I don’t know if you remember a hilarious sketch by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in which they imagine a family of early Christians huddled around a table eating breakfast. In dashes a messenger bearing a letter from St Paul. “What does it say”? they excitedly ask. He reads it out:
“Dear George and Deirdre and family, Stop having a good time, resign yourself not to having a picnic and cover yourself with ashes. Till further notice. Signed Paul “
I wonder if we don’t all harbour somewhere in our hearts a little of this attitude to Paul? Certainly I used to. Although educated in Catholic schools and brought unfailingly to weekly Mass, I effectively knew nothing about him until many years later. Before the reforms of the second Vatican Council in the early sixties the reading of scripture was strongly discouraged and the idea of opening the New Testament at home never occurred to me. As I recall, I felt Paul was someone the “Protestants” got worked up about but that, because we Catholics had the Mass and the true sacraments, we had no need to read the Word of God.
Then one day in my early thirties (I no longer remember why) I began to read the epistles. They were spellbinding. There and then Paul grabbed me by the throat.
How did he manage this? Because he spoke with authority. Here was someone whom knew, who wasn’t merely speculating or relying on what others had said. This was a man with a well of living knowledge within him. I did not then know, incidentally, that many of the epistles were not of course written by Paul himself, but that has never seemed to make any difference – they all speak with an authenticity that is overwhelming.
As I look back I see that it was above all Paul who brought about a sort of Copernican revolution in my spiritual outlook, a reversing of the poles.
I’m sure this sudden discovery of the scriptures was not an uncommon occurrence in Christians of my generation, yet its effect was profound. We were brought up with a legalistic understanding of the faith which, in simple terms, left us with the belief that if we followed the rules we would earn our ticket to Heaven. But this is of course is totally false. We are utterly incapable of earning our salvation – only the Holy One of God can do that, and has in fact already done it. I have no holiness but that of Jesus. I am the branch not the vine. Here is Paul:
“If we have been united with him in his death we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with…” Romans 6:5.
Paul is saying that he has dealt with sin by sending his son.
Astonishing words, really. We get to heaven by holding on to Jesus! By believing in Him. It is the act of believing what God has done for us through the death and resurrection of his Son that makes the work of Jesus effective in us. It is really the opposite of what I always believed.
So my spiritual life was turned upside down: we must do good not in order to be saved because we have been saved. Stupendous words which I need to repeat to myself every day. I owe this to Paul.
I know of course that many accuse Paul of flatly contradicting our ideas that (quite rightly) stress equality, particularly gender equality. At first glance Paul does indeed appear sexist! It is certainly true that his comments in Ephesians reveal him to be a man of his time in stressing the view that the husband is the head of his wife. However, he is utterly ground-breaking in the following:
“Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her “ Eph 5:25.
In this he is centuries ahead of his time and it is especially extraordinary given the intensely patriarchal nature of Jewish society.
There is no space here to examine in any depth his social teaching but we need to remember that for Paul, time was desperately short (as it is for us!) – there was so much to be done and the Lord could return at any day. This surely colours many of his statements on social matters such as his advice that it is better not to marry!
But what of the notion that Paul was really out to stop us enjoying ourselves?
Even a superficial reading of the epistles will reveal that there is an overwhelming sense of joy in Paul:
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again rejoice!” Philippians 4:4.
And even when he rebukes there is the sense of enormous compassion. Listen to this:
“As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.” (1 Thessalonians 6-8). A mother caring for her little children! How reminiscent is this of Jesus’ reference to his own wish to gather the children of Jerusalem as a mother hen gathers her chicks!
It is impossible to overestimate his influence of Paul on the course of history over the last 2000 years. And his core message is one of peace and joy and hope:
“but because of his great love for us God who is rich in mercy made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions- it is by grace that you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4)
One incident however, more than any other, convinces me that Paul was an apostle of joy and love – that he wanted us to be happy in this life as well as the next. One of the most profoundly moving passages in scripture occurs when Paul is saying farewell to the elders of Ephesus on the shoreline at Miletus (see Acts 20:13). He tells them he is going to Jerusalem and that they will never see his face again. They were so overcome with sorrow that they wept and embraced and kissed him. You can almost see them clinging on to him – the scene is so vivid! And so heart-breaking. This is surely proof, if it were needed, of the deep love that the communities had for Paul.
He was not there to spoil their fun but to bring them, and us, the message of eternal life.