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Paul of Tarsus: Endnotes & Evaluations on his Legacy to the Early Church.   Leave a comment

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Archaeological Insights:

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The first missions to the Gentiles, as presented in the Acts of the Apostles offers a fruitful field for archaeological study. Different kinds of detail interlock. For example, Paul met the Christian couple Priscilla and Aquila in Corinth, after Emperor Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome (Acts 18: 2). This expulsion is mentioned in pagan literature and dated to AD 49 by a later writer. During Paul’s long stay in Corinth, Gallio became governor (Acts 18: 12); he is known elsewhere from the writings of his more famous brother Seneca, and his governorship can be dated to AD 51-2 by an inscription found in Delphi. This evidence helps build a consistent and fairly precise outline for this part of Paul’s life and helps relate Acts to Paul’s letters.

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Many details of the names of people and officials, places and customs in the book can be exactly illustrated from inscriptions. This does not prove its account to be historically accurate, but it does rule out any view which holds that the writer, probably Luke (Paul’s early travelling companion and author of the synoptic gospel which bears his name), was careless about such details. It also makes it hard to believe that the book was written long after the events it describes. A test case of the relationship between Acts, the Epistles and the archaeology is Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Sir William Ramsay used the evidence of inscriptions to clearly establish clearly the extent of Galatia and then argued that the letter was sent to the southern cities such as Pisidian Antioch, in Phrygia (above), which Paul had visited on his first journey (Acts 13-14). This, in turn, fits the very early dating of the letter. Thus the details of Paul’s life contained in the letter may be linked directly to those in Acts.

The Greek Writer and Theologian:

Paul’s surviving letters are found in the New Testament. Galatians was probably written before the Council of Jerusalem in about AD 50. The two letters to the Thessalonians date from his first journey to into Greece; Romans and I & II Corinthians come from his last spell in Greece before his arrest at Jerusalem. Philippians, Colossians, and Ephesians were probably written from Rome during Paul’s first imprisonment there, and Philemon may have been written during his earlier house arrest in Ephesus. The two letters to Timothy and the letter to Titus were probably written after Paul’s first stay in Rome. In them, Paul showed his mastery of Greek, and these two ‘pastoral’ letters can be counted among the classics of Greek literature. The letters were highly valued during Paul’s lifetime and were collected together soon after his death. By AD 95 they were accepted on an equal basis with other Scripture and were in their present form by AD 140. Paul’s theology was not well understood in the period immediately after his death. This was partly because the heretic Marcion rejected the Old Testament and much that was Jewish in the emerging canon of the New Testament. He considered that Matthew, Mark, Acts and Hebrews favoured Jewish readers exclusively. He also cut out the pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus, which left him with only a mutilated version of Luke’s Gospel and ten of Paul’s letters. He believed that Paul was the only apostle who did not corrupt the gospel of Jesus. As long as Marcion’s heresy was a threat, mainstream Christian teachers did not stress many of Paul’s more distinctive doctrines, such as that regarding the law of Christ and God’s grace. It was not until the time of Augustine that full weight was given to Paul’s theology.

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The Missionary’s Achievements:

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Paul’s achievements as a missionary were immense. The years between his Damascene conversion in AD 35 and his Antiochene preparations and initial discussions with the church in Jerusalem from AD 45 remain somewhat obscure, but during the next ten or twelve years, his activity was astounding. Between AD 47/48, when he set sail with Barnabas on his first missionary journey, and AD 57, when he returned to Jerusalem for the last time, he established flourishing churches in the major cities of the Roman provinces of Galatia, Asia, Macedonia and Achaia. His decisive role in the early Christian mission to the Gentiles was due principally to his championing of it to the first churches in Jerusalem and Antioch in Syria.

He then developed the theological defence of the Gentile mission which is clearly set out in Romans 1-11, while working hard to hold together and reconcile Jewish and Gentile Christians in the Diaspora. With this purpose in view, he kept in constant touch with the ‘mother church’ in Jerusalem, collecting a considerable sum of money among the Gentile converts for the needs of the Christians in Judea, and regularly underlined the importance of Christian unity in his letters. Finally, Paul’s principle of being ‘all things to all people’ helped him to move with relative ease between the synagogues, halls and house-churches of Graeco-Roman society, where ultimately the gospel received its greatest response. Moreover, his personal example as a self-supporting travelling missionary and his ‘settlements’ in significant cities provided a pattern of ministry for others to follow. His preference for the single life was based not on the kind of celibacy which Jesus advocated for some in Matthew 19, but on his initial sense that Christ’s return might come very soon. He certainly recognised the practical advantages for missionaries of remaining unmarried. However, like Jesus, he did not advocate a life of asceticism and self-denial as the norm for ministry and attacked the teaching that it was wrong to marry.

The origin and meaning of the word ‘apostle’ are hard to establish, and it obviously means very different things to different New Testament writers. For Luke, an apostle is one who accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us (Acts 1: 21), thus excluding Paul. But for Paul himself, apostleship was something to be proud of, and he is very anxious to defend his own (I Cor. 9: 1). For him, the apostles are those who have been commissioned by an appearance of the risen Lord, as he had been on the road to Damascus. Later, in his Pastoral letters, Paul is the Apostle, the guardian of the faith. The one point of agreement is that apostleship is not something that can be passed on. A famous passage, I Cor. 12: 28, mentions in succession apostles, prophets and teachers, and Eph. 4: 11 has a similar list. It is doubtful, however, whether these can be regarded as different classes of ministry. Rather, they are different activities, more than one of which might be practised by a single individual:

  • Deacon is usually a general term, describing any form of ministry or service. In two passages, the deacon seems to be a particular minister, subordinate to the bishop (Phil. 1: 1; I Tim. 3: 8-13). If the two terms are used technically in Phil 1: 1, this is the only evidence we have of such a formal ministry from the Pauline letters so the terms may be general even there.

  • Elders are not mentioned at all by Paul but are to be found as ministers throughout Acts, appointed by Paul and Barnabas in every church (Acts 14: 23; cf. 15: 12 ff.; 16: 4; 20: 17; 21: 18). Here Jewish practice is followed. Villages and towns had their groups of Jewish elders, seven in each village, twenty-three in each town and seventy in Jerusalem. When a place fell vacant, it was filled by the laying on of hands, the pattern found in Acts.

  • Bishop is a term which occurs in a technical sense in Acts 20: 28., but as in Phil 1: 1 the word may be used generally as ‘overseer’. Bishop is a definite office in I Tim. 3: 1-7; Titus 1: 7-9. The relationship between elders and bishops is a classic problem, as at times the two terms could be synonyms. At the end of the second century, each bishop was in charge of a particular area. All bishops were elders, but not all elders were bishops.

We have even less evidence about the ministry at this time than about other important matters, and what is said in the ‘Apostolic Fathers’ does little to help. Clearly, the pattern varied from place to place, and development was by no means uniform.

How would Paul have assessed the significance of his work?

