Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Paul and the Real Jesus

Paul the first century apostle, for some unknown reason, appears on a university campus, befriends a professor named Don, learns English and much of our modern culture and then holds forums at the university.

Don: Alright, we have a number of hands raised. Rachel, would you like to be next?

Rachel: Thank you, Professor. Paul, I was wondering what you thought about the current thinking about the historical Jesus.

Paul: Well, Jesus is just as historical as I was. Am. I don’t know what else I can say about that.

Rachel: Perhaps you haven’t done the reading…

Don: Would you like to summarize, briefly, the argument of the historic Jesus?

Rachel: (Blushing) I’m not sure I can… Well, I’ll take a stab at it…

Paul: You are attacking it, then?

Don: No, Paul, that’s a figure of speech…

Paul: I understand. Just a little levity, that’s all.

Rachel: Okay. Anyway, the basic idea behind the historic Jesus is not a questioning of Jesus himself, but of discovering who Jesus really was. I’m sure that you understand that the four or five gospels we have—the oldest existing accounts about Jesus—were written with theological and cultural biases and so historians have been trying to strip away those biases to get to who Jesus really was, what he really said and what he really did. I was wondering if you, who saw Jesus in real life, could throw some light on the subject.

Paul: Well, there are many things I could talk about that. Let me say, first, that I am as in the dark about Jesus as you are in this century.

Rachel: But, you saw Jesus…

Paul: Yes, I did. For but a few moments going up to Damascus. Jesus didn’t say all that much to me. Enough for me to change the whole direction of my life, but still, very little.

Rachel: But that was just a vision…

Paul: I don’t believe it was. He stood before me as plainly as you do right now. In fact, he was closer to me. This was no vision—I’ve had those, too, and being in the presence of Jesus was very different.

Rachel: But, surely, you have some insights on the process of trying to discover the real Jesus.

Paul: The real Jesus? The only way to experience the real Jesus is through the spirit, not primarily through books.

Rachel: So… you deny the gospels as being a primary source of Jesus?

Paul: No. They are a primary source of what Jesus said and did while he was living on earth, ministering among his disciples. But I do not consider that to be the real Jesus.

Rachel: So you are saying that the historic Jesus…

Paul: Is different from the Jesus who lives right now in the heavens, ruling the earth beside the Father.

Rachel: So, you think that there is no point in us knowing that Jesus of old?

Paul: Just the opposite. I think that it is essential to know that Jesus.

Rachel: I’m really confused…

Paul: I’m sorry. Let me explain. To know Jesus is to have a relationship with Jesus. Jesus is—he exists. And to have a relationship with someone is to know who that one IS, not was. But the only way to know Jesus is through the Spirit, in an unseen relationship. But there is more than one spirit, and so more than one potential relationship. And just because a spirit claims to be of Jesus, this does not mean that it is the “real Jesus” as you say. Thus, we need to know the Jesus that lived and breathed and spoke as a man, so we can know the spiritual “Jesus” as being an accurate one. It is a litmus test, so to speak.

Rachel: So the reason we want to know the Jesus of the past is to affirm that the present Jesus we are connecting with is the real one?

Paul: Right.

Rachel: So what is the best way to know the historic Jesus today?

Paul: The same way it was for me: through eyewitnesses.

Rachel: But witnesses are so biased…

Paul: Yes, of course. So are we all. But does that make them any less reliable than us?

Rachel: Well, they had such theological prejudices…

Paul: As if your scholars don’t have their prejudices as well! We ALL have our biases and prejudices and all. The real question is: are we willing to recognize our prejudices when they are pointed out to us by Jesus and to set them aside?

Rachel: Our scholars are trained in objectivity…

Don: Could I make a point here? As a professor in a university, I need to say, Rachel, that every scholar is enormously biased and if they are trained in objectivity as students, that objectivity is almost universally set aside when they become a scholar in their own right.

Rachel: So you’re saying that even historical scholarship aren’t really dealing with facts?

Don: Oh, no. Historians very much deal with facts. But the job of historians is not primarily in discovering facts, but in sifting through the massive amount of true material to find what is significant and to draw conclusions about those relatively few significant facts. So the “truth” of historians is automatically different from the “truth” of, let’s say, chemistry. In chemistry, you set up a repeatable experiment and only one set of facts “works”, meaning fulfills the terms of the experiment. But in history, a number of sets of facts can “work”, or create a plausible theory to account for historical events. Thus, history is actually LESS objective than many other kinds of study.

Rachel: So what is history about, then?

Don: In my opinion? To uphold a cultural consensus of how human society works and what is important in society.

Paul: Which is to the point of what I was trying to say. It seems to me that the “historic Jesus” you were speaking about has little to do with finding the “real Jesus” and more to do with finding a Jesus that is acceptable and communicable to the cultural standards of your present society. You are not looking for the “real” Jesus. You are looking for the Jesus that meets your needs.

Rachel: I don’t think so. Otherwise, the scholars would have a consensus of what Jesus would be like, and that consensus would reflect our cultural standards. But it seems that we have as many Jesus’ as we do scholars.

Paul: Is that so? Don was telling me the other day about this… Jesus Seminar? Is that part of this movement you speak of?

Rachel: It is a populist form of it, I admit, but they were just disguising democracy as scholarship and then publicizing it.

Paul: Did they not reach some kind of consensus?

Rachel: Well, of course, but it wasn’t accurate scholarship.

Paul: Do not the scholars who participated in it uphold it as accurate? And generally reflecting their view of Jesus?

