We’ve come to the end of the online course. I have learned a lot about Paul and also about online learning. A number have asked Frontline to offer more online classes. I suspect we shall, but that we shall keep them much shorter. Scott suggests his group finds this works better. I, also, think it would make it easier to promote discussion. Sarah has been constantly suggesting ways to facilitate this. I was going to use the site to solicit comments about future classes. Myron thinks it might work best by doing it through personal e-mails. So in the near future, I might ask you to inform me about your needs and desires.
So what have we learned about Paul? Let me stick with Penny’s metaphor. Quite frankly, I have usually found it “too cute for words’ when people allow a metaphor to control their writing. Yet I have relied on “On the Road with Paul” every lesson. So I might as well end on a “cute” note.
I have found that Paul, and probably all biblical writing, is helpful and even essential in offering foundational understandings, but very limited when offering particulars. To use our metaphor with a favorite family phrase, if you wanted to travel from Jerusalem to Rome in the twentieth century and chose to use a first century map, you would be “freakin’ nuts”. At least the younger members of my family would advise buying and using a GPS, because it will show you what is there now and constantly adjust to changes.. Jerusalem and Rome are still where they always have been, but the road system has changed drastically. So use the GPS which will offer up-to-date satellite information.
If you make the particulars of Paul’s counsel to one first century congregation absolute law for every twentieth century congregations, you are essentially using a first century map to travel in the twentieth century. However, if you use the general principles of his theology you will find great guidance as the road constantly changes.
Let me give an example. Last weekend I was asked to moderate the discussion of a very tough group as they tried to figure out the kind of community they wanted in the future. I had listened carefully and asked questions as I prepared. Then about half an hour before the appointed time, my wife challenged all my assumptions. I had to rethink everything. In desperation, I turned to Paul’s words about community. None, absolutely none, of his particular counsels to the first century church helped at all. Think how inappropriate are counsels such the community should insist women remain silent, share their covered dishes at the Lord’s Supper, throw out homosexuals, only allow two or three tongue speakers at a meeting, don’t eat meat sacrificed to idols if someone is around who thinks it corrupts, don’t permit lawsuits in secular courts, etc.
However, his foundational perspectives were extremely helpful. Perhaps the first of these is that Jesus introduces a new Spirit into the world, a Spirit that like breath gives life and like the wind is free. This enables us to ask “what’s new?” To what kind of community is the Spirit moving our society in this time and place? To what kind of future is the Spirit moving our particular community? The Spirit always is changing, always is addressing relevantly the needs of the time and place. It grants the freedom necessary to operate in this ever-changing world.
However, we never operate alone. Love always qualifies the freedom of our community, love which does not insist on its own way, love which always shares its peculiar gifts with the rest of the community, and love which always makes special effort to consider and care for the weak of the group. Those foundational principles work in every age.
Paul’s great contribution to the Christian faith is his understanding that it is all about Christ crucified as God’s act of love for all humanity, an act of love that grants us the security needed to love even our enemies.
Let me end with words from the second chapter of Philippians which many believe is the basic model of Paul’s theology.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.