From differing angles, more can be said about the reasons for the surprising long-term success of Paul’s work. Tom Wright tells us that Paul’s particular vocation was to found and maintain Jew-plus-Gentile churches on Gentile soil. He realised early on that it was his job not just to teach people what to think and believe, but to teach them how; how to think clearly, scripturally, prayerfully. The One God had already built his new Temple, his new microcosmos; the Jew-plus-Gentile church was the place where the divine spirit already revealed his glory as a sign of what would happen one day throughout the whole world. Of course, Paul would not have expected all this to happen smoothly or easily. He was a realist and would never have assumed that the transformation of small and often confused communities into a much larger body, forming a majority in the Roman world, would come about without terrible suffering and horrible pitfalls. He would also have been saddened by the mistakes and heresies of the following centuries and the battles that would have to be fought. But he would also have pointed out that something had happened in Jesus which was of cosmic significance. The success of the ‘Jesus Movement’ wasn’t simply the accidental product of energetic work meeting historical opportunity. God was at work in the midst of his people to produce both the will and the energy for it to succeed. This divine design and Spirit-led motivation were bound to have their larger effect, sooner or later, and by whatever means they could find.

Paul was also very much alive to all the factors that the historian, as opposed to the theologian, might want to study. He would have been very much aware of the need for historians to demythologise scriptural narratives. In his own day, Greek scholars were doing the same kind of thing with the stories of Homer. Paul would not, himself, have wanted to ascribe the whole happening of Jesus to divine or angelic power operating without human agency, since he believed that when grace was at work, human agents were themselves were regularly called upon to work hard as a result, not least in prayer. He said this of himself (I Cor. 15: 10; Col. 1: 29). The Creator may work in a thousand ways, but one central way is, for Paul, through people who think freely, pray, make difficult decisions and work hard, especially in prayer. Since heaven and earth had come together in the persons of Jesus and his Spirit, we should expect different layers of explanation to reside together and reinforce each other. Paul was one of the most successful public intellectuals of all time precisely because he was able to take advantage of the human circumstances of his time – a common language, freedom of travel and citizenship of the Roman Empire – to establish an international movement not only for the course of his own lifetime but for an indeterminate historical future.

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Paul’s Personal Attributes:

Tom Wright highlights a number of personal attributes which enabled Paul to develop the early Christian church throughout the Empire of the Eastern Mediterranean and in Rome itself. First of all, he points to the sheer energy of the missionary, which can be found not only in the narratives of Acts but also pulsing through his letters. He responds to violence in one city by going straight on to the next, saying and doing the same things there. He worked all hours, making tents when not preaching, teaching or dictating letters to a scribe. He was also ready every moment for the visitor with a question or local official worried about his status. He was ready to put down his tools and leave his workbench for an hour or two in order to go from house to house making pastoral visits to encourage the faithful, to comfort the bereaved, downhearted and distressed, to warn and pray. In between his house calls, he was thinking about what he would say in his afternoon address in the house of Titus Justus in Corinth or the hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus. In the evening, he would pause to say prayers with his close friends and travelling companions, before working long into the night, praying for those he had met that day, for the city officials and for the Christians in other cities, for the next day’s work and the next phase of his mission.

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His second attribute was his direct, up-front habit of telling it as he saw it, no matter who was confronting him. From his early days in Damascus, getting into trouble, to his arguments with the apostles in Jerusalem and his confrontation with Peter in Antioch, he didn’t hold back from controversy or seek to avoid conflict if he thought it would advance the church’s mission by confronting and seeking to resolve it. Wright suggests that the only reason he didn’t say more at the Jerusalem Conference was that Barnabas was there to act as a moderating influence. His debating style might have proved effective, but it might also have alienated many more sensitive souls. He also confronted the magistrates at Philippi and relished speaking truth to the vast crowd in Ephesus; he is fearless in trying to explain himself to the lynching mob in Jerusalem and is not afraid to rebuke the High Priest.  He was an astute politician who knew how to turn the various factions of the Sanhedrin against each other. He also lectured the Roman governor himself about justice, self-control, and the coming judgement. As a travelling companion, he must have been exhilarating and exasperating in equal measure, depending on whether things were going well or badly. He must have been a formidable an opponent since he seems to have driven some people to contemplate murder as their only means of ridding themselves of this troublesome missionary.

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Yet there must have been something quite disarming about Paul’s vulnerable side, which helps to explain why people wanted to work alongside. He was the sort of person for whom there were no limitations in affection for his fellow Christians. His honesty shines through in the pages of his letters. He would do anything he could for the churches since God had done everything for him through the Messiah. Neither would he have asked anyone to face anything he himself had not faced, including terrible suffering and hardship. The Corinthians would have immediately recognised a self-portrait in his poem about divine love, and when he told the Philippians to rejoice and celebrate, they knew that, given half a chance, Paul would have been at the party in spirit, the life and soul of it. He modelled what he taught, and what he taught was the utter, exuberant, self-giving love of the Messiah and the joy that accompanied it. His associates were fiercely loyal to him, and there was mutual love between them. He was the sort of person who enabled others to change and grow so that they themselves would take forward the same missionary work with as much of the same energy as they themselves could muster.

Paul’s Writing:

But within two or three generations the memory of this personal relationship had faded so that it was his letters which kept his influence alive. The flow of words from his daily teaching, arguing, praying and pastoral work was captured for future generations in these short, challenging epistles. It isn’t just their content, strikingly original and authentic as it is. He wasn’t synthesising the worlds of Israel, Greece and Rome; his was a firmly Jewish picture, rooted in Israel’s ancient narrative, with its Messiah occupying centre stage and the nations of the world and their best ideas brought into new coherence around him. Nor was he simply teaching a ‘religion’ or ‘theology’, but drawing together wisdom learnt from many different ancient disciplines, which we would class under economics, history and philosophy. Yet within a generation people were grumbling that Paul was sometimes too difficult to understand and that some were misinterpreting him. But it is no accident that many of the great moments of church history and Christian thought, involving  Augustine, Luther and Barth, have come about through fresh engagement with Paul’s work. Paul had insisted that what mattered was not just what you thought but how you thought. He modelled what he advocated, and generation after generation has since learned to think in this new way. In this way, his legacy has continued to generate fresh dividends.

Culture, Politics & Society:

Paul himself would claim that all this was the doing of the One God and his Messiah, whereas ‘sceptics’ might retort that the movement owed much to the spread of the Greek language and culture combined with the increasing ease of travel throughout the Roman Empire. This meant that conditions were ripe for the spread of new ideas and movements throughout the known world and even into South Asia. Paul would perhaps have rejoindered that if the Messiah was sent when the fullness of time arrived (Gal. 4: 4), then perhaps Greece and Rome were part of the plan and the preparation, as well as part of the problem. Tom Wright does not agree, however, with those who have claimed that people were getting tired of the old philosophies and pagan religions and were ready for something new. The problem in Ephesus, for example, was not that people had stopped worshipping Artemis, and so were ready for Paul’s message, but that Paul’s message about the One God had burst on the scene and stopped the worship of Artemis. Social and cultural conditions can help to explain the way things worked out, but they cannot explain it away. Paul emphasised, in letter after letter, the family life of believers; what he begins to call ‘the church’, the ekklesia. He continually emphasises the unity and the holiness of the church, as well as highlighting and ‘celebrating’ the suffering that he and others would and did endure as a result of their loyalty to Jesus. This was not about pagans experimenting with new ideas, but about a new kind of spiritual community and even a new kind of ‘politics’.