Rachel: I suppose.

Paul: And what conclusions did they come to?

Rachel: That most of the sayings in the gospel could not be attributed to Jesus.

Paul: Were there any surprising findings?

Rachel: Well, they did affirm the saying “love your enemies” saying, even though it was attested to only one source.

Paul: And did they affirm this because they approved of this concept, whether Jesus historically said it or not?

Rachel: I’m sure I wouldn’t know.

Paul: I think you do know. Let me tell you, Jesus was his own man. I know pretty much all the sayings of Jesus by heart. Every disciple needed to. That was our job: to memorize and repeat the sayings and life of Jesus. And these written forms of the teachings of the disciples, which you call “gospels”, are fairly representative. While the text you call “John” is certainly different, I have heard such teachings in my former life. And while I might wish that some of these traditions passed to you were written differently, nevertheless, I cannot dispute the basic content of a single one. This is what, fundamentally, I taught to every church I ever started.

Rachel: YOU used the gospels?

Paul: Not the gospels as you know them, per se. But the teachings that they contain. Don’t you realize that the ideas found in those gospels were the foundation of every church. When we had disputes, we disputed what the sayings and actions MEANT, but not about what they SAID. These sayings were Jesus in a distilled form. No, they did not, nor do not, represent the whole Jesus. Jesus was so more complex and multifaceted than could be described in a single book. But these sayings formed a foundation upon which we could build our understanding of who Jesus IS.

Rachel: So wouldn’t you support an accurate history of Jesus?

Paul: Absolutely. It sounds like your scholars desperately need it. But if they saw an accurate, historical account of Jesus, they would reject it. Because if Jesus broke all of our expectations, hopes and theologies, he would certainly break yours, built up over two thousand years of misunderstandings and wanderings.

Rachel: But if Jesus is real and speaks to people today, like you say, then wouldn’t he lead his people to the truth about him?

Paul: Certainly—at least the truth that was significant for them to know at the time, anyway. But only those who were his. I have read enough of the history of the church to know that the majority of the people who claim to follow Jesus are not following the real Jesus at all. They have long set aside any semblance of the historic Jesus—the foundation of the real Jesus—and instead have pursued an acceptable Jesus for them. Like I said, there are any number of spirits that claim to be Jesus or to represent him. And they have led the church astray in so many ways they are innumerable. But there are those few, those poor, those persecuted, those outcast by the carnal church, who truly follow Jesus—the real Jesus—with all their heart. But they are either rejected as crackpots by those who gain the publicity of seeking the “real Jesus” or they are exalted to “saint” status and so ignored for real life possibilities. Which fate is worse, I don’t know.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Paul and Jesus' Coming

Paul, the ancient missionary and apostle, suddenly appears, alive and well in a 21st century university. After spending a few years learning and reading with his friend, Professor Don, he answers questions of students in the professor’s class.

Fred (a student of philosophy): So I was wondering about what you felt about the predictions you made as Paul the apostle.

Paul: Everything I have done since I met Jesus has been as Paul the apostle. But what predictions are you referring to?

Fred: For one, you said that when Jesus returned that the “dead in Christ would rise first” and then the church would be raptured.

Paul: Well, Jesus has not yet come to earth, and the angelic herald of the new age hasn’t appeared. So the resurrection hasn’t happened yet.

Fred: And that is what confuses me. Because you also said that after the “man of sin” came, then Jesus would return. But hasn’t the man of sin come? In 70AD?

Paul: Ah, let me make some clarification. To those of you who do not understand what my friend is speaking of, it refers to me speaking of Jesus’ predictions of the beginning of the next age.

Fred: They were not your own? Jesus never spoke of a “man of sin”.

Paul: I was using just different language for what Jesus spoke of. Jesus did speak of an “abomination of desolation”, which is referred to in Daniel. What chapters, Don?

Don: Daniel, near the end of chapter 11 and also chapter 12.

Paul: Alright. To understand what Jesus was speaking of, we have to know what Daniel was speaking of.

Fred: Do you hold that Daniel wrote the book of Daniel?

Paul: Not most of it. You note that the book was written in third person, except for a specific section written in first person. So the first person might have been written by Daniel, and the rest clearly written by someone else after the fact. Anyway, the writer—whoever he might have been—was speaking of the time of Antiochus Ephiphanes—the evil ruler of the Syrians—who established Zeus worship in the temple. He persecuted and killed the people of God, and tried to wipe out all worship of Yahweh, the God above all gods. Jesus, then was speaking of one who would do the same—halt the true worship in the temple and persecute the people of God and attempt to halt worship of Yahweh.

Fred: And the one who does this is the “man of sin”?

Paul: Yes. That’s the term my communities understood better than the Daniel reference.

Fred: Isn’t this the same as what fundamentalists call “the antichrist”?

Paul: Yes and no. The term is used as a misunderstanding of a passage in the first epistle of John—John was referring to false teachers, of which there will be one in the final part of this age as well. But certainly, like the “antichrist”, the abomination would be a powerful ruler, able to use armies to persecute all the people of God. But as far as man of sin having a collection of nations or having died and come back—Jesus didn’t speak to that.

Fred: But didn’t the book of Revelation?

Paul: People read so much into that book. It’s fairly simple, really. It is a description of Jesus’ prophecies of the change of ages and some prophetic passages told from the perspective of heaven and the end of the first century. Much of that isn’t necessarily going to come true.

