Why Paul Matters: On Following Jesus in the Shadows of 21st Century Empire

Why Paul Matters: Following Jesus in 21st Century Empire

David Hottinger
Mayflower Church, June 17, 2012

Reading: II Corinthians 5-6

Hmm…I am not sure whose idea it was to have a series on Paul here at Mayflower. In many progressive Christian circles today, the very mention of Paul is met with a collective groan of frustration if not outright contempt.

When I told several liberal-leaning colleagues that I had been invited to preach on Paul, one of them said, “Ugh, that guy took Jesus’ message of love and inclusion and turned it into a mess of condemnation.”

For a number of years, I would have probably said something similar. During my childhood in a more theologically conservative tradition with deep roots in Appalachia, I  remember hearing more Paul than Jesus. And the Paul I heard didn’t seem to like Jews, wanted women to remain silent in the church, and had some big hang ups about sex.

By high school, when I was searching for a Christian faith that allowed me to use my mind as well as fire my heart, Paul seemed more and more like the kind of religious zealot I wanted to avoid becoming: narrow-minded, dour, body-denying, world-loathing.

Well, over the years as I went on to study theology and my own spiritual path unfolded, I found it impossible to get around dealing with Paul. The progressive Biblical scholars, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan list a few of the reasons that it is hard for a Christian to ignore him.

First, there is the sheer volume of material either written by Paul or attributed to him in the New Testament – 13 of its 27 books.

Second, most scholars agree that Paul was the one chiefly responsible for expanding the Jesus movement beyond the borders of first century Judaism. In essence, all of us non-Jews have Paul to thank for the fact that we are sitting here this morning.

Third, Paul’s influence on the history of Christian theology and practice especially in the West, is enormous. From Augustine in the 5th century to Luther and Calvin in the 16th to John Wesley in the 18th to Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonheoffer, and Paul Tillich in the 20th, the writings of Paul have shaped much of the Church’s theology, particularly Protestant theology.

That is not to deny that teachings attributed to Paul have been used in Christian history to justify evil practices, including the subordination of women, the oppression of sexual minorities, the existence of slavery, blind obedience to unjust rulers, and the persecution of the Jewish people.

I agree, however with scholars like Borg and Crossan, who argue that to throw out Paul because of things done in his name would be a profound mistake.  In fact, as I have grappled with Paul again in recent years, I have come to believe that Paul’s writings and witness from the first century Roman Empire have much to teach those of us trying to walk in the Way of Jesus in the American Empire of the 21st.

This morning I want briefly to highlight five things that I believe Paul has to say today to those of us trying to follow in the Way of Jesus as progressive people of faith.


First a short word about Paul’s life. Paul was roughly a contemporary of Jesus, probably born in the first decade of the first century and died sometime in the 60’s. Unlike Jesus, who grew up in the Palestinian Jewish countryside, Paul was from Tarsus, a thriving, cosmopolitan city in what today is southern Turkey. Jesus spent his whole life in the Jewish homeland while Paul hailed from the Jewish Diaspora – the significant communities of Jews who were scattered throughout the Roman Empire.

Paul was a faithful Jew, a member of the Pharisees which was a movement dedicated to being as zealous and on-fire for God as possible. Even after his conversion to the Jesus Way, Paul did not understand himself as founder of a new religion called Christianity but as a prophetic reformer within 1st century Judaism.

Paul first shows up in Acts 7, several years following Jesus’ execution. Stephen, a Jesus follower, is being killed by stoning for his inflammatory and seditious claim that Jesus was the Messiah. We hear of Paul – then known as “Saul of Tarsus” approving of this persecution of the Jesus movement, which to Paul would have looked like blasphemous nonsense.

As a faithful Jew, Paul was waiting for the Messiah who would liberate Israel from her Roman captivity and inaugurate God’s reign of justice. Clearly, this Jesus of Nazareth who died on a Roman cross was an imposter, and his followers were leading the Jewish people astray..

Then Acts 9 tells the story of this same Saul having a profound experience of transformation about three-to-five years following Jesus’ death when he encounters the risen Christ near Damascus. That encounter changes him from Saul the persecutor of the Jesus Way to Paul the apostle of Jesus, especially to the non-Jewish world.

This divine revelation rocked Paul to his core and became the defining moment in his life. For the next 25 years, Paul travels by foot and by sea over a huge portion of the eastern Roman Empire, mostly in Greece and Asia Minor to cultivate small, communities of Jesus followers. He ends up in Rome finally where he was probably executed in the early 60’s.

