Gospel of Paul

Sermon for First Unitarian Society of Denver by Rev. Mike Morran
     I want to begin by sharing a kind of analogy.  When I was an engineer, we had a phrase for what happens in the design process in between the proto-type and the production line.  “Measure it with a micrometer, mark it off with chalk, and cut it with an ax.”   (A micrometer, by the way, is a device for making measurements to one thousandths of an inch)
     I share that with you because Jesus taught what I believe to be a finely crafted, finely tuned message of hope and spiritual wisdom, carefully created for a very particular people at a very specific time.  That’s the micrometer part.  Thirty years later, Paul of Tarsus came along and marked out a theological position of Christianity for a very different audience.  He did this with the broad, somewhat clumsy outlines of chalk.  Later still, the organized Roman Catholic Church came along, and more or less hacked its way to the very heart of Western civilization.  This is not a criticism of Catholicism per se, and certainly not the many fine Catholics I know and love.  Just an historical observation about the highly politicized, and thoroughly theocratic early Catholic Church.
      I grew up a Unitarian Universalist, and as I sometimes joke, before I went to seminary, I really did learn most of what I knew about the bible from late night movies by Cecil B. DeMille.  So when I went to seminary and studied the bible in a relatively uninitiated state, the first thing I noticed was that Jesus wasn’t in there!  In other words, Jesus himself never wrote anything down, or even dictated anything with the thought that posterity might find it worthwhile.  This struck me as odd. Jesus is frequently quoted, but these are what other people wrote down, based upon stories that still other people told, based upon what still other people believed they had seen.  There is not a single first-hand account of Jesus, not in the bible, not anywhere, not one.  We won’t belabor that point, but we should keep that in mind as we consider Christian scripture.
The other thing that struck me as an outsider looking in to Christianity is that there is often more emphasis placed on what Paul says in his letters than on what Jesus says in the Gospels.  Some time long ago, I was having a conversation with a deeply believing Christian, a beautiful soul.  There was authenticity in the air and the time seemed right to bring this up.  Why, I asked, as a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, would you accept the words and the spirit of Paul, even when they disagree with the words and the spirit of Jesus?  It made no sense to me.
       And I’m glad that friendship was strong enough to overcome the awkwardness of my question, but you might want to be aware that this is not the kind of question that often comes up in Christian circles.  At least, not outside of biblical scholars and academics.
I’m not saying any of this to poke fun.  I’m bringing this up because it seems to me that it matters.  The Bible is unquestionably the most important scripture in Western culture, and it’s Christianity we’re talking about, not Paulianity.  And they are just not the same thing.
     It occurs to me that some of you might not know what’s in the New Testament or how it is structured.  Very, very briefly, there are 27 different books in the New Testament.  27 short books, in three different categories.  It’s helpful to think of the Bible as more of a compiled library than a single book.  There are the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  These are the stories about Jesus, the birth and resurrection, the parables, the sermon on the mount, the beatitudes and so on.  There are the Epistles of Paul.  Thirteen of them, like: Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Phillipians, Galateans, and so on.  These are actual letters that the apostle Paul wrote to early Christian communities, some fifty to seventy years after Jesus had died.  And then there are the General Epistles or letters. Nine of them by various authors, offering instruction on Christian theology and practice.
       (So) I’m going to do a brief comparison and contrast between Jesus and Paul, considering their theology and method of teaching.  We can only wonder what Jesus would have thought of Paul, since they never met and Jesus left no trace, but the evidence suggests that Jesus might have been less than enthusiastic to have his message translated and spread in the way Paul did it.  The evidence also suggests he would have been really unhappy with the Holy Roman Catholic Church.
        Jesus understood himself, first and foremost, as a prophet in the tradition of Jewish prophets.  It is likely that he believed himself the final, definitive prophet to Israel, but there is no way to know this with certainty.  In the core material that biblical scholars and historians generally agree is authentic to Jesus, Jesus does not claim to be divine.  I’ll say that again, because but it is a central distinction between Jesus and Paul.  In the core biblical material that scholars and historians generally agree is authentic to Jesus, he does not claim to be divine.  Jesus refers to himself, when he refers to himself at all, which isn’t often, as the Son of Man, and not as the son of God.
      In the Gospels, Jesus is far more concerned with how God was acting through him than he was about claiming to be God.
