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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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Paul of Tarsus: Jew, Roman & Christian Missionary to the Gentiles – Part Four.   Leave a comment

The Challenge – What was Paul thinking?

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The Sources – The Great Pastoral ‘Epistles’:

To understand the thought of Paul, we naturally turn to his letters. Although Luke’s Acts of the Apostles gives a fair account of his life and work, and a general idea of what he stood for, it is in his letters that his mind is fully revealed. In the New Testament, there are thirteen letters that name Paul as their ‘author’. A fourteenth, the Letter to the Hebrews is often included with them it is, in fact, an anonymous work, since in the early church itself it was admitted that no one knew who wrote it. Of the thirteen, it is by no means certain that all were written by Paul’s hand or even at his dictation. This was not unusual for the period in which he was writing since it was not unusual for disciples of an outstanding teacher to compose books to propagate his teaching as they understood it, and to publish them under his name; we only have to remind ourselves how ‘loosely’ the gospels are connected with the disciples whose names they bear.

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There are strong reasons for thinking that the Letters to Timothy and Titus might have originated in a similar way. On the other hand, the four great pastoral Epistles to the Galatians, Corinthians and the Romans, to which we might add the short note to Philemon, carry the style of the apostle’s style and personality on every page and in every verse. There is no question that Paul composed them and most scholars have claimed the same about Philippians and the two Letters to the Thessalonians. There is more doubt about Colossians, but the balance of probability falls in favour of Paul’s authorship, possibly with some collaboration. The inclusion of the Letter to the Ephesians is more debatable, because of the difference in style. Yet if it was written by a disciple, it must have been written by one with great insight into the mind of the apostle, and whether or not it comes from his own hand, it can be included in the canon in gaining a full picture of his thought in its fullest and most mature form.

The letters were almost all the result of some particular event, and none of them, except perhaps the Letter to the Romans, makes any attempt to present the author’s thinking in any systematic way. They were clearly written at intervals in the midst of an extremely busy life, but are also the product of a prodigious intellect responding to the challenge of practical problems of Christian living in a pagan environment, as in the correspondence with the church in Corinth, or of a subtle propaganda which seemed to be subversive of the truth, as in Galatians and Colossians. We have to interpret his teaching by gathering and combining what he wrote in different geographical contexts, to different people and at different times. His thought was formed both by his background and the environments he was writing in and for, as well as by his personal experiences. We have to take particular account of his strict Jewish upbringing and of what he owed to the primitive Christian community which he had joined at an early, formative stage in its history. What assessment can we then make of his brilliant mind and passionate heart? Tom Wright has the following answer:

For Paul, there was no question about the starting point. It was always Jesus: Jesus as the shocking fulfilment of Israel’s hopes; Jesus as the genuinely human being, the true ‘image’; Jesus the embodiment of Israel’s God – so that, without leaving Jewish monotheism, one would worship and invoke Jesus as Lord within, not alongside, the service of the ‘living and true God’. Jesus, the one for whose sake one would abandon all idols, all rival ‘lords’. Jesus, above all, who had come to his kingdom, the true lordship of the world, in the way that Paul’s friends who were starting to write the Jesus story at that time had emphasised: by dying under the weight of the world’s sin in order to break the power of the dark forces that had enslaved all humans, Israel included… Jesus was the starting point. And the goal.

Jewish Heritage, Judaism & the Nations:

God’s plan had always been to unite all things in heaven and on earth in Jesus, which meant, from the Jewish point of view, that Jesus was the ultimate Temple, the heaven-and-earth place. This, already accomplished in his person, was now being implemented through his spirit. Paul always believed that God’s new creation was coming, perhaps soon. By the time of his later letters he realised that he might himself die before it happened. But that the present corrupt and decaying world would one day be rescued from its state of slavery and death, emerging into a new life under the glorious rule of God’s people, God’s new humanity – this was something he never doubted. Insofar as there was an ‘apocalyptic’ view in Paul’s day, he shared it. He believed that Israel’s God, having abandoned the Temple at the time of the Babylonian exile, had revealed himself in Jesus, breaking in upon an unready world and an unready people. There was a certain contradiction deeply embedded in the monotheistic Judaism of the first century. The One God, it taught, was the God of the whole world, maker and ruler of all mankind. Yet in a special sense, he was the God of Israel, the nation bound to him in an ‘everlasting covenant’. The ‘charter’ of this covenant was the Law, which was held to be the perfect embodiment of the righteousness He required of men. As such it was absolute and universal, but it was also, primarily, Israel’s law. Paul himself gave eloquent expression to the pride which the Jew felt in this unique privilege:

You rely upon the Lord and are proud of your God; you know his will; instructed by the Law you know right from wrong; you are confident that … in the Law you see the very shape of knowledge and truth.

(Rom. 2: 17-20).

The possession of the Law marked Israel out as God’s chosen people, and it was to his people that God had revealed himself in ‘mighty acts’, through which his purpose was fulfilled. This was the central motive of its history and the key to its destiny. In this way, the highest moral idealism became wedded to an assertive nationalism. What then was the status and the destiny of the nations that did not know the Hebrew God? The answers to this question were various and uncertain. Some of them show a finely humane spirit which went as far as possible – without prejudice to Israel’s prior claim – in generosity to the Gentiles. Others seem to us today to approach the limits of chauvinistic nationalism. But there was in first-century Judaism a strong ‘missionary’ movement towards the pagan world. On one level, it was content to propagate the monotheistic idea and certain fundamental moral principles, but its ulterior aim was to bring Gentiles within the scope of the divine mercy by incorporation in the chosen people. The ‘proselyte’ submitted himself to the Law of God – that is, to the Jewish Law; he became a Jew.

On the other side, the question arose, what was the status and the destiny of the Jews who, knowing the Law, do not in practice observe its precepts? Here again, the answers were uncertain and various. The Law itself proclaimed a curse on all who do not persevere in doing everything that is written in the Book of Law (Gal. 3:10), and prophets and Rabbis alike use the language of the utmost integrity in castigating offenders. Yet there is a notable reluctance to admit that in the last resort any ‘son of Abraham’ could be rejected by God; for the sake of the fathers, he would come through in the end. For Paul, who looked at the matter with his broader view of the world outside Palestine, this was simply not realistic; moreover, it was inconsistent with the principle of monotheism. The One God could not be the exclusive God of the Jews; he also had to be the God of the Gentiles. The conclusion was therefore unavoidable, that…

God has no favourites; those who have sinned outside the pale of the Law of Moses will perish outside its pale, and all who have sinned under that Law will be judged by the Law.

(Rom 2: 11 f.)

Yet while this clears the ground by setting aside any notion of preferential treatment, it is a negative assessment of the human condition. There is no distinction in that all have sinned (Rom. 3: 22), so that while there may be some ‘good’ Jews who keep God’s Law (Rom. 2: 29), and some ‘good’ Gentiles who live by ‘the light of nature’ (Rom. 2: 14), Paul held that, fundamentally, human society is in breach of the Law of God and is therefore headed for ultimate disaster, subject, as he put it, to the law of sin and death (Rom. 8: 2). This universal human condition enters the experience of every individual in the desperate moral struggle which Paul has depicted with deep psychological insight in the seventh chapter of Romans: When I want to do the right, only the wrong is within my reach (Rom. 7: 21). The problem which began as a domestic concern within Judaism turned out to be a broader enquiry into the human condition. That is why Paul’s controversy with his Judaic opponents which looks, at first sights, like an antiquated, parochial dispute, turns out to have permanent significance. The only possible solution to this quandary that Paul could contemplate was a fresh divine initiative such as the one taken when he had established the covenant with Israel at Sinai. He now saw that this new initiative had actually taken place when Christ entered history:

What the law could not do because our lower nature robbed it of all potency, God has done – by sending us his Son.

(Rom. 8: 3).

The Divine Initiative – Doctrines & Metaphors:

This divine initiative is an entirely free and authentic, original act of God, conditioned only by his love for mankind while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5: 8). This is what Paul describes as the ‘grace’ of God. The response that is asked for from the people is ‘faith’, or ‘trust’ in God. In writing about this divine initiative in human experience, Paul uses a variety of expressions. The most frequently used was ‘salvation’. In common Greek usage, this word had a wide range of meanings. It could simply mean safety and security, deliverance from disaster, or good health and well-being. In effect, it conveyed the concept of a condition in which ‘all is well’, and the particular way in which that was the case depended on the context in which it was used. In Paul’s writings, as in those of the New Testament authors in general, salvation stands for a condition in which ‘all is well’ in the absolute sense; a condition in which we are secure from all evils that afflict, or menace, the human spirit, here or hereafter. Thus the expression, while strongly emotive, is hardly capable of telling us what precisely, as Paul sees it, God has done for us in Christ.

More illuminating are some of the metaphorical expressions he uses. Three of these have played a major part in the development of Christian doctrine, and need to be looked at more carefully. First, there is the legal, or forensic metaphor of ‘justification’, which we have previously encountered with Tom Wright in the context of the letter to the Galatians (Gal. 2: 15 f), but it is also a major theme in the later letter to the Romans (Rom. 3: 24, 26). Sin is conceived in this context as an offence, or offences, against the Law. The sinner stands at the bar and no-one but a judge with competent authority can condemn or acquit. Before the divine tribunal, the defendant is unquestionably guilty, but God acquits the guilty (Rom. 4: 5). Here Paul is setting out in the most challenging terms his conviction that God takes man as he is, with all his imperfections on his head, and gives him a fresh start so that he can then take on his moral task relieved of the crippling sense of guilt.

Secondly, there is the metaphor of ‘redemption’ (Rom 3: 24; 1 Cor. 1: 30; Eph. 1: 7; Col. 1: 14). The Greek word was used of the process by which a slave acquired his freedom; it means ‘release’, ’emancipation’, or ‘liberation’ (and is translated as such in the NEB). For Paul, the condition of a man caught in the moral dilemma he has described is a state of slavery, since he is unable to do what he wishes to do. But God, exercising all his supreme authority, declares the slave free, and free he is. All that Christ did – his entry into the human condition, his life of service, his suffering and death – may be regarded as the price God pays for the emancipation of the slave. The exultant note of liberation sounds all through the letters as Paul’s own experience as well as that of those he was writing to:

Christ set us free, to be free men.

(Gal. 5: 1)

Thirdly, there is the ritual metaphor of sacrifice. Sin can be regarded not only as a crime against the law, bringing a sense of guilt, or a state of slavery, bringing a sense of impotence, but also as ‘defilement’, which makes a man feel ashamed and disgusted with himself. In ancient religious defilement could be incurred in all sorts of ways, many of them having nothing to do with morals. It was assumed that the defilement could be removed by the performance of the proper ritual, most commonly, and perhaps most efficaciously, by the sacrifice of a victim. This was called ‘expiation’ or, less accurately, ‘atonement’. The metaphor of expiation, drawn from a world of thought quite alien to us, was ready to hand for anyone, like Paul, who was familiar with the elaborate ritual of sacrifice laid down in the Law of Moses, and in his time still practised in the temple at Jerusalem – or indeed for anyone acquainted with the religious rituals of the Greek states. This is the background of what he says about the work of Christ: God designed him to be the means of expiating sin by his sacrificial death (Rom. 3: 25). There is no suggestion, here or elsewhere, that Christ offered himself as a sacrifice to ‘propitiate’ an offended deity. In using the metaphor of sacrifice Paul is declaring his conviction that the self-sacrifice of Christ meant the release of moral power which penetrates to the deepest recesses of the human spirit, acting as a kind of ‘moral disinfectant’.

These are the metaphors which have most captured the imagination of Paul’s readers. His thought has sometimes been obscured through taking one of or another of them by itself, and then forgetting that it is, after all, a metaphor. What he was writing, all the time, was that in Christ God has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. The criminal could not pronounce his own acquittal, nor the slave set himself, nor could the slave set himself free, and God alone could ‘expiate’ the defilement we have brought upon ourselves. In the course of the following passage, perhaps the clearest and most succinct statement of his teaching on this theme:

From first to last this is the work of God. He has reconciled us men to himself through Christ … What I mean is that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer holding their misdeeds against them.

The Ministry of Reconciliation:

In the idea of ‘reconciliation’, his thought passed out of mere metaphor and adopted the language of actual personal relations. Many people know something of what it means to be ‘alienated’ or ‘estranged’ – perhaps from their environment or their fellow-men, perhaps from the standards of their society, perhaps, indeed, from themselves. The deepest alienation is from the true end of our being, and that means estrangement from our Maker, out of which comes a distortion of all relationships. The great thing that God, from his side of the gulf that has opened, has put an end to the estrangement; he has reconciled us to himself. Nowhere does he suggest that God needed to be reconciled to us. His attitude towards his creatures is, and always was, one of unqualified goodwill; as Jesus himself said, he is kind to the unthankful and wicked. Out of that goodwill, he has provided the way to reconciliation.

It was entirely in harmony with the prophetic valuation of history as the field of the ‘mighty acts’ of God that Paul saw in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as one more ‘mighty act’, the ‘fulfilment’ of all that God had promised in the whole history of Israel. In common Jewish belief, the symbol of that fulfilment was the expected ‘Messiah’. After his conversion, Paul accepted what the followers of Jesus were saying, that in him the Messiah had come. But what Paul meant by ‘Messiah’ was something different from any of the various forms of Jewish messianic expectation. The messianic idea had to be re-thought in the light of a new set of facts. One invariable trait of the Messiah in Jewish expectation was that he would be the agent of God’s final victory over his enemies. On the popular level, this meant victory over the pagan empires which had oppressed the chosen people from time to time. In Paul’s thinking, the idea of the messianic victory is completely ‘sublimated’. It is the cosmic powers and authorities that Christ led as captives in his triumphal procession (Col. 2: 15). Here, Paul was drawing on mythology which belonged to the mentality of most men of his time (Rom. 8: 38; Gal. 4: 3; Eph. 6: 12; Col. 2: 8, 15, etc.) The mythology stood for something real in human experience: the sense that there are unexplained factors working behind the scenes, whether in the world or in our own ‘unconscious’, frustrating our best intentions and turning our good to evil.

As Paul saw it, Jesus was, in his lifetime, in conflict not only with his ostensible opponents but with dark forces lurking in the background. It was, Paul says, the powers that rule the world that crucified him (I Cor. 2: 8), perverting the intended good to evil ends, for neither Pilate nor the chief priests and Pharisees meant ill. But in the outcome, Jesus was not defeated, and unclouded goodness prevailed. His resurrection was the pledge of victory over all enemies of the human spirit, for it was the final victory over death, which Paul personifies as ‘the last enemy’ (I Cor. 15: 26).  So, God gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (I Cor. 15: 57). It is for Paul highly significant that Jesus lived a truly human life, that he was a man and a Jew. But that does not mean that he is just one more individual thrown up by the historical process. On the contrary, his coming into the world can be seen as a fresh incursion of the Creator into his creation. God has now given the light of the revelation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (II Cor. 4: 6). In the act of creation, according to an influential school of Jewish thought, it was divine ‘wisdom’ that was at work, and Christ himself, Paul wrote, was ‘the wisdom of God’ visibly in action among men (I Cor. 1: 24). According to these Jewish thinkers, this wisdom was the flawless mirror of the active power of God and the image of his goodness (Wisdom of Solomon 7: 26). So Christ, Paul says, is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1: 19).

This was a new historical phenomenon, to be brought into relation with the history of Israel as the field within which the purpose of God was working itself out. The formative motive of that history was the calling into existence of a ‘people of God’ – a divine commonwealth – in and through which the will of God might be done on earth, an ‘Israel’ worth the name. The distinguishing mark of such an ‘Israel’, Paul wrote, was to be found in the promise made to Abraham, the founder of the Hebrew people, that in his posterity all nations shall find blessing (Gal. 3: 8). This ideal had never yet been realised, though in successive periods there had been some who had it in them to become such people, the ‘remnant’ of which prophets spoke (Rom. 9: 27; 11: 5). In the emergent church of Christ, Paul saw the divine commonwealth coming into active existence. If you belong to Christ, he writes, you are the issue of Abraham (Gal 3: 29), i.e. you are the true Israel in whom all nations shall find blessing.

Church & Sacraments:

002 (3)Here we have a pointer to one reason, at least, why Paul set such store by his mission to the Gentiles. The church was the consummation of a long, divinely directed, history. It is a theme to which he returns in the long and intricate discourse in Romans (9-11). The new, supra-national Israel was constituted solely on the basis of ‘belonging to Christ’, and no longer on racial descent or attachment to a particular legal system. Paul wrote: you are all one person in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3: 28). The expression ‘in Christ’ is one which recurs with remarkable frequency throughout Paul’s letters. The reality of the doctrine for which it stands was present in the church from the beginning in the two rites of baptism and the ‘breaking of bread’. It was through baptism that a person was incorporated into the community of Christ’s followers. In its suggestive ritual, in which the convert was ‘buried’ by immersion in water, and came out cleansed and renewed, Paul saw a symbolic re-enactment of the death and resurrection of Christ:

… by baptism we were buried with him and lay dead, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead in the splendour of the Father, so also we might set our feet on the new path of life (Rom. 6: 4).

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Baptism affirmed the solidarity of all members of the church with Christ. So, even more clearly and emphatically, did the other primitive sacrament of the church. From the first, its fellowship had been centred in the solemn ‘breaking of bread’ at a communal meal. As the bread was broken, they recalled the mysterious words which Jesus had spoken when he broke bread for his disciples at his last supper: ‘This is my body’ (I Cor. 11: 23 f.). Reflecting on these words, Paul observed, first, that in sharing bread the company established a corporate unity among themselves: We, many as we are, are one body, for it is one loaf of which we all partake (I Cor. 10: 17). Also, Christ himself had said, This is my body. Consequently, when we break the bread, it is a means of sharing the body of Christ (I Cor. 10: 16). The church, therefore, is itself the body of Christ; he is the head, and on him, the whole body depends (Eph. 4: 16). It is in this way that the new people of God is constituted, ‘in Christ’.