Paul’s letters – written in the 50’s – are the earliest books of the New Testament.

Most mainstream scholars agree that Paul’s letters fall into one of three categories. The first are the seven letters definitely written by Paul: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon. The second category is the three letters most certainly not written by Paul (but attributed to him as was a common practice in antiquity): 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus which were probably written around the year 100.  Into the third category fall the letters about which there is no scholarly consensus about authorship: Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians.


So what does Paul have to say to those of us today, trying to make sense of what it means to follow in the Way of Jesus in 21st century, superpower America?

I want to start by quoting Michael Gorman, a New Testament scholar who has noticed the similarities between Paul the Apostle and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Like Dr. King, Paul knew himself to be commissioned by God to preach and live a socially and politically charged message that

  • Focused on the justice of God
  • Called for the inclusion of outsiders in the beloved community;
  • Necessitated the rejection of violence;
  • Implicitly and sometimes explicitly challenged imperial power;
  • Meant living in the shadow of the cross and the power of the resurrection;
  • And resulted in much persecution and eventually death.

That sets the stage nicely from the five things I want to highlight.

1. Grace matters. Says Paul, through the power of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection we are made a new creation. The Christian Gospel – the ‘good news’ – is not a set of propositions we have to believe or repeat, but the account of how God enters history through Israel – through Jesus of Nazareth – to make Israel, the world, the whole cosmos right again.

Over the long course of Christian history, many people’s understanding of salvation got reduced to some things that one has to believe in order to convince God to let us into heaven. During the time of the Protestant Reformation a lot of ink – and blood – got spilled in debates about how God actually saves us.

Many Protestants, beginning with Luther, honed in on some language that Paul uses to present God’s saving work in primarily legal/juridical terms. Certain Reformation theologies made it seem like Paul’s primary message is that God is in the business of imputing or bestowing justice on a people who do not deserve it: We are bad. God is good. Jesus comes to cover us in God’s goodness or righteousness, even if we remain fundamentally “bad.”

In that view, all we need to focus on is God’s grace – God’s gift of love for us, even though we remain lousy, messed-up, dysfunctional sinners. On one level, there is truth in that: God does love us, no matter how messed up and dysfunctional we are. What got lost sometimes is any understanding of how God works through grace to change and heal us – so that we can carry out’s God’s work in the world.

Recent scholarship has helped us remember that for Paul the goal of salvation in Christ is not being declared innocent as in a legal transaction but in being transformed from the inside out. Through Christ we are not merely forgiven of our shortcomings – we are changed, healed, and empowered by the Spirit to be agents of God’s reconciling love for the world. When we are touched by grace, good works naturally flow from us.

Much of Paul’s language is full of wild, hopeful, passionate, even mystical declarations that in Christ God is doing amazing things to transform us:

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, with whom we have been reconciled through Christ, and by whom we have been given the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself, not counting the people’s trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is exhorting you through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (II Corinthians 5).

2. The Church matters. Through and through, Paul was a Jew and understood what it means to be part of a people. For Jews like Paul, the path of following God is more of a communal than an individual affair. After his encounter with the risen Christ, Paul came to see that in Christ God had grafted onto Israel a new people – the church.

This will sound wildly un-American, but Christianity is not a lone-ranger path! Together, we are called to a new life in Christ. That way of life involves belonging to a community of fellow travelers – a community of grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, nonviolence and peacemaking

By definition, living in this new community of grace has profound political implications, primarily because often what the church values stands in contrast to what the world values.

One scholar says that the message of Jesus crucified and risen is a “theo-political” message – a message about God with political implications. Jesus was not crucified by the Roman Empire for preaching a God within but for proclaiming that the coming of the reign of God was at hand – something that stirred up hope among Jews and fear among Romans

The fear in first century Rome was that God’s politics were about to replace Caesar’s.  To say that Jesus is Lord (as Paul did many times) was to say that Caesar is not. And in imperial Rome, that was high treason. To declare that Jesus was Lord set the church’s way of non-violence, peacemaking, and reconciliation over and against the empire’s practices of domination, injustice, and inequality.

3. Peace matters. Paul begins and ends every letter with the words “grace and peace.”

Peace in Caesar ‘s Rome was achieved this way: prayer and sacrifice were offered to ensure that the gods were on the side of the emperor. The armies were sent to fight, conquer and occupy. When victory through overwhelming military force was achieved, peace was declared. Pax Romana. Hmm…does this sound familiar to anyone who reads a newspaper?

