Thursday, January 25, 2018

Feast Day of the Confession of St. Paul

Today the Church celebrates the conversion of St. Paul.  Take a minute to imagine how the world would be different if we had had no Saul of Tarsus.  There would have been no Saul persecuting the Christians, no Saul to have a conversion experience on the road to Damascus, no Paul who was such a singular force in bringing Christianity to the Roman empire.

Early Christianity would have had some traction even had there been no Paul.  Those disciples and apostles had a fire borne of their experiences to be sure.  But it was Paul and his compatriots who brought Christianity to populations apart from the early Jews.  Without Paul, Christianity might have withered on the tiny Palestinian vine, since the other disciples and apostles didn't have the same fervor for converting people outside the immediate geographical area.

Would someone else have come along?  Probably.  The Holy Spirit does work in interesting ways.  But Paul was a fascinating choice, a man with extensive training, a man who could speak to multiple populations.  For those of us who feel we don't fit in anywhere, we should take comfort from Paul's story.  The Holy Spirit can use misfits in fascinating ways.  The Bible is full of them.

Some criticize Paul's letters for their inconsistencies.  I would remind us that Paul was writing to real congregations who were facing real problems.  I imagine that he would be aghast at the idea that anyone centuries later would use them as a behavior manual to teach right behavior.  It would be as if someone collected an assortment of your e-mails and centuries later saw direct communication from God in them.

For those of us who have found Paul troubling in terms of his ideas about women, about married people, about slaves, I'd recommend Classics scholar Sarah Ruden's Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time (Pantheon 2010), which I first wrote about here.  She gives a window into the ancient world which I had never really peered through before.  Her depiction of sexual relations of all sorts makes me shudder, and more than that, makes me so glad to be alive today.  The Roman empire really was a rape culture in all sorts of ways.  Viewed through this lens, Paul's ideas on relationships seem radically forward-looking.

Here is a prayer for today:

Triune God, you work in truly wondrous ways.  Thank you for the ministry of Paul and all the ways that we have benefited from his missionary fervor.  Let us use the life of Paul as inspiration for our own lives.  Let us trust that you can use our gifts in all sorts of ways that we can't even imagine.  Give us the courage to follow your calling to the far reaches of whichever empires you need to send us.  Give us the words that congregations need right now.  Grant us the peace that comes from having partnered with you.

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