I'm thinking that Paul, in his best moments, was able to write down truth that he had not yet lived. On rare occasions, like in his letter to the Galatians, he was able to glimpse a vision of a kingdom that had not yet come. The fact that he couldn't live there all the time only confirms what we already know about ourselves: that our vision is incomplete (we see as in a mirror dimly, I Corinthians 13); that our spiritual connection to God is intermittent at best; and that our culture usually has more influence on us than Christ does. So just because Paul couldn't grasp the full implications of the gospel and its radical vision of freedom and inclusion is no reason for us to dismiss him. Whether he knew it or not, Paul planted the seeds for that vision. Buried deep in his words was a Word about dignity and equality that has taken many centuries to begin to grow.
This transformation—from false self to true self—is made possible by the mystery of faith that we proclaim in the sacrament of communion: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. This is the mystery we have to participate in if we want to be made alive in Christ, the mystery that says that something in us has to die before we can really live, something in us has to break down before we can be raised up. That's why Paul is always boasting about his weakness, why he always seems to be savoring his suffering. It's not because he's a masochist, but because he's participating in the mystery, he is imitating the Messiah.
"I am what I am." These words had a different meaning for Paul and for God. For Paul, it was an expression of honesty: "I have been an S.O.B." For God, it was "Yes, but you are also an S.O.G., a son of God. And I'm going to give you the grace to believe it and the strength to live it." That doesn't mean that grace made him perfect or changed his personality. Paul was still there, flaws and all. But grace made him able to live with himself and less prone to project his problems on to somebody else. And when he accepted the fact that he was accepted as he was, he could become what God had always known him to be. And so he tells the Corinthians, "By the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain."
God's love has no good reason. But Paul fell for it anyway. To a people who wanted power, he preached death on a cross. To a people who valued reason, he preached the mystery of the resurrection. No wonder Paul got himself thrown into prison! All because the world doesn't know what to do with a paradox when it stumbles on one.
The danger here is that the beauty of your words can distract us from the power of your message: out of all the good things in life, the greatest thing is love. In fact, when all is said and done, the only thing that matters is love. You said it and I believe it. But that poses a problem for me and for many other people. A lot of us would rather read the Gospels, because when we read your letters, Paul, we wonder, "Where's the love?" After all, you tell slaves not to seek their freedom [I Cor 7:21] and women to keep their heads covered and their mouths shut in church [I Cor 11:1-16; 14:34]. You also tell folk to submit to authorities because all their authority comes directly from God. [Rom 13:1-7] Is that true of Hitler? Mussolini? Idi Amin? Don't get me wrong, but love is not the first thing I think of when I read these passages.
Today, I have shown you some of the many faces of Paul: Paul the Enforcer, Paul the Mystic, Paul the Apostle, Paul the Entrepreneur; Paul the Communicator; Paul the Prisoner; and Paul the Pastor. And it is my guess that at least one of these Paul's will speak to you. Perhaps that is how best to understand how Paul can be all things to all people: by being a big enough personality to offer something to everyone. Paul is a complex character. He is a mass of contradictions. It's hard to know what to make of him. But I invite you to listen, really listen, in the next several weeks, so that we can train our ears to hear the Word of God sneaking up on and slipping through the words of Paul to speak to us. That is my hope and my prayer. Amen.
So why does Paul say that we have to “work out our salvation”? Didn't Martin Luther say that our works won't earn us salvation? Isn't that the main point of the Protestant Reformation? Our own experience tells us that our works can't save us, but God's work in us can. The way it works is that God's grace pulls our lives into alignment with Christ's life. Gradually, God gives us the same mind that was in Christ and puts us on the same path with Christ. The path we're talking about here is the path of humility.
When we come to worship and find that there is something that doesn't speak to us, doesn't reveal God to us and may even annoy us, we have to remember that what is bothering us may very well be blessing the person sitting next to us. And who are we to take away that blessing?
Worship happens when and where the curtains that are closing us off from the Holy One are torn in two. Celtic Christians had a name for special places of divine encounter. They called them "thin places." They had a saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even smaller.
Now both of these stories say the same thing: first the healing, then the worship. And it makes me wonder whether we in the church don't have everything backwards. We have always tried to get people to come to worship so that they can experience God's healing, when the Bible suggests that it really happens the other way around. People have to encounter God before they can worship God. We have to experience healing on some level in our lives before we can praise God, from whom all blessings flow.