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In all forms of Jewish messianic belief, it was common ground that the Messiah was, in some sense, representative of Israel in its divine calling and destiny. Paul presses this idea of representation further by stating that those who adhere to Christ in sincere faith are identified with him in a peculiarly intimate way as if they were being included in him in his own being. He was the inclusive representative of the emergent people of God. Another way of putting it is to say that Christ is the second ‘Adam’, symbolic of the new humanity of which the church was the head. In the Jewish schools of thought where Paul had his training, there was much speculation about the ‘First Adam’ and about the way in which all men, as ‘sons of Adam’, are involved in his fortunes as depicted mythologically in Genesis. Paul takes up this idea: mankind is incorporate ‘in Adam’; emergent new humanity is incorporate ‘in Christ’: As in Adam all men die, so in Christ, all will be brought to life (I Cor. 15: 22; Rom. 5: 12-14). Once again, we see here a fresh expansion of the messianic idea.

The church, as the new ‘Israel of God’, in its essential nature was a united entity and this unity, he argued, should be reflected in the life of every local congregation; he was dismayed to see it being disrupted. In particular, there were persisting influences, both pagan and Jewish, in the minds of those so recently converted. Paul discusses, for example, divergences among Christians about the continued observance of Jewish holy days and food regulations (Rom. 14), and, on the other side, about the extent to which they might share in the social life of their pagan neighbours without sacrificing their principles (I Cor. 8: 1-13; 10: 18-33). But apart from such special discussions, Paul insisted on the idea of the church as a body, analogous to a living organism, in which the parts, while endlessly various, are interdependent and subordinate to one another, and each makes its indispensable contribution to the well-being of the whole. There is a passage in his First Letter to the Corinthians (12: 14-27) which is the classical statement of the idea of the social organism. He develops this idea in relation to his governing conception of the church as the body of Christ. In all its members, it is Christ who is at work, and God in Christ, through his Spirit:

There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are varieties of service, but the same Lord. There are many forms of work, but all of them, in all men, are the work of the same God.

(I Cor. 12: 4-11).

We can see from the lists of ‘services’ in other letters (Rom. 12: 6-8; Eph. 4: 11 f.) just how complex and sophisticated the activities of the ‘primitive’ church had already become in Paul’s time. It is in this context that Paul develops his doctrine of the Spirit, which is another of his most original contributions to Christian thought. It was an innovation rooted in what he had taken from his own Jewish background as well as from the first Judaic Christians. In some forms of Jewish messianic expectation, it was held that in the days of the Messiah, or in the age to come, the divine Spirit, which was believed to have animated the prophets and heroes of Israel’s remoter past, would be poured out afresh, and in a larger measure (Acts 2: 16-18). The early followers of Jesus, when the realisation had broken upon them that he had risen from the dead, had experienced an almost intoxicating sense of new life and power. It was accompanied, as often happens in times of religious ‘revival’, by abnormal psychic phenomena, including visions, the hearing of voices, and ecstatic utterance or ‘speaking with tongues’. The early Christians valued these as evident signs that God was at work among them through his Spirit. These abnormal phenomena reproduced themselves in the new Christian communities which sprang from Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, and here they created an exciting atmosphere which he also saw to be full of danger.

Liberty & the Gifts of the Spirit:

The situation needed careful handling since Paul did not want to be seen as damping down the enthusiasm of which these strange powers were one expression (I Thess. 5: 19-21). Nor did he wish to deny that they could be the outcome of genuine inspiration. He knew from his own personal experience what it was to have visions and to hear voices (II Cor. 12: 1-4), and he could himself ‘speak with tongues’ (I Cor. 14: 18). But there were other ‘gifts of the Spirit’, less showy, but in the end far more important to the community, such as wisdom, insight, powers of leadership, the gifts of teaching, administration, and the meeting of needs of those in states of deprivation and/or distress (Rom. 12: 6-8; I Cor. 12: 28). These were gifts which helped ‘build up’ the community (I Cor. 14:12) and in emphasising them Paul diverted attention away from the abnormal and exceptional to such moral and intellectual endowments as any society would wish to find among its members. It was their devotion to such endowments to the common good that gave them real value.

It was this original concept of the Spirit as the mode of Christ’s own presence in his church opens up a new approach to ethics. Paul found himself obliged to meet a formidable challenge to his message that the Christian is free from the ‘bondage’ of the law since Christ annulled the law with its rules and regulations (Eph. 2: 15). This kind of language ran the risk of being misunderstood. His Jewish critics, both inside and outside the church, suspected that in sweeping away the discipline of the Mosaic Law he was leaving his Gentile converts without moral anchorage in a licentious environment. Paul scarcely realised at first how open to misconstruction his language was. He soon discovered that he was widely understood to be advocating a purely ‘permissive’ morality, which was in fact far from his intention. People were claiming, We are free to do anything (I Cor. 6: 12; 10: 23), in the belief that they were echoing his own views. He did point out that there were some obvious limits on freedom and that Christian morality was not conformity to an external code but sprang from an inward source. The transformation which this involved was made effective by the work of the Spirit within as the true source of Christian character and action:

“We are free to do anything,” you say; but does everything help to build up the community?

(I Cor. 10: 23)

You were called to be free men, only do not turn your liberty to license for your lower nature.

(Gal. 5: 13)

Let your minds be remade, and your whole nature transformed; then you will be able to discern the will of God, and to know what is good, acceptable and perfect.

(Rom. 12: 2)

The harvest of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, and self-control. There is no law dealing with such things as those. 

(Gal. 5: 22 f.).

The church was under a ‘new covenant’, which was not, like the ‘old covenant’, guaranteed by a single code of commands and prohibitions engraved letter by letter upon a stone (II Cor. 3: 7), but by the Spirit animating the whole body of the church. But that Spirit was not simply an ‘inner light’, but the Holy Spirit, the Spirit in the church which is the Spirit of Christ working in the members of his body. This was the historical Christ who had lived and taught, died and rose again. Christians who had received the Gospel and teaching that went with it were in a position to know what it was like to be ‘Christlike’ in character and conduct, and this was an objective standard by which all inner promptings could be brought to the test. It might even be described as the law of Christ (Gal. 6: 2; I Cor. 9: 21), but Paul was obviously cautious of using such quasi-legal language; he did not wish to be introducing a kind of new Christian legalism. The ‘law of Christ’ and the ‘life-giving law of the Spirit’ are, for Paul, one and the same thing (Ro. 8: 2). Sometimes Paul wrote as if the ‘reshaping’ of the mind of the Christian took place almost immediately upon their becoming believers, but there are sufficient passages in his letters which reveal that he was aware that the process might be gradual, perhaps lengthy (Gal. 4: 19; Eph. 4: 13; I Cor. 9: 26) and possibly never completed in this life (Phil. 3: 12-14). But once the process was genuinely underway, a believer was ‘under the law of Christ’, and Christ himself – not the Christian’s own ideas, not even in the end, his conscience – is the judge to whom he defers in all his actions (I Cor. 4: 3 f.).

Loving-kindness – The Law of Christ & Social Ethics:

The ‘law of Christ’ is, therefore, Christ himself working through his Spirit in the church to give ethical direction. And it is all that we know of Christ that comes into it – his teaching, the example of his actions, and the impact of his death and resurrection. These acted as influences on Paul’s thought, not as from outside, but creatively from within. His ethical judgements are informed by the Spirit of Christ and yet are intimately his own. That is why the law of Christ, while it commands him absolutely, can never be thought of as a ‘bondage’, as the old law with its rules and regulations; where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (II Cor. 3: 17). Paul’s ethical teaching, therefore, is the application of what it means to be ‘Christlike’. His death is the commanding example of self-sacrifice for the sake of others (Gal. 2:20; Eph. 5: 2, 25), and it was his expression of his limitless love for mankind (Rom. 8: 34 f.; Eph. 3: 18 f.).

It is this quality of love, above all, that Paul holds up as the essence of what it means to be ‘Christlike’, and as the basic and all-inclusive principle of Christian living (Rom. 13: 8-10; Gal. 5: 14; Col. 3: 14; Eph. 1: 4). The word he uses is the almost untranslatable agape, a word first brought into common use in a Christian setting. It can be rendered by the older use of the word charity, from the Latin Caritas. ‘Agape’ includes feelings of affection (Rom. 12. 9 f.), but it evokes, more fully and fundamentally, the energy of goodwill or ‘loving kindness’ emanating unconditionally towards others, regardless of their merit, worthiness or attractiveness. The eloquent passage in I Corinthians 13, which has the feeling of a hymn to agape, contains pointers to the kind of attitude and behaviour it inspires, and in this context, it is presented as the highest of all ‘gifts of the Spirit’ (I Cor. 12: 31; 14: 1). It is in this ‘hymn’ that the ‘law of the Spirit’ and the ‘law of Christ’ become intertwined and thereby completely indistinguishable.

Agape, then, is the source of the distinctively Christian virtues and graces of character. It is also the most constructive principle in society; it is love that builds (I Cor. 8: 1). Thus the ideas of the building of the body and the centrality of love imply one another and form the effective basis for Paul’s teaching on social ethics. The whole of Christian behaviour can be summed up in the maxim, Love one another as Christ loved you (Eph. 5: 1; Gal. 5: 13 f.; I Thess. 4: 9; Col. 3: 14). This does not mean, however, that Paul is content to say, Love and do as you please. Nor, on the other hand, does he undertake to show how detailed rules of behaviour could be derived deductively from a single master-principle. Ethical behaviour is essentially an individual’s response to actual situations in which he finds himself in day-to-day living as a member of society. Paul envisages his readers not just in any society, but in the particular society in which their daily lives must be lived, namely the Graeco-Roman world, which he knew so well, with its political, legal and economic institutions, and within that world, the young Christian communities with their distinctive ethos and unique problems. He indicates, always in practical terms, how this whole network of relations may be permeated with the Christian quality of living.

How close these immature Christians stood to the corruptions of paganism, and how easily they could relapse into them can be gathered by some of the startling remarks which he lets fall about his converts (I Cor. 5: 1 f.; 6: 8-10; Col. 3: 5-7; I Thess. 4: 3-8), as well as from the passion with which he insists that there must be a complete break with the past (Col. 3: 5-10). So alarmed was he at the possibility of the infection of immorality that he sometimes writes as if the only safe way of avoiding this was for the church to withdraw from pagan society altogether (II Cor. 6: 14-18); but he had to explain that this was not his real intention: the idea that Christians should avoid dangerous contacts by getting right out of the world he dismisses as absurd (I Cor. 5: 9-13). In fact, it is clear that he envisaged Christians living on good terms and in normal social intercourse with their pagan neighbours (I Cor. 10: 27 f.). Their task was the more difficult one of living as full members of the society in which their lot was cast, while firmly renouncing its corruptions; to be in it, but not of it. But although deeply corrupted, Graeco-Roman civilisation was not without moral ideals. A certain standard of what was ‘fitting’ was widely accepted, at least in public. The Stoics spoke of it as the general feeling of mankind (communis sensus hominum), and there was a genuine desire to see this standard observed in corporate life. Paul was well aware of this, as he shows when he enjoins his readers: Let your aims be such as all men count honourable (Rom. 12: 17). Even after his fierce castigation of pagan vices at the beginning of his Letter to the Romans he goes on to write that the good pagan may do God’s will by the light of nature; his conscience bears true witness (Rom. 2: 14 f.). There is a broad universality about what he writes to the Philippians:

All that is true, all that is noble, all that is just and pure, all that is lovable and gracious, whatever is excellent and admirable – fill all your thoughts with these things.

(Phil. 4: 8)

It is therefore not surprising that Paul was concerned to work out his sketch of Christian behaviour within the framework of Graeco-Roman society as it actually existed, rather than as Christians might have wanted it to be. The empire was, for him, part of the divinely given setting for a Christian’s life in the world, and he made it clear that he would be following the law of Christ in obeying the Roman law, respecting the magistrates, and paying his taxes. This was an obligation imposed not merely by fear of retribution but by conscience. In fact, the fulfilment of such obligations is an application of the maxim, Love your neighbour as yourself (Rom. 13: 1-10). Similarly, in dealing with family life he took over a general scheme current among Stoics and moralists at the time which assumed the existing structure of the Graeco-Roman household, with the paterfamilias as the responsible head, and the other members, including the slaves, having their respective obligations (Eph. 5: 21 – 6: 9; Col. 3: 18 – 4: 1), and indicated how within this general structure Christian principles and values could be applied.

As far as Paul is concerned, marriage is indissoluble for Christians because there is a saying of the Lord to that effect (I Cor. 7: 10 f.; Mark 10: 2-9). Beyond that, because in Christ there is no distinction between man and woman (Gal. 3: 28), although the husband is usually the head of the household, the marriage relation itself must be completely mutual as between husband and wife. Neither can claim their own body ‘as their own’ (I Cor. 7: 4). This bond is so sacred that in a mixed marriage the ‘heathen’ spouse is ‘holy’ to God, as are the children of such a marriage (I Cor. 7: 14). So the natural ties of family relationships are valid within the Christian fellowship which is ‘the body of Christ’. However, in I Cor. 7: 26-29, Paul apparently ‘entertained’ the belief that family obligations were of limited relevance since the time we live in will not last long. It was only by the time he wrote to the Colossians that he had fully accepted the principle that family life should be part of life ‘in Christ’, though even then he only gave some brief hints about what its character should be (Col. 3: 18-21).

The Graeco-Roman household also included slaves, and here again, Christian principles and values began to make inroads into this practice. It was a fundamental principle that in Christ there was neither slave nor free man (Gal. 3: 28, Col. 3: 11). Accordingly, there is a level on which their status is equal:

The man who as a slave received the call to be a Christian is the Lord’s freedman, and, equally, the free man who received the call is a slave in the service of Christ.

(I Cor. 7: 22)

In writing to the Colossians he urges slaves to give their service…

… as if you were doing it for the Lord and not for men… Christ is the Master whose slaves you must be; … Masters, be fair and just to your slaves, knowing that you too have a master in heaven. 

(Col. 3: 23 f.; 4: 1)

The Christian ideal of free mutual service transcended the legal relations of master and slave. The letter to Philemon is a short ‘note’ in which Paul deals with the particular case of the recipient’s runaway slave, Onesimus, who had also helped himself to his master’s cashbox. Somehow or other Paul came across him, and converted him. Under Roman law, anyone harbouring a fugitive slave was liable to severe penalties, and a runaway recovered by his master could expect no mercy. Paul decided to send Onesimus back to his, trusting that the ‘law of Christ’ would transform their relationship from within, without disrupting the civil order, and in Philemon’s readiness to take a fully Christian view of the matter:

Perhaps this is why you lost him for a time, that you might have him back for good, no longer as a slave, but as more than a slave, as a dear brother. 

(Philemon 12-16)

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Paul’s Eschatology – Christ, the Church & the Future:

The permeation of the church, and ultimately of society, with the Christian quality of life gives actuality to Paul’s doctrine of the indwelling of Christ, through his Spirit, in the body of his followers, the church. It is not simply the experience of an individual, but a force working in history. But if Christ is thus present in the church, then he has to be known not only through his historical life, supremely important as that is, but also in what he is doing in and through the church in the present and in the future into which the present dissolves at every moment. His brief career on earth had ended, so far as the world, in general, could see, in failure. His disciples may have known better, but how was the world to know? For many early Christians, the very short answer to this question that, very shortly, he would ‘come again’, and then ‘every eye shall see him’ (Rev. 1: 7). Paul began by sharing this belief. At the time when he wrote his earliest surviving letters (as they probably are), to the Thessalonians, he seems to have had no doubt that he and most Christians would live to see the ‘second advent’ (II Thess. 2: 1-3; 4: 15). Even when he wrote his first letter to the Corinthians he was still assured that ‘we shall not all die’ (I Cor. 15: 51). Before he wrote the second letter there was an occasion when his life was despaired of (II Cor. 1: 9), and it may be that for the first time he faced the likelihood that he would die before the Day, and in that way ‘go to live with the Lord’ (II Cor. 5: 8). At any rate, from this time we hear little more of the expectation of earlier years.

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Tom Wright suggests that when writing II Thessalonians, Paul had perhaps foreseen the fall of Jerusalem of AD 70, quite possibly through a Roman emperor doing what Caligula had so nearly done. The ultimate monster from the sea, Rome itself, would draw itself up to its full height, demolishing the heaven-and-earth structure that had (according to Jesus) come to embody Jeremiah’s “den of robbers.” Jesus would then set up his kingdom of a different sort, one that could not be shaken. But if Jerusalem were to fall to the Romans, Paul had to get busy, because he knew what reactions such a terrible event would produce. Gentile Christians would claim that God had finally cut off the Jews, leaving ‘the church’ as a non-Jewish body. Christianity would become ‘a religion’ to be contrasted (favourably, of course) with something called ‘Judaism’. Conversely, Jewish Jesus-followers would accuse their Gentile brethren – and particularly the followers of Paul – of having precipitated this disaster by imagining that one could worship the true God without getting circumcised and following the whole Torah. And Jews who had rejected the message of Jesus as Messiah would be in no doubt at all that all this had happened because of this ‘false prophet’ and the renegade Saul, who had led Israel astray. Wright’s supposition leads him to believe that Paul was therefore determined…

 … to establish and maintain Jew-plus-Gentile communities, worshipping the One God in and through Jesus his son and in the power of the spirit, ahead of the catastrophe.

Only in this way, he believed, could this potential split, the destruction of the ‘new Temple’ of I Corinthians 3 and Ephesians 2, be averted. This is why Paul insisted, in letter after letter, on the unity of the church across all traditional boundaries. This was not about the establishment of a new ‘religion’ and had nothing to do with Paul being a “self-hating Jew”. This anti-Semitic slur is still found in ill-informed ‘studies’ of his work, but Paul affirmed what he took to be the central features of the Jewish hope: One God, Israel’s Messiah, and resurrection itself. For him, what mattered was messianic eschatology and the community that embodied it. The One God had fulfilled, in a way so unexpected that most of the guardians of the promises had failed to recognise it, the entire narrative of the people of God. That was what Paul had been preaching in one synagogue after another. It was because of that fulfilment that the Gentiles were now being brought into the single family. The apostle came to be less preoccupied with a supposedly imminent ‘second advent’ as he explored the range of Christ’s present activity in the church. He saw the church expanding its influence abroad, and developing internally the complexity that marks the evolution of a living organism. If all this raised some problems, it was all part of the growth of the body – of Christ’s body – and it was Christ’s own work:

It is from the Head that the whole body, with all its joints and ligaments, receives its supplies and thus knit together grows according to God’s design.