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Politics is concerned with the polis – the city, the community – and how it works and runs. Sophisticated theories had been advanced in Paul’s day, often by theoreticians like Cicero and Seneca, who were also members of the ruling élite. The main feature of Paul’s political landscape was Rome, which had united the world, or so it claimed. But that top-down uniformity in which diversity was tolerated as long as it didn’t threaten the absolute sovereignty of Caesar, was often ugly. ‘Diversity’ was still seen in strictly hierarchical terms: men over women, free over slaves, Romans over everyone else. Rebels were ruthlessly suppressed. They make a wilderness, sighed the Briton Calgacus, and they call it ‘peace’ (Tacitus, Agricola 30.6). What Paul had been doing was undoubtedly building a different kind of community offering a different vision of unity, hosting a different kind of diversity based on churches of Gentiles and Jews. He was founding and maintaining an interrelated network of communities for which the only analogies were synagogue communities, on the one hand, and the Roman army and civil service on the other. But Paul’s communities were very different from either. They had the deepest roots and were not simply a freestanding innovation. Rome traced its story back nearly a thousand years, while the synagogue told the still longer story which went back to Abraham. Paul told that story too and regularly explained to his communities that they had been grafted into that great tradition. In Paul’s work, this was as much a social and communal strength as it was a theological one.

Morality & Marriage:

When the new communities spoke of a different kind of kyrios, one whose sovereignty was gained through humility and suffering, rather than wealth and conquest, many must have found that attractive, not simply for what we would call ‘religious’ reasons, but precisely because for what they might call ‘political’ ones. Paul did not, of course, have time to develop his picture of the differentiated unity of the body of Christ into a larger exposition of the church as a whole. He had not articulated a political authority to match that of Aristotle or his successors. But it was that kind of social experiment, of developing a new way of living together, that the churches of the second and third centuries sought to develop. Their inspiration for this went back to Paul’s theological vision and was not pure pragmatism. It had the power to generate an alternative social and cultural reality, to announce to the world that Jesus was Lord and Caesar wasn’t. What Paul had articulated in his letters, often in haste and to meet particular crises, was reused to encourage Christians to develop a refreshingly new kind of human society. In particular, the Christian message provided a much better prospect for women than the pagan religions, which routinely practised infanticide for unwanted children in general and girls in particular. The Christians followed the Jews in renouncing such behaviour. The consequent shortage of marriageable girls among pagans and the surplus among Christians led to an increase in inter-cultural marriages, with many of the offspring being brought up as Christians. The fresh evaluation of the role of women, begun by Jesus himself, was developed by Paul, who listed several women among his colleagues and fellow workers. For example, Phoebe was entrusted with the responsibility of delivering and expounding his letter to the Romans.

With sexual excesses all around them, it is likely that some Christians reacted against sexual indulgence from a fairly early period. However, this was not formally set out or made a matter of special praise. In fact, special vows by younger women to abstain from marriage were discouraged by Paul. During the period which followed, abstinence from marriage was left as a matter of personal choice, although in most ‘Gnostic’ sects marriage was actively discouraged on the grounds that it entangled the spiritual soul with the evil physical world. Some Jewish and Christian traditions blamed sexual differences on ‘the fall’ and believed that salvation included a return to a ‘unisex’ or asexual life. In the mainstream churches, leaders such as Melito of Sardis became known for their austere personal lives; abstinence from marriage was part of this. In many churches, too, Christian women had difficulty in finding suitable husbands. Those who remained unmarried had more time for prayer and devotion. In the same way, men who were free from family ties had more time to devote to church affairs and were often obvious choices as leaders. By the third century, celibacy was beginning to be valued as a mark of holiness. Even so, extremes were frowned upon, and Origen earned considerable disapproval because he made himself a eunuch, believing that this was commended in the Gospels. As martyrdom declined, asceticism began to become the measure of spirituality; the leaders regarded as more spiritual in the churches tended to be those who practised an ascetic way of life, though the clergy was not generally obliged to be celibate.

Poverty & Social Action:

Within a few generations, the early Christian communities set up hospitals, caring for all those within reach, and they were also enthusiastic about education, teaching their converts to read the scriptures of ancient Israel, and thereby giving them the literacy skills that previously only a maximum of thirty per cent of the populations had acquired, almost exclusively male. Some of the older Greek cities and islands had a tradition of elementary education for citizens, but for many people, this would have been minimal, and women and slaves were excluded. Converts to Christianity, therefore, gained basic reading skills that they had hitherto lacked. Christians were also technological pioneers in making books, abandoning scrolls with their natural limitations and developing the ‘codex’, the ancestor of the modern bound book. The earliest Christian congregations quickly appreciated the value of the letters written by the apostles. Some of them were obviously intended for public reading, perhaps in place of, or alongside, a sermon on the Old Testament, and for circulating among the churches. But they clearly wanted more and more people to be able to read the books the community was producing. This insistence on education and especially reading can be traced back directly to Paul, who told his churches to be ‘grown-up’ in their thinking, to be transformed by the renewal of their minds as well as their hearts. He wanted the early Christians not only to think the right things but also to think in the right way. Though he did not himself found what we would today call ‘schools’ when such things did come about, they had him to thank for the underlying impetus.

Paul’s collection for the poor of Jerusalem was followed up in each local Jesus community in its work among the poor around it. Paul congratulated the Thessalonians on their practical ‘loving-kindness’ or agape and urged them to work at it more and more. “Do good to everyone,” he wrote to the Galatians, “and particularly to the household of the faith.” He encouraged them to… Celebrate with those who are celebrating, mourn with the mourners… Shine like lights in the world. The gospel itself was designed to generate a new kind of people, a people who would be eager for good works; in fact, the new kind of humanity that was brought to birth through the gospel was created for the specific purpose of ‘good works’ (Gal. 2: 10; I Thess. 4: 9-10; Gal. 6: 10; Rom. 12: 15; Phil. 2: 15; Titus 2: 14; Eph. 2: 10). This phrase means more than ‘the performance of moral rules’, especially when played off against Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone. Morals matter, faith matters, but that isn’t the point here. Paul’s emphasis is all about communities through whose regular practice the surrounding world is made a better place. Through Christ’s faithfulness and their own loving-kindness, these communities would find the right way to live. Good morals and good works would follow. In Corinth, there was a tendency to divide into factions centred on the personalities of human leaders, rather than just over doctrines. A prominent member of the community was living in immorality and individual Christians were taking each other to the law-courts over minor disputes. There were also misunderstandings about the meaning of Christian liberty. Paul’s letters, as well as those of John, reveal controversies and power-struggles in the midst of encouragement and growth.

