Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Rebel Christian

Don't hold me to it, but I've been thinking that St Paul could be described as "the rebel Christian."

He once described himself as "one born abnormally" (the old CCD translation of 1 Corinthians 15:8 rendered it "born out of due time").

Unlike the Twelve, Paul did not accompany Jesus on his travels nor share his everyday earthly life. Paul did not hear him teach nor witness his miracles. Paul was not there when he died and rose again.

It is not, however, his lack of "a lived experience" of Jesus that makes Paul a rebel. Rather it is his thinking outside the primitive circle of Jesus' followers. His call came after Jesus' resurrection, when Saul the Pharisee was trying to preserve Judaism from Christian influence.  His call, in that context, led him to interpret Jesus and the Gospel beyond the confines of Judaism. His "conversion" was a movement from Pharisee-Judaism to Christian-Judaism which included a new openness to the whole world.

In his letter to the Galatians Paul writes of his initial reception of the Gospel. The Greek expression he uses in Galatians 1:12 can be understood in the sense that he received the Gospel not from a human being but from Jesus himself. It was, he said, not a lesson he memorized but rather a revelation apart from the other apostles. He was thinking (please excuse the cliche) "outside the box."

As a consequence Paul looked at Jesus from a different point of view and saw a Gospel that was global, a universality the other apostles were slow to recognize.

Even though he was a Pharisee, steeped in the Law, when Saul became Paul, he took on an ecumenical vision. Jesus may have been a Jew, he may have exercised his ministry in Jewish circles, he may have fulfilled the Jewish expectation of a messiah, but when Paul experienced Jesus he saw him embracing the whole world.

He did not give up on his Jewish roots, but he was unwilling to confine Jesus' ministry and message to one sect, one nation, one time in history. He was willing to let Peter be the apostle to the Jews, but for himself he accepted the challenge of being an apostle to the rest of the world.

Paul rebelled against the Jewish Christians' insistence that Gentiles had to become Jewish in order to share fully in the salvation Christ offered to the world. That clash between Paul and the Christian leaders in Jerusalem (Acts 15) and the resulting decision to welcome non-Jews without circumcision confirmed the ecumenical dimension of the Gospel.

One of the early and persistent heresies confronting the early Church was the attitude (philosophy) that only a few Christians could really appreciate the Gospel and that those who have this unusual knowledge had a monopoly on salvation.

This attitude has been described as "gnostic" because it focuses on "knowledge."

Part of this gnosticism is an implied elitism, and this elitism leads to what twentieth century philosopher of history Eric Voegelin saw as a cause for a "totalitarian impulse."

In simpler terms, those who think they have all the answers tend to treat others as intellectual inferiors, demeaning their insights and discounting their lived experience.

This gnostic elitism leads to separation from others and domination over them.

Paul refused to allow Jewish Christians to think of themselves as superior to Gentile converts, and he challenged the Judaizers who tried to force Jewish ways upon them. He rebelled against any effort to chain the word of God or ration the salvation offered by Jesus Christ.

I may be wrong and perhaps should not speak of Paul as a "rebel Christian," but I cannot help but think that if he were here today he would be loud in his criticism of the way we are currently making Church.

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