(Col. 2: 19)

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This, as Paul saw it, was the way in which Christ is revealed to the whole universe (Eph. 3: 10). Nor is there any limit to this growth, until we all, at last, attain the unity inherent in our faith (Eph. 4: 13). In the church, Paul saw men actually being drawn into unity across the barriers erected by differences of ethnicity, nationality, language, culture or social status. He was powerfully impressed by the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile in the fellowship of the church (Eph. 2: 11-22). In this, as his horizons widened, he saw the promise of a larger unity, embracing all mankind (Rom. 11: 25-32).  In this unity of mankind, moreover, he finds he finds the sign and pledge of God’s purpose for his whole creation. In a passage which has much of the visionary quality of poetry or prophecy, he pictures the whole universe waiting in eager expectation for the day when it shall enter upon the liberty and splendour of the children of God (Rom. 8: 19-21). In the church, therefore, can be discerned God’s ultimate design to reconcile the whole universe to himself… to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, through Christ alone (Col. 1: 20). Such was the vision of the future which Paul bequeathed to the church for its inspiration. In a sense then, he continued to believe that he was living in the last days. For him, God had, in sending the Messiah, had brought the old world of chaos, idolatry, wickedness, and death to an end. Jesus had taken its horror onto himself and had launched something else in its place. But, as Tom Wright puts it…

… that meant that, equally, Paul was conscious of living in the first days, the opening scenes of the new drama of world history, with heaven and earth now held together not by Torah and Temple, but by Jesus and the Spirit, pointing forward to the time when the divine glory would fill the whole world and transform it from top to bottom.

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This vision was not to be found in the non-Jewish world of Paul’s day. It was a thoroughly Jewish eschatology, shaped around the one believed to be Israel’s Messiah. Paul believed, not least because he saw it so clearly in the scriptures, that Israel too had its own brand of idolatry. But the point of Jesus’s ‘new Passover’ was that the powerful ‘gods’ and ‘lords’ to which mankind had given away their authority, had been defeated. The resurrection proved it and had thereby launched a new world with a new people to reflect the true God into that new world. That is why Paul’s Gentile mission was not a different idea from the idea of forgiveness of sins or the cleansing of the heart. It was because of the powerful gospel announced and made effective those realities that the old barriers between Jew and Greek were abolished in the Messiah. That is why Paul’s work just as much as ‘social’ and ‘political’ as it is ‘theological’ or ‘religious’. Every time Paul expounded ‘justification’, it formed part of his argument that in the Messiah there was a single family consisting of believing Jews and Gentiles, a family that demonstrated to the world that there was a new way of being human. Paul saw himself as a working model of exactly this:

Through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.

Sources:

C. H. Dodd (1970), Paul and His World; The Thought of Paul, in Robert C Walton (1970), A Source Book of the Bible for Teachers. London: SCM.

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

Alan T. Dale (1979), Portrait of Jesus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

Paul of Tarsus: Jew, Roman & Christian Missionary to the Gentiles – Part Two.   Leave a comment

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Antioch & Jerusalem:

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We know about the conflict between Antioch and Jerusalem through the detailed colourful accounts of Josephus, a younger contemporary of Paul’s. He was anything but a neutral observer, however, but a wealthy Jewish aristocrat who claimed to have tried out the various Jewish ‘schools of thought’ and who had served as a general in the army at the start of the war against Rome (AD 66-70) before switching sides and ending his days on an imperial pension in Rome. In the middle of the first century, Jerusalem was a highly complex world of different parties, groups, messianic and prophetic movements, preachers and teachers. When the Romans closed in on Jerusalem in the last months of the war, crucifying so many Jews that they ran out of timber for crosses, Josephus recorded sorrowfully that more Jews were in fact killed by other Jews than by the Romans. Matters were not helped by the sequence of inept Roman governors sent to keep the peace during the period. There were times under the two kings named Herod Agrippa, both of whom were friendly with the Roman imperial family when many hoped for a live-and-let-live settlement. That would never have been sufficient for the young Saul of Tarsus, however, who longed for the ultimate kingdom of God. The Jerusalem of the middle decades of the first century was home to an entire generation who took a hard-line view, hating the thought of compromise and looking for something more like Hezekiah’s heaven-sent victory over Sennacherib or the overthrow of the Egyptians in the ‘Red Sea’.

The scriptures were quite clear that utter loyalty to the One God meant refusing all compromise with the pagan world. The social and cultural pressure to affirm that ancient loyalty and to be seen to abide by it was intense. To be a follower of Jesus in that world would have been a very different challenge from those faced by Jesus-followers in Syria or Turkey. Although the Jerusalem church had by this time established itself as something of a counter-cultural movement to the Temple authorities, this did not mean that its members were being ‘anti-Jewish.’ If anything, they were putting themselves on a par with other groups who regarded the Temple hierarchy (the wealthy, aristocratic Sadducees, including the high-priests’ families) as a corrupt and compromised class, out for their own ends and too eager to do deals with the Romans. The early Jerusalem church seems to have lived like other groups who believed that God was ushering in the ‘last days’. In the excitement of the early stages, they had shared their property communally, an eager social experiment which may have led to their later poverty. They lived a life of prayer, fasting, community, and care for the poor and widows.  So far as we can tell they conformed faithfully to the Jewish Law. They must have seemed to many like a strange messianic variation on the Pharisees’ movement, coupling a fierce loyalty to Israel’s One God with their own belief that the One God had revealed himself in the crucified and risen bringer of the kingdom, Jesus of Nazareth.

According to Acts, it was Peter who first broke the taboo of sharing table-fellowship with non-Jews; he received strong divine validation for this radical move and persuaded his sceptical colleagues in Jerusalem that this was the right thing to do. But this move seems not to have been thought through with regard to what they believed about Jesus himself. It was a pragmatic decision on their part, led by the spirit, which meant that it must be what God wanted. It remained easy, therefore, for most of the Jerusalem-based Jesus followers to see their movement as a variation on the Jewish loyalist groupings. God might bring in some non-Jews, as had always happened in Israel’s history, as the book of Ruth and various other pages had made clear. But it could hardly be imagined that the God whose scriptures warned constantly against disloyalty to the covenant would suddenly declare the Torah redundant. But that was what many in Jerusalem, including many Jesus-followers, believed that Paul had been teaching. The word got out that Paul and Barnabas, not content with belonging to a hybrid community in Syrian Antioch, had been going around the Graeco-Roman world telling Jews that they no longer needed to obey the Law of Moses! If the Torah itself could now be set aside, who could tell what results might then follow?

All this focused on the covenant sign of circumcision, and while it is true that the prophets and Moses himself had spoken of the circumcision of the heart as the deep reality to which physical circumcision was meant to point, that reality was associated with the promise of ultimate covenant renewal. Nobody in the first century imagined that, if the One God really did renew the covenant, physical circumcision might be dispensed with for the non-Jews who would be included. On the contrary, circumcision became a symbol of ‘loyalty’. Many of the Jesus-followers had dispersed following the early persecution, but there was still a tight core, focused particularly on James himself. From the time of Stephen’s stoning, they had been regarded as potentially subversive, disloyal to the Temple and its traditions. Now, this disloyalty was showing itself in a new way: they were allied with a supposedly Jesus-related movement, out in the Diaspora, teaching Jews that they didn’t have to obey the Torah! That would introduce one compromise after another until Jews would Find themselves indistinguishable from pagans. In Jerusalem, all Jews believed that pagans were the enemy that God would one day overthrow, but out there in the Diaspora this new movement was, it seemed, treating pagans as equal partners. The Temple hierarchy was concerned that this Jesus movement in the wider world, led by ‘that wild man Paul’ would not land them in any deeper trouble, guilt by association. From all that they had heard, the signs were not encouraging.

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Four things happened in quick succession. First, Peter came to Antioch and shared in the life of the church there for a while. This and the following incidents, including the writing of Paul’s first letter to the Galatians, are dated around AD 48. Second, some other followers of ‘The Way’ came to Antioch from Jerusalem, claiming to have been sent by James. This precipitated a small earthquake in the Antiochene church and a controversy denounced by Paul himself in devastating terms. Third, perhaps some weeks or months later, Paul received bad news from the little communities of non-Jewish believers in southern Anatolia, recently ‘planted’ by Barnabas and himself. The fourth event was the writing of the letter to the churches in Galatia, as mentioned above. He then set off for Jerusalem in the hopes of sorting all this out with those who seemed to be causing the trouble who naturally thought that it was he who was causing all the trouble. As Tom Wright remarks,

Controversies are always like that. Generations of Christians who have read Galatians as part of holy scripture have to remind themselves that, if Galatians is part of the Bible, it is Galatians as we have it that is part of the Bible – warts and all, sharp edges and sarcastic remarks included. Perhaps, indeed, that is what “holy scripture” really is – not a calm, serene list of truths to be learned or commands to be obeyed, but a jagged book that forces you to grow up in your thinking as you grapple with it.

Paul believed that Jesus’ own spirit was at work through him as his chosen apostle to the Gentiles to establish and maintain the life-changing communities of people whose lives had themselves been changed by the power of the gospel. And now he believed that he had a responsibility to state clearly what was at stake in the controversy in Antioch, in Jerusalem, in Galatia itself. His own obvious vulnerability was part of this process too, as he later stressed in another letter. His ‘epistles’, just like the gospel itself, were part of a radical redefinition of what ‘authority’ might look like in the new world that the One God had launched through Jesus. So Peter came to Antioch, it seems, in early 48. His arrival is unexplained, like all his movements after his remarkable escape from prison in Acts 12:17; all we know is that he had initially been happy go along with the practice of the local Jesus-followers in Antioch, having Jewish and non-Jewish believers living together as “family,” sharing the same table. This was the practice that Peter himself had embraced in Acts 10-11 when he visited Cornelius, justifying his actions to critics in Jerusalem on the basis of what he had been told in a divine commandment:

What God made clean, you must not regard as common.

Peter had acted on that principle, believing that the power of the gospel had ‘cleansed’ the Gentiles of the ritual or moral defilement that they possessed in Jewish eyes, defilement that would normally be seen as a barrier to the intimacy of table fellowship. What the new experience of God had made clear to most of the friends of Jesus, but not to all of them, was that God’s love, which Jesus made real to them, was for the whole world – everybody, everywhere. But many came slowly to these great convictions, and there was much heart-searching debate among the early Christians in Antioch: did Jesus come, essentially, to reform the Jewish religion, or did he come to call everybody everywhere to become God’s family, each in his own way? Peter now hesitated to go the whole way; when he arrived in the city of Antioch Paul confronted him on this issue. He described this confrontation in his letter to the Galatians:

Barnabas and I … were back in Antioch, and Peter Joined us there. But I had to stand up to him and tell him that he was plainly in the wrong – on this same question.

When he first came there, he ate his meals with all of us; foreigner and Jew sat down together at the same table. Then some men came from Jerusalem (they said that James had sent them), and everything changed. He started to stay away from our common meals. He was frightened of these Jewish Christians who said that you couldn’t become a Christian if you hadn’t first become a proper Jew. Other friends of Jesus in Antioch started to do the same – even Barnabas was deceived.

(Galatians 2: 11-13)

Clearly, as Paul reports these events, what changed the terms of the discourse was the arrival in Antioch of the ‘envoys’ from Jerusalem who insisted that if the Gentiles wanted to be part of the true family, sharing in the great rescue operation which God had now set in motion, they would have to be circumcised. Paul, in Galatians, wrote that this was what made Peter change his mind. Up to that point, he had been content to eat with the Jesus-believing Gentiles, but now he drew back in line with the newcomers, and, given the status that Peter had within the wider movement, it is perhaps not surprising that the other Jewish Jesus believers followed him in this. Paul tells us that even Barnabas was carried along by their sham (Galatians, 2: 13). This was not simply a disagreement about theological principles, but about an original practice of the church in Antioch which reflected the belief that all believers in Jesus, whether circumcised or not, belonged at the same table. The Judaean guests were clearly saying that this was wrong and that the loyal Jews among the believers should withdraw. Barnabas had been with Paul through all the joys and trials of the mission to Galatia and together they had welcomed many non-Jews into fellowship. They had shared everything; they had prayed and worked and celebrated and suffered side by side. Now they were on opposite sides of this debate, and that hurt Paul.

Paul was careful not to claim that the visitors from Jerusalem were sent by James personally, though it is difficult to see how they could have been there except on his authority. Certainly, the focus of their concern was the maintenance of covenant loyalty. Circumcision was, as far as they were concerned, non-negotiable, since the purity of God’s chosen people was essential. If God was indeed bringing in his kingdom, then a clean break with the Gentiles’ pagan past was vital. If they were to be allowed into the covenant, the former pagans would have to demonstrate their loyalty as well, and that meant circumcision. From the point of view of the zealous kingdom-minded Jews of Jerusalem, this made perfect sense, but from Paul’s perspective, it made no sense at all. He had already thought through what it meant that God was bringing in his kingdom through the crucified Messiah, the shocking and unexpected events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, coupled with the dramatic sense of personal redemption for which the only explanation was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, meant that everything had changed. A new world had begun and those trying to live in it while clinging to the old one had not yet realised just how radical the transformation was. They were simply “putting on a face,” or “playacting,” for which the Greek word was hypokrisis, giving us the English word ‘hypocrisy’. Paul was similarly direct in his narrative to the Galatians, as this modern paraphrase reveals:

This was cheating – and cheating about the very thing that makes the Good News really good news. It was as plain as plain could be to me.

(Galatians 2: 14, New World)

The problem was both personal and theological for Paul. As one of the recognised ‘pillars’ of the whole movement, Peter had been followed from the common table by many of the Jewish followers of Jesus. That made it even more difficult for Paul to confront Peter, but that is exactly what he did:

When I saw that they weren’t walking straight down the line of gospel truth, I said to Cephas in front of them all: “Look here: you’re a Jew, but you’ve been living like a Gentile. How can you force Gentiles to become Jews?” 

(Galatians 2: 14).

Peter had already been “living like a Gentile” – not in the sense that he had been worshipping idols or indulging in sexual immorality, but in the sense that he had been in the habit of eating with people without any regard for the distinction between Jews and Gentiles. He was therefore “in the wrong.” Either his present behaviour meant that his previous stance had been wrong, or his previous stance, being right, proved that his present behaviour was wrong. Paul himself was in no doubt which of these was the correct analysis and he went on to put the Good News plainly. He himself was a Jew by ‘race’ and not a foreigner. But he knew that a man did not become a Christian by carrying out all the details of the Jewish religion, but simply by trusting Jesus himself. That was the heart of the matter:

We are Jews by birth, not “Gentile sinners.” But we know that a person is not declared “righteous” by works of the Jewish law, but through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah.

(Galatians 2: 15-16).

Paul knew what the secret of his own life was. True, he went on living his ordinary life in exactly the same way as before, but he didn’t feel that he was living it – Jesus had taken charge of him so that he lived by trusting God’s son, who loved him and gave his life for him. In Western theological discourse, this has been traditionally interpreted as Paul developing his doctrine of ‘justification’, of how someone who was previously a ‘sinner’ comes to be ‘righteous’ in the eyes of God. Paul clearly believed in the importance of ‘sin’ and of being rescued from it. But that was not what was at stake at the time in Jerusalem, Antioch or Galatia. What mattered then was the individual believer’s status within the covenant family. The word ‘righteous’, like the Greek and Hebrew words from which it is often translated, refers to someone being in a right relationship with God, the ‘relationship’ in question being the collective relationship of the covenant that God made with Abraham. The question that Paul was addressing was: How can you tell who are the true children of Abraham? His answer was focused firmly on Jesus. So Paul’s point to Peter was a simple one, that what mattered to Jesus was being part of the covenant family, and that is not defined by Jewish law, but through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah. The word for ‘faithfulness’ is pistis in Greek, also means simply ‘faith’, ‘loyalty’ or ‘reliability’. In a world where the key value for a zealous Jew was ‘loyalty’ to God and his law, Paul believed, according to Wright:

(1) that Jesus the Messiah had been utterly faithful to the divine purpose, “obedient even to the death of the cross”… ;

(2) that following Jesus, whatever it took, had to be seen as itself a central expression of loyalty to Israel’s God;

(3) that the followers of Jesus were themselves marked out by their belief in him, confessing him as ‘Lord’ and believing that he was raised from the dead; …

(4) if this Jesus-shaped loyalty was the vital thing, “then nothing that the law could say was to come between one Jesus-follower and another.”

In other words, continuing Paul’s description of what he said to Peter:

That is why we too believed in the Messiah, Jesus: so that we might be declared ‘righteous’ on the basis of the Messiah’s faithfulness, and not on the basis of works of the Jewish law. On that basis, you see, no creature will be declared ‘righteous’.

(Galatians 2: 16).

Paul urges Peter and all the others who hear his letter when it is read out loud, to think out the new position they find themselves in:

Well then: if in seeking to be declared ‘righteous’ in the Messiah, we ourselves are found to be ‘sinners’, does that make the Messiah an agent of ‘sin’? Certainly not! If I build up once more the things which I tore down, I demonstrate that I am a law-breaker.

(Galatians 2: 17-18).

