Sadness of Coming to the end:  The Year of Saint Paul

yearofpaul

This has been a wonderful year for me to be involved with the larger Christian community in celebrating the 2000th birthday of the Apostle Paul. Of course we’re really not saying goodbye to the Apostle of Liberty, how could we without saying goodbye to the Holy Scriptures themselves. But I do have a certain sadness in seeing yet another golden opportunity to celebrate our Christian unity with the universal community of faith pass into history.

So as I post my final attempt to look at Saint Paul’s influence on the Christian Church, I’ve decided to return to an old friend mentioned early in this series, James S.Stewart, author of “A Man in Christ“, first published in London in 1935.

The Vital Religion of Jesus Christ

One thing I’ve been able to do in this ‘Year of Saint Paul’, through my own study as well as looking at countless blogs and essays, including those of Pope Benedict XVI, is put to the test a working hypothesis regarding what Saint Paul contributes to the whole narrative of Holy Scripture- the unfolding drama of redemptive history.

Thank you for taking an interest in my personal journey of faith. So once more I come back to that hypothesis: that the Apostle Paul does play a rather decisive role/function in the Biblical narrative that centers on Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, I’m now ready to advance that hypothesis a step further, and say that Paul the Apostle is in himself and his writings the greatest interpreter of what James Stewart calls, “The Vital Religion of Jesus Christ“.

Paul or Paulism: The Great Dilemma

When Saint Paul composed his great hymn of Praise to Love (I Corinthians 13), he began by distinguishing between the vital religion of Jesus Christ, as it had gripped his own experience, and certain more or less imperfect and unbalanced forms of religion, which from that day to this have sheltered themselves under the name of Christianity.”

This is the dilemma for the Christian Church today in the age of the international blogging community just as it has been down through the years of Christianity: the distortions of “the vital religion of Jesus Christ” in all the different views of that religion that are out there in the real world of hurting, lonely, lost, suffering, humanity. These distortions is what the world sees and feels around them instead of the authentic Christ of the New Testament Gospel. And frankly, this frustration at times almost overwhelms me. This is why I came to the place almost ten years ago, after a great deal of experiencing much of this frustration, where I intentionally made the decision to stop promoting any one “imperfect and unbalanced form of religion” as found in the religious ideologies of Christendom, and instead try to model and encourage everyone I could to get back to the original as found in the Biblical narrative itself. So I will leave you and the year of celebrating Saint Paul’s birth (even that is arbitrary) with these remarks with which James Stewart opened his book in 1935:

Gifts and graces which God intended to be the adornment of the Christian community may cease to be its adornment, and become its snare. “Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels”- that is religion as ecstatic emotionalism. “Though I have the gift of prophecy, and undersand all mysteries, and all knowledge”- that is religion as gnosis, intellectualism, speculation. “Though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains”- that is religion as working energy. “Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor”- that is the religion of humanitarianism. ” Though I give my body to be burned”- that is the religion of asceticism.

All these one-sided and patently inadequate representations of the Gospel, Paul expressly repudiates. Yet history, which has been unjust to many of its greatest men (and women), has given us from time to time, by the strange irony of fate, a Paul who is himself the type and embodiment of the very things against which he strove with might and main.

We have had Paul the ecstatic visionary, Paul the speculative theologian, Paul the organiser and ecclesiastic, Paul the humanitarian moralist, Paul the ascetic (mystic). Of these portraits which have appeared at different times in the course of Pauline study, by far the most unfortunate in its results has been the second- Paul the dogmatist, the doctrinaire thinker, the creator of a philosophy of religion, the constructor of a system. This is history’s greatest injustice to its greatest saint. It is the blunder which has ruined Paul for thousands. . . Paul’s worst enemy down through the centuries has not been Paul: it has been Paulinism. (from A Man in Christ, James S.Stewart, Harper & Row)

May we dedicate ourselves afresh to avoid (and repudiate) with all our might these distortions of this passionate lover of Jesus Christ  whom he served in life and by many sufferings and finally, death.

Related readings & downloadable essays at Christ in You, Ministries,see “Christianity is NOT a religion“, by James A.Fowler

Have we really listened to what he said about the Age to Come?

The Apostle Peter left no doubt about what he was hoping for when  he wrote a final message of encouragement near the end of his life: ” …We, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter3).

But the Apostle who wrote the great “resurrection” chapter of the Bible is not quite so clear about the “new earth”. He gives us his vision in pieces in his various letters such as when he says of creation: “The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8).

For Saint Paul, the new earth is the whole accomplishment of the redemptive work of God in Christ. He actually says very little about “heaven” as it is commonly understood by many Christians today.

“The passages where Paul’s thought climbs to its most stupendous heights and reaches a climax are those in which he speaks of Jesus as the origin and the goal of all creation. Believers have always found, in the words of Professor Strachan, that ‘it is impossible for a Christian who thinks at all to have Christ in his heart and to keep Him out of the universe’.

“The one whose own life has suddenly leapt into meaning beneath the touch of Jesus, who has seen his own experience transformed from a chaos into a cosmos by some never-to-be-forgotten Damascus encounter, has a right to claim that he has found the clue to the riddle of life and destiny.”

“The fact of Christ is the key to the meaning of the universe; and Christian experience will never consent to be robbed of the conviction that the Redeemer who has shown Himself of absolute and final worth in the experience of the individual soul must be ablsolute and final all along the line of God’s creation.” ( A Man in Christ:the Vital Elements of St.Paul’s Religion, 1935, by James S.Stewart)

kosmos

These thoughts come in the middle of some of those passages scattered through Paul’s letters and it would be too cumbersome to include them all here. The point is Paul was not silent about the future state of life on earth in God’s plan of redemption and if we make the biblical narrative our guide book rather that tradition, folk religion, or anything else, we get a glimpse of what awaits us. For instance, the First Epistle to the Corinthian Church is full of such things, here is just one sample:

Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those who love Him”

The Spirit of Paul and this post is captured on YouTube, “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name“.