The Epistle for this coming Sunday goes on a bit. It demands amputation. A decision about the incision site will be made on Sunday morning. But setting aside the need to keep up a sense of liturgical movement, as I read more of Paul I am more and more in awe.
He gets a bad press. Some see him as misogynistic, repressive and peremptory. I see him as a Boxer pup with boundless energy. He nips your ankles and jumps up and down, pestering and licking you like young Fido trying to attract your attention to get his message across. He doesn’t give up.
He repeats himself time and again. He says the same thing in different ways, each directed to his particular audience: rescue (from drowning) for seafarers, redemption (of loans) for businessmen, liberation for captives, justification (getting things straight) for craftsmen and draughtsmen. And so on. All different ways of saying the same thing: salvation. Sanctification was John Wesley’s term—and he is usually spot-on. Theosis is the term I like: God the Logos became what we are, in order that we may become what he himself is. A becoming, groaning in pain as we are changed from glory to glory. Metamorphosis.
He can be bad-tempered. I’m with him in that. Take the Epistle to the Galatians. Paul is exasperated, astonished—incandescent even—that people could have been so stupid. It grieves me to hear it read ‘flat’ in church. It needs welly, and plenty of it Paul is impatient. I’m with him in that too. Life is short and opportunities must not be missed. There might not be another.
Paul is reckless, a bit psychopathic even. I guess he needed to be to do what he did. An easy working companion? I guess not, but then pearls need grit. His apparent bossiness and misogyny to my mind are all simply about trying to stop the fledgling Christian communities from drawing attention to themselves in places where to have done so would have led to persecution and shunning. That’s all.
So what is Paul about? One four letter word.
No, not that one.
Love, pure and simple. One word with so many meanings and resonances. Sharing, encouraging, warning, admonishing, rescuing, caring, nurturing, forgiving … and more. Paul is the apostle of love. His conversion is forgiveness as his past is left behind.
That experience tells us what Paul really is. A mystic. His letters to the people of Corinth and Rome are full of beautiful mystical writing: mirrors, seeing in a glass darkly, knowing as we are known. And Romans chapter 8. It’s stupendous stuff if you see it big-picture.
Quite the most memorable part of a trip to Rome a few years back was St Paul’s Outside the Walls, where he is reputed to be buried. Never mind if he wasn’t, it felt as if he was.