Following Paul’s definition of himself and others as Jews by birth, not ‘Gentile sinners’ in which Gentiles are automatically ‘sinners’ because they do not have the law. Therefore, if Peter found himself called to live on equal terms with ‘Gentile sinners’ did that mean that the Messiah was colluding with ‘sin’? That was exactly what the Jerusalem church and the Judaeans, in general, were concerned about, seeing it, potentially, as fraternising with the enemy. They might see, in Paul’s claim to be following the Messiah, a false Messiah who was leading the people astray. Paul countered by arguing that since Peter had started by pulling down the wall between Jews and Gentiles if he now wished to re-erect it, he was admitting that he had been wrong to ‘live like a Gentile’. Paul believed that there was only one way forward, and that is to go where the Messiah had led, through death to new life, a journey which was the same for all the Messiah’s followers, Jew and Gentile alike. Paul describes this journey in individual terms by using the first person singular because, as a zealous Jew, he was making it clear that even he had to tread his own path:

Let me explain it like this. Through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with the Messiah. I am, however, alive – but it isn’t me any longer, it’s the Messiah who lives in me. And the life I do still live in the flesh, I live within the faithfulness of the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

(Galatians 2: 17-18)

In making this statement, Paul shows us that he regarded himself as a loyal Jew, loyal to God and the law but that he had come to see the law itself as pointing forward to a kind of ‘death’, something beyond itself that could only be attained by coming out of the law’s own sphere and emerging into a new world. The law itself had envisaged a moment when it would be transcended by a messianic reality. Though Paul does not mention baptism in this passage, this is exactly what, in his view, baptism is all about (as in Romans 6), which is leaving the old life behind and coming through ‘death’ into a new life entirely. The believer then finds his own identity not in his human genealogy or status, but in the Messiah’s faithfulness and loyalty, defined and demonstrated for all time in His death and resurrection. When the believer becomes part of that messianic reality, it is this, rather than his previous standing as a ‘Jew’ or ‘Gentile’, which really matters. The idea of ‘love’ coming from the God of Israel goes all the way back to the covenant with Israel and the act of rescue of Exodus. Paul’s conclusion to this summary of what he said to Peter and James’ ‘envoys’ follows on from this theme:

I don’t set aside God’s grace. If ‘righteousness’ comes through the law, then the Messiah died for nothing.

In other words, if Peter and the envoys from Jerusalem to try to reestablish a two-tier church, with Jews at one table and Gentiles at another, all they were doing was declaring that God’s sovereign love, reaching out to the utterly undeserving – ‘grace’ – was an irrelevance. God need not have bothered with sending his son. If the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, or ‘Pentateuch’ was sufficient for all time to define the people of God, then there was no need for a crucified Messiah. On the other hand, if God had declared in the resurrection that the crucified Jesus really was the Messiah, then He was also declaring that Moses could only take the people so far. He had pointed to a promised land, an ‘inheritance’ which he himself could not enter. Paul insisted that the ‘heirs’ to this ‘inheritance’ could not be defined by the Torah, but only by the Messiah himself, the ultimate ‘heir’. It has been commonplace among New Testament scholars to give the interpretation that Paul lost this disputation and so had to set off on his later missionary journeys without the support of the church in Antioch. But the distance between Syria and Galatia was not that great and people could and did travel quickly between the two regions. The fact that he referred to the dispute at such length in his letter to the Galatians, and that he later returned to Antioch without any hint of trouble, does not suggest that he lost the argument and was ‘run out of town’.

The Galatian Background:

It was out in the world beyond Palestine, and even Syria, that what Jesus meant, why he lived as he did, how he died, and how he was ‘raised to life’ became clearer. It meant nothing less than the vision of a new world, God’s world, and a call to be God’s ‘fellow-workers’ in its making. Nothing could have made this vision sharper than the sight of men and women, of different ‘races’, classes and nations becoming Christians. Their old fears vanished; a new joy marked their lives. When Paul tried to describe what a difference Jesus had made to him personally he went back to the opening words of the book of Genesis and the story of the making of the world as the only kind of language he could use:

God, who made this bright world, filled my heart with light, the light which shines when we know him as he is, the light shining from the face of Jesus.

(II Corinthians 4: 6, New World).

This is Paul’s later account of his own experience; but it was, as he was constantly repeating, a simple experience which everyone everywhere could share. However, the background to Paul’s earlier letter to the Galatians was undoubtedly complex. Around the same time that James’ envoys arrived in Syrian Antioch, it appears that similar persons from the Jerusalem church arrived in Galatia. Their message seems to have been similar, that all fraternising with Gentiles was to stop and that any Gentiles who wanted to be identified with the true people of Israel would have to be circumcised. God’s kingdom would come, rescuing His people from the wicked ways of the world, but only those circumcised would inherit that kingdom. This sharp message also involved a personal attack on Paul himself who was only, they claimed, in Tom Wright’s phrase, a second-order representative of the Jesus message. He had picked up his ‘gospel’ in Jerusalem but had failed to grasp one of the central elements, or perhaps was unwilling to pass it on. Moreover, Jerusalem was, at that time, awash with zealous speculation about the coming kingdom, in which the Gentiles were usually portrayed as the wicked villains who would, at last, receive their punishment. People disagreed about what it meant to keep the Torah, but everyone agreed that the Torah mattered. Any Jews who were willing to treat uncircumcised Gentiles as ‘family’ were compromising the integrity of God’s people and were placing the promised inheritance itself in jeopardy.

Just as Saul of Tarsus had set off a decade earlier to round up the blaspheming followers of ‘The Way’, someone else – a shadowy, unnamed figure – set off with a few friends to bring the new movement into line. At the same time, the pressure was mounting on the Jewish communities in South Galatia. As long as everyone in the thoroughly Romanised province knew who all the Jews were within a particular town or city, they would also know that they had permission to forego participation in the local cults, as well as the exciting new cults of Caesar and Rome. One of the first and most important things that happened whenever non-Jews were grasped by the gospel of Jesus was that, once they had heard that there was a true and living God and that He loved them personally, they would turn away from the idols they had previously worshipped. Suddenly, therefore, new groups of Jesus-followers were emerging, which were obviously not Jewish, but which were staying away from pagan rituals, celebrations and ceremonies. So while the nascent Christian groups in Jerusalem were suspected of disloyalty due to their attitude towards the Torah and the Temple, those in the Diaspora were suspected of disloyalty toward their own communities and towards Rome itself because of their attitude toward the local and imperial cults.

The Jewish communities in cities like Pisidian Antioch, Iconium and Lystra – all Roman colonies – would then find themselves caught in the middle. Local synagogue congregations might well be divided in their response, but the social pressure would grow on them. In turn, local Jewish leaders would put pressure on local Jewish Jesus-followers to persuade their new ‘friends’, the Gentile believers, to come into line and get themselves circumcised. Paul, therefore, had a complex and challenging task, and he was shocked that the communities he had founded had not grasped the full meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the fact that through him a new world, a new creation, had already come into being. They were in serious danger of stepping back into the old world, as though the cross and the empty tomb had never happened, as though the true and living God had not revealed his covenant love once and for all not only to Israel but through the Messiah, to the world. In his letter, he interrupts his opening greeting to insist that his ‘apostleship’ was a direct divine gift, not a secondhand or second-rate appointment from “human sources.” It derives from God himself, and from Jesus the Messiah, our Kyrios,

… who gave himself for our sins, to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of God our father, to whom be glory to the ages of ages. Amen.

(Galatians 1: 4-5).

The gospel Paul announced may have seemed to Jews in Jerusalem or Galatia as though it was a strange, peculiar eccentricity. But, in truth, it was the harbinger of the long-awaited new creation. This would remain central to Paul’s mission, delineating “the present evil age” from the new day which had dawned. Here, Paul affirms the widespread Jewish belief that world history was divided into two ‘ages’, the “present age” of sorrow, shame, exile, and death and the “age to come,” when all things will be put right. This was a common belief for centuries before Paul, and it remained the norm all the way through the much later rabbinic period. For Paul, the living God had acted in the person of Jesus to rescue people from the ‘present age’ and to launch ‘the age to come’. The new age had burst upon the scene while the ‘present age’ was still rumbling on. This was the divine plan by which Jesus “gave himself for our sins”; the power of the ‘present age’ was thereby broken, and the new world could begin.

Paul would later characterise his vocation as a “ministry of reconciliation,” God’s reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles into a single messianic family, as he set out clearly in his writing to those who had become Christians during and after his first visit to the highlands of Anatolia:

Your trust in God your Father has made you members of his Family; Jesus has made this possible. For when you were baptised and became Christians, you began, with his help, to live in his way, as he lived in his Father’s Way. 

Living in God’s Way means that you can’t talk about one another as being ‘white’ or ‘coloured’, ‘working-class’ or ‘upper-class’, ‘men’ or ‘women’, as though that was the only thing about them that matters. The most important thing is that as Christians you are one company of friends. And if you are friends of Jesus, you are members of God’s Family as God meant you to be and promised to make you. 

That is why, when the time was ripe, God sent his Son to live among us as one of us, to help us live as his sons and daughters, grown-up members of his Family. Because this is what we now are, he has given us the Spirit of his Son in our hearts. When we pray to him, we pray as Jesus did; we say ‘Father!’

You aren’t God’s slaves; God has made you, as I have said, his sons and daughters. And, as sons and daughters inherit their father’s wealth, so all the wealth of God, your Father, is yours.

(Galatians 3: 26-29; 4: 4-7, New World).

When describing this new experience, it is noticeable how Paul goes back to the story of Jesus, recalling how he lived and how he died. For him, it was the way Jesus died which made real what God’s love was like; a love which, in his own words, was broad and long and high and deep; and it was the way God had raised him from the dead that showed us how great the power of God’s love is. The very word ‘cross’ sounded differently in the Graeco-Roman ‘age’. To any Roman citizen, it could only have sounded like a savage word, like our ‘gibbet’ or ‘gallows’. It was the way Romans executed foreign criminals or rebels or slaves. But now it was transformed for Paul into the symbol of God’s ‘amazing love’ – he even wrote once to some friends that he could ‘boast’ about it. What Jesus had made plain for Paul was that God was someone we could trust and to whom we could pray as ‘Father’ (here Paul used the word ‘Abba’, the very same child-like word that Jesus used in his own prayers). There is nothing we need to fear, he tells us, not even death itself, for death ‘has been totally defeated’. The whole world and whatever may lie beyond it is God our Father’s world.

But Paul must also have carried a deep sense of shame and personal failure in his mission of reconciliation, due to his falling-out with Barnabas. This was probably the long-term result of that shocking moment in Antioch when Peter had separated himself from the non-Jewish believers and “even Barnabas” had been led astray by their “hypocrisy”. Although they had, initially, reconciled, and had gone together to Jerusalem, arguing side-by-side the case for Gentile inclusion. But Paul’s trust in his colleague had received a heavy blow and he questioned how reliable might be on further missions to the Gentiles. The specific flashpoint concerned John Mark, the probable Gospel-writer who, as a young man, had been present at the Last Supper and in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night when Jesus was betrayed. It was natural that Paul would suggest revisiting the churches of southern Anatolia, eager to see how they had turned out and able to use a different tone of voice (Galatians 4: 20). It was equally natural that Barnabas would want to take Mark and predictable that Paul would refuse. But Mark had abandoned them on the earlier journey as soon as they had on the south ‘Turkish’ mainland. Added to the question over his reliability for another mission, Mark was not only related to Barnabas but also to Peter. Although Peter had supported Paul’s mission at the Jerusalem Conference, Paul was concerned that Mark might be inclined to take the same line that Peter and Barnabas had taken in Antioch in favour of a two-table meal-time.

For Barnabas, it would have been intolerable that Paul would question his judgement, having himself stood up for Paul a decade earlier when others had doubted him. Now he wanted to do the same for his nephew and give him a second chance to prove himself. The solution that emerged was that Barnabas and John Mark would go back to Cyprus, while Paul would go to Galatia and beyond, but only after a blazing row, what Luke refers to by the Greek word, a paroxysm. It left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth, and a sorrowful memory in their souls. So Barnabas and Mark sailed away, not only to Cyprus but right out of the narrative of Acts, though Mark later re-emerges as a trusted and valued colleague of Paul’s (Col. 4: 10; Philemon 23; 2 Tim. 4: 11). Paul chose Silas (or ‘Silvanus’) as his new travel companion, like Paul a Roman citizen and a member of the church in Jerusalem who had been entrusted with the epistle that the elders had sent to the wider churches. The church in Antioch sent them on their way, commending them to God’s grace.

The Second Missionary Journey:

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The ‘Second Missionary Journey’ was to be marked by a momentous new departure, but it was not premeditated as such. It began, unadventurously, as a return visit to the young churches founded on the previous tour. Following this, the missionaries pursued a curiously devious and uncertain course, without finding any opening for fresh work, until they reached the shore of the Aegean at Troas, not far south of the Dardanelles (Acts 16: 6-8). It is at this point that we come upon the first extract from the ‘travel diary’ incorporated in Acts:

We at once set about getting a passage to Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to bring them the good news.

(Acts 16: 10).

The decision to cross from Asia into Europe proved a turning point, opening a new period in Paul’s missionary career, during which he really found himself. It is also a period which is richly illuminated for us by the letters he wrote during it. A comparatively short sea passage brought the party to the nearest port on the European side, and they made their way through Macedonia towards the province of Achaia or ‘Greece’. Several churches were founded, though the tour was chequered by the usual opposition. At Philippi, it came from pagans, not without tones of anti-Semitism (Acts 16: 19-24). One of the big differences between Philippi and the earlier cities of Paul’s mission was that there was no synagogue. That became significant when the locals identified Paul as a Jew; it looks as though the city knew just enough about Jews to be prejudiced against them. Paul had grown familiar with the usual Gentile jibes and sneers against his people, and now he heard them again. There was, however, a proseuche, a ‘place of prayer’ where a small number of Jews and ‘God-fearers’ (non-Jews who wanted to join in synagogue worship) would meet regularly. This was where, after a few days settling in, Paul and the others made a start. Their first convert was a businesswoman from Thyatira, Lydia by name, described as “a seller of purple.” Her story of response to the gospel appears the most straightforward of any in Acts: The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what Paul was saying. She was the head of her household, suggesting that she may have been widowed, and was baptised with all her household, inviting the whole Christian party; Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke to stay at her home. The announcement of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah seems to have caused little difficulty in the small Jewish meeting place, but pagans grabbed hold of Paul and Silas, dragged them into the public square and presented them to the magistrates, declaring:

“These men are throwing our city into an uproar! They are Jews, and they are teaching customs which it is illegal for us Romans to accept or practice!”

(I Cor. 4: 3-4).

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The irony cannot have been lost on Paul. The anger and violence he had faced in Galatia and the opposition to his missionary strategy in Jerusalem and Antioch had been instigated by ethnic Jewish groups furious at his ‘disloyalty’ to the ancestral traditions. Now he was accused of being a subversive Jew, in common with those who had rebelled against Rome before, teaching people to be disloyal to Rome! It all ended with a public apology and with the magistrates, clearly at a loss to know what to do next, imploring Paul and Silas to go away. They took their time in complying, visiting Lydia’s house and conversing with the group of believers there, and Timothy caught up with the two of them in Berea, but not Luke. Philippi was an important city in its own right, but Thessalonica, Paul’s next ‘port of call’ was even more so. It was on the main crossroads and its role as a port at the head of the Thermaic Gulf to the west of the Chalcidice Peninsula guaranteed its prosperity. It was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, and the Roman general Pompey had used it as his base in the civil war. In Paul’s day, it was not an official Roman colony, however: that was to come two centuries later, but it was already a major centre of Roman influence.

Unlike Philippi, Thessalonica had a sufficiently large Jewish population to sustain a synagogue. Luke’s summary of what Paul said on the three Sabbaths he spoke there conforms both to the earlier summaries and to Paul’s own repeated statements in his letters. The message was accepted by some of the Jews, several of the God-fearing Greeks, and quite a number of the leading women. It also appears from Paul’s letter to Thessalonica, written not long after this initial visit, that many in the young church there had been polytheistic pagans and had turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God (I Thess. 1: 9). Clearly, this was a significant group of both Jews and Gentiles. One member in particular, Jason, gave hospitality to Paul and Silas, facing the brunt of the anger aroused for doing so. Some of the synagogue community turned against the missionaries and stirred up a mob, bent on violence, but they could not find them. What mattered, however, was the political nature of the charges that were thrown around as all this was going on:

“These are the people who are turning the world upside down!” they yelled. “Now they’ve come here! Jason has them in his house! They are all acting against the decrees of Caesar – and they’re saying that there is another king, Jesus!”

(Acts 17: 6-7).

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It was true, of course, that if non-Jews were abandoning idols and worshipping the God of Israel, without formally becoming Jews, then they were indeed disobeying Caesar’s decrees. Only genuine Jews had that permission. So this meant that broadly speaking, Paul and his group were turning the world upside down. Paul and his friends were announcing and modelling in their own lives a different way of being human, a different kind of community, and all because there was a different kind of ‘king’. In any case, Jason and his friends were bound over to keep the peace, while Paul and Silas were smuggled out-of-town by night and sent on to Berea, about fifty miles to the west, but off the main route. They leave in a hurry, with a sense that the little body of believers is under threat. At Thessalonica and Beroea the old pattern reasserted itself: the Jewish opposition made mischief with the civil authorities, and Paul was obliged to move on, leaving his companions behind (Acts 17: 1-14). He arrived at Athens by boat alone (Acts 17: 15), in great disquiet (as he tells us in letters to Thessalonica written about this time) about the new converts whom he had been compelled by the local authorities to leave prematurely (I Thess. 2: 13-35; II Thess. 3: 6-16). Nevertheless, he bravely continued his ministry while waiting there for Silas and Timothy:

He wandered through the streets; everywhere there were temples and images of Greek gods. This made Paul very unhappy. He had to talk to somebody about it. He went to the Jewish Meeting House and argued there; he went to the market place and argued with anybody who happened to be there. There were many lecturers in the city, for its university was very famous; some of them met Paul, and he argued with them.

“What’s this chatterer talking about?” sneered some.

“It’s some foreign fellow talking about his gods, it seems,” said others.