Fred: Don’t you hold to the inspiration of that prophecy?

Paul: Actually, I do. It truly seems to be a revelation from heaven. But that doesn’t mean that it will all come to pass—because of God’s mercy. It is a warning, just like Jonah’s. But Jonah’s prophecy didn’t come to pass, not because it didn’t really come from God, but because God had mercy on their repentance.

Fred: Okay, interesting. So about the man of sin or whatever we want to call him. Didn’t Jesus said that such a one would come just at the cusp of his coming to earth to rule?

Paul: Hmm. I suppose if you wanted to read it that way you could. But that isn’t really what he said. He said that the abomination would come and then “after that time” he would return and rule the earth. Jesus really prophesied two main events—his coming and the time of persecution of God’s people which ends with the destruction of the Temple. The first event comes after the second, without any description of how soon one comes after the other.

Fred: So even though the Temple was destroyed in 70AD…

Paul: That doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Jesus’ return. Titus, who destroyed the temple, was certainly the man of sin because he defiled the temple and stopped the worship of Yahweh there.

Fred: So, you would say that there is no antichrist to come, as the fundamentalists say?

Paul: Many men of sin have come, even if they have not been able to destroy the temple for 2000 years. Every single emperor, king, pope, prime minister, chancellor, priest, pastor, rabbi, imam or parent who tries to cease the true worship of God as described and lived out by Jesus is a form of the antichrist. Anyone who uses their authority to stop the true worship of God, the Lord of the Universe, is an abomination. There has never been an age or a community without them—they always exist. So to have a worldwide persecution of God’s people? I would not be surprised if it does not come again and it would trigger Jesus’ return, just as the book of Revelation stated.

Fred: Does it bother you that you and Jesus prophesied his return and after 2000 years it hasn’t happened? Doesn’t it cause you to doubt that He would come at all?

Paul: Honestly, at first, it did truly disturb me. When I first arrived here in this place, I was wondering if I had actually arrived in the midst of Jesus’ rule. I quickly found out that wasn’t true. And so I wondered if I was right—if perhaps Jesus wouldn’t return. But in looking over the history of the last two thousand years, I think I understand why he has not come back.

Fred: (Sarcastically) Oh, do tell.

Paul: (Sincerely, not picking up on Fred’s tone) Thank you. There were a few conditions for Jesus to return. First, there had to be a prepared people of God ready to rule for God. This is what the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus were all about—to prepare a people of God ready for God’s transfer of the earth to His rule. If there isn’t a people ready, then those who claim to be God’s people will be judged. So the first thing I must say is that the church has never been ready for Jesus’ return. Too often the church finds themselves on the side of the persecutors, instead of the persecuted, the oppressors instead of the oppressed.

Fred: So the church needs to be purified?

Paul: Purified? Well, not exactly. But there must be a group that is ready to rule. This means that they have their own alternative economy—one based on charity—their own alternative rule, based on mercy and repentance, their own alternative law, based on the law of Jesus, their own alternative way of obtaining power, through humility instead of gathering a power base. They must be separate from the world, and too often the church has played this dance of compromise with the world, going for quantity of disciples, rather than discipleship in Jesus. Jesus will never return if the church doesn’t reflect His way of ruling.

Fred: So why else would Jesus not return?

Paul: Because the world just isn’t evil enough. For instance, there hasn’t been a focused persecution of all the church. No one—yet—has tried to stop all the worship of Yahweh and to destroy all those who are devoted to Him. There have been pockets of persecution, but no one yet has tried to wipe out the existence of those who worship God. Also, the world has actually improved their assistance of the poor, even if they haven’t welcomed them as equal citizens.

Fred: Wait, the poor can vote in the U.S….

Paul: But they are treated as less than real citizens—whether immigrants, illegal immigrants, the homeless, the mentally ill—they are all treated as people who need to be taken care of, but can’t make decisions for themselves, or are treated as a lower class. But that doesn’t take away my point that they are assisted better than at any time in history. Jesus’ teaching accomplished that in part, but I am impressed. I am sure that Jesus is, as well. And so he wouldn’t destroy the earth as long as they are helping the poor.

Fred: So, do you think that Jesus will just put off his return indefinitely?

Paul: Honestly, I doubt it. There will come a time when the selfishness of humanity will win out. Perhaps it will be capitalism, perhaps it will be a new government, perhaps it will be a world-wide religion or anti-religion. But something will happen which will make the worship of God through Jesus unacceptable. That’s the way it always was, even in the church. And it will happen again, and the universities and governments and police departments will look at a relatively small group of true believers in Jesus and say that they have to go. When that happens Jesus will return and take control for those who call on his name.

Paul and Politics

Paul the apostle, the ancient church planter of the first century has come to a modern university. Listen as he dialogues with a student…