The Spread of Christian Communities:

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But the church history of the second and third centuries is enough to confirm that all these things, taken together, offer good explanations for the spread of the Christian communities. These early Christians, strange though their views and lives might have seemed to those around, antisocial though some might have supposed them to be, were doing things that really do transform the wider society. By the end of the second century, Roman officials were not particularly aware of the nuances of Christian teaching, but they did know what the term ‘bishop’ meant – someone who agitated about the needs of the poor. This too was the result of a seed that Paul had planted, and when all of these began to sprout, a community came into being that challenged the ancient world with a fresh vision of a society in which each worked for all and all for each. This enabled that world to escape from the older paganism and its social, cultural and political practices and to find refuge in the new kind of community, the koinonia, the ‘fellowship’, the extended family of the One God. On the cross, Jesus had won the victory over all the other powers, or gods. This was the basic belief of these communities, which existed because all the old gods had been overthrown. Mammon, Mars and Aphrodite had been shown to be imposters, and Caesar was no longer the ultimate Lord. This was a theological, historical and political reality which the followers of Jesus demonstrated on the streets and in the market places, as well as in their homes.

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The breaking through of Paul’s thinking in Graeco-Roman society was not because the other philosophies of the ancient world had ‘run out of steam’. The Stoics, Epicureans, and Platonists had serious, articulate and even ‘charismatic’ spokespeople. They were all, in the final analysis, ways of understanding the world and of finding a coherent path for humanity within it. When later generations of Christians wanted to articulate the gospel version of the same thing, they turned to Paul for help, though other sources remained vital. The prologue to the Gospel of John is an obvious example of these, but it was Paul’s engagement with the triple traditions of Israel, Greece and Rome and his transformation of them by the person and Spirit of Jesus that offered a platform for the great Christian thinkers of subsequent generations and centuries. Without this firm theological foundation, the church would not have survived the persecutions it was forced to endure in these centuries. Paul knew only too well what learning how to think would cost those who were ‘to follow’, but he believed that this new way was the only way for them to follow, a way that would win out over the other ways because of its genuine humanity.

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The Wright Verdict:

Tom Wright completes his answer to his own question by summarising the several paths of explanation which converged on Paul himself in his mapping out of this ‘new Way’:

His was the vision of the united, holy, and outward-facing church. He pioneered the idea of a suffering apostleship through which the message of the crucified Jesus would not only be displayed, but be effective in the world. He could not have foreseen the ways in which these communities would develop. He might well not have approved of all that was done. But the historian and biographer can look back and discern, in Paul’s hasty and often contested work, the deep roots of a movement that changed the world…

… Paul’s vision of a united and holy community, prayerful, rooted in the scriptural story of ancient Israel, facing social and political hostility but insisting on doing good to all people, especially the poor, would always be central. His relentless personal energy, his clarity and vulnerability, and his way with words provided the motor to drive this vision, and each generation will need a few who can imitate him. His towering intellectual achievement, a theological vision of the One God reshaped around Jesus and the spirit and taking on the wider world of philosophy, would provide the robust, necessary framework for it all. When the church abandons the theological task… we should not be surprised if unity, holiness, and the care for the poor are sidelined as well.  

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Paul’s contribution to the Nature & Worship of the Early Church:

The church brought together ideas and people from many backgrounds. It had to cope with people who had become Christians in such disreputable seaports as Corinth, notorious for its immorality. It had to resolve the pressures to revert to pagan or Judaic practices, to sort out its attitudes towards contemporary customs and cultures, and to thrash out beliefs and opinions about issues on which there were no precedents to guide its thinking. Many Christians in the third century were willing to suffer as martyrs rather than betray their Lord by acknowledging false gods. Some, however, renounced their faith under torture or the pressure of imprisonment. Others got pagan neighbours to make the required sacrifice on their behalf, or obtained false certificates from sympathetic officials. At the opposite extreme, some Christians eagerly sought out martyrdom, even when it was not forced upon them, though this was strongly discouraged by Christian leaders. Following each wave of persecution, the church was faced with the problem of what to do with those who repented after lapsing under pressure. Some Christian leaders claimed that offences such as idolatry after baptism were unpardonable on earth, but others allowed one such occasion of forgiveness subsequent to baptism. Callistus, bishop of Rome (217-22), was among the more moderate and appealed to Paul’s letters and the parables of the lost sheep and the prodigal son for proof that no sin is unforgivable if the sinner truly turns from their sins. His referral back to Paul reveals the continuing influence of the apostle.

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In Paul’s time, and for at least a century afterwards, Christianity was largely an urban movement; Paul tended to preach in big cities, and small Christian groups could more easily spring up in the anonymity of large towns. Deep penetration of the countryside only began in the third century, though the methods used in that ‘outreach’ are unclear. Nearly every known Christian congregation started by meeting in someone’s house. One example of this was Philemon’s house-church, perhaps at Laodicea. The home formed an important starting-point, although by the mid-third century congregations were beginning to have their own special buildings because congregations were too large to meet even in the courtyard of a large Roman house. Most Christian writers were increasingly rationalistic, and Eusebius mentions only a very few miracles in his history of the church during this period. They also tried to discredit contemporary pagan superstition, focusing on ‘good living’ rather than supernatural ‘signs’. In the late third centre came the first deliberate attempts to follow Paul’s earlier examples of absorbing features of pagan religions into Christianity. Churches took over from temples, martyrs replaced the old gods in popular devotion, and the festivals of the Christian year took the place of high-days and holy days of paganism.

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When Irenaeus succeeded as a third-generation ‘bishop’ of the church in Rome, he described it as the very great, very ancient and universally known church, founded and organised at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul. Because Christians from all parts were found there, it was a microcosm of the whole Christian world. His statement hints at some of the reasons why Rome acquired a leading position among the churches. All roads led to Rome, the capital of the Empire, not least the well-engineered roads on which the Christian missionaries travelled. A remarkable number of prominent Christians made their way to the Imperial City: Ignatius, Polycarp, Marcion, Valentinus, Tatian, Justin, Hegesippus, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Praxeas, and Origen, all followed Peter and Paul’s journeys in the sixties. Rome was the only Western church to receive a letter from an apostle, and Luke’s long account of Paul’s miraculous journey to the city reflects the importance attached to his reaching the capital. Nothing boosted the prestige of Christian Rome so much as the fact that the two chief apostles were martyred there under Nero. By the mid-second century, memorial shrines to Paul and Peter had been erected in Rome, on the Appian Way and the Vatican Hill respectively. Remains of the latter have been uncovered in modern excavations.

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The Fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 enhanced the standing of the Roman church in the long-term since it became almost impossible to evangelise the Jewish settlements on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Christianity’s centre of gravity shifted west, where Rome was well-placed to play a central role. However, the letter to the Corinthian church known as I Clement did not imply any claim to superiority by the church of Rome. Second-century Christianity there appears to have been very varied. It included independent schools like Justin’s and immigrant groups such as the Asians who followed their traditional observance of the Pascha (Passover). Not until the last decade of the century did a strong bishop emerge – Victor, an African and the first Latin speaker. Meanwhile, the shrines of Peter and Paul bolstered a growing self-confidence.