The City Council was called ‘Mars Hill’, after the name of the hill where it used to meet in earlier times. This Council was specially interested in all new speakers who came to teach in Athens. The citizens of Athens and their foreign visitors always had time to talk about or listen to anything strange and new; they seemed to do nothing else.

The lecturers got hold of Paul and took him before the Council.

“Tell us, if you please, something more about this ‘news’ of yours,” they said. “What you’ve been talking about seems very strange to us. We’d like to know what it’s all about.”

Paul stood before the Council.

“Citizens of Athens,” he said, “by just wandering around your streets, I can see that religion matters very much to you. I had a good look at your temples and the images of your gods. And I noticed one altar that had these words on it: “To an Unknown God”. You do not know him; I will tell you about him.

“The God who made the world and all that’s in it by that very fact is the Master of the whole world. His home can’t be a in a street that you can build with your own hands. … We may belong to different nations now, but at the beginning God made us all one people and gave us the whole world for our home. All things are in his hands – the rise and fall of nations and the boundaries of their territories. He did all this for one purpose only – the men and women might look for him and find him.

“Yet he is very near every one of us. Your own poets have said this very thing –

‘In God we live and move and exist’,

“and…

‘We, too, belong to his family.’

“If, therefore, we belong to God, we can’t possibly think that gold and silver and stone are good enough to show us what he is like. No artist can paint God’s picture, however clever or thoughtful he may be.

“What then, has God done? He takes no notice of the past, when we didn’t know what he was like. But today, in our own time, he calls all people to change their ways. We can no longer say we do not know; Jesus has made him plain. The day is fixed when everybody everywhere will be judged by this man he has chosen – and truly judged. The proof of this he has given to all men – he has raised him from the dead.”

Some of them laughed out loud at Paul when they heard him talk like this – about God ‘raising Jesus from the dead’. But there were others.

“We will hear you again about all this,” they said.   

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For this, and for other reasons, he was in low spirits (as he tells us in retrospect in I Cor. 2: 3) as he left Athens for Corinth which became, as it turned out, the scene of his greatest success to date. Corinth had been one of the most important of the old Greek city-states. After its destruction by the Romans, it had been re-founded by Julius Caesar and had become capital of the province of Achaia. Situated on the isthmus which separates the Aegean from the Adriatic, and the eastern part of the empire from the western, it had become an immensely busy and prosperous centre of trade, with a multi-cultural population. It also had the unsavoury reputation which cosmopolitan seaport towns seem to attract.

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It was in Corinth that Paul, reunited with his companions, spent nearly two years, maintaining himself by working at his trade of tent-making (Acts 18: 3, 11, 18). It was his longest sojourn anywhere since he had started on his journeys. His breach with the orthodox Jews set him free for independent action. He left the synagogue, taking with him one of its office-holders, and (perhaps in an act of deliberate defiance) set up his headquarters in a nearby house belonging to a Gentile believer (Acts 18: 5-8). The opposition once more tried to embroil him with the civil authorities, but the proconsul refused to enter the charges they brought, as being no more than some bickering about words and names and your Jewish law. The case was dismissed, which must have considerably strengthened Paul’s position (Acts 18: 12-17). He succeeded in building up a numerous and active if somewhat turbulent, Christian community, predominantly Gentile in membership before he left to return to Jerusalem and Antioch via Ephesus (Acts 18: 18-22), which he had already marked out as his next centre of work. It was in Ephesus that he was to meet a darker level of opposition which helps us to understand why he wrote as he did in II Corinthians of reaching the point where he was giving up on life itself.

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(to be continued…)

Question Time: The Ten Challenges of the Risen Christ to His Followers, II.   1 comment

Part Two: Appearances and Interactions – The Meaning of the Resurrection.

For many people today the word ‘resurrection’ is meaningless. They find the idea of resurrection not only difficult but incredible.  We need to remember that it never was easy or credible – that’s why Jesus’ friends were taken by surprise when it happened, although he had spoken about it a number of times. For both the Graeco-Roman and Jewish people of the first century, the whole idea of an executed criminal being raised to life by God was anathema, a stumbling block, an obstacle that prevented them from taking the story of Jesus seriously. For educated people throughout Palestine and beyond it was just ‘rubbish’. Even some who professed to be Christians couldn’t understand what it meant. Yet the evidence suggests that in the few weeks that followed the death of Jesus some of his friends had certain experiences of Jesus risen. These ‘appearances’ then ceased and the later experiences, beginning with the dramatic conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus, were real but different. The resurrection of Jesus was not in the same category as other reported ‘resurrections’ of men, even that of his friend Lazarus, in which Jesus himself had been instrumental. It was a unique event in which death had been defeated. The event was not only a historical event, but after the strictest possible scrutiny these reports do not strike us as fictitious accounts that owe their existence to the human imagination; they strike us as honest attempts to give some account of real experiences that defied all efforts to give a coherent account of them. The early friends of Jesus had no doubts as to their authenticity. Their new experience of God, their new fellowship with one another, their new understanding of human life and history were not something they had struggled to achieve; they were gifts. The Spirit of Jesus was present with them. The final evidence that these were not reports of queer hallucinations was the reality of their new life and fellowship.    

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Christians now accept without any reservations the Biblical version of the ‘disappearance’ of the body of Jesus, but until the end of the first century, there was no Biblical account to go by, no ‘New Testament’ until the fourth century. Different parts of it were written by AD 100, but not yet collected and defined as ‘Scripture’. Early Christian writers like Polycarp and Ignatius quote from the gospels and Paul’s letters, as well as from other Christian writings and oral sources. Paul’s letters were collected late in the first century, and the ‘Synoptic Gospels’ (Matthew, Mark and Luke were brought together by AD 150. One papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John dates from about AD 130, and more fragments of it, in the Bodmer Papyrus II, date from about AD 175-225, together with parts of Luke’s Gospel. For those for whom the Bible’s teaching is the starting point, exact theological thinking depends upon an accurate Greek New Testament. The history of the early church may also have affected the copying of the New Testament text. Clearly, the New Testament writings were considered important in the early church, since many copies were made for private reading as well as use in worship. However, this did not always guarantee scrupulous, exact copying of them. While no manuscript is free of either accidental or deliberate variations, some manuscripts seem to reflect a more careful tradition of copying, while others reveal a much freer attitude towards the actual words of the New Testament. The early Christians revered and used it greatly, but did not treat the exact wording with care.

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From the time they were first produced as collections of texts, or ‘books’, from about AD 200 onwards, the New Testament writings were always closely linked with the church and its worship, evangelism, beliefs and institutions. The information available concerning the New Testament in the early period shows how New Testament Scripture and the church interacted and affected each other at that time. The church was concerned to make Scripture widely available; some of the variations in early New Testament manuscripts reveal a concern over misunderstandings of Scripture or perhaps misinterpretations and misuse by heretics. So, can the texts be trusted? As F. F. Bruce, the Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis in the University of Manchester wrote in the mid-1970s:

The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affect no material question of historical fact or of Christian faith and practice.

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The earliest account of the resurrection appearances we have is found in one of Paul’s letters written in Ephesus somewhere around AD 56, nearly thirty years after the events described later in the gospels. But it probably goes back to within a few years of those events, as Paul’s words suggest, to his own baptism in Damascus in about AD 36:

I handed on to you the facts which had been imparted to me: that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised to life on the third day, according to the Scriptures; and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter) and afterwards to the Twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred of our brothers at once, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, and afterwards to all the apostles.

In the end he appeared even to me; though this birth of mine was monstrous, for I have persecuted the church of God and am therefore inferior to all the other apostles – indeed not fit to be called an apostle. However, by God’s grace I am what I am.

(I Cor. 15. 3-10 NEB)

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The verb ‘to appear’ can describe either a visible sighting or a spiritual experience. Here, Paul is writing to Christian friends who, even twenty years after the execution of Jesus, are finding it difficult to understand what the resurrection from the dead means. Whatever happened was always difficult to describe and explain. Moreover, Paul is not expressing his opinion about what happened or his own version of events. He tells us that he is reporting what was ‘handed on’ to him, probably at his baptism within a year or two of the events he is reporting. This was the authoritative account passed on to the first Christians as part of the baptismal liturgy from the very beginnings of the Christian community in Syria, if not also in Jerusalem and Palestine. Paul also says that his experience was like those of Peter and the others. We have no account in the gospels of Jesus’ appearance to Peter on the first Sunday, though we know (according to Luke) that it happened before the appearance to ‘the twelve’ (including Cleopas, but not – of course – Judas Iscariot). Paul’s own description of his experience is quite brief. He writes in another of his letters that God chose to reveal his Son to me.

In Luke’s ‘sequel’ to his gospel, The Acts of the Apostles, he describes Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, where he was going on a mission from the High Priest to arrest any followers of ‘the Way of the Lord’:

As Saul was coming near the city of Damascus, suddenly a light from the sky flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him,

“Saul, Saul! Why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” he asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you persecute,” the voice said. “But get up and go into the city, where you will be told what you must do.”

The men who were travelling with Saul had stopped, not saying a word; they heard the voice but could not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground and opened his eyes, but he was not able to see a thing. So they took him by the hand and led him into Damascus. For three days he was not able to see, and during that time he did not eat or drink anything.

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The experience of Saul/ Paul as it is written here differs in two ways from the five ‘gospel’ experiences I have written about below in two important respects. Firstly, this is not a physical appearance in the sense of Jesus appearing in physical form. Paul is instantly blinded, but neither do his Guards see anyone, though they too hear a voice. Secondly, this experience occurs long after the appearances in the gospels are reported to have taken place, during the forty days between the first Sunday and Jesus’ ascension. These two differences explain each other, however, and in Paul’s own long discourse on the resurrection of the body following his affirmation in I Corinthians 15 that the heart of the Good News is that Jesus is not dead but alive, he makes it clear that the resurrection is not a raising to life of the mortal remains of the dead, but a transformation of human ‘beings’ into an ‘immortal’ physical form:

Here the body is a ‘physical’ body; there it is raised a ‘spiritual’ body. Here everything grows old and decays; there it is raised in a form which neither grows old nor decays. Here the human body can suffer shame and shock; there it is raised in splendour. Here it is weak; there it is full of vigour.

There is meaning in the words of the Bible – ‘Death has been totally defeated’. For the fact is that Jesus was raised to life. God be thanked – we can now live victoriously because of what he has done.

(Dale’s New World paraphrase)

If we accept the whole story of Jesus, including the resurrection, we suddenly become aware of who we are and what our job is. We take our place in our families as parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, friends and neighbours, and in the world of work as engineers, teachers, builders, shopkeepers, technicians, farmers, doctors, nurses, and administrators. But we are also member’s of God’s family and God’s fellow workers. It is not just our vocations in this life that matter. Since death has been totally defeated, this world is just an exciting beginning.

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Above: An illustrated page from the Stavelot Bible. 

In the corners are symbols to represent each of the Gospel writers.

The very divergences in the gospel reports reveal their honesty. They give the stories that were current in the great centres of the early Christian community. We should not try to make them fit together as if they were pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The original ending of Mark’s gospel was lost, and its current ending (16: 6-20) was added much later, so its accounts conflict in some important details with the other three gospels. The actual, ‘authentic’ appearances of Jesus given in the gospels can be listed as follows:

  • Matthew – to the women, to the eleven in Galilee;

  • Luke – to two disciples (not of the twelve) on their way to Emmaus;

    to the eleven (plus the two) in the upper room, followed by the Ascension from Bethany;

  • John – to Mary of Magdala, outside the tomb;

    to the ten, behind locked doors in Jerusalem (without Thomas); to the eleven a week later, behind locked doors (with Thomas);

    to the seven on the beach of the Sea of Galilee;

  • Mark (the added ending) – to Mary of Magdala;

  to two ‘as they were walking in the country’ (Emmaus?);

  to the eleven ‘at a meal’ before the Ascension (a summary of other    earlier accounts?)

Paul’s list is different still, as we have quoted above. He does not mention the empty tomb. Mark does (16: 1-5), and so do the other three evangelists, but this, by itself, was no proof of Jesus’ resurrection in itself, simply secondary evidence of how it might have taken place, which, without a physical body, would have been easy to ‘cover up’.  Matthew’s account of the Report of the Guard (28: 11-15) demonstrates how the chief priests were able to falsify evidence in order to claim that the disciples had stolen the body and to spread this false report among the Judean population. As the fictional Temple Guard, Maron, ‘narrates’ in David Kossoff’s 1971 Book of Witnesses, far from being severely punished for dereliction of duty, the guards were well-rewarded for their ‘discretion’ about what they had witnessed at the tomb:

No shame or dishonour; a reward. And that was the story. The only story. No other. Even if Governor Pilate himself were to ask us, that was the story. … the stealing of the body by a large gang of trained agitators. 

Then the elder gave us a bag of gold to share among the men … Before distributing the money to the men, the elder said, explain to them – the exact, and only, story.

And that’s it. You needn’t tell me any other stories, of the Carpenter rising from the dead and meeting his friends and so on, I’ve heard them. … if you don’t like one story, choose another, there are lots.

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The empty tomb was not, in itself, evidence of the resurrection. The dramatic story of the appearance of ‘the man in white’ which both Matthew and Mark relate (Luke and John report that there were two men) seemed like ‘nonsense’ to the disciples, Luke tells us, when they heard it from the women (24: 11). John’s account also confirms (John 20: 9 ff.) that he had looked in the tomb before Peter arrived, seeing the lengths of cloth which had been wound around the body lying in their original position as though they were still ‘moulded’ around it. There was nothing undone and trailing on the floor. He knew that the body could not have been removed without the lengths of cloth being unwound. When Peter arrived and they went in together, this mystified both of them. John tells us that he was prepared to believe that something miraculous might have happened, but he doesn’t seem to have shared this belief with Peter. If he did, Peter seems to have rejected it. It was only after they had seen the risen Jesus, that they began to understand the Scripture predicting that the Messiah would rise from the dead. If the disciples themselves were not deeply impressed by the discovery of the empty tomb, why would anyone be? They did not claim that Jesus was alive simply because they could not find his body.

In addition, a contemporary Jewish record informs us that Caiaphas ordered Joseph of Arimathea to appear before the Sanhedrin for questioning and openly accused him of being the prime instigator of a plot to remove the body, demanding to know where the body had been moved to. Joseph refused to say anything about the disappearance. Of course, there was very little he could say since he had not been to the tomb since before the Sabbath. He must also have known that, as a member of the Sanhedrin, he could not be prosecuted, even if, inadvertently, he said something which could be twisted and used against him. He would have been more wary of revealing the whereabouts of the disciples. Of course, the chief priests continued to insist on, and believe in, their false story that the body of Jesus had been stolen and secretly buried by Joseph and the disciples. Though they knew they had no evidence to support their story other than the lies of the bribed guards, they must have believed that this had indeed been what had happened. After all, they had taken every precaution not to arouse further anger among the population of Judea and cause further anxiety to Pilate.

We can well believe that the Sadducees had nothing to do with the disappearance of the body. If they had had the body removed they would never have left the linen in the tomb, neither would they have left the entrance open. The guard was theirs, and they would certainly have concealed their crime by having them replace the stone and giving them orders to forbid anyone entry. Since they themselves had not moved the body, who else, other than the disciples, would have done so? For their part, the disciples only had to believe the evidence of their own eyes, not that of angels or even of the women, that he had risen according to his word, on the third day, to be the first-fruits of all who slept. Therefore, the question of who moved the stone? soon became an irrelevance in the contest between truth and falsehood.    

If we read the reports of this ‘fresh evidence’ for the resurrection in chronological order, as below, we also note the increasing emphasis on the materiality of the appearances. We may notice that they differ in their locations for similar events, but this misses the fundamental point, that in each ‘appearance’ Jesus ‘challenges’ the disciples with questions, just as he had done in his ministry. These are not ghostly appearances, but ‘interactions’ with a walking, talking teacher. These ‘interactive’ appearances of the risen Lord to his friends take place as follows:

1. To Mary Magdalene (Sunday morning, alone outside the tomb).

Woman, why are you crying? 

Jn. 20: 14-15;

Mary has returned to the tomb, having been the first to find it empty earlier that morning, and is standing in the garden outside, crying. Peter and John have now gone back home, having found the empty grave-clothes in the tomb. She too looks into the tomb and sees two angels sitting at either end of the empty, moulded grave-clothes. They ask her the question first, Woman, why are you crying? and she answers that the body has been removed, but she doesn’t know by whom or to where. Jesus appears outside the tomb but is not, at first, recognised by Mary. He repeats the question put to her by the angels. The simple, heartfelt question reveals the initial, natural reaction of confusion, bewilderment and distress that Mary is experiencing. Her tears also show that her mixture of emotions is genuine; she obviously has no idea what has happened to Jesus’ body and could not have been part of some elaborate plot by the disciples to steal the body, the ‘smear’ that the chief priests bribed the guard to spread.

Let’s consider the interaction between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the context of his relationships with his female disciples. Is it significant that the risen Jesus appeared first to the women, and in John’s account to Mary Magdalene? After all, as John also tells us, he and Peter had been in the empty tomb only seconds before and had seen no-one, not even the angels, who also appeared to Mary. There’s little doubt, by all accounts, that Jesus had an unorthodox perspective on the importance of women among his followers, although he chose twelve men as his apostles. What is significant, perhaps, is that Mary is the only follower to witness the risen Jesus as an individual. It is the testimony of the evangelists, especially Luke, that Jesus had a special regard and limitless compassion for the ‘outsiders’ of society, or ‘sinners’ as they were referred to by the religious authorities. Earlier in his gospel, Luke records that as Jesus travelled about the towns and villages of Galilee he was accompanied not only by the twelve disciples but also…

… by some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.