Walter: (A student of political science) I don’t really understand your perspective on political involvement, Paul.
Paul: How so?
Walter: Well, you seem to be saying to just let the world be, that it will all be sorted out in the second coming.
Paul: Well… not exactly, but partly.
Walter: How would you nuance my summary of your views?
Paul: First of all, I would say that the religious activities of the Christian are distinctly political. To call Jesus Lord is to deny lordship— or ultimate rule— to any other human. To be baptized is to declare allegiance to Jesus and citizenship into his nation, the kingdom of God, and thus marginalizing any other allegiance or citizenship under his. To evangelize is to declare that a revolution is coming in which the governments of this world are going to be replaced by the government of God. To give to the poor through the church is a welfare system that was not supposed to supplement the world’s system, but replace it. To be a leader in the church is to be prepared to be the leadership of the city in which the church is held.
Walter: Whoa—hold on. Are you saying that the church was supposed to be an alternative government?
Paul: That is correct. When we planted a church, we were actually establishing leaders for the kingdom of God in that area. They would deal with all of the internal legal conflicts of the church, provide for their people and offer gifts of honor to their king. The churches were supposed to eventually replace the city governments at the time of Jesus’ revolution.
Walter: So the ancient church really had the point of view of the French Resistance under the Nazis. They were providing an alternative government in preparation for when the present ruling party fell.
Paul: So you can see that we felt that we were very politically involved.
Walter: I can see that. But it was really a politics of the future. You were creating a utopian government in the hopes that your organization would take power.
Paul: The expectation that we would take power.
Walter: Right. But what about the world around you? Shouldn’t they benefit from your utopian viewpoint? Shouldn’t they be influenced by your idealistic morals? Shouldn’t the world be influenced by Jesus, even if in a small way?
Paul: And how would you think we could do that?
Walter: Well, in our society, by becoming involved in the politics of our nation. Christians have made a lot of positive changes in our nation because they got involved and wouldn’t sit in the sidelines. Of course, you early Christians wouldn’t have had an opportunity to be involved in worldly politics…
Paul: Why do you say that?
Walter: Well, you were politically outcast, as both Jews and Christians.
Paul: Well, the Jews really were politically involved. That was one of the issues between Jesus and the Jerusalem leaders. They wanted to change society for their nation by political intrigue, but Jesus wanted to change it by a Theocratic revolution.
Walter: Interesting phrase…
Paul: Like it? I just made it up. But what I’m getting at is that the Jews could be as politically involved as they wanted. And the Gentiles, more so.
Walter: Even though they were Christians?
Paul: Being a Christian wasn’t really a black mark in Roman society until after I had died—around the time of Nero’s accusations. Until then, Christians were just seen as another way of being Jewish proselytes.
Walter: So you could have been involved politically?
Paul: Well, some of us could have, anyway. But, for the most part, unless we were already involved in politics, we didn’t.
Walter: But why not? Think of the changes you could have made!
Paul: I think the changes we could have made would have been negligible, we were such a small group of little influence…
Walter: But you never know—if only you would have tried!
Paul: Look, friend. I appreciate your well-intended remarks, but it just wasn’t in our best interest.
Walter: But why?
Paul: Because we were so involved in creating the politics of the next age. We were building the church, evangelizing the masses, helping the poor. And you also don’t know another aspect of politics in the ancient world—that politics and religion were firmly entwined, impossible to separate. Real political influence in the ancient world meant clear compromise to our gods. To be an influence to Caesar, with very few exceptions, was to honor Caesar as god and lord. To influence other lords and kings is to honor their gods. We wouldn’t have play with that.
Walter: Well, we don’t have to worry so much about that today.
Paul: For the most part that is true, but there are still spiritual influences on your politics, especially your parties.
Walter: Oh, especially that evil party, the…
Paul: No, both—all of your parties have a spiritual and moral basis, none of them are the morals and politics of Jesus. But even if your politics were completely without spiritual influence, I don’t know that I would participate in it.
Walter: And why is that?
Paul: Because to participate in this world’s politics is, at best, attempting to get a doomed government to make small compromises.
Walter: Doomed, what do you mean?
Paul: Every world government will be replaced with the kingdom of God. Jesus will take over the entire world—why bother? Why not get head and feet involved in the real thing?
Walter: You are so cynical! Why not help people now, not just in the future?
Paul: Why not do both? Through the church.
Walter: Why should we just take this world and condemn it to hell?
Paul: You seem to have a pretty high view of worldly politics. As if getting involved in politics is the only or even best way to redeem the world? That’s pretty narrow-minded.
Walter: But you guys with your pie-in-the-sky philosophy…
Paul: What do you mean by that?
Walter: That you are so heavenly minded that you are no earthly good.
Paul: We believers in God are of the conviction that to be heavenly minded is to BE earthly good. God is the Emperor of the universe. To deal with God is to deal with the highest authority of all. To pray is akin to having a direct line to your president. If the world isn’t what you think it should be, then what could be more effective than to have the ear of the highest authority. We followers of Jesus are the advisors of the most powerful political figure in the universe! And you think we aren’t involved politically?
Walter: God seems so removed from daily politics.
Paul: Not at all. It’s just that his mode of political involvement is different than the American model. He moves behind the scenes. He has allowed his church to be a powerful political force, before they every had a political voice! Wars were fought in Rome about what to do about the Christians. They became a force for the new morality just by being a powerful example and attractive to those in need. You don’t need to be involved in worldly politics to change the world. In fact, I would say that it could be a hindrance. If you spend all your time working toward a compromise between God’s ideal and what the world can accept, pretty soon you are rejoicing in something a great deal distant from the righteousness Jesus called us to be.
Walter: I think that your viewpoint is skewed because you and your fellows were so oppressed for so many years. You have a slave mentality, politically speaking.
Paul: Look, I was a Roman citizen. And I knew how to use what power I had. It is just that I learned that Jesus’ power is greater! To touch a person and have them healed—that is power! To pray and see seas calm—that is real power! To teach the gospel to someone who hasn’t heard it and have their eyes opened by Jesus and his sacrifice—that is real influence! Mucking about with political leaders and voters—mere window dressing when you’ve spoken to the Emperor of the universe!

