Whoa. It’s been four weeks since I posted. It’s been a crazy few weeks, I think maybe I needed to clear my head a bit of a few things…and not on the worldwideweb. Sorry to be absent, gang, but come on: I haven’t missed too many since starting this back in ’06, eh?
I’ve really enjoyed working through part one of The Jesus Underground series we just finished. I’ve notice in myself a bit of danger while studying our way through the book of Acts. It’s easy to slip into some wistful, idyllic picture of the early Church, especially the first few chapters. While we love the miracles, the big “come-to-Jesus” moments, and the apparent depth of community, we can miss what’s between the lines: the messiness, the confusion, the persecution and pain.
Can you imagine these first Jewish believers in Acts 2 wondering how they fit into Temple worship and what to do about required sacrifices? What are the polity, governance and configuration elements of this movement? Remember, no New Testament letter existed yet; their theology was being formed by their experience…and whatever they could interpret from the law and the prophets that shed light on this new covenant. What was the discipleship structure for understanding this remarkable covenant? Should, or could, Gentiles ever be a part of this movement? And on and on and on.
Think how complicated—and risky—this all would have been. No wonder Gnosticism and various squirrelly theologies slipped in quickly.
And then Paul comes into the picture.
I tire of critics taking potshots at Paul and his supposed “reshaping of Jesus’ message”. Sometimes, people pit Paul’s letters against the less “legalistic” love-ethic of Jesus. But I can’t even imagine what Christianity, let alone the early Church, would have done without his clear-headed and revelatory insight into this strange and unarticulated new covenant. There are precious few verses in the prophets regarding the details and nature of this next covenant (there is far more about “the day of the Lord” which is sometimes interpreted as the same). The only place that even uses the specific language of “new covenant” is in Jeremiah 31 with God spelling out but a few basics: the forgiveness of sins, an individualized actualized deep knowledge of Him, and a new spirit concordant with the law and heart of God. Yes, Paul’s writing requires thoughtful and contextual understanding, but I don’t see a dichotomy with the Kingdom language of Jesus or the mysterious foreshadows and types within the Old Testament.
Somewhat sweetly, the apostle Peter put it like this:
This is just as our beloved brother Paul wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him—speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters around to mean something quite different from what he meant, just as they do the other parts of Scripture—and the result is disaster for them. (2 Peter 3:15b–16)
Even more so, taking into account what Luke recorded of the encounter pre-conversion Saul/Paul had with Jesus, it’s Jesus who calls a believer named Ananias to pray for Paul who was walking around in the dark, blinded by the light. In a vision, Jesus tells Ananias that Paul has been hand-picked to carry the Kingdom message to the Gentiles…and via some kick-butt suffering. Years later, Paul becomes the first real theologian of the Jesus Underground movement. Reading his letters is like, as historian Thomas Cahill writes, “watching original theology in the making.” Pretty amazing when you think about what he did.
When we say the word theologian, we tend to think of a bookish-kind of guy with glasses and a corduroy sport coat with patches on the elbows. But Paul was certainly not that.
• Think of a Jewish Shia LaBoef (uh, actually, he is Jewish) who’s constantly getting attacked, who once escaped some bounty hunters over a city wall at night in a basket lowered by ropes.
• Think of a guy who almost gets torn apart because his preaching about Jesus is so compelling that the idol-making trade union riots in Ephesus because of a Kingdom-driven recession.
• Three times he narrowly survives a shipwreck.
• Imprisoned multiple times.
• Five times he was flogged with thirty-nine lashes.
• Three times he is beaten with a cane.
• Once he survived a stoning…barely.
• Traveled all over the Mideast, Asia and Europe…pre Megabus days when it was extremely dangerous.
• Often going without food, left in prisons cold and naked for months.
• While calling himself the “chief sinner” (probably because of being a widow-maker pre-conversion), he humbly writes that he now has a “clear conscience”. Wow. Now that’s a deep understanding of forgiveness and grace.
Let me ask you: what do you think Paul would think of American Christianity? And what would you think of a guy who by his own admission was not much to look at and not very impressive in person? And this is the man who says to the people he’s mentoring: fight a worthy fight…a good fight. I’d say to the Paul-bashers: walk a mile in his sandals.
And I think that’s why I’m going to so enjoy Part 2 of The Jesus Underground in January with the fantastic adventures of Paul.
He’s my hero. Complicated, but he's the man.