.
"Ah! wherefore persecut'st thou Me?"
He heard and saw, and sought to free
His strained eyes from the sight:
But Heaven's high magic bound it there,
Still gazing, though untaught to bear
Th' insufferable light.
"Who art Thou, Lord?" he falters forth:-
So shall Sin ask of heaven and earth
At the last awful day.
"When did we see Thee suffering nigh,
And passed Thee with unheeding eye?
Great God of judgment, say!"
Ah! little dream our listless eyes
What glorious presence they despise,
While, in our noon of life,
To power or fame we rudely press. -
Christ is at hand, to scorn or bless,
Christ suffers in our strife.
And though heaven's gate long since have closed,
And our dear Lord in bliss reposed,
High above mortal ken,
To every ear in every land
(Though meek ears only understand)
He speaks as he did then.
"Ah! wherefore persecute ye Me?
'Tis hard, ye so in love should be
With your own endless woe.
Know, though at God's right hand I live,
I feel each wound ye reckless give
To the least saint below.
"I in your care My brethren left,
Not willing ye should be bereft
Of waiting on your Lord.
The meanest offering ye can make -
A drop of water--for love's sake,
In Heaven, be sure, is stored."
O by those gentle tones and dear,
When thou hast stayed our wild career,
Thou only hope of souls,
Ne'er let us cast one look behind,
But in the thought of Jesus find
What every thought controls.
As to Thy last Apostle's heart
Thy lightning glance did then impart
Zeal's never-dying fire,
So teach us on Thy shrine to lay
Our hearts, and let them day by day
Intenser blaze and higher.
And as each mild and winning note
(Like pulses that round harp-strings float
When the full strain is o'er)
Left lingering on his inward ear
Music, that taught, as death drew near,
Love's lesson more and more:
So, as we walk our earthly round,
Still may the echo of that sound
Be in our memory stored
"Christians! behold your happy state:
Christ is in these, who round you wait;
Make much of your dear Lord!"
“In Christ there is no East or West” – sung by Mavis Staples (1939-)
“St Paul” – El Greco (1541-1614) - See Above
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