Paul and Slavery

Paul the Apostle has been sent by God to visit us in our dark times. He has appeared at a 21st century university and, with his friend Professor Don, is answering questions in a university forum.

Walter: (A student of political science) One of the things I’ve been most confused about, Paul, is your stance on slavery in your writings. You seem to affirm the institution in many ways. You tell slaves to obey their masters, and the slave Onesimus was commanded by you to return to his master, Philemon, and all you gave was a letter asking Philemon not to kill Onesimus. Shouldn’t you have told the masters to set their slaves free?
Paul: Well, I could have, of course, but it would have been pretty difficult, not to mention illegal. We Christians had enough trouble without an emancipation morality. Certainly we would have encouraged such legislation to be passed in the Roman Senate, but it was not our place…
Walter: And why not? After all, there were many Christian masters. Why not just have those Christian masters set the slaves free? You wouldn’t have had to change the world, just the church.
Paul: Well, frankly, I didn’t pursue this because slavery, in and of itself is not immoral…
Josh: (A student of African American history, Interrupting) That’s it! I cannot believe this! Are you speaking for the whole Christian church, saying that slavery is MORAL? What kind of white suppression have you bought into?
Paul: WHITE suppression? Let me tell you, the earliest slavemasters were people of color—Egyptians, Ethiopians. And slavery was something that was a common practice all throughout the ancient world, including among God’s people, Israel. God, in his law, never opposed slavery, but he limited the use of it.
Walter: Well, God in the law also didn’t speak about child or wife abuse, but you wouldn’t say that such practices were acceptable, would you?
Paul: No. And, in fact, I wrote against child and wife abuse. Such is in opposition to Jesus teaching of humble, gentle leadership.
Walter: Quite right. But shouldn’t slavery be as well? It is treating people as property, instead of persons. Certainly slavery, of all things, is inherently immoral.
Paul: Well, actually it is not.
Josh: I can’t believe this!
Paul: I know it seems very upsetting to you now, but the slavery you studied in school is not the slavery of ancient times. For one thing, it had nothing to do with race.
Josh: Like I believe that!
Paul: No, really, it didn’t. Slaves were obtained in two ways, primarily—capturing of enemies in warfare and the selling of a person to pay off debt. While the modern answers to POWs and debt are much more merciful—temporary containment and bad credit reports—those options were not considered in the ancient world. The only alternative to slavery after being captured was death. The only option to slavery if you had too much debt was life imprisonment. Every race, nation and tongue owned slaves and every race, nation and tongue had slaves of their people. And people would enslave others of their own race and nation, if the slave owed a debt he could not pay.
Walter: Of course, it was not that simple. Often a man would sell his children or wives into slavery for work or prostitution if they were in debt, and he got off scott free.
Paul: As often happens in your society as well, among immigrants.
Walter: But we are trying to stop that system because slavery is inherently immoral.
Paul: No, because that form of slavery is an abomination. Did you know that God would destroy nations—ANY nation, not just Israel—if they would enslave a whole people based on their difference, such as race or nationality? You can read it in the first part of the prophet Amos. That is one difference between the slavery that you are used to and ancient slavery. To enslave people based on their race is inherently immoral. I can see in the contemporary world that slavery IS inherently evil, but in the ancient world it was not so.
Walter: I never would have seen you as a situational ethicist, Paul.
Paul: I am not. What God says is what is true. What God determines is evil, is evil. But even as Abraham could marry his half sister and the nation I grew up in would have considered such an abomination, even so you have had a different historical context than I. For you, slavery is immoral because your world has declared it so. In my world, slavery can be immoral, and often was, but it did not have to be.
Josh: In what way could slavery be moral? How could the buying and selling of people as property be a positive thing?
Paul: Well, for instance, the system in the law allowed the eradication of debt. Every seven years, all slaves were freed and all debts were cancelled. Perpetual debt could be something that your world might think of as moral, but we did not. Yes, you had to work for a master for up to seven years, but then you were freed.
Walter: That is, if the slave was Israelite. If the slave was of another nation, then the slavery could be perpetual.
Paul: Yes, it could, but if the slave became Jewish, then we would set them free.
Josh: So, it was racial prejudice!
Paul: Well, no. Religious prejudice, certainly, but we had no apologies for that.
Josh: But what I don’t understand is your attitude that slaves should be all submissive and working hard for their “massahs”. Why couldn’t you have told the masters to treat the slaves like brothers.
Paul: I did. In fact, sir (speaking to Walter), you misparaphrased me in your summary of my letter to Philemon. I did not suggest to Philemon that he not kill Onesimus—I commanded him to take him back without any punishment, under my authority as an apostle. The wording is subtle, because of my desire not to disrespect Philemon, but there was no way for him to wiggle out of my “suggestion”. And I commanded him to treat Onesimus as a brother in Christ, not as a slave. And this was my command to all masters. When masters and slaves were in the community of God, they were treated as equals, except that some masters were hosts of the church. But slaves were often leaders in the church above their masters. Slaves were given the Holy Spirit on their own basis, not on the basis of their freedom. In fact, one of the greatest prophets of the end of the first century, Hermas, was a slave—his book almost became a part of the New Testament, as I understand. I encouraged slaves to be set free, if they could. We had a system to work with, but we encouraged freedom as much as we could.
Josh: But why command the slaves to be submissive? Doesn’t that just encourage the masters to take matters in their own hands?
Paul: Not if the whole church was following the example of Jesus. Jesus, when he was a leader, acted as a slave and did the work of a slave, submitting to all. Even so, all masters needed to follow that example. Jesus, when he was captured, submitted to his authorities, even though they were evil and unjust. Even so, all slaves should follow that example.
Josh: It seems to me to just set up a system of exploitation.
Paul: In some cases, that is true. To be submissive is to tempt the leader to abuse the privilege, and their slaves. But the Christian always has this in mind: God is there to protect the innocent who are abused. Thus, the Christian masters would do everything they could to prevent their own oppression because they wouldn’t want to be judged by God. And the slaves could be confident in their submission, knowing that God would avenge any abuse put on them. You could say that the system was abusive, but in faith we knew that justice would be done—not in this system, in this world, but on judgment day. One of the distinctives of Christians is that they always kept God’s judgment in mind, and they were constantly encouraged to be prepared for it.
Josh: So slaves could be submissive because it was possibly the downfall of their masters?
Paul: (Considering) That would certainly be the thoughts of some slaves, especially under abusive masters. They would remain submissive to their masters so that they would be innocent, and their masters would be guilty before the Great Judge.
Josh: Well, Christianity is a bit more subversive than I thought.
Paul: I’m not so sure about Christianity over the past 1500 years, but certainly Jesus was subversive. And we are followers of Him, a part of his subversive kingdom.
Walter: And, if what you say is true, the early church was more involved in freedom of slaves than I thought. But still, why not have that freedom go outside the church? Why limit it to just inside the church doors?
Paul: Well, we didn’t actually have doors or church buildings for that matter—but that’s not important. The real issue is that we were expecting the world-wide freedom to take place when Jesus arrived. Frankly, we were outcast, disenfranchised as a group. It wasn’t our authority to change the human structures, but to offer people freedom from spiritual bondage. We declared freedom from all bondages, but it was God’s place to make it happen. And we have every confidence that God will. It is great that some freedoms were accomplished though human mechanism. But true freedom will only be accomplished through Jesus’ return.