(Luke 8: 1-3)

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That a travelling Rabbi should be accompanied by women is surprising enough, but two of the women, Mary of Magdala and Joanna were outsiders in a particular sense. There is no evidence that Mary had been a prostitute, as she has sometimes been portrayed in films. The text says that Jesus had cast out from her seven demons, which means, in modern terms, that she had suffered a severe mental breakdown. In itself, this would make Mary an ‘outsider’; one under the judgement of God. Yet Jesus admitted both her and Joanna, who probably lived in the ‘defiled’ Roman city of Tiberius, to his group of friends. Mary may have continued to suffer from mental illness, and we have some evidence from Mark that Jesus was particularly concerned about people with such conditions. In the first century, like Mary, such people were stigmatised. Jesus himself seems to have suffered from such prejudice, even from members of his own family. For example, in Mark 3: 21 the original text seems to imply that they were concerned about his own sanity during the early part of his ministry in Galilee. This seems to have embarrassed some of the scribes copying the gospel, so that in some early manuscripts the wording has been changed in order to point to the ‘madness’ of the crowds around him, trying to seize him, rather than to any concern for his own mental health. In particular, Mark goes on to tell us (probably on the basis of what Peter told him), the religious leaders from Jerusalem were spreading false rumours that he was possessed by Beelzebub, the chief of demons, who was giving him the power to cast out lesser demons in others (3: 22-30). After dismissing this accusation, Jesus receives a message from his family to join him outside the house into which he has gone. He seems to dismiss their concerns, however, suggesting that he now has a new family of followers (31-35).

We should be careful not to speculate about Jesus’ mental state or inner emotional life, or to weave fantasies about his relationships with women. These reports reveal more about the customs and conventions of his contemporaries, some of which he had little time for. What we do know, from the gospels, is that Jesus was not afraid to show his emotions and that he wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19: 41–42). His fellow Jews, at that time, would have found it unusual for a man to weep in public, even in front of close friends. Women were only supposed to do so when in mourning for a close relative, or as a part of an official group of mourners, otherwise they were expected to remain indoors. We also know that Jesus responded to the emotions of those, including the sisters Mary and Martha, who were weeping at the death of their brother and his ‘dear friend’ Lazarus. As Jesus approached their home in Bethany, two miles from the city, Martha met him outside the house while her sister stayed weeping within, being comforted by friends. Jesus tells Martha that he is the resurrection and the life and he asks her if she believes that he has the power over death, foreshadowing his own resurrection. She then declares him to be the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world. When Mary arrived, she fell weeping at his feet. His heart was touched, and he was deeply moved, weeping himself (John 11: 17-36). He then raised Lazarus, a miracle which made him supremely popular among most Judeans and led the Jewish authorities, in their jealousy, to make plans to arrest him (38-53).

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John also tells us that, at the beginning of the week before Passover, Jesus visited the home of Mary and Martha again. John apparently identifies Mary ‘the sister’ as the ‘woman’ who anoints Jesus’ feet with an expensive perfume, possibly also ‘the other Mary’ who accompanies Mary Magdalene to the tomb, according to Matthew. Other traditions have associated Mary Magdalene with the act. When Judas (only identified by John) asks, Why wasn’t this perfume sold … and the money given to the poor?, Jesus berates his hypocrisy and tells him to stop ‘bothering’ her, seeing this act as a ‘sacred’ foreshadowing of his burial (John 12: 1-8). Whichever Mary does the anointing, there is an obvious symbolic connection between the spontaneous, emotive events which take place in Bethany and this event outside the empty tomb.

When Jesus asks Mary of Magdala, Woman, why are you crying? he is, at first, repeating the question put to her by the angels. We might think it obvious why a woman might be crying outside a tomb, but Mary’s sorrow is different from that of a ritual mourner. Of course, the implication of the question is that she has no reason to cry since her Lord has risen. Jesus is not criticising her, however, or asking her to stop, but is rather meeting her in her vulnerability and empathising with her emotional state. But realising that she doesn’t recognise him, he doesn’t wait for her to repeat the answer she has given him but offers his help…

The Challenge for Today: Jesus meets us where we are, in all our human weakness, and speaks to our condition. Our emotions are important, as an indication that we have a problem to solve, and we should not be ashamed of them. They must be recognised as an important initial stage in confronting our problems and we should not try to leave them behind when we seek to engage our minds to these problems. We should value them, not simply dismiss them as irrational responses. Neither should we allow ourselves to get waterlogged by our tears, unable to see through them to what is in front of us; unable to turn around, to face the reality of the risen Christ and move onwards in our faith. 

2. To Mary Magdalene (Sunday morning, outside the tomb):

Who are you looking for? 

Jn. 20: 15-16;

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Archaeologists have discovered that Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre

stands on the site of a Jewish cemetery dating to the time of Jesus.

The question is more of an offer of help to find the ‘missing’ person which makes Mary think that the man before her is the gardener, perhaps someone she has met before as an acquaintance or servant, perhaps the ‘caretaker’ of Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph was probably well-known to the friends of Jesus, although he kept his discipleship secret since he was afraid of the Jewish authorities. Luke’s account has the women carrying spices, which might suggest that they had some contact with Joseph. He and Nicodemus had had to act quickly on the Friday evening, as the Jewish Sabbath began at dusk. They may not have had time to apply all the spices (a hundred pounds in weight) that Nicodemus had provided. In Mary’s initial report of the missing body to Peter, she used the plural, we don’t know where they have put him! This would confirm Luke’s account of at least three and possibly several women going to the tomb early on Sunday morning. On finding the empty tomb, they may have thought that there had been some misunderstanding with Joseph and that his servant, the gardener, had helped him to remove the body for embalming elsewhere. Hence her words, at this point, to the man she thinks is the gardener. At this point, Jesus decides to abandon the role in which Mary has cast him…

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‘The Good Shepherd’  is one of the most common themes in early Christian art.

Jesus’ parable of the ‘Lost Sheep’ stresses his ‘pastoral’ concern for the ‘outcasts’.

When Jesus, ‘the Good Shepherd’, calls Mary, ‘the outcast’ by name, she turns towards him and recognises him, calling him “Rabboni!” in Hebrew, meaning “Teacher”. It is only when she turns to him that she is able to overcome her shame and see clearly through her tears. This is not some ghostly appearance: the verbal, eye-to-eye and then the physical contact between them is so real and overwhelming for Mary that Jesus has to tell her to let him go, as he still has his earthly body. Then he gently instructs her, as her “Teacher”, to go to her brothers and tell them that his body is returning to God. In Matthew’s gospel (28: 8-10), Jesus meets Mary Magdalene and ‘the other Mary’ (possibly, again, the sister of Martha, from Bethany), as they are running away from the tomb following a dramatic earthquake, the rolling away of the stone by ‘the angel of the Lord’ and his injunction to them to tell the disciples of the resurrection. Just as in John’s account, there is physical contact in the form of ‘worship’ between the women and him, and he instructs the women to tell their brothers to meet him in Galilee. In John’s story, the resurrection is not a stage on the way to Galilee, but on the way to the Father.

The Challenge for Today: While Jesus deals with us at an emotional level, he quickly moves us on to define the problem we are trying to solve. We need to turn and face the problem, and then acknowledge the reality of the resurrection, which provides us with the power to solve it.

3. To Cleopas (husband of Mary) and another ‘follower’ (later the same day, on the way to the village of Emmaus):

What are you talking about to each other, as you walk along? 

Luke 24: 17;

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This would appear to be the same story as that referred to by Mark (16: 12-13), but Luke uses his own sources to provide the all-important conversations. Jesus ‘catches up with’ his two ‘followers’ (not of ‘the eleven’) who do not recognise him. His question makes them sad and they suggest, in response, that he must be the only visitor in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have been happening there in the last few days! He follows up his question by asking them to what things they are referring…

The Challenge for Today: The third stage in resolving the problem, or conflict, is to clarify the issues. Jesus challenges us to get our story straight and understand what is really happening in our lives. Otherwise, we are just indulging in meaningless chatter, unable to create a meaningful narrative.

4. To the two followers as they came near to the village, (following their ‘discourse’ on ‘Jesus of Nazareth’):

Was it not necessary for the Messiah to suffer these things and then enter his glory? 

Luke 24: 26-27;

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Jesus chides the two followers, who still do not recognise him, for being slow to believe everything the prophets said about ‘these things’. He then explains to them what was said about himself in ‘all the Scriptures’, beginning with the books of Moses and the writings of all the prophets. Only after he agrees to sojourn with them and breaks bread with them inside their place of rest do they recognise him. They reflect on their walk by asking each other, “Wasn’t it like a fire burning in us when he talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?”

The Challenge for Today: Jesus challenges us to understand and interpret what we have experienced, and when we do so we are able to connect our narrative to our experience. ‘These things’, these events then become real to us; we experience the resurrection for ourselves.

5. To ‘the eleven’ (with ‘the others’) plus Cleopas and the other ‘follower’ (who have returned to Jerusalem, later that same evening, to tell their news and to hear that Simon Peter has also seen the risen Christ):

Why are you alarmed? Why are these doubts coming up in your minds?

Luke 24: 38-40;

Jesus suddenly stands among ‘the thirteen’ and greets them with a ‘shalom’ (“Peace be with you.”) They think that they are seeing a ghost, but Jesus tells them to look at his hands and feet and to feel his body, since a ghost does not have flesh and bones. Those gathered still could not believe, they were so full of joy and wonder; so he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” A polite request, rather than a question, but an important one, nonetheless, proving the continuing contact between the risen Jesus and the material world (Luke 24: 41-43).

They give him a piece of cooked fish, which he takes and eats in their presence. He goes on to remind them of what he taught them concerning everything that was written about himself in the Torah (Books of Moses), by the prophets and in the Psalms. He then ‘opens their minds’ to understand the Scriptures, telling them, “This is what is written: the Messiah must suffer and must rise from death three days later, and in his name the message about repentance and the forgiveness of sins must be preached to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem.” As witnesses to these things, they are to wait in the city until the ‘power from above comes down’ upon them, which he himself will send, as promised by his Father (44-49).

In John’s gospel, this is the second appearance and Jesus’ first appearance to his disciples. They have locked themselves in, afraid of the Jewish authorities and, again, Jesus is suddenly standing among them. After greeting them in the same way as in Luke, Jesus shows them his hands and his side. He then inaugurates ‘the second creation’ by breathing on the disciples as God had breathed on Adam, and he gives them the Spirit and power over sin for their universal mission. Thomas is not with them at this time, according to John.

In Luke’s account, Jesus then leads them out of the City as far as Bethany, where he raises his hands and blesses them. According to Luke’s gospel, he departs from them and is taken up to heaven while blessing them (50-51). Mark’s gospel agrees, in shorter accounts, with Luke’s order of events to this point, but in his second book, The Acts of the Apostles, Luke corrects himself by telling his patron that ‘the Ascension’ took place after forty days in which Jesus appeared to his apostles many times, in ways that proved beyond doubt that he was alive. Luke repeats the instruction given by Jesus that they are to remain in Jerusalem and await the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1: 1-5).

The Challenge for Today: It’s only natural to have doubts; we have to be sure of what we believe. We mustn’t pretend, or just go along with what everyone else believes. We need to be fully convinced as individual believers for faith to work in practice and provide us with our unique purpose in life.

6. To Thomas the Twin (a week later, behind locked doors, with some of the other eleven):

Do you believe because you see me? (how happy are those who believe without seeing me). Jn. 20: 29;

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This is the third appearance reported by John, the second to the disciples. Jesus again greets the disciples with a ‘shalom’ (“Peace be with you”), then tells Thomas to place his finger in the wounds on his hands and his (Thomas’) hand in the wound in his side. He tells Thomas to stop doubting and believe. In the presence of the reality of the risen Lord, Thomas utters the highest confession of faith, comparable with the opening words of the prologue, as the basis of the faith of future believers. The dramatic nature of this encounter is captured by Paul White and Clifford Warne in their Drama of Jesus (1979):

“Peace be unto you”. The voice startled them.

They looked up and saw Jesus. In a moment they were all on their feet, their faces glowing.  No one spoke. Instinctively they turned to towards Thomas who stood there like a statue unable to believe his eyes.

He stammered, “Lord, Lord, is it really you?”

Jesus came close to him and held out his hands. His tone was warm and strong,

“Thomas, my friend, put your finger here. See my hands. See the nail wounds. And my side; take your hand and put it where the spear entered. Stop doubting and believe!”

Thomas slowly went down on his knees, his hands touching the wounded feet. “My Lord … and my God.”

“Is it because you have seen me that you believe?” Jesus asked him. “How happy are those who believe without seeing.”

And as suddenly as He had appeared, He vanished. The disciples stood there amazed. Thomas looked up, overwhelmed. The room was full of excitement and laughter of a sort that comes from profound relief and deep joy.

John spoke with infectious enthusiasm.  “Jesus is no dead memory. He is our living Lord.”

At this point in his gospel (Jn 20: 30-31), John inserts an important parenthesis, affirming the miraculous nature of these events, but also making it clear that he is not concerned to record them purely as miracles performed by Jesus, perhaps in the way that other gospel writers have recorded the many other miracles not written down in this book. His purpose is to point posterity towards faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. Through that faith in the power of the resurrection, believers are to experience the resurrection life for themselves, without, unlike Thomas, being material witnesses to the resurrection body themselves. His purpose is to give testimony to the risen Christ, not to produce a chronicle of events, nor even a biography. It is natural that this passage should be inserted here, following Thomas’ confession of faith, though some scholars believe that this is the original ending of John’s gospel.

The Challenge for Today: Thomas’ predicament is a familiar one: Seeing is believing. We need to see the evidence for ourselves, and quite right too. But sometimes, like Thomas, we find it difficult to suspend our disbelief, especially because, unlike Thomas, we cannot experience the risen Christ at first hand. We need to keep faith with our first convictions and trust the testimony of others, even if we continue to doubt.

7. To the Seven ‘young men’ fishing (off the shores of Lake Galilee):

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Young men, haven’t you caught anything?

Jn. 21: 5;

Chapter 21 is probably an addition, and some scholars suggest that it was written by ‘another hand’, although the vivid nature of the eye-witness testimony would suggest that it must have been from a source involved in the intimate conversations which take place in this account. Also, the author is clearly aware that this is the third appearance of the risen Jesus to his male disciples reported in the gospel, though the fourth overall. It certainly reflects the Galilean traditions of Mark and Matthew. In it, disciples whose work has been fruitless until the Lord appears, make a perfect catch of fish under his direction, clearly symbolic of the apostolic mission to the world. Jesus stands on the water’s edge at sunrise, teasing his disciples by remaining ‘incognito’ and calling to them as ‘young men’, which many of them, doubtless no longer were after their three years of following him as “fishers of men”.

The challenge for today: Can you put an old head on young shoulders or a young head on old shoulders? Probably, the answer to both is negative, but we can all, young and old, try casting our nets on the other side of the boat, rather than just letting them drift, aimlessly. We must be careful not to miss opportunities to evangelise, to share the gospel, in whatever way works best. We have to cast our nets where the fish are, not where we expect them to be.

8. To Simon Peter, after the ‘barbecue’ on the shore:

Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do?

Jesus addresses Peter by his original name, and by the name of his fisherman father. He then begins a three-fold interrogation of him, corresponding to the threefold denial made on the night of his arrest and hearings before the Sanhedrin. The first question, like the last one in his denial, is more ‘barbed’ than the other two, however. It requires more than a Yes/No response and is perhaps calculated to disturb Peter on two levels because Jesus is really asking him ‘how deep’ his love really is, compared with that of the other disciples, especially John, the beloved disciple who is to some extent Peter’s rival right throughout the Passion Narrative. Jesus is really asking Peter whether he still loves him enough to die for him, as Peter had declared before. However, Peter only answers in the affirmative, perhaps more concerned to atone for his denials. Jesus responds, passing on the mantle of the Good Shepherd, by telling Peter to take care of the lambs in the flock of followers. In other words, he is charging him with a special responsibility for the younger apostles and disciples, perhaps including the ‘two others’ of the seven whose names are not given.

The Challenge for Today: How deep is our love? Are we prepared to sacrifice everything, even our lives, for our faith? There are still many Christians worldwide who suffer imprisonment, torture and death for what they believe in. We may not be called upon to make such sacrifices, but how can we prove our love for Jesus?

9. To Simon Peter, the same:

Simon, son of John, do you love me?

By asking him the ‘same’ question three times, Simon thinks that Jesus is trying to remind him of his denial of him, three times, before the cock crowed twice, on the night and early morning of his trial by the Sanhedrin. We can imagine Peter seeing flashbacks of his three failed challenges. In fact, the question he was asked on that night were not identical either. The first two, asked by the serving girl and the others (Jn. 18: 17, 25) were Aren’t you also one of the disciples of that man? The third was far more precise and thereby significant, asked by a relative of the injured steward of the High Priest, Didn’t I see you with him in the garden? His denial here was operating on two levels. If, as some accounts state, Peter was the assailant in this incident, any equivocation on his part could have led to his instant arrest and imprisonment for attempting to incite a riot against the Roman authorities, perhaps even his own execution, since the ‘steward’ might have been a far more significant man than a simple ‘slave’ in Roman terms. In his third denial, Peter is not simply denying Jesus but also betraying his promises to fight and die for him.

Following the second and third answers, Jesus commands Peter to ‘feed’ his ‘sheep’. Presumably, he is referring to the older disciples, revealing that he still regards Peter as their leader going forward. Jesus then reveals his reasons for ‘interrogating’ Peter. He does so, however, by lifting Peter’s mood by again joking about him not being a young man anymore, reminding him that life is now too short for him to go on being an ‘angry young man’, arguing about the future. He tells him that he must prepare himself, as the new leader and as his first follower, to sacrifice his life for the glory of God. He ends the conversation with the invitation that he first issued to Simon, follow me! By doing so, he indicates that Peter is forgiven, now that he has committed himself to becoming the new good shepherd, in charge of the flock.

The Challenge for Today: How many times do we have to forgive, or ask for forgiveness ourselves?: How often must we declare our love, when the one we declare it to already knows how our minds and hearts work? Are we prepared to face the costs of discipleship?

10. To Simon Peter, when they meet John:

If I want him to live until I come, what is that to you?

