Third Sunday after Pentecost

In the last session of a Pauline Letters class at Luther Seminary this spring, I asked my students to write short stories about Paul — very short stories. The assignment was to produce a six-word story about Paul, his theology, or his letters.

Elijah and the Widow of Zarepheth
Aleksandr Ivanov, 1806-1858. Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source

June 9, 2013

Second Reading
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Commentary on Galatians 1:11-24

In the last session of a Pauline Letters class at Luther Seminary this spring, I asked my students to write short stories about Paul — very short stories. The assignment was to produce a six-word story about Paul, his theology, or his letters.

Paul in Six Words
There were too many great ones to include them all here. (If you want to read or contribute to the list, you can view it on this Google doc.) Here are some of the stories from my students:

  • Christ Jesus. What was the question?
  • Passive-aggressively offering you life in Christ.
  • Wish you could be like me.
  • Arrogant Jew finds kenosis in Christ.
  • From elitist egomaniac to enigmatic egalitarian.
  • “Contains some things hard to understand.”
  • Death. Resurrection. Living on the hinge.

In these six-word stories, we hear elements of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we also hear the way Paul’s message for his readers continues to be bound up with his sometimes-difficult personality and the stark “before and after” tale of his own life. These two themes — the gospel and the complexities of Paul’s own character — are also present in Galatians 1:11-24.

Dispute in Galatia
The problem in Galatia is that teachers have come to the churches that Paul founded in the region and are apparently preaching a law-observant form of Christianity. In their judgment, to follow the Jewish messiah rightly, one must follow the Jewish law.

Perhaps these teachers, disagreeing with Paul’s proclamation, have questioned his credentials. “Where did he get his gospel, anyway? Surely he is not claiming to have known Jesus, is he?” In that case, Paul would need to defend himself against such an attack.

Or maybe Paul is the first to bring up the matter of his credentials precisely because his own life embodies in miniature the cosmic shift between the “present evil age” (Galatians 1:4) that defined life before Jesus Christ’s coming and the new age to which Christ’s death and resurrection bear witness. Paul will say in the next chapter of the letter, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (2:20). While the sentence may sound arrogant, we do well to hear it as Paul’s testimony that life is just simply new for Paul after the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Paul had persecuted the church. He wanted to stamp out the rogue form of Judaism that recognized Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah and further claimed that faithfulness to the God of Israel required faithfulness to Jesus his Son. Paul had opposed this message — and then he came to speak it. He moved from persecutor to preacher.

Preaching Paul?
So far, so good, but questions remain about how to preach a text like this one that consists almost exclusively of biographical material from Paul. My students’ one-liners about the apostle bear witness to the fact that among Christians, there is at least as much irritation with Paul as admiration for him.

Some readers of Paul wonder if he didn’t actually get things wrong, focusing as he did on the death and resurrection of Jesus, while Jesus himself had focused on the kingdom of God. Others are pretty sure he got things right, that in fact God’s favor to humanity apart from any merit on our part is the substance both of Paul’s preaching and of Jesus’ ministry. Yet even those who trust Paul the theologian can become impatient with Paul the letter-writer. He can be arrogant, opaque, thin-skinned, pushy, and sarcastic; in short, he is hardly someone we would seek to be a role model.

Maybe, then, a better preaching strategy than singing Paul’s praises with this text would be to wonder at what God can do with such raw materials as Paul offers. Paul is like the patriarchs in this respect: it is difficult to read their stories and conclude that they are virtuous heroes to be imitated; nevertheless, God worked through them to bless all the nations of the earth.

For Paul’s own part, he echoes Old Testament prophets, rather than the Pentateuch, as he describes himself having been set apart before his birth for the work that God intended him to do. Both Isaiah and Jeremiah had described themselves this way (see Isaiah 49:1-6 and Jeremiah 1:5). As God had set the prophets apart and called them to speak so that Israel might participate in the promises of God, so God set Paul apart and called him to the work of revealing Jesus Christ. The goal of that revelation was that the gentiles (or “nations”) might come to worship the God of Israel and also participate in the promises of God. Paul, like Abraham before him and Israel as a whole, was blessed to be a blessing.

Paul’s revealing of Jesus Christ happens through Paul’s preaching and also in his life. Paul says in Galatians 1:16 that God was pleased to reveal his Son en emoi, a phrase that can mean either “to me” (RSV, NRSV) or “in me” (KJV, NIV, NET). Those who are ambivalent about Paul the person may prefer “to me.” God revealing his Son in Paul would have to be a miracle indeed! Paul would agree: “By the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace to me what not without effect” (1 Corinthians 1:10).

Paul’s preaching proclaimed Christ. Likewise his hardships (see 2 Corinthians 11:21-30) and his death at the hands of Roman authorities show us the contours of the cross in Paul’s life, even though he may never have stopped being impatient, defensive, and all the rest. Elsewhere, Paul will say, “God chose what is foolish to shame the wise” (1 Corinthians 1:27). True enough, over and over again.