The first bishop to claim a special authority derived from Peter by appealing to Matthew 16: 18-19, was Stephen, in his dispute with Cyprian. Paul’s position alongside Peter in the earliest church now began to be lost sight of. Cyprian regarded every bishop’s seat as ‘the see of Peter’, although he agreed that the Roman church had special importance because it had been founded so early. The Roman church already possessed considerable wealth, including the underground burial-chambers (catacombs) outside the city and several large houses whose upper floors were adapted for use as churches (tituli).

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Centuries later, the Roman church criticised the British for their great lack of martyrs as compared with their own record. The leaders of the British church informed them that the leaders of the British church lived to preach and teach the Gospel and not die for it unnecessarily. As noted already, there were many in the Roman church who viewed martyrdom as a noble, worthwhile gesture to such an extent that some became fanatics. They sought martyrdom before they had achieved anything else worthwhile. The most popular claimant to the honour of being the first Christian martyr in Britain, identified with the church of St. Alban’s, was the Christianised Roman soldier, named Alban. During the Diocletian persecution in Britain, he aided a hunted British priest to escape by wearing his robe, drawing pursuit to himself. On being recognised, the Roman officer ordered a soldier standing nearby to execute the culprit. The soldier refused, admitting that he too was a Christian, with the result that both soldiers were immediately beheaded. Tradition claims they were buried together on the spot where they were killed and a church erected on the site was named St. Alban’s. However, the early British historian, Bishop Alford wrote of an earlier martyr who was apparently known to both Peter, Barnabas and Paul, Aristobulus, who was absent in Britain before Paul arrived in Rome. In the Martyrologies of the Greek church, we read:

Aristobulus was one of the seventy disciples and a follower of St. Paul the Apostle, along with whom he preached the Gospel to the whole world, and ministered to them. He was chosen by St. Paul to be the missionary bishop to the land of Britain.  He was chosen by St. Paul to be the missionary to the land of Britain. He was there martyred after he had built churches and ordained deacons and priests on the island.

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Dorotheus, Bishop of Tyre, recorded in AD 303 that Aristobulus who is mentioned by the Apostle in his Epistle to the Romans, was made Bishop in Britain. Haleca, Bishop of Augusta, confirms that he was one of many martyrs whose memory was celebrated by the Britons and the Adonis Martyrologia also contains a record which confirms his mission to Britain, where he founded a church before his martyrdom in circa AD 59 or 60, on 15 March. There is a legend suggesting that Paul himself may have paid a brief visit to Britain during his time in Rome, but though we know that he intended to travel to Spain, there is little evidence to suggest that he did so, or that he went further north. Apparently, in Merton College, Oxford, there is an ancient manuscript known as the ‘Paulian MS’ which purports to contain a series of letters between Paul and Seneca, which make allusions to the former’s residence in Siluria. Clement of Rome, who died in about AD 100 wrote of the martyrdoms of both Peter and Paul, whom he probably knew personally. He sums up the magnitude of Paul’s achievement in the following terms:

Paul, also, having seven times worn chains, and been hunted and stoned, received the prize of such endurance. For he was the herald of the Gospel in the West as well as in the East, and enjoyed the illustrious reputation of the faith in teaching the whole world to be righteous. And after he had been in the extremity of the West, he suffered martyrdom before the sovereigns of mankind; and thus delivered from this world, he went to his holy place, the most brilliant example of steadfastness that we possess. 

In referring to ‘the extremity of the West’, Clement could be referring to Gaul or Britain, but he is more likely to be referring, in this context, to the western Mediterranean. I Clement is an open letter from one of the early bishops or presbyters of the Rome to the church at Corinth, probably written at the very end of the first century, shortly after the persecution of Emperor Domitian. It is probably the earliest surviving Christian writing outside of the New Testament. It was written to counter the disruption and disturbance of in the church at Corinth, where some of the older leaders had been deposed by a younger clique. It sheds interesting light on the nature and conduct of church life soon after the age of the apostles. It puts great stress on good order, and on Christian faith being accompanied by good works, claiming that Abraham was saved by faith and hospitality. The book quotes extensively from the Old Testament, Jewish books outside the canon and writings of the apostles. Like Paul’s own letter to the Corinthians, written earlier, Clement exhorts his readers to Christian humility and love, and it was probably read out in Corinth and other churches.

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In I Corinthians, which gives the earliest description of worship in the Christian church, Paul constantly draws on the Old Testament. This letter, written in about AD 55 pictures the church as the new Israel, living a pattern of the Christian life that is based on the new exodus. Paul uses ideas drawn from the Jewish Passover, which celebrated God’s saving favour and strength in calling Israel to be his people, and rescuing them from tyranny in Egypt. According to Paul, the church succeeded the old Jewish community and combined both Jews and Greeks within God’s one family of converted men and women. This fellowship of believers in Jesus stood at the dawn of a new age of grace and power. Al this was possible through the gift of the Holy Spirit, which followed the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. This one fact of experience stamps New Testament worship as unique, however much the church owed to its Jewish inheritance. Paul used the framework of the Passover meal to interpret the Lord’s Supper. But other elements were intertwined, such as the fellowship meal, called the agape or love-feast which had its counterpart in Jewish table-customs. This had become an occasion for an ‘orgy’ of gluttony and drunkenness in Corinth, and Paul pointed out that this was a breakdown in the fellowship which both the Lord’s Supper and the agape were designed to promote. Paul believed that the Lord’s Supper served both to unite Christians with the Lord in his death and risen life, and to join believers in a bond of union as ‘one body’ in Christ, receiving him by faith and in love.

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The setting for worship was ‘the first day of the week’, referring to the day of Christ’s resurrection, as in the Gospels, and is distinct from the Jewish Sabbath. The Christian Sunday was not made a ‘day of rest’ until Constantine decreed it in AD 321. Paul also wrote about baptism, a rite of initiation with its roots in the Jewish washings for ceremonial purposes, and especially in the service of tebilah, the ‘bath’ necessary for all converts to Judaism. The practice of baptism was also being misused at Corinth, and Paul objected to their misunderstanding or abuse. Baptism, he told them, should be in the name of Jesus, not in the name of leaders in the fellowship, as if these were apostolic cult figures. ‘In the name of Jesus’ meant that new converts passed under his authority, and confessed him as Lord. The enthusiasm of the Corinthian Christians also led them to misuse ‘ecstatic tongues’ and other gifts of the Spirit. Paul tried to curb this by insisting that worship must promote the healthy growth of the entire community of Christians. Personal indulgence in the gifts of the Spirit was to be brought firmly under control. Not all the features of early Christian worship at Corinth are clear. It is not known what ‘baptism for the dead’ implied. Paul did not attach great importance to it but used it simply to illustrate another matter. He also mentioned the ‘kiss of peace’ without explanation.