Paul and Economics, Part II

Paul the apostle, the ancient missionary and theologian, has appeared on a 21st century university campus! With his good friend, Don, a professor of ancient Hebrew literature, they speak the truth of the ancient Christians to students who ask Paul questions!

Adam: Well, I am glad that the church is a bit more economically savvy, now than it was in the ancient past.

Paul: Economically wise? In what way?

Adam: You were just saying that the church provides charity for anyone in need. This system creates laziness and dependence and an unstable economic system. And you were initiating the very system that the Reformation had to do away with—paying for a priestly class that provided nothing to the community.

Paul: Ah, like your pastors today, you mean?

Adam: A pastor today is paid by the excess of a particular community. If a community isn’t fiscally wealthy, they don’t get a pastor. And the pastor is paid because of his or her superior education. So they had to prove their place. Not just show up and say, “I’m an apostle” or a monk or whatever, and expected any stranger to provide for them.

Paul: And this is superior, why?

Adam: Because the church isn’t providing assistance to those who are just taking advantage of the system. This supports the economy of the country, it is not a drain from it.

Paul: So everyone only receives that which they deserve?

Adam: That is correct.

Paul: So no one lives off of charity?

Adam: There are some people who live off of the government. However, eventually, the government will stop giving to those who don’t deserve it.

Paul: I hope so.

Adam: You do? That’s good. I was afraid that you’d be some kind of socialist…

Paul: I hope the government steps out of welfare so the church could step in.

Adam: What?

Paul: It is the church’s witness to the world, to provide charity that no one else provides. It is the demonstration of God’s care to give food to those who are not able to provide for themselves. And that without a large administration, a book of policies or hired workers.

Adam: But you would create a class of unproductive people in society. It would destroy the economy!

Paul: Not at all. Rather, you would have a group who would provide work for people that would be in accord with their ability. Remember, we began this discussion talking about work. It is a principle of the church that everyone should work, should be productive, but that the church should provide charity to everyone in need.

Adam: And you will create a class of people who only do “god work” a spiritual glut.

Paul: You are so concerned about unproductive people. Yet the economic system you support seems to have many people whom I consider unproductive. Pencil pushers, over-qualified decision makers, people who never make food or assist another person, but they only make money or paperwork appear out of thin air. The church would create a class of people who would work to build God’s kingdom. Build a class of people who will be followers of Jesus and not just speakers of Jesus.

Adam: Just as I said, lazy people—unproductive.

Paul: Is it unproductive to know people well enough to be able to meet their needs? Is it unproductive to visit people in the hospital or in prison? Is it unproductive to be friends with the friendless, to provide hope for the depressed? Is it unproductive to create places where the sick can rest in peace instead of on the street? Is it unproductive to grow food and give it to the poor? Is it unproductive to help the “sinners” of society to repent and depend on God’s grace? Is it unproductive to pick up food from those who cannot use it and give it to the needy? Rather, it is a work of honor. And even if it does not pay in this world, those who do this work in Jesus’ name will be rewarded by Him on the final day.

Adam: But you don’t understand. Such a society would economically self-destruct! There is nothing there to provide economic security—just like you were saying about the ancient economy.

Paul: If we have a whole sub-structure of society that is based on work toward mutual need and charity, it would be supported by God’s grace and power. Such a society would never need to worry about their needs because God would provide for them daily and make sure that everyone would be provided for, as long as they share with whoever is in need.

Adam: This is magic, not sound economic principles.