The Jesus Way delineates a very different path to peace.

According to Paul, peace enters the world not via the shock and awe campaigns of conquering armies but through the self-emptying, non-violent love of God’s Anointed One, Jesus the Christ, dying on a cross. NT Wright notes, “It took genius to see that the symbol which had spoken of Caesar’s naked might now spoke of God’s naked love.”

In stark contrast to any peace built on violence and control, the peace of Christ breaks down walls of hostility and creates new communities of radical hospitality and reconciliation:

Galatians 3. 27-29. “As many of you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself 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 on in Christ Jesus.”

4. The cross matters. The grace and peace we receive in Christ is free but not cheap. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by Hitler for his resistance to the Nazi regime, famously wrote about the danger of “cheap grace” in contemporary Christianity. By this, he was referring to the insistence that we receive grace with no corresponding transformation, discipleship, or conversion.

Paul reminds us that the cross is how God shows up most fully in the world – through self-emptying, sacrificial love. There is no Christianity without the cross. As Borg and Crossan say, “For Paul the cross revealed God’s passion, God’s will for the world a world different from the normalcy of this world of domination, injustice, and violence, all legitimated by the wisdom of the world. It also revealed the path of internal transformation, the path of becoming ‘ in Christ” by dying and rising with Christ.”

The cross reveals the way God is by revealing the way God works in the world – through foolishness and weakness and powerlessness, at least as they are usually measured

5. Resurrection matters. For Paul the cross of Christ is meaningless apart from the resurrection – the raising of Jesus by God from the darkness of a death into a new and transformed reality of life and hope.

The appearance of the resurrected Christ to Paul transformed him. In experiencing the resurrected Jesus, Paul began to see the cross, not as a sign of divine curse but as a means of divine blessing.

Borg and Crossan put it like this: “The empire killed Jesus. The cross was the imperial ‘no’ to Jesus. But God had raised him. The resurrection was God’s ‘yes’ to Jesus, God’s vindication of Jesus – and thus also God’s ‘no’ to the powers that had killed him.”

We moderns, with our mind-body dualism, have a hard time making sense of resurrection. While resurrection for Paul was clearly bodily, it was not just the resuscitation of Jesus’ corpse but about the transformation of his physical body into a “spiritual” or “glorified” body.

Moreover, the living Christ is not some kind of ghost who makes random appearances to people in mystical trances. Rather, Christ takes up residence and embodies his presence in the living communities of his followers especially when they gather to remember him, worship him, and do acts of mercy and justice in his name.

Because of resurrection, suffering and death are never the last word. There are those who might dismiss the passage we read from Paul this morning as pie-in-the-sky utopia-seeking:

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal (II Corinthians 5).

At one point in my life, I would have joined in our skeptic’s dismissal, just as I did with the rest of Paul. Before I started spending my work days in hospice houses and psychiatric wards and intensive care units and trauma bays as I am privileged to do now, some of the more mystical, other-worldly passages from Paul about “the redemption of our bodies” and “inner natures being renewed” and “eternity” irritated me. Doesn’t this kind of talk distract us from our work of ending wars, and fighting poverty and overcoming injustice in the here-and-now?

Sure, there is that danger. But if we know anything about the Apostle Paul it is this: Paul saw everything that he did as part of a much larger move on God’s part to renew and transform not just Israel and the Gentiles but the whole world, the cosmos even. Paul catalogs for us several times the hardships he endures as a consequence of being a Christ follower: imprisonment, ridicule, rejection, beatings, torture. Eventually Paul will die a martyr’s death, perhaps in the Emperor Nero’s ferocious persecution of the early church.

But in the face of it all, Paul keeps forging ahead – preaching, writing, traveling, nurturing new followers on the Way of Jesus, affirming through his words and witness that God is at work in Christ bringing forth a world long promised by the prophets of old: a world in which the lion shall lie down with the lamb, and swords shall be broken down into ploughshares, a world in which death and crying and pain will be no more because in Christ the old things have passed away – and the creation has been made new.

This is the power of resurrection for Paul – power that is available to us as well.


You will be hearing a lot more about Paul in the weeks ahead but for this morning, as you leave this beautiful sanctuary for the hustle and bustle of a world a world hungering for hope, I invite you reflect on what God might be saying to you through the ancient words and witness of Paul of Tarsus. Grace matters. The church matters. Peace matters. The cross matters. Resurrection matters. Above all, Christ matters. As our reading proclaims,

For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.