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Prayers also played an important part in worship at Corinth. At public prayer, the response of amen (a Hebrew word of confirmation) was the natural way to show agreement. Problems arose over women who attempted to pray with uncovered heads. Paul resisted this practice, though he freely granted the right of women believers to act as prophets and leaders of prayer in the assembled church. Both prophesying and praying were seen as gifts of the Spirit. The freedom that the Corinthians were exercising to the full was to be held in check. Paul crisply summed up: Let all things be done decently and in order. ‘Singing’ with the mind and the Spirit indicates a musical side to the meeting, but references to musical instruments do not make it clear whether they were used in worship. Exactly what these hymns were, and whether snatches of them have survived, is unclear. Passages in Philippians 2: 6-11; Colossians 1: 15-20 and 1 Timothy 3: 16 contain what may be early hymns, offered, as later among Christians in Bithynia about AD 112, to Christ as God. Ephesians 5: 14 is the most likely example of a hymn from the churches instructed by Paul. The setting of that three-line invocation is clearly a service of baptism.

Evidence about Christian worship from writers who lived between the time of Paul and the middle of the second is scarce and difficult to piece together. In his letters, Pliny gives an outsider’s view of Christian worship from this time:

They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang an anthem to Christ as God, and bound themselves by a solemn oath (‘sacramentum’) not to commit any wicked deed, but to abstain from all fraud, theft and adultery, never to break their word, or deny a trust when called upon to honour it; after which it was their custom to separate, and then meet again to partake of food, but food of the ordinary and innocent kind.

(Pliny, Letters x. 96; AD 112).

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Pliny’s correspondence with Emperor Trajan reveals that the early Christians shared ‘holy meals’ and that by this time the agape had been separated from the Lord’s Supper. In fact, continuing abuse of the ‘love-feast’ led to its gradual disappearance in its original form. The solemn meal of ‘holy communion’ was given more and more prominence as a sacrament. Ignatius describes it as a medicine of immortality, the antidote that we should not die, but live forever in Jesus Christ. Worship gradually became more standardised, formal and stereotyped in the period following Paul’s death, with the ‘Lord’s Supper’ becoming the focal point of the liturgy. Bishops and deacons possibly helped in this trend. New converts (catechumens) were given instruction in preparation for baptism. Worship forms connected with this are referred to in the letters of I Peter and I John. Short snatches of an elementary creed are found in such verses as Jesus is Lord (Romans 10: 9), lengthened and developed in I Timothy 3: 16 and I Peter 3: 18-22.

At first, when a person was baptised they affirmed a creed which was concerned mainly with statements about Christ’s person, as in the addition to the text in Acts 8: 37. Examples of more formal creeds, stating the belief in the three persons of the Godhead, the Trinity, occur in descriptions of baptismal services reported by Irenaeus and Hippolytus of Rome. The Apostles’ Creed, shown below, derives from the late second-century baptismal creed used in Rome, which in turn derives from Paul’s theology. Perhaps the most lasting and visible legacy of the self-proclaimed apostle is, therefore, to be found in the liturgy of the sacraments, which is still shared in most Christian churches, more than nineteen hundred and fifty years after his death.

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Sources:

Tom Wright (2018), Paul: A Biography. London: SPCK.

Robert C Walton (ed.) (1970), A Source Book of the Bible for Teachers. London: SCM Press.

Tim Dowley (ed.) (1977), The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.

George F Jowett (1961), The Drama of the Lost Disciples. London: Covenant Publishing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted March 18, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Archaeology, Asia Minor, Assimilation, baptism, Bible, Britain, British history, Britons, Celtic, Celts, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civilization, Colonisation, Commemoration, Compromise, Conquest, Crucifixion, Education, eschatology, Ethnicity, Europe, Family, Fertility, Gentiles, Graeco-Roman, History, Imperialism, India, Israel, Jerusalem, Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, Jews, John's Gospel, Josephus, Literature, Marriage, Mediterranean, Memorial, Messiah, Middle East, Midlands, morality, multiculturalism, Music, Narrative, Nationality, New Testament, Old Testament, Palestine, Paul (Saint), Poverty, Reconciliation, Remembrance, Romans, Sacraments, Simon Peter, Synoptic Gospels, Syria, The Law, theology, tyranny, Women in the Bible

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New Testament Marriage, Blessings & Covenants   4 comments

Lent is a time for reflection, and this year I thought hard about the ‘Gay Marriage‘ controversy which has been hitting the headlines. Since then, I’ve received many unsolicited posts on the issue, many hurling abuse at the Christian churches and most showing a lack of understanding of the Christian view of marriage and the way in which it is framed within the law in the United Kingdom, as a result of centuries of conflict and compromise between church and state. I’m deeply concerned by the strength of the language used by both advocates and opponents of this proposal. I’ve been drawn into using some of this myself, I have to admit, and repent of some of the comments I’ve made myself.

I promised some of those I’ve engaged with that I would publish ‘a blog’ on these matters, which are not as simple as we may at first think in Britain, because of its complicated history of the entanglements of church and state. Perhaps the time has come to disentangle the Christian marriage service from the secular registration of marriages and civil partnerships, but I know this would be bitterly opposed in England, at least, and, in the meantime, there are many homosexual Christians who do not seem to feel sufficiently welcomed in the churches through the affirmation of their relationships, either formally or informally. As someone who has grappled with these issues of sexuality and the Christian faith over forty years now, has been challenged by the differences in marriage laws in the UK and Hungary in arranging our own ceremonies and has, as a wedding ‘MC’ had to carefully choreograph the intertwining of the diverse religious and humanist traditions which are part of the lives of many friends, I am concerned that the needs of Gay Christian couples, and those of other faiths, are being drowned out by the chorus of church-bashing which appears to be part of a rising tide of aggressive atheism.

Of course, my own ‘national church’, the Religious Society of Friends, has long been ‘permitted’ to marry heterosexual couples, without any formal litany, at its meeting houses, under UK law. It  also came to a new view of sexuality in 1963, publishing Towards a Quaker View of Sex. I found this extremely helpful as a university student in 1975-6, confused about issues of sexuality, and began to attend meetings for worship, though I didn’t become a member of the Society until 1989, when I was working for it in the West Midlands. In 2009, following an internal ‘discernments’ culminating in a minute at London Yearly Meeting, the Society published ‘We are but Witnesses’ which put forward a case for a departure from the traditional view of Christian marriage and argued for a change in the law to permit same-sex marriages to be ‘solemnised’ in places of worship throughout the UK. I cannot support this for three reasons:

1. The Dissenting tradition in the United Kingdom has always sought to separate it practices from the interference of the state in religious matters and, since ‘we are but witnesses’ commitments which take place in the sight of God, we have no need to enlist the support of the state. Indeed, marriages can be made without human witnesses, in so-called ‘common law’ relationships. Marriage is a religious matter, not a legal one, and whilst governments, which come and go, may wish to support it, we do not seek privilege from it as Christians, but regard it as a solemn duty. The gospel calls us to support equality in society and for that reason many of us have supported the move towards equity in legal matters which the introduction of ‘civil partnerships’ has enabled. These could be made available to heterosexual couples, and, if there are remaining inequalities between marriages and civil partnerships, these are surely matters requiring the attention of the state, not the churches. Whilst the Church has social responsibilities as part of its witness, its role is to hold to the eternal truths of Christ’s kingdom on earth, which is separate from secular society.