Peter turns around to see John, the beloved, standing nearby. This gives him a flashback to the Seder meal in the Upper Room, when John leaned close to Jesus and asked him, Lord, who is going to betray you? This was when everything started to go wrong for them as a group, and for him in particular, when he was replaced in Jesus’ affections by John. Later that night he had angered Jesus by drawing his sword and injuring the steward of the High Priest, which didn’t help, and when his Lord was in agony on the cross, it was John who stood nearby with Mary his mother and the other women, the two other Marys. Jesus asked him, not Peter, to be a son to his mother, and she went to live in his new home in Galilee. He, therefore, had already been given a special role as the ‘protector’ of the women in the group. It was natural for Peter to expect that Jesus would have chosen John to become the new leader of the group, even though he, Peter, was the more senior disciple. John was quicker of body and mind and he was the first to realise the significance of the empty tomb and to believe in the resurrection.

Now Jesus had chosen Peter once more, overheard by John, Peter asked him what was to happen to his ‘rival’.  Jesus’ question indicates that John is not to suffer martyrdom like Peter, using humorous hyperbole to chide Peter; What if I want John to live forever? That’s none of your business! Some of the early Christians still alive when John was writing his gospel, his other letters and his eschatological book, The Revelation, took this statement to be a promise to John that he would witness the second coming of Christ in person. This was preventing them from spreading the ‘good news’ more widely, so John re-edited the ending of his book to make it clear that Jesus did not say that he would not die, but simply told Peter to expect not just the persecution that they would all suffer,  but also a premature death. He should, therefore, focus on his own life and mission, and not concern himself with John’s role.

The Challenge for Today: Being ‘single-minded’ is not the same as being ‘self-centred’. Paul was single-minded when he wrote, this one thing I do. We all have to work out our own salvation, and our own mission statement. In doing so, Jesus reminds us not to be jealous of each other, or to compare ourselves with others, but to encourage each other in our divergent vocations. As Jesus’ followers, both as individual believers and fellowships, we are called upon to act now on our own consciences and to follow our unique missions and vocations, not to wait for God to act in some dramatic fashion, trying to predict where, when and how the Second Coming and the End of Days will take place.

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Luke’s second book, The Acts of the Apostles opens with a picture which is usually thought of as ‘the ascension’ of Jesus. It raises many problems, however, not just for modern minds, but for the whole of the New Testament. It is safer to approach his account indirectly and to try to understand Luke’s account against the background of the New Testament as a whole. Other writers describe what happened to Jesus after his death, leading to the birth of the church, in two different ways, as the resurrection and as an exaltation. These, together with the coming of the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) are seen as aspects of one complex event, reported in Paul’s letters as well as in Matthew (28: 16) and John (20: 22). Luke, however, splits the complex into three distinct parts and, following his practice of portraying divine action in the world in the form of vivid, objective pictures, has given each aspect a life of its own.

There is some doubt about the exact place of the ascension in Luke’s sequence. According to the majority of ancient manuscripts, one ascension, on the day of the resurrection, is recorded at Luke 24: 51, which clashes with the ascension after forty days in Acts 1: 9. It has been suggested that the passage between these two verses was supplied later when the New Testament was given its present order and what was originally a single book, Luke-Acts, was split. This removes some, but not all, of the difficulties. It would be wrong, however, to place too much emphasis on these problems, or to lay too much stress on the physical features of the ‘ascension in Acts. After all, the description of the two ascensions together occupies less than two verses. It is the message that accompanies them that is more important.

Luke tells us, in this passage, that Jesus continued to teach them about ‘the Kingdom of God’ (v 3). He goes on to describe them as questioning him as to whether he would give the Kingdom back to Israel. Jesus tells them that “the times and occasions” are set by his Father’s authority, and are not for them “to know when they will be.” They must wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon them before moving out from Jerusalem to be witnesses “in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This account, intriguingly, ends with a question asked by angels, just as they asked the first question in Luke’s account of the resurrection (to the women at the empty tomb), Why are you looking among the dead for the one who is alive? Now they ask the apostles, Galileans, why are you standing there looking up at the sky? They are told that Jesus will come back in the same way as they saw him go to heaven. The implication, for them and for us, is that they (and we) are not to wait around ‘star-gazing’, talking about what will happen in the ‘Last Times’. Having received the Spirit, true disciples must get on with living the resurrection life here and now, sharing it with all mankind.

For Luke, the ascension is a means to an end. It marks his recognition that the period of the church is not like the period of the earthly ministry of Jesus and that Jesus must take on a new status if he is to give the Spirit to the church. Luke depicts this transition in a way which was meaningful to the audience of his day and which had the stamp of ‘biblical’ authority. Thus, the way to understand the ascension is to concentrate on Luke’s use both of Old Testament and first-century imagery to express what he wanted to say.

So, in the three-storied universe, heaven, the home of God, was ‘above’. Luke then fills the interval between the ascension and Pentecost with an account of the election of Matthias to fill the vacant place in the twelve left by Judas’ death. Significantly, he is to be chosen as one of those who witnessed the entire ministry of Jesus, the resurrection and the ascension. The Spirit is not yet given, so the disciples pray before using the time-honoured tradition of drawing lots to determine God’s will. Matthias does not appear again, and the twelve as a group fade out of the subsequent narrative.

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The list of the disciples given in Acts differs from those given in the gospels, which suggests that some of them were soon forgotten. We only have legendary details about the later careers of most of them. They seem to have been chosen by Jesus not so much as leaders of a future church, but rather as partners and interlocutors in the proclamation of the coming kingdom. Except in prayer, there were no more questions to be asked or answered. They had a new job to do: they had been given good news, not just for their own people, but for the whole world, everybody everywhere, regardless of all frontiers of race, class or creed. But first, they needed the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete to come alongside them. Even then, some of them, it seems, tackled it rather unwillingly, since it went against the grain of their Judaistic belief. They were to be given a new vision of God and of themselves and of the world in which they lived. This new vision was to make them rethink everything in a way very different from the conventional, traditional ways of ‘doing religion’ they had been brought up in. They found themselves in a world where, for the first time, a world vision could mean something to ordinary men and women. The Roman Peace gave freedom of travel on land and sea across the known world, and the Greek language, the common language of that world, gave the small group of men and women whom Jesus had gathered around him the tools they needed to communicate with that world.

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In addition to their ten interactions with the risen Christ, we can add Jesus’ challenge to Saul on the road to Damascus, though that belongs to a later period in the growth of the Christian movement known then as The Way of the Lord. Paul himself refers to other ‘appearances’ but gives no details of the interactions or conversations involved, so that we know nothing of the purposes of the appearances. In a spiritual sense, all Christians are witnesses to the resurrection and have responded to a challenge of the risen Lord in their living and thinking. The act of believers’ baptism in itself is an act of remembrance of the resurrection and the individual’s experience of being raised to a transformed life within the wider Christian community. The debate among Christians as to what reportable events happened and what sort of events they were is as old as our earliest records. The rise of scientific inquiry in the twentieth century and the development of archaeological and historical methods of research have brought it acutely before the minds of Christians and non-Christians alike.

Of course, historical questions must be asked about the evidence for the resurrection. For us, as for the first friends of Jesus, it is a matter of the utmost importance in order to ensure that what we claim happened actually happened. Otherwise, we would all be living a gross lie. Just as he did in his earthly ministry, and with his disciples, Jesus invites our questions, including those prompted by disbelief, doubt and scepticism. We are expected to seek the answers in the most rigorous way. When all is said and done, however, we are dealing with an event which is not a purely historical event. It is closely involved in the reality of Christian experience, not just another incident in an unfolding story. It was not the reports of what had happened to a limited number of witnesses that changed men’s lives; it was the event itself. It was the revealing climax which made all the difference to the story. They could only say God raised him from death.

For some Christians, the customary ways of approaching the resurrection closely resemble the way they approach the miracles of Jesus in general. The traditional faith of the church in the physical resurrection of Jesus’ body is straightforward, and to be accepted. The tomb was empty; Jesus appeared to his disciples and later ascended to heaven. The New Testament says so; why complicate things further? Of course, there are discrepancies between these accounts, but that is only to be expected when the same event is described by several different people. For others of us, however, it is impossible to prove the question either way in definite scientific or historical terms. So we might settle for the way in which John Hick presented it:

We shall never know whether the resurrection of Jesus was a bodily event; or consisted instead in visions of Jesus; or in an intense sense of his unseen personal presence. But we do know the effects of the event and we know that whatever happened was such as to produce these effects. The main result was the transformation of a forlorn handful of former followers of an executed and discredited prophet into a coherent and dynamic fellowship with a faith which determined its life and enabled it to convince, to grow, to survive persecution and become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire.

This view follows the belief that something happened together with the conviction that human reaction to Jesus was a constituent part of the event. His resurrection is a complex event. New Testament writers report it in different ways, and they differ in perspective as well as in detail. But they agree in including in this ‘event’ the consequences of the death of Jesus, up to and including the conviction of the church that Jesus, who had died, was the Risen Lord. What is to be distilled out from all this as the essence of the resurrection is less easy to say. An examination of the gospel accounts of the resurrection reveals a wide divergence in the viewpoints and conclusions of the four evangelists. Rather than providing clear answers, they raise more questions, awkward questions that will not go away. But we are not merely asking historical questions. The central and essential truth, that those who doubted were transformed into a dynamic new movement, would still seem to be best explained by a recognition that this change had been produced by something that really happened, and which they knew to have happened, to Jesus of Nazareth. His followers had seen in him a love which was free from all self-concern. In his death, they recognised the perfect expression of that love. His cross became a symbol of a love which accepts the full consequence of self-centred human action. His resurrection symbolised the power of that love to renew human life and it held the promise of a life made perfect beyond death:

For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Col. 3: 3f)

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But the church around the corner rarely looks like a body of men and women whose ways of thinking and acting are controlled, even imperfectly, by their self-denying love for each other, let alone for their fellow men and women in wider society. Perfect love may be New Testament teaching, but it is seldom seen in popular Christian practice. It does not seem to cast out fear, prejudice and hatred. The only answer to this criticism is to acknowledge that a standard of perfection tends to produce hypocrisy and compromise in an imperfect world. At the same time, the church can point sceptics and doubters to contemporary examples of how that love evokes heroic responses and prophetic leadership in every generation. We must continue the dialogue begun by Jesus himself with every fresh generation.

Even in the early generations of the Christian community, the spirit of love was often defeated by the persistent power of self-interest, often stronger than love and concern for others. Paul constantly reminded the recipients of his letters that a new motivation should be at work among them (II Cor. 5: 14-17). He also found it necessary to urge them not to accept the grace of God in vain (II Cor. 6: 1). The new creation (II Cor. 5: 17) was not complete and perfect in the first century, so perhaps we should not expect it to be so in the twenty-first century, dominated by all-pervasive materialistic and hedonistic values. Those who seek fresh guidelines for action in our own day must turn back to ultimate Christian principles and must be conscious of true Christian motives. Only then can we inform the idealism of younger generations by New Testament teaching on love and law and guide it into fruitful channels of action.      

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The theology of the early church, as it was developed in the Epistles, arose out of the historical events of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, his victory over death and his continuing spiritual presence with his followers. The key to understanding the growth of the early Christian movement is the stimulus of the resurrection of Christ. It is hard to conceive that there would have been any Christianity without a firm belief by the early disciples in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. They were convinced that their master had conquered death and had appeared to many of them in person. Only this resurrection faith explains how the small, motley, demoralised group which Jesus left on earth after his reported ascension could have developed the enthusiasm to sweep all obstacles before them in their bold worldwide mission. A few disheartened followers were transformed into the most dynamic movement in the history of mankind. Without this firm belief in a risen Christ, the fledgling Christian faith would have faded into oblivion.

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Christian scholars today make different historical and theological judgements about the precise details and nature of the resurrection appearances, based on the differing first-hand reports. Our decisions on these matters are secondary to our decisions about the story of Jesus as a whole. How do we react to the witness of his remembered ministry, of his passion and of his resurrection? That same Jesus pushes our questions back to us as individual believers. There are three inescapable questions that we all face: Who am I? What is my place in society? What am I here for? The first is the one of identity, the second is the question of love and the third is the question of purpose. They are inescapable because though we may never formulate the answers in words, they will be answered by the way we live. Discussion of these questions always range far and wide and bring in many contemporary questions and issues, but the Christian’s starting-point and a constant source for reference-back must be the New Testament and the questions of Jesus within it. He continues to challenge us with these until we come to … You – who do you say I am? Any retelling of his story must bring us back to this question, and leave us to answer it as individual believers, according to our own consciences.

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Sources:

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

David Kossoff (1978), The Book of Witnesses. Glasgow. Collins.

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

Briggs, Linder & Wright (eds.)(1977), The History of Christianity: A Lion Handbook. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.

Alan T. Dale (1979), Portrait of Jesus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Paul White & Clifford Warne (1980), The Drama of Jesus. Sydney: Hodder & Stoughton.

Pentecost to Paraclete: The Coming of the Holy Spirit   1 comment

English: Gian Lorenzo Bernini - Dove of the Ho...

English: Gian Lorenzo Bernini – Dove of the Holy Spirit (ca. 1660, stained glass, Throne of St. Peter, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sentences:

Jesus said: I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.

God‘s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God are sons and daughters of God. When we cry, “Abba! Father!”  it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

The Story:

A few weeks after Jesus went back up to heaven, he sent the Holy Spirit to live in our hearts. Jesus’ friends were all together. Suddenly they saw little flames on each other’s heads. Then the people began talking in other languages they hadn’t learned (Acts 2)

Prayers:

A Children’s Prayer for Whitsun

We remember today how the coming of God’s Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost changed the lives of the disciples.

Loving Lord God,

Thank for the joy of the disciples.

We need the gift of joy;

Give us your Spirit, Lord.

Thank you for the courage of the disciples.

We need the gift of courage;

Give us your Spirit, Lord.

Thank you for the goodness and unselfishness of the disciples.

We need these gifts;

Give us your Spirit, Lord.

Thank you for the way the disciples spread the good news of your love.

We need to be your messengers;

Give us your Spirit, Lord.

Thank you for the disciples’ certainty that Jesus would always be with them.

We need his friendship and help;

Give us your Spirit, Lord.

Lord, help us feel your living Spirit present with us as we worship and at all times. Amen.

(John D Smith)

Luke 4. 18-19:

May the spirit of the Lord be upon us that we may be announce good news to the poor, proclaim release for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind; that we may let the broken victim go free, and proclaim the year of our Lord’s favour; according to the example of Christ and by his grace. Amen.

Galatians 5. 22-24:

Grant to us Lord the fruit of the Spirit: and may your life in ours fulfil itself in love, joy, peace; patience, kindness, goodness; faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. May our lower nature, with its passions and desires, be crucified with Christ, that true life may come. And may the Holy Spirit, the source of that new life, direct its course to your glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Hymn:

The Breath of the Spirit

Breathe on me, Breath of God,

Fill me with life anew.

That I may love what thou dost love,

And do what thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,

Until my heart is pure,

Until with thee I will one will,

To do and to endure.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,

Blend all my soul with thine,

Until this eartly part of me

Glows with thy fire divine.

Breathe on me, Breath of God;

So shall I never die,

But live with thee the perfect life

Of thine eternity.

Notes:

The idea of breath has always had a central role in Christian theology. The Greek word for this, and for the Spirit is ‘pneuma’, as in pneumonia, pneumatic, etc.. The Latin word ‘spiritus’ also refers to breath. The creative function of God has often been thought of as the action of breathing life into mankind, following the description in Genesis 2:7: ‘And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.’

Whereas to a physicist pneumatology means the science of air and gases, to a theologian it means the doctrine and study of the Holy Spirit. It is this notion of the Holy Spirit as the breath of God breathed into his creatures that Edwin Hatch (1835-89) develops in this simple devotional hymn. It first appeared in 1878 in a privately printed pamphlet, Between Doubt and Prayer. Hatch was born into a nonconformist family in Birmingham, educated at the King Edward VI School and Pembroke College, Oxford, where he met and befriended several members of the future Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood of artists, including William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Although contributing articles to magazines and artistic reviews, he didn’t follow his friends into a literary or artistic career, but chose instead to become a Church of England minister in the East End of London. Later, he became Professor of Classics at Trinity College, Toronto and then returned to Oxford, ending his academic career as a Reader in Church History. Despite his academic abilities, his faith was said to be as simple as a child’s, and deep.

Breathe on Me Breath of God’ is sung to a number of tunes, the most effective of which is ‘Wirksworth’, named after the Derbyshire village with traditions of well-dressing at Whitsun, and found in a Book of Psalmody of 1718, harmonised by S S Wesley (1810-76). The use of some less lively tunes has been criticised as suggesting ‘that the breath of God was an anaesthetic, not a “Giver of Life”.’ So perhaps we should stick to Wirksworth or, even more appropriately perhaps, to Carlisle,  by Charles Lockhart (1745-1815), who , despite being blind from infancy, was a notable church organist in London, well known for his training of children’s choirs.

Thanksgiving:

O God, who art father of our spirits, the lover of our souls, and the Lord of our lives: we offer thee our worship and our praise. With thy whole Church in heaven and on earth we adore thee for thy wondrous mercy in the work of our redemption through Jesus Christ thy Son. We thank thee for the grace of thy Holy Spirit, who did brood upon the waters when darkness was upon the face of the deep, speak in the prophets to foretell the coming of thy Christ, and descend as in tongues of living fire upon thy Church at Pentecost. We bless thee that thou hast never taken or withheld thy Holy Spirit from us, but that he abides with us for ever to rebuke us for our sin, to comfort us in our tribulations, to help our infirmities and teach us how to pray, and to witness with our spirits that we are thy children and joint-heirs with Christ. To thee, O god, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we give all praise and glory, for ever and ever. AMEN.

Benediction: 

Grace, Mercy and Peace from God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you always. AMEN.

