Posted on: March 20th, 2014 St. Paul’s Foul Mouth (& Grace)

After a really rich & profound time of Bible study last night with some dear brothers & sisters, I got to thinking — it’s been a while since I’ve thought about this — about St. Paul’s penchant for strong, offensive language which crops up in the NT at least twice.

“… I consider [all that stuff I used to care about, before I met Christ] to be loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them to be shit, in order that I may gain Christ.” (Phil. 3:8)

“But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.  I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (Gal 5:11-12)

Think about it. We have around a dozen letters which Paul wrote, and on not one but at least two occasions, perhaps in the heat of passion, he blurts some kind of acerbic overstatement which would have to be censored from the letter, if it were read in public today. (Granted, much of this has to do with our contemporary cultural sensibilities, derived as they are from cultural milieus such as Victorian England, but still.)

Does Paul have some sort of issue (anger, maybe?) here? Maybe.

But what’s interesting to me about both contexts above is that Paul is involved in a discussion about the grace of God which has come to him (in some sense) “apart from the law” (cf. Rom 3:21). Apparently he feels quite strongly about such matters.

The second implication for me has to do with language, and how those who follow Christ are to speak and write. The point is that what matters is not so much how successful we are in avoiding “four letter words” and so on, but rather, do we use our language and our words to promote goodness, truth, beauty, and the _shalom_ of others?

In this light it is helpful to think about Isa 64:6: “… all our ‘righteous deeds’ are like ‘bloody menstrual rags'”. Ouch. Really, Isaiah? Perhaps that’s a bit overstated? A bit unnecessary?

Not when it comes to the importance of the free grace of God, over and against the Pharasaical / Judaizing tendency we all have (it is the human condition; this is Luther’s — and Kierkegaard’s — “sickness unto death”) to depend on our own “righteous” performance.

There is no doubt in my mind that St. Paul, participating in the tradition we see in Isaiah, was speaking (writing) faithfully in the somewhat shocking language he uses in the references above.

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Posted on: June 21st, 2012 How to “stick it” to the Divider

As any number of folks in the Epiphany Community can tell you, the etymological meaning of the word “devil,” which occurs in Scripture a total of 34 times, literally means “the divider.” The devil loves to take what God has joined together in his good work of creation, and to rip it apart.

Which is why, for St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, God in the Gospel is all about taking what sin (and the devil) has torn asunder and “putting it back together again.” Fixing it. Making it into what, from the very beginning, it was supposed to be.

Indeed, as NT Wright has noted (in a recent lecture delivered to the students at Wheaton University) the letter to the Ephesians evokes at least four different divisions (wrought by sin, etc.) which God in the Gospel is working to repair and restore.

First, God is reuniting heaven and earth (Eph 1:10). Once upon a time God and man enjoyed each others’ intimate presence in the evening cool of the garden. Can you imagine? God being as present, indeed, more present, than your spouse, your parent, your loved one? And then, when the unspeakable had happened, man began to do what we all now do: he hid from his lover. What is the Gospel? It is the good news that God is reuniting heaven and earth … that, as the wonderful song says,

When at last this earth shall pass away,
When Jesus and his Bride are one to stay,
The feast of love is just begun that day.
God and man at table are sat down.

Second, God is reuniting giftedness and work. Have you ever had the horrible realization, when thinking of your own work, “I’m just not good at this?” Have you ever sensed that there is a terrifying mismatch between your work and your gifts? In the face of this common dread, St. Paul says that “we are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). Part of what’s going on here is the often neglected truth that, for the Christian, your work is bigger than your career. That is, each one of us is called to and specifically gifted for work, service, in the Body of Christ. God is faithful, if we ask him, to give us our daily bread. Beyond earning a paycheck, though, we can achieve deep satisfaction in the labor of Christ’s vineyard.

Third, God is reuniting Jew and Gentile, and every racial division which separates us. In Paul’s vivid imagination, the church “the multi-splendored wisdom of God … now … known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10). The book of Ephesians stresses the reconciling work of Christ to break down “the dividing wall of hostility” (2:14) which isolates Jews from Gentiles, and vice-versa. In our day we can be assured that if there is now no enmity between between Jew and Gentile, then there is definitely no necessary division between Hispanic and Anglo, between black and Asian, etc. For, as Paul states, elsewhere, we are “all one in Christ” (Gal 3:28).

Fourth, God is reuniting male and female. In chapter five of Ephesians Paul has been speaking at length about the relationship between husbands and wives. Even while advocating an egalitarian “mutual submission” between husband and wife, he also commends a certain hierarchical structuring of the marriage bond. This structure is meant to reflect the relationship between our “head,” Christ, and his “body,” the Church. As for Christ and the Church, so also for every husband and wife within the economy of God’s community.

Do you want to “stick it” to the devil, the “divider?” Then get on board with God’s reconciling project. It is called “the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” and it is uniting all things in heaven and on earth.

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