2. The Bible, and, more particularly the New Testament and, even more particularly, the words of Jesus Christ, our fonder, are quite clear both in defining marriage and in stating that homosexual men are excluded from the obligation to marry. Nothing is said about lesbian relationships, not because they did not exist in the ancient world, but because they were not seen as preventing women from marrying men. We need look no further than Jesus’ words for guidance, since they fulfil the teachings of the Torah, and the apostles were writing at a time when they believed that the ‘third dispensation’, the second coming of Christ, would pre-date many of their deaths. Therefore, marriage was only seen as a way of  controlling sexual relations on a temporary basis. I have not found any outright condemnation of homosexuality, or homosexual relations in the New Testament, merely condemnation of promiscuity.

3. Marriage, as public declaration of a heterosexual relationship where two people become one family, is fundamentally different from the formalisation of a ‘partnership’, and I have characterised this as ‘two into one’ compared with ‘one plus one’. As Christians, we celebrate diversity in human relations; we don’t insist on everyone doing things the same way. If we didn’t believe this, we would still have one undivided, catholic church. Rather than insisting on everyone being ‘married’, we should be finding ways of ensuring that commitments and ‘covenants’ between all loving couples can be affirmed and recognised in a variety of acts of public worship. This is what I have tried to show below.

A glance at the following sentences (from Orders and Prayers for Church Worship, the Baptist Manual for Ministers) and scriptures will, I believe, reveal three truths:

1. That Christian marriage, as an institution, cannot be extended to same-sex unions, if the Church is to remain true to Christ‘s teachings and actions in defining the nature of that institution throughout the centuries;

2. That the current ‘equity’ (‘equality’ is not a precise enough term) given to same-sex relations through the change in the law allowing ‘civil partnerships’ does not prevent local congregations and church governments from listening to what Gay Christian couples would themselves like, and making very simple adjustments to existing sentences to include blessings and covenants for these brothers and sisters in Christ.

3. In doing so, no judgement of same-sex relationships in general is required and the special nature of Christian marriage need not be compromised, neither would the liberty of conscience of the ministers who would be asked to conduct such services.

This is why I have set out the sentences and scriptures below, as a way of looking at where the churches are at present, and how some may feel prompted to go further in including their Gay members and attenders.

1. Ordinances of the Church: The solemnization of Marriage:

‘Marriage is a holy estate instituted by God and commended in Scripture as honourable to all who enter it lawfully and in true affection. It was confirmed by Christ’s solemn words and hallowed by his gracious presence at the marriage feast in Cana of Galilee; and it is set forth by the Apostle as signifying the mystical union between Christ and his church…

‘Therefore it ought not to be entered upon lightly or unadvisedly, but thoughtfully and reverently, duly considering the causes for which it was ordained…

  • ‘It was ordained for the hallowing of the union between man and woman so that, the natural instincts and affections being directed aright, they should live in purity and honour…
  • ‘It was ordained for the increase of mankind, and that children might be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord…
  • ‘It was ordained for the companionship, help, and comfort which husband and wife ought to have of each other…
  • ‘It was ordained for the welfare of human society, which can be strong and happy only where the marriage bond is held in honour…

2. Selections from the New Testament dealing with marriage:

  • The Words of Jesus:

‘Jesus answered, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder’. (Matthew 19: 4-6; See also Mark 10: 2-12)..

‘There are many reasons why men cannot marry: some, because they were born that way; others, because men made them that way; and others do not marry for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven’ (Matthew 19: 12).

‘Every man should have his own wife, and every woman should have her own husband. A man should fulfill his duty, as a wife, and each should satisfy the other’s needs. A wife is not the master of her own body, but the husband is; in the same way a husband is not the master of his own body, but his wife is. Do not deny yourselves to each other unless you first agree to do so for a while…I tell you this not as an order, but simply as a permission’ (1 Corinthians 7: 2-6).

‘Every husband must love his wife as himself, and every wife must respect her husband’ (Ephesians 5: 31).

3. The Blessing of a Civil Partnership, or ‘Union’ (based on ‘The Blessing of a Civil Marriage‘):

The order is for use only when a civil ceremony has already taken place in the Registry Office, or another place authorised by the Registrar. The Minister should not perform this ceremony until he has seen the Certificate of Registration of the Civil Partnership, or ‘Union’. All standing, the minister shall say:

‘Dearly beloved: we are gathered here in the presence of God to seek this blessing on the union into which these two persons here entered. This blessing should be sought only by those who are willing to fulfil the obligations which a Christian relationship demands.

‘The hallowing of the union between two persons is…

‘…so that, the natural instincts and affections being directed aright, they should live in purity and honour..

‘…to honour the companionship, help, and comfort which partners ought to have for each other..

‘…for the welfare of human society, which can be strong and happy only where its bonds are held in honour.’

Then the minister shall say to the Couple:

‘In token of your covenant with one another, you may exchange rings. Do you promise before God to love each other, comfort, honour and keep each other in sickness and in health, so long as you both shall live?’

The partners answer in unison:

‘We do’.

If the rings have not already been given, the rings shall be placed on the book, exchanged and delivered by the Minister. Each partner shall repeat after the minister the following words:

‘ I give thee this ring as a token of the covenant made between us this day and as a pledge of our mutual love: in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

The Minister will then add this blessing:

‘The Lord Bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you.  The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.’

A psalm or a hymn may then be sung, followed by selections from Holy Scripture, an address, prayers, closing hymn, and the blessing, as in ‘the Order for the Solemnization of Marriage’ and by agreement with the Minister. The following readings from scripture are among those that may be chosen:

‘Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends’. (I Corinthians 13: 4-8)

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you”. (John 15 : 9-12)

The Orders and Prayers for Church Worship makes it clear that while we base everything we believe as Christians on the immutable Word of God, the nature of the sacraments and liturgy of worship have evolved over the centuries, and are part of a continuing ‘conversation’ between God and men, which is two-way. We don’t need to wait for God to speak first, we can have something to say to Him, based on the changing needs of human society in the twenty-first century. The PM has lit the blue touch-paper by announcing his ‘consultation’. The churches could surely go one better by opening up a dialogue with God and a discourse with each other on these issues, and especially with Gay Christians, rather than each denomination taking its own position in relation to the desire for a change in the secular law.

‘Eat, Pray, Love’: Rediscovering divinity, Redefining identity, Redeeming humanity   Leave a comment

Sentence of Penitence: With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Gospel for the Third Sunday in Lent:

Jesus was driving out a demon that could not talk; and when the demon went out, the man began to talk. The crowds were amazed, but some of the people said, ‘it is Beelzebub, the chief of the demons, who gives them the power to drive them out.’

Others wanted to trap Jesus, so they asked him to perform a miracle to show that God approved of him. But Jesus knew what they were thinking, so he said to them, ‘Any country that divides itself into two groups which fight each other will not last very long; a family divided against itself falls apart.  So if Satan’s kingdom has groups fighting each other, how can it last? You say that I drive out demons because Beelzebub gives me the power to do so. If this is how I drive them out, how do your followers drive them out? Your own followers prove that you are wrong! If it is by the finger of God that I drive out the devils, then be sure that the kingdom of God has already come upon you’. (Luke 11: 17-20)

Some reflections of my own:

I had three things on his mind this morning, the third Sunday morning in Lent. Last night I watched ‘Eat, Pray, Love‘ with my wife. We found it very interesting, as well as entertaining, but it also left us feeling uneasy about how ‘easy’ it might be to ‘rediscover’ yourself, and God, without the responsibilities and obligations of ‘raising a family’, very much a part of marriage for most. While we found Julia Roberts‘ character rather self-indulgent, though religiously seeking truth, her ‘third’ lover redeemed the film for me, but I won’t spoil the ending for you.

