The Gospel According to St. Paul: Part One -April 8, 2018

First, let me thank you for the wonderful Holy Week and Easter celebrations we had this year! What a meaningful time of prayer and praise, song and celebration of the holiest day of the Christian Year.  Today, we begin a new series on the “Gospel of Paul” – now you will notice that Paul is not one of the gospel writers. The books in our bible that tell the story of Jesus’ life are of course….. But  the word “gospel” means “good news” – and these books shaped the way we understand Christ and understand how we are to be Christ’s disciples. But PAUL – through his writings and his contributions to our biblical texts, I dare say, has had MUCH more influence over the way we understand Jesus, Jesus’ teachings, the Christian movement, theology and our daily living-out of our faith. “How do we live as Christians in this world?” Paul helps us grapple with those questions.

On Friday night, many of us gathered to see the new movie “Paul, the Apostle”  – and it was a really interesting film.  (Gather input) It was an interesting depiction of Paul as an old man, imprisoned by the Romans for political crimes, wanting to tell his story.

The 1988 movie “The Last Temptation of Christ,” based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, was controversial for various reasons: for the human characterization of Jesus; for the depiction of Judas as a man with a Brooklyn accent and for the scandalous idea that Jesus would opt out, would deny his place on the cross and forego the crucifixion. While ALL these elements of the book and the movie were shocking, the one image that has stayed with me all these years is the final conversation between Jesus and Paul, the Apostle. (Again remember the book was controversial…)

In the movie, Jesus asked to be spared from the crucifixion and God granted him a long human life. He was saved from the suffering on the cross; he was married and had children and he grew to be an old man. Sixty years after the cross event, Jesus the old man was living his life – his normal life – when he met Paul, a travelling preacher who was gaining in popularity and influence. There, in his small village, the old man heard Paul speaking of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God who gave his life on the cross for the salvation of humanity.

Astonished, Jesus confronts Paul: “It is I, Paul! The Jesus you speak of! That day on the cross, I asked God to spare me from such a death and HE DID!” and Paul believed him.

“So now,” Jesus said, “You will stop telling these stories…” And Paul tells Jesus, “No. I will not. “”But I did not die on the cross! I am not the man you are teaching about.” Jesus says.

“It doesn’t matter,” says Paul. “The story I tell gives the people hope. It shows the Power of God. It foretells the destruction of Roman Empire. It doesn’t matter if it is actually true.” Paul says in the film. “The people are turning to God, so whether you are dead, or alive or resurrected from the dead… it doesn’t matter.”

“But I am not that Jesus!” he says. And Paul responds, “My Jesus is much more important and much more powerful.”

Now, this is one authors’ questioning and imagining and thinking about these issues, and while I don’t believe or agree with his thesis, I do agree with his depiction of PAUL.

Pauls’ influence in our theology was so great that we-like the crowds in Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel- may never know what actually happened. But we believe what Paul told us.

  • “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal 2:20) Paul wrote that.
  • “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21). Paul wrote that.
  • “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). Paul wrote that.
  • “If God is for us, who is against us? (Rom 8:31, RSV). Paul wrote that.
  • “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude.” (1 Cor. 13: 4) Paul wrote that.

The writings of Paul are essential for our understanding of who Jesus was and how God works in Him and through us! We believe the Gospel – the Good News – is not only for the Jews, but for the Gentiles too. And we believe this because of Paul.

So who was this PAUL and why was he important?

Paul was a writer and a traveller. Paul was a missionary pastor, someone whose passion was to travel from place to place preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ! He travelled to Cyprus, Asia Minor (modern Turkey), mainland Greece, Crete, and Rome. He counseled those communities as they attempted to understand and interpret the story of the Risen Messiah. Paul did not know Christ, was not one of his disciples but Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is known as the OLDEST document in the new testament – written around 52 after the death of Christ. (The gospel of Mark around the year 70, the gospels of Matthew and Luke between 80-90 and John around 125 AD). Paul wrote these letters to specific Christian communities, trying to understand how to live in the Way of Jesus. As the first churches were established around the Roman Empire, Paul helped them identify a new way of living, a new way of thinking, a new theology and a new leader in Jesus Christ.

But they had questions and would send those questions to Paul – wherever he was – and he responded back. We have fourteen of those responses in our New Testament text, but only seven are said to be written by Paul himself. The others are unverified and scholars believe they might be written by a follower of Paul. The verified letters of Paul include Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, First Thessalonians and Philemon.

Paul was a missionary. He was a writer. He was a traveller and a speaker. But he began his career as a persecutor of the Jews – those Jews who followed a Messiah called Jesus. Paul (known as Saul before his conversion) was searching for new Christians who had fled Damascus, working to disrupt this new movement in Judaism. He explains in his letter to the church in Galatia:

Galatians 1: 13-16b

13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.

Then, while traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus on a mission to “bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem”, the resurrected Jesus appeared to him in a great light. This Jesus, the Risen Christ, appeared to him demanding that Paul stop persecuting the new Christians and instead join them, lead them, preach to them, advise them, counsel them and recruit and nurture the spiritual growth of the Gentiles in this new movement. Saul was struck blind, and after three days his sight was restored by Ananias of Damascus.  And Paul began to preach that Jesus of Nazareth was the Jewish Messiah and the Son of God.

But when Paul returned to Jerusalem, the people immediately discounted the stories about Paul’s conversion. In the book of Acts, when Paul tries to join the disciples in  Damascus, “they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple” (Acts 9:26).

But Barnabas, aptly nicknamed “son of encouragement,” vouched for Paul and eventually reconciled him with the church in Jerusalem. Paul remained personally unknown to most believers, of course; as he wrote to the Galatians, “People only heard the report: ‘The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy'” (Galatians 1:23.) (1)

So here he was: this man who persecuted Christians, now proclaiming the gospel!  And he did this with the intention to win souls, to change lives, out of his obligation to God. He explains in our lesson from the first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 9, verses 16-17:

16If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe betide me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 17For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission.

But Paul’s mission was different from that of the other disciples. While Peter was converting the Jews, Paul opened the doors of this new movement to the Gentile world. In the Judaism of Paul and the other disciples, a faithful believer needed to follow the law of the Torah, including circumcision, food laws, laws of ritual and worship, keeping the Sabbath and observing the rights and wrongs of Jewish life. So the question arose: How do we deal with the Gentiles? If Jesus was the Messiah, wasn’t he only for the Jews? Paul said no. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

Romans 3: 21-24

21 But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

Last week we celebrated a magnificent Easter together – Out Choir performed their magnificent cantata; our congregation joined with the congregations of Covina and West Covina UMCs; our congregation donated and filled eggs for two Easter egg hunts for about 50 children – children of all ethnicities and cultures, children who are fluent in English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish and all the languages and customs of our many cultures…

And Here we were, a diverse, multi-cultural community, created by God, and it came to me, as I reflected on our Easter celebrations, we would not be here were it not for Paul. Paul opened the gospel to us – those who were not born into the Jewish faith, those on the margins of society, those beyond the gates of Jerusalem. Paul did that for us.

May we, as we spread the gospel – by the words we say, by the compassion we show others, by the justice and peace we seek, by the love and forgiveness we give – may we like Paul, do all these things for the sake of the gospel, so that we may share in its blessings.

For we are all a part of the family of God: Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, old and young, from all different countries, speaking all different languages, looking very different. Each of us is a children of God, redeemed by the love of Jesus Christ. May we remember who we are and whose we are. Today and always. Amen.

  1. Dan Clendenin,