Whit Sunday (Seven Weeks after Easter Sunday)   1 comment

English: A Protestant Church altar decorated f...
English: A Protestant Church altar decorated for Pentecost with red burning candles and red banners and altar cloth depicting the fire and sound of blowing wind of the Holy Spirit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The world is charged with the grandeur of God,   It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.   (Gerard Manley Hopkins)   Of the three major festivals in the Christian calendar, Whitsun is perhaps the least celebrated by people in Britain, certainly as a ‘folk’ festival, though it has become more important recently with the growth of the charismatic movement in churches. The coming of the Holy Spirit to revitalise the apostles and, through them, the whole church, is more difficult to picture, especially for children, than the events of Christmas and Easter week. In English culture, at least, Whitsun was upstaged by May Day. It is no longer merits a general ‘bank’ holiday in its own right in Britain, for the Monday following, though there is a late Spring Bank Holiday at the end of May, which may or may not coincide. In 2012, this holiday was postponed to coincide with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Celebration of the 2nd-5th June, to allow for a long weekend. In parts of Ireland, including Northern Ireland, ‘Ladies go Dancing at Whitsun’ still, as the song has it. The white clothes worn in these secular activities, as well as in churches for baptisms and confirmations, is the origin of the name in English, though other cultures use the original Greek name for the Hebrew festival of the fiftieth day after Passover, ‘Pentecost‘.

After the events of Easter Day, the disciples of Jesus were comforted and encouraged for forty days by his appearances before them. They were still looking for Christ’s kingdom to come and needed the presence of the King. However, Jesus told them that it was not for them to know how this kingdom would be achieved, but he would always be with them and they would be inspired by the Holy Spirit. Then, forty days after his Resurrection, he went from their sight in the event which is commemorated by the Church on Ascension Day. Ten days later the apostles (now made up to twelve by the appointment of Matthias as treasurer, replacing Judas Iscariot) came together to celebrate Pentecost. As they talked, fearful of what might happen to them, a power came over them, in a moment of time, which they all experienced, and which, sweeping away their fears, emboldened them to go out to the crowds and to preach the gospel in such a way that all the pilgrims , gathered in Jerusalem from many lands and speaking many languages, could understand their enthusiastic message. Although, like Jesus, the disciples would have spoken a little Greek as well as their own colloquial Aramaic, and may have been able to read and write in Hebrew, they could not possibly, as uneducated Galileans, have learnt so many languages, especially the Persian and Asian languages. Even the fifty days they had been quietly preparing for their ministry would not have been long enough to learn the range of tongues required to preach confidently in each. The tongues of fire which ‘spread out and touched each person there’ remind one of the ‘dragon’s tongue’ symbol of the Welsh language Society.

They were so enthusiastic that the more cynical onlookers made fun of them, suggesting that they’d been drinking wine at breakfast, as it was only just nine o’ clock. This was how the missionary work of the Church began, bringing death in many cruel forms to some of the twelve, and many others.   Today, most Whitsun ceremonies, derived from the Saxon ‘Hirita Surnondseg’ customs, have little reference to the first Whitsun described in the Acts of the Apostles  (chapter 2), and many of them are pagan in origin, although the Church has given them Christian significance. The pagan cult of well worship and veneration of water spirits was one of the most difficult traditions to transform. To this day, in most European cultures, the custom of throwing coins into a fountain or ‘wishing well’ is still a common practice and a good way of charities gaining income. Wells and spas are still a feature of many towns in Britain, with England’s smallest city named after the several natural springs which surface there, near the Cathedral. Bath, a world heritage centre, has been an important Spa since Roman times, of course, and place-names like Royal Leamington Spa and Llandrindod Wells are part of the revival of water-treatments in Georgian times.

The most colourful ceremony which continues in contemporary celebrations at Ascentiontide and Whitsuntide is Well Dressing, very popular in the north Midlands, or Peak District. This has become an art form in its own right with origins in the Dark Ages and floral pictures up to ten feet (3m) in height are set up at springs and well-heads. Tissington, Buxton and Wirksworth in Derbyshire, are noted for the beauty of their well dressings. The scenes depicted are biblical, constructed entirely from natural materials, pebbles, flowers and petals, leaves, moss, and crystal rocks. At Tissington, after morning prayers, the clergy and choir process around five local wells, blessing each one. The Whitsun Ale was a sort of parish ‘carousel’ vaguely linked to the ‘Agapae’ or Love Feasts of the early Church when the rich ate with the poor and shared their food. The churchwardens arranged the event and provided the beer which was sold, with all profits going to the poor. The ‘Church Ale’ led to village benefit clubs of the nineteenth century which did more to benefit the hierarchical control of squire and parson, than they benefited the poor, and were replaced by ‘friendly’ and co-operative societies.   More than anything, Whitsun, now Spring Bank Holiday,  is the time for Morris-Dancers to emerge, and the popularity of this tradition, encouraged in the 1960s by the English Folk Dance Society, remains widespread throughout England and Wales. The ‘Morris’ is the English version of the ‘Morisca’ or ‘Moorish’ Dance which began as a ritualistic form of battle mime, brought back to England by the Crusaders. As in other European cultures throughout May, floral decorations like the ‘Kissing Bower’ are still made by children in some villages. These are two intertwined circular arches of wild flowers, which are carried from house to house. These customs were not always popular with clergymen, however, who would perhaps have been more positive about the cycles of mystery plays performed at Whitsuntide outside the Cathedrals at Chester, Wakefield and Coventry. These were presented as ‘pageants’ on moving stages which processed around the town, which meant that the biblical scene for a particular festival was presented several times by the chosen trade guild for that scene, as the audiences watched on at different points around the city. Freed from the direct control of the Church, they contained sometimes bawdy dramatic effects, or ‘slapstick’ humour, written into lively, colloquial scripts. It would be interesting to know what special effects they could produce both for the Ascension and Pentecost stories.   Which brings us back to where we came in. Children can understand the idea of the Holy Spirit as a conscience, or counsellor, as well as a comforter or helper, as in the picture and text below. And both children and adults can understand Paul’s teaching on the ‘fruits of the spirit’; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost may have been dramatic, but its continuing charisma is manifested in the ordinary, everyday lives of Christians who follow its promptings and reveal its power in the way they live out these values and qualities of Love Divine.

The New Job: To the Ends of the Earth   1 comment

Thanksgiving for Resurrection Power:

Risen Lord, we thank you for the varied and vivid accounts given to us by those who actually talked with you and ate with you and touched you. We thank you for this visible, physical evidence of your power over death. And we thank you, too, for the invisible spiritual evidence which each of us can experience in our heart, which declares to us that Jesus Christ is still alive. May we, like the first disciples, be brave enough to tell what we have seen and heard so that everyone may enjoy the friendship which we have with you and which is our great blessing; for your dear name’s sake. Amen

(Patricia Mitchell) 

Do not hold on to me … But go to my brothers and tell them…’

These are the simple first words with which the risen Jesus sends Mary Magdalene away from the garden at sunrise on the third day. So, Mary became the first apostle. Simon Peter and John were the first to enter the tomb, finding it empty, but they returned home feeling confused, because they still didn’t understand the scriptural prophecy about Jesus rising from the dead. Mary, according to the Hebrew custom, is left there to mourn, crying out. These were not low sobs, but full renditions of grief such as we see at Palestinian funerals of martyrs today. As now, this was the traditional role that women took up, together with many others. Her tears were also shed because of the disappearance of the body, of course. Whereas Peter and John run back to the other men, her instincts are to stay and to enter the tomb herself, still crying, until she recognises and holds on to the Lord. This is a very real, physical encounter, not a hallucinatory experience, as the male disciples may have condescendingly thought at first. Mary also knows this is no ghost, and Jesus’ words confirm this. Later that evening, he also appears to the eleven, showing them the physical signs of his crucifixion, so that they would believe that he was flesh and blood. Remember, Cleopas and his friend, after Peter the next to see him, had not recognised him until he broke bread at Emmaus earlier that evening. He consecrates the disciples, giving them the Holy Spirit so that they may continue his mission, and begin theirs, making them apostles. (John 20 vv 1-18)

Mary Magdalene and the other women surrounding Jesus pass out of Biblical history and into Church history from the exodus of 36 A.D. It is an indication of how much these ‘Holy Women’ were valued among early Christians, and even by some in the later Roman Church, that they preserved and published manuscripts referring to the women’s subsequent missions to the gentiles. Though it must have been difficult for the Papacy to admit the pre-existence of older forms of Christianity in western Europe, Baronius, the Vatican historian, records in his Ecclesiastical Annals that, in that year, a group of Christian men and women was ‘exposed to the sea in a vessel without sails or oars’. He quotes the Acts of Magdalen and ‘other manuscripts’ to suggest that, along with Mary Magdalene, Martha, Salome, the hand-maiden Marcella, Lazarus, Philip, James, Joseph of Arimathea, Mary (the wife of Cleopas, the disciple who met the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus), and Jesus’ mother, Mary (to whom John the Divine had appointed Joseph as ‘paranymphos’, or companion), were among the occupants of the boat. The manuscripts all refer to Joseph being accompanied by twelve companions. They drifted as far as the coast of Gaul, the modern-day south of France, from where, the legend has it, ‘Joseph and his company’ went on to Britain, where he had substantial tin and lead mining interests in the west of the country, and that they preached the gospel there, remaining there until they died. This is confirmed by Greek and Roman sources, including the Jewish Encyclopaedia. We may choose to treat these stories as legends or ‘tradition’, but they do have meaning. They remind us of the centrality to the Christian faith of those who were present at the drama of the cross, and who were the last witnesses to the crucified Christ and the first to give testimony of the risen Christ, including the suffering mother whom John led away from the final agony, the women who discovered the empty tomb and the woman who first witnessed the risen body of the saviour. To any Roman the word ‘cross’ or ‘crucifix’ would have sounded a savage word, like ‘gallows’ or ‘guillotine’ to the English or French. Perhaps that’s why the early Roman Church didn’t use it, but preferred to mark the fish symbol as they worshipped secretly in the catacombs. It remained the way the Romans executed foreign criminals or rebels or slaves, but for these women, as well as for all the apostles, it became the symbol of God’s ‘amazing love’. Paul later wrote that he could ‘boast’ about it.  How much more could those who had overcome witnessing its destructive power do so?  The Celtic Church wisely turned it into a much more ‘feminine’ symbol of the intertwining of God’s grace with the nurturing of the natural world to make it a thing of great beauty set against the landscapes and seascapes of the western highlands and islands.

The expulsion of Joseph and his companions in an oarless boat without sails would be in keeping with the Sanhedrin’s methods. They dared not openly destroy him and, instead, conceived a treachery that they hoped would confine him to a watery grave. Their survival was not unique in Mediterranean waters if we consider Paul’s litany of trials and tribulation. We don’t know if Saul had anything to do with the castaway Christians, but we do know that it was soon after this that he had his dramatic encounter with the risen Christ on the way to Damascus, and became Paul. This news stunned the Sanhedrin, infuriating them beyond measure. They ordered an all-out drive to seize him and kill him on sight. In a complete reversal of circumstances, the hunter became the hunted. Paul went into hiding himself, appealing for aid from Christ’s disciples. Not unnaturally, they feared this might be a ploy by a man they knew to be clever, cruel and unscrupulous to uncover their secret network of survivors of his own terror, but they finally complied, lowering him over the wall of the city with a rope (Acts 9: 25). We know well what happened to him after this escape with the disciples, as St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. However, the story of his visit to Athens is worth the re-telling, because it highlights the clash of cultures in the ancient world which the missionaries had to contend with, not only in converting Gentiles but also within the Church itself:

Paul came to Athens by boat, and he was waiting there for Silas and Timothy. He wandered through the streets; everywhere there were temples and images to Greek gods. This made Paul very unhappy. He had to talk to somebody about it. He went to the Jewish Meeting House and argued there; he went to the market place and argued with anybody who happened to be there. There were many lecturers in the city, for its university was very famous; some of them met Paul, and he argued with them. “What’s this chatterer talking about?” sneared some. “It’s sme foreign fellow talking about his gods, it seems,” said others. The City Council was called ‘Mars Hill’, after the name of the hill where it used to meet in earlier times….The Lecturers got hold of Paul and took him before the Council. “Tell us, if you please, something more about this ‘news’ of yours,” they said. “What you’ve been talking about seems very strange to us. We’d like to know what it’s all about.”

‘Paul stood before the Council. “Citizens of Athens,” he said, “by just wandering around your streets, I can see that religion matters to you very much. I had a good look at your temples and the images of your gods. And I noticed one altar that had these words on it “To the Unknown God”. You do not know him; I will tell you about him.

‘The God who made the world and all that’s  in it by that very fact id the Master of the whole world. His home can’t be a temple in the street that you can build with your own hands….We may belong to different nations now, but at the beginning God made us all one people and gave us the whole world for our home. All things are in his hands – the rise and fall of nations and the boundaries of their territories….Yet he is very near to every us. Your own poets have said this very thing – ‘In God we live and move and exist’ and ‘We, too, belong to his family.’

“If, therefore, we belong to God, we can’t possibly think that gold and silver and stone are good enough to show us what he is like. No artist can paint God’s picture, however clever or thoughtful he may be. What, then, has God done? He takes no notice of the past, when we didn’t know what he is like…We can no longer say we do not know; Jesus has made him plain…The proof of this he has given to all men – he has raised him from the dead.”

‘Some of them laughed out loud at Paul when they heard him talk like this – about him “raising Jesus from the dead.” But there were others. “We’ll hear you again about this,”  they said.’

(Acts 17 vv 16-34)

It was out in the world beyond Palestine, in Anatolia, Athens and further west, that what Jesus meant – why he lived as he did, how he died, and how he was ‘raised to life’ – became clearer. It meant nothing less than the vision of a new world, God’s world, and a call to be God’s ‘fellow-workers’ in its making. Nothing could have made this vision sharper than the sight of men and women, of different races and classes and nations, becoming Christians. Here Paul is writing to those who had become Christians in the highlands of Anatolia:

‘Living in God’s Way means that you can’t talk about one another as being ‘white’ or ‘coloured’, ‘working-class’ or ‘upper-class’, ‘men’ or ‘women’ – as though that was the only thing about them that matters. The most important thing is that as Christians you are one company of friends.  And if you are friends of Jesus, you are members of God’s Family as God meant you to be and promised to make you’.  (Galatians 4: 4-7)

For Paul it was the way Jesus died that made real what God’s love was like – a love which was ‘broad and long and high and deep’; and it was the way God had raised him from the dead that showed us how great the power of God’s love is. Death, he once quoted ‘has been totally defeated’. The whole world – this world and whatever may lie beyond it – is God our Father’s world.

To many people today the word ‘resurrection’ is meaningless. They find the idea of resurrection not only difficult but incredible. We need to remember that it was never easy or credible – that’s why Jesus’ friends, with the possible exception of Mary Magdalene, were taken so much by surprise. For Jewish people the whole story of an executed criminal being raised to life was a ‘stumbling block’, an obstacle that prevented them from taking the story of Jesus seriously. For the citizens of Athens and educated people, the world over it was equally ‘laughable’. Those who had become Christians also continued to struggle with what it meant. This is how Paul tried to explain it:

‘The heart of the Good News is that Jesus is not dead but alive. How, then, can some people say, “There’s no such thing as being raised from death?” If that is so, Jesus never conquered death; and if Jesus never conquered death, there is no Good News to tell, and we’ve been living in a fool’s paradise. We’ve even been telling lies about God when we said he raised Jesus from death; for he didn’t – if “there’s no such thing as being raised from death.” …Jesus is just – dead.  If Jesus is just dead and has not been raised to life again, all we’ve lived for as friends of Jesus is just an empty dream, and we’re just where we were, helpless to do anything about the evil in our hearts and in our world….If all we’ve got is a ‘story’ about Jesus inspiring us to live this life better, we of all men are most to be pitied.

‘Of course, the  whole idea of people being raised from death raises many questions. For example, “How are dead people raised to life?”,  “What sort of body do they have then?” But questions like these sound silly when we remember what kind of world God’s world is and what God himself is like. Take the seed a farmer sows – it must die before it can grow. The seed he sows is only bare grain; it is nothing like the plant he’ll see at the harvest-time. This is the way God has created the world of nature; every kind of seed grows up into its own kind of plant – its new body. This is true of the world of animals, too, where there is a great variety of life, men, animals, birds, fish – all different from one another.

This shows us how to think about the matter of being raised from death. There’s the life men live on earth – that has its own splendour; and there’s the life men live when they are ‘raised from death’ and live ‘in heaven’ – and this world beyond our earthly one has its own different splendour. The splendour of the sun and of the moon and of the stars all differ from one another. So it is when men are raised from death. Here the body is a ‘physical’ body; there it is raised a ‘spiritual’ body. Here everything grows old and decays; there it is raised in a form which neither grows old nor decays.  Here the human body can suffer shame and shock; there it is raised in splendour. Here it is weak; there it is full of vigour…

For the fact is that Jesus was raised to life. God be thanked – we can now live victoriously because of what he has done.’  (1 Corinthians 15: 12-56)

So if we accept the ‘wondrous story’ of Jesus, his life, death and resurrection, we suddenly become aware, like Mary, of who we are and what our job is. We take our place in the world’s work with everybody else – as engineers, teachers, shopkeepers, secretaries, farmers, nurses, doctors, managers, representatives. But that’s what we do, not who we are. We are members of God’s Family and God’s co-workers in transforming the world around us. And it is not just what happens in this world that matters. Death has been totally defeated so that this world is just an exciting beginning.

Prayer: Faith;

Almighty God, our Father, we have seen you in the evidence of changed lives and in the growth of the Church from the small group of twenty men and women in Jerusalem to a worldwide fellowship which has spread through time and space: but sometimes we still doubt.

We have seen present-day missionaries leave all to follow you: but sometimes we still doubt.

We have seen famous sceptics changed into compassionate, caring Christians: but sometimes we still doubt.

We have seen the burning joy of men and women who have who have undergone great torture and persecution for their faith: but sometimes we still doubt.

Father, each time we doubt use this experience to build up our faith. You do not offer us a blind faith but one we can prove through the help of your Holy Spirit. May we persevere in looking for answers in the right places and from the right people; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(Patricia Mitchell)

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