In the film, the result of Liz’s untutored attempts to open up a direct dialogue with God was her decision to leave a relationship, a marriage, in which both partners felt unsatisfied. She asked God to tell her what to do, but then took the decision herself, that night.  She was impatient for an answer and was not prepared to wait on God. Her husband had suggested that they should stay together because they couldn’t bear to be apart. However, she leaves her marriage and embarks on both an inner and outward pilgrimage with Rome, India and Bali as backdrops.

On the radio this morning, someone referred to the Gadarene Demoniac as an example of what happens when evil spirits control us – they become impatient for a solution and we get driven off the precipice like the hapless pigs! The Church is just as capable of self-destruction in its decision-making as the rest of us. Clerical cloth of any colour is no guarantee of its ability to exorcise its own demons, especially in the man-made institutions of the Anglican Church, though I didn’t agree with the speaker that this was a case in point.

Neither was I wasn’t convinced that things were so bad for the film characters Liz and her husband that she needed to press the self-destruct button in her relationship, or, indeed, that God would be prompting her to do so. And, if God was not doing the prompting, could she recognise that someone or something else might be doing the prompting? I also wondered if, had there been children in their marriage, she would be in such a hurry to ‘rediscover’ her individual identity, or, indeed, whether she would have the time and resources to do so.

This leads me into my second point, which is about marriage itself.  In breaking her marriage, was Liz defining it, in purely ‘secular’ terms as a partnership, and one which, as her husband angrily pointed out, was not necessarily ’till death do us part’ but more like ’till indifference do us part’. Without wishing to judge even fictional individuals, this is a redefinition in terms of human gratification and selfishness, it seems to me, which has little to do with the Christian view of marriage. In which case, I found myself wondering, why did Liz want to get married in the first place? Maybe the Church doesn’t own the definition of marriage, but then is it right for the state to reduce its meaning to the lowest common denominator of social institutions. If marriage is simply about what any two people want from each other, then why involve the civil law or the Church at all? Why not just do what many of our ancestors did and simply have a ‘Common Law’ arrangement? After thousands of years of marriage being defined as ‘the union between a man and a woman’, we now seem to being pushed into a redefinition which will fundamentally alter the legal and religious basis of family life in Britain. In making this point, I am not making an anti-gay one. Like some of the Catholic leaders who spoke this morning, and, indeed, the new Dean of St Paul’s, I am concerned that we are, to use a Mathematical metaphor, simply getting our sums mixed up. Marriage is ‘two into one’, not ‘one plus one’. It’s about two individuals giving up their rights as individuals to become one human family and thereafter to ‘multiply’, if you like. In the current debate, the rights of perhaps the most important parties to the marriage, the children, have been so far ignored, and it is not hypocrisy for the largest Christian community, the Catholic Church, to have a view on this, just because some of its members have shamefully trampled on those rights, or because others honour God’s call to celibacy, like Jesus and St Paul before them. The argument that ‘Gay Marriage’ is allowed in many ‘Catholic countries’ ignores the point that in those countries it is allowed by the state, not the Church. In Britain, not entirely uniquely, marriage is defined jointly by the ‘national’ Churches of England, Scotland and Wales, and by UK Law. Many Christians would like to see an amicable ‘divorce’ between these two, a separation between Church and State, which would allow for a separate, purely secular definition of marriage, but many Christians would still want one marriage service, and not to have to go to the Registry Office first, as happens here in Hungary. Why, indeed, shouldn’t they, and why should there not be a separate, different but equal, service for those wanting a ‘one plus one’ legal covenant witnessed in Church? Alternatively, couples of whatever gender could have their partnerships blessed in Church, borrowing lines from the marriage service, as already happens in many cases.  Why does everyone have to feel pushed into a ‘one size fits all’ legal arrangement out of a false identification of a need for ‘absolute equality’ rather than justice, fairness and equity? Why should I be made to feel that my marriage of 22 years and 2 children is about to be ‘down-graded’ from a ‘family affair’ to a legal contract?

So ‘rediscovering your divinity’ and ‘redefining marriage’ are two themes. The third? ….

Not so different from the first two really….

In the Lent Gospel, Jesus’ teaching is not simply about the evil and destructiveness of division in a family or a country, it is about the ‘indivisibility’ of these human institutions, if they are inspired by God. Put simply, you can no more have Good fighting Good than Evil fighting Evil. Perhaps that’s why we call our football teams ‘United’ and Man Utd are known as the ‘Red Devils’. It’s perhaps not entirely unconnected that two football teams in continuing difficulties have recently sacked their managers, my team being one of them. In one case, the manager had been in charge for several years, and the supporters, hungry for success, finally ran out of patience. In another, the manager, the players and the owner were all divided against each other, and the manager didn’t even survive one season. In both cases, it was  passionate impatience which led to the divisions and sackings. To take Jesus’ other example, we can see many countries which are divided among themselves, including the ‘United’ Kingdom. I am English, but my identity is also defined by the Welsh, Scots and Irish I have always had around me in Britain, and I consider myself ‘British’ too. After all, ‘what knows he of England who only England knows?’ I am married to a Hungarian, so that makes my sons ‘half-British’ and ‘half-Hungarian’ doesn’t it? Of course not, how or where would you divide them?! Not even the wisdom of Solomon could do that! No, they are both fully Hungarian and fully British!  No halves, no hyphens! I now live in Hungary, where there are many current divisions over social, economic and political issues. However, on Thursday next week, the country will remember its unity and independence at the time of the 1848-9 Uprising against the Austrians. It has also survived invasions and occupations by Mongols, Turks and Soviet Russians. It has had two-thirds of its territory taken away, but its people have remained united in the face of these adversities, keeping their unique language and culture intact.

When Jesus refers to ‘division’ he is not simply referring to separation, divorce or civil war. He is referring to the very idea of the family and the country in human society as inspired by God’s Will, as well as by our human instincts. To keep and maintain these institutions, we need divine grace and patience. Without these atomic building blocks intact, human society cannot survive. It will destroy itself. Goodness, like Evil, is uncountable. There is no ‘Greater Goodness’ or ‘Lesser Evil’. They are both indivisible.

Andrew J Chandler

Collect Prayers:

O lord, whose love has brought us to know you, and whose power drives out the evil inside us, help us to fill our lives with obedience to your will, so that your indwelling may be complete, and evil find no home in our hearts; through the power of your Spirit.  Amen.

O Lord, whose power to heal was tested against the power which destroys, and proved stronger: open our eyes to the signs of your strength in this modern world, and open our hearts to the Kingdom of God, which has come upon us; through the power of your spirit. Amen

Susan Williams


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