Paul: It seems to me that your capitalism is based on magic. Your “invisible hand” directs economic prosperity, as long as everyone is promoting their own economic self-interest. That’s the theory. But the reality is that you have to have a sub-structure of people perpetually in poverty to support your economic system. You must have a two-tiered structure—the poor struggling for survival behind the scenes, all the while supporting the “middle class” of the West, who are really the ruling aristocrats of today. The immigrants in your country, those who can only afford to work “under the table”, those who work below a living wage in your fast food restaurants and bargain stores, as well as the millions around the world who work on farms and factories— they are all the backbone on which your economic prosperity is dependant on. If you paid them for their work, rather than for the education level of their work, then your whole economy would collapse. The structure is only beginning to creak now, but soon it will fall throughout the world.

Adam: So you are a socialist, as I thought.

Paul: No. A socialist believes that the government should provide for those in need. I don’t think that we need to make demands of the rich. Rather, the Lord makes a request of those who have more than they need, and they obey if they follow the Lord. I am a Christian. I trust in God to provide for me, and do as he commands. That is my real work, to obey the Father through Jesus. And I believe that every Christian should do the same.

Adam: That is just too simplistic to be a real economic system.

Paul: Whatever you want to think. But the reality of it is that God is in control of His people. He knows what work He wants them to do, and we do it, if we are listening to Him. And part of that work is to provide both sustenance and work for those who are in need. Everyone takes their turn. Everyone, at some point, has more than what they need, and so they provide. Everyone, at some point, is in need of assistance and so they receive help.

Adam: I will never need help from anyone.

Paul: Oh, yes you will. And when it happens you will wish that you were a part of a community that assists you instead of treating you like it was your own fault. And when that day happens, cry out to the Lord. Perhaps he will help you.

Paul and Economics, Part I

Paul the apostle, the ancient missionary and theologian, has appeared on a 21st century university campus! With his good friend, Don, a professor of ancient Hebrew literature, they speak the truth of the ancient Christians to students who ask Paul questions!

Adam: (A student of business) So, Paul, I was wondering what you do here in the 21st century.

Paul: What I “do”? I’m not sure what you mean.

Adam: I mean, are you hired by Professor Don, here? Or do you have some other job?

Paul: (A bit flustered) Well, I assist Don whenever he needs me to. I’m not sure what you’re hinting at.

Adam: Sorry, I’m not trying to hint. I just know that in your letters you were very serious about people having jobs.

Paul: Having jobs?

Adam: Professor Don, I’m sure you know the passages…

Don: (Smiling) Of course. First and Second Thessalonians. Second Thessalonians is most specific in the phrase “If you do not work, you do not eat.” And also in First Timothy, those receiving from the church must not be “busybodies” but actively working. However, I hardly think…

Adam: (Also smiling, interrupting Don.) Exactly. I am sure, Paul, that you do not want to take advantage of our good professor, here. You said that you did not do ministry unless you were working with your hands. Besides, you should be thinking about your future. Don’t you want your own place?

Paul: (Now also smiling as well.) Very interesting, son. So you see my arrangement with Professor Don as in opposition against my standard of work for God’s people. If I was living according to the standards of your society, I might say that I am in “retirement”. Would that be acceptable?

Adam: I suppose. But then you would be a draw on society, because you never put anything into it.

Paul: Providing a foundation to the Gentile church was not enough, eh? Were it not for me, you would have very little of what you “church” today.

Adam: Well, that is… true… I guess…

Paul: (Still smiling, enjoying Adam’s discomfort.) Look, son, I think I know your real point. As far as you can see, I am just a homeless man, perhaps insane, receiving free room and board from the beloved professor at no cost to myself, right?

Adam: I wouldn’t know if you were homeless….

Paul: Come, that must be your assumption, right? Otherwise why would I show up at a classroom door, looking for a handout?

Don: I want to clarify, however, that Paul is working for me. He assists me greatly in translating the Hebrew Bible and ancient Aramaic texts.

Adam: So why not just pay him, so he could have his own place and pay for his own food? Why have him be dependent on you? Why not just let him go?

Paul: I think I understand your questions, now. Let me try to answer them in order. First of all, about the passages I wrote. I was not writing that everyone must have a “job” with an employer, a salary and income tax. The Roman economy didn’t really work that way. If you had a “job” like one would have today, we would call that having a “patron” and you would work for him exclusively, doing as he commands, and he would provide your living for you. Or you might work day labor, in which you might work for a different person every day. In my previous life, I worked as a tent maker, which meant that I was an entrepreneur, or a self-employed businessman. Most people were self-employed in some way, since they worked their own family farms. This was less so in the larger cities, but there was really very little work that you would call “employment” in the ancient times.

Adam: All this to say….?

Paul: That my command to work had nothing to do with being independent, or “having a job.” A person could work in the fields, they could work in some way for the church, they could “volunteer” for twenty hours a week. But they had to work somewhere.

Adam: Or else they couldn’t eat? You would take away their food?

Paul: (Laughing) Oh, no. You see, in the first century, the only “welfare” system in the Roman cities was the Christian church. They would have mercy on anyone who was poor and assist especially those who were needy in the church. I was saying that the ones receiving regular assistance needed to be working to sustain themselves, if they can. If they can’t, then they needed to be working some other way. God made us to work, not to just think that because we have some special knowledge or authority that we can be provided for by others.

Adam: And by work, you mean….

Paul: Doing something productive, especially something that provides their own food and clothing.

