Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Joy and the Apostle Paul

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the apostle Paul. That’s partly because I spent time preparing a sermon for this past Sunday on Paul’s letter to the Philippians (one of my favorite Pauline epistles). And also because I’ve been reading To Live is Christ: A 40-Day Journey with Saint Paul as part of my Lenten discipline.

My take on Paul has dramatically changed over the years, moving from antagonism to deep admiration. As a younger man, I thought that Paul’s theology could not be reconciled with the Jesus portrayed in the synoptic gospels (good liberal modernist that I was at the time). And I shared Friedrich Nietzsche’s contempt for Paul as the very embodiment of ressentiment. But now I view Paul as a true hero, someone who demonstrates that it is, indeed, possible to live a Christ-like life in this world, even and especially when that life requires sacrifice and entails suffering. (I now wonder how I could possibly have taken seriously anyone – even someone as brilliant as Nietzsche – who seriously thinks that Paul was “the first Christian” and “the inventor of Christianity.” What a joke!)

I’m struck by the overall tone of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He’s imprisoned (perhaps in Rome). He doesn’t know when or if he’ll be released, whether he’ll live or be executed. At the risk of life and limb, he’s traveled around the Romans Empire, working hard for over 20 years to spread the good news of Jesus. But now it looks like it could all have been in vain. Given his Roman citizenship, along with his education and class standing within the Judaism of the day, Paul could have lived a comfortable, respectable life. Instead, he’s given it all up, choosing instead to suffer countless beatings, imprisonments, and even shipwreck.

Either Paul is crazy, or he knows something that many of us don’t know.

Maybe Paul knows something that’s true and that’s more real and important than the typical driving concerns of my white, middle-class, socially respectable life often bring to the forefront of consciousness. Maybe there’s something more important to life than struggling with whether or not I have the right clothes to wear at a gala social event, or whether or not we should use real bread or wafers for the Eucharist during Lent, or whether anybody cares about my blog or likes my preaching. Maybe there’s something or someone far more important, something or someone that renders everything else secondary at best and rubbish at worst, something or someone worth risking everything for.

Maybe so, because it’s hard to account for why, in spite of the bleak circumstances in which Paul writes to the Philippians, his letter is so calm, centered, and filled with joy. He could get his head chopped off and go down in history (if anybody remembers him, that is) as a nobody. And yet, his letter to the Philippians exudes joy. Looking failure and death in the face, Paul writes: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4 NRSV).

Again, either Paul is crazy, or he knows something that many of us don’t know.

I’m convinced that Paul isn’t crazy, that his joy is genuine, and that it’s not a form of denial or a delusion. I believe that Paul’s joy is grounded in reality: the reality of Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead, the forgiveness of our sins, and an expectant hope for the world to come. It’s the joy of knowing that one’s personal well-being and the fate of the world are not determined by current circumstances. They are determined by the victory of God in Christ over the forces of sin, suffering, sickness, death, and decay. Paul’s joy is a gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit. It’s the same gift all Christians receive in our baptisms. So perhaps the real question is not, “How does Paul manage to be so joyful in the midst of so much trouble?” Maybe the real question is, “What hinders us from sharing in the same joy as Paul’s?”

What holds me back from owning and living the joy that Paul knew, the joy of really knowing Jesus in the power of his forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection?

That question is my Lenten focus.


George said...

Excellent Excellent Excellent!!!!

The Underground Pewster said...

Spot on.

Sarah Wilson said...

Hi, Bryan! Found your blog and really enjoyed your take on Paul and the book of Philippians. Wanted to let you know that Logos Bible Software just released a brand new pre-publication offer on the life of Paul!

Let me know if I can help in any way!

Anonymous said...

O this is so refreshing! Thanks for saying it:

who seriously thinks that Paul was “the first Christian” and “the inventor of Christianity.” What a joke!

It seems so obvious, but really, it is important to make clear!