Regarding God, Jesus offered not one thing new to the Judaism of his time.  The God whose spirit he believed moved through him was the same God of Abraham and Moses, David and Saul, the same God of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Esther, Ezra and Nehemiah from the Old Testament.  The key difference is that Jesus did apparently believe in the urgency of the coming end times, the fulfillment of prophecies from generations before.
     The only other thing that differs from traditional Jewish images of God was Jesus’ use of the familiar form of the word Father when he spoke of God as abba.  Whether Jesus believed God to be his literal father, or whether this usage was designed to help people envision a more personal relationship with God, or whether this usage was edited in later, nobody knows for sure.  What we do know is that Jesus rarely spoke literally.  He teaches in stories and parables.  He uses analogies and metaphors to make his point about the coming Kingdom and what might be required to be part of it.  Not to be too presumptuous, but those who insist on a literal interpretation of the bible might do well to look at the teachings of their own messiah!
     “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
     0He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
     Those are just two of a couple dozen parables, but notice that Jesus doesn’t get involved in philosophical arguments about God.  He doesn’t rationalize.  He doesn’t moralize, judge, or assume that God is a one-size-fits-all kind of creator.  He keeps it simple.  He doesn’t try to explain away the mystery, and he apparently thinks it perfectly natural that different people will pull what they individually need from his stories.
     And then there’s Paul.  Paul is painstakingly insistent, letter after letter, that Jesus is savior and messiah, a gift of grace to deliver humankind from sin.  Paul believes in, and founds Christian churches on the foundation of justification and salvation by faith alone.
     Very specifically, Paul believed he was on a mission from God to bring Christianity to non-Jews.  More than half of his letter to the Romans, his longest and most explicitly theological letter is a long justification for allowing mere Gentiles to be Christians.  (After all, it’s not their fault they weren’t born Jewish!)  This was an issues that apparently never even occurs to Jesus.
Paul also differs from Jesus in his teaching methods.  He lectures.  He can be preachy, pushy, and pleading, sometimes all at once.  He divides every human being into a body and a soul, and says that evil of the flesh is due to sin working in the flesh but that there is no evil working in the spirit, and this is just one example of a statement from Paul that is directly contrary to the teachings of Jesus.
          And, he is also the writer of 1 Corinthians 13,
     1If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
    4Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
    8Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
     These are some of the most profound and beautiful words ever written.  And even those of us who have difficulty with Paul cannot so easily write him off.
      Jesus, at least in my reading is less complicated.  But also harder to see.  To get to Jesus we have to wade through two thousand years of doctrine and baggage, through the motives and contexts of those who wrote about him, and even through our own resistance to truths which might change our lives.
     To begin to really see Jesus, we have to begin by knowing that the biblical Jesus is not a generic but a very specific kind of savior.  Picture Middle-Eastern refugees.  Dirt poor.  Often homeless.  Conquered by invaders, evicted from their land but still deeply and culturally connected.  Picture people living hand to mouth, mostly in tiny villages or on the outskirts of larger towns in a very dry and harsh landscape.  To see Jesus is to understand that these are his people, this is where he comes from, and it is always his own people he is speaking to.  He absolutely was not speaking to white Europeans. 
      And if you understand this about Jesus, then everything he says takes on a whole new meaning from what European Christianity has told us.  To quote the comedian John Fugelsang,
Jesus was a radical nonviolent revolutionary
who hung around with lepers, hookers and crooks:
wasn’t American and never spoke English;
was anti-wealth, anti-death penalty, anti-public prayer;
but was never anti-gay, never mentioned birth control,
never called the poor lazy, never justified torture,
never fought for tax cuts for the wealthiest Nazarenes,
never asked a leper for a copay;
was a long-haired, brown-skinned, homeless,
community organizing, anti-slut shaming
Middle Eastern Jew.
     Sometimes, when I travel in interfaith circles, people will as me, “So, are Unitarian Universalists Christian?”  And I have various answers to that depending on the circumstances.  Sometimes I say, “Absolutely!  But not exclusively!”  Which can start some wonderful conversations.
     Sometimes I say, “Well, that depends on what you mean by a Christian.  If a Christian can only be someone who believes in the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, the miracles, and the holy trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and salvation by faith alone, then we would fail that test.  If a Christian is someone who believes Jesus is a profound teacher of spiritual truth, whose message is worthy of study and sacrifice, then there are lots Christian Unitarian Universalists.  I’m one of them.
Jesus says to us that we are the means of the peaceable Kingdom, we are the vessels of holiness and grace, it is we who hold the power to rend or to mend, the agents of God here on earth.  Amen.