Lesson 1: On the Road with Paul

I remember it well. It was an embarrassing moment at a social event in the first month of my ministry. A beautiful woman confronted me with, “We would be far better off if there had never been a Paul.” No matter how much I tried to balance her assessment, she persisted in her attack the entire evening, literally following me from room to room.

The conversation has recurred often in the ensuing 45 years. People have trouble with the apostle, sometimes because he seems to be anti-feminist or sometimes because he seems to offer too easy an account of how we are saved.

Often the call has been “Let’s get back to the Gospels”, ignoring how much Paul’s perspective has influenced those Gospels. There is no doubt in my mind that Paul is the second most important person in Christian history, second only to Jesus of Nazareth, There is also no doubt that he can be difficult. Even our sacred scripture says so, acknowledging there are some things in Paul’s letters “hard to understand which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction”. (II Peter 3: 15- 16)

It does not help that we have only two significant sources for understanding this complex person, The Acts of the Apostles written as a sequel to his Gospel by Luke and the letters in our Bible written by Paul himself . Often these two sources offer such different perspectives we wonder if they are talking about the same person.

When Penny Risen suggested the title “On the Road with Paul” I thought she expected me to chart Paul’s missionary travels on a map as old fashioned catechism classes used to do. Then I realized as a trained journalist, she knew the power of a good metaphor. When reading Paul you are constantly asking “From where is he coming?” and “Where is he going?” In Acts that might mean he is literally journeying from Jerusalem, the heart of the Jewish world, to Rome, the seat of the mighty empire. However, that is not always apparent, because he makes all sorts of twists and turns until the distance becomes almost 10,000 miles.

In his letters “the road” becomes the development of his version of Jesus’ Gospel. He is also coming from Jerusalem as it represents Jewish culture and moving towards Rome depicting Christianity. Once more it is sometimes difficult to discern in which direction he is actually traveling. You read a statement, such as “Women should remain silent in church”, and are not sure if he is coming-from a Jesus who liberated women and heading for a male dominated church that put women “back in their places” or coming from a community that was having a hard time accepting women’s new freedoms and moving towards a community that will eventually make them equals. People around me have always asked if Paul toned down or enhanced Jesus’ teachings. Most, however, recognize he enabled, or at least helped, the Church move from small Jewish sect to large catholic Church.

It is helpful to remember Acts was written after the letters. Scholars believe all the letters were written in the 50s and Acts in the 80s A.D. Paul is writing 20 years and the wrier of Acts 50 years after Jesus’ death. That means when Acts reports the growth of the Church moving from James through Peter to Paul, the writer is revealing that, at least in his mind, God’s Holy Spirit endorsed Paul’s version of the Gospel. That is very significant when we remember the same person wrote The Gospel According to St. Luke.

That also means Paul writes before and the writer of Acts after the destruction of the temple. In 70 A.D. Rome, finally fed up with Jewish rebellions, completely destroyed Jerusalem and her temple. Too often Christians ignore the impact of this momentous event. For our purposes, it meant the Jewish Christian group, which was constantly harassing Paul in the letters, has lost its power base and its influence by the time Acts is written. You realize that is no small matter when you remember those early Jewish Christians worshipped at the temple on the Sabbath and shared the Communion meal in their homes on Sunday. By the time Luke was written, there was no temple in which to worship.

Our course will first read Acts and then those letters which most scholars believe Paul really wrote. We’ll read Acts as an introductory outline for understanding Paul’s firsthand teaching. In other words, we’ll delay interpreting his ideas and their applications to his and our world. First, we’ll take a look at the situation in which he found himself. .
Obviously, you can participate any way you please. That is one benefit of an online course. In some ways we can learn together as we go. I shall post another lesson at midnight next Tuesday. I suggest you read at least Acts 1-7 before that time. You can also use the Frontline Devotions as you contemplate Paul. They will begin using passages associated with our course on Monday. I hope many of you will use the Forum, not so much to ask me questions (although that is okay), but rather to share your insights with others.

I, also, suggest you read large portions of Acts quickly. Don’t get bogged down in too many details. Remember very, very few early Christians studied short passages. They heard the Bible orally, often whole biblical books in one sitting. We often miss the meaning when we concentrate on a paragraph or two in church worship and personal devotions. This time try reading as you would read any other book. Remember to lose the context is often to lose the meaning.

So read Acts asking where the writer is taking us. You’ll hear him claim Pentecost introduces a new Age of the Holy Spirit which leads the church relentlessly forward. He seems to be deliberately recording the “firsts” in this new age: the first martyr, the first Gentile, the first European, etc. Ask questions, such as “What were the reoccurring main points of the early preaching?” and “What were the specific objections to that preaching?” Although this way of reading scripture might seem awkward, and perhaps even irreverent, I have always found scholarship aids rather than harms my spiritual life.

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