Adam: So you had no one sponging off of anyone in the early church.

Paul: Well, I wouldn’t say that. After all, I wrote about this issue a number of times because there were many people who wanted to just live off of the church for no good reason. Part of this is because of the many apostles we had.

Adam: I thought there were only twelve?

Paul: Oh, no, many more than that. Timothy, Barnabas, Apollos, Junia, and many hundreds others were all apostles. And there was a command of our Lord that said that they were to be provided for by the church—“The worker is worthy of his hire,” he said.

Adam: So they were working?

Paul: Yes, they were teachers, educators. And for their knowledge of Jesus, the church would give them room and board. They wouldn’t usually stay very long in one place—perhaps a year or so. Then they would move on and teach about Jesus somewhere else. And the church would provide for them for their teaching.

Adam: But weren’t you an apostle like that?

Paul: Certainly. And I had every right to draw my room and board from the church for my teaching.

Adam: But you didn’t?

Paul: Barnabas and I felt from the beginning that the privilege that Jesus gave us was being abused by many people. So we refused to take advantage of it during the main part of my ministry. Later, when I was under house arrest, I was forced to accept the hospitality of the church.

Adam: You mean the hospitality of your jailors.

Paul: No. Do you think Roman jailors cooked and cleaned after their prisoners? No, it all had to be done by the friends and family of the accused. In my case, it was the church.

Adam: But the norm in the church was to have people work?

Paul: As it is appropriate to their skills. However, I want to challenge one assumption you made. You assumed that every person or family in the church should be economically independent?

Adam: That is what is appropriate, I would think.

Paul: But we were in no ways independent. Especially economically. It was so important that we all work because every member of the church depended economically on everyone else.

Adam: You mean like a commune?

Paul: No, not like that. Most of us had our own living places, but many wealthy people had a number of people working for them and living with them. In the ancient times, having people work and live with you is what is meant to be wealthy. But most people just live in their family units.

Adam: So how were they dependent on each other?

Paul: Economics were not as stable as you have in this country, in this time. Any little thing could destroy a family’s or a community’s ability to support themselves. Perhaps a family farm could be destroyed by insects. The provider of a family could have a dry spell of day labor. A city might be withered by a drought. Or war might ravage a community.

Adam: I thought the Romans mostly brought peace.

Paul: The Pax Romana was mostly for the advantage of the aristocratic Romans, not the common folk. They didn’t involve themselves in local skirmishes, unless it got in the way of Roman rule. But the point is this, in an insecure environment, with anyone being vulnerable to poverty or loss, the church community was always there to assist those in need, especially if they were of the church.

Adam: So if someone was in sincere need, you would help.

Paul: “Sincere” need? We usually knew enough about each other’s lives that we didn’t need to assume that the need wasn’t “sincere”. This was one of the main witnesses of the church—we would help people, not assuming that their misfortune was judgment from God or as a result of their sin, but we would assist out of charity. Everyone needs help sometimes, and it was the task of those who did not suffer misfortune to be there for others.

Paul and Atheism

Paul the apostle has unexpectedly appeared on a 21st century university campus. What will happen when a philosophical atheist confronts him in a classroom?

Fred (A philosophy student): Paul, or whatever your name is. This is a fun exercise—and well done, even to your accent— but you can forget the pretense. I know that you are not Paul the apostle, and the professor, here, I am sure is not fooled, and perhaps he hired you to promote his Christian philosophy, as interesting as it is. In the end, you have no proof that you are Paul, you have no proof that you have ever “met” Jesus, as you claim—as certainly the original Saul of Tarsus never did. And you have no proof that anything supernatural ever occurred, ever!
Don: Now, Fred, don’t start up with one of your arguments, here…
Fred: Don, how could you perpetuate such a fraud…
Paul: (Quietly) Excuse me, perhaps I might say a word?
Fred: …knowing that your foolish Christian friends could very well be taken in by it!
Paul: Excuse me, Fred. But I would like to say something.
Fred: Yes… well… I suppose it is your forum.
Paul: Quite right. And I would like to speak to your assumptions…
Fred: MY assumptions? What about yours? You claim that Jesus rose from the dead with no evidence. You claim that you have come back from the dead, with not even a scar on your neck! You claim that you have spoken to Jesus, who has been dead two thousand years. You claim that a God exists without any proof…
Don: Fred! You are out of control! Let Paul have a chance to speak!
Fred: I’m sorry, but it seems that this foolishness has gone far enough. It is no longer a stage performance, but a class, and although I have no love for the Christians in the university, I don’t think anyone should use the university campus as a forum to perpetuate superstition.
Paul: Nevertheless, I will perpetuate my foolishness a while longer because I was asked to. Trust me, Fred, I am in complete agreement with you. This whole forum is foolish. The idea that I have suddenly reappeared after two thousand years is idiotic. Makes no sense at all. Jesus rising from the dead is impossible—especially after he died as a sinner and a traitor to the people of God. It is all unthinkable.
Fred: So why do you teach it? Why stand here and perpetuate the idiocy that has been touted and forced down people’s throats for two thousand years?
Paul: It all comes down to what we know. What do any of us know? What can we be sure of?
Fred: It depends on whether you are Socratic or Carteian or Hume or existentialist…
Paul: Hold on… let’s just talk about what you and I know. Neither Socrates nor Kierkegaard are here. How do you know what you know?
Fred: I don’t know that I know anything. All is based on assumptions and likelihoods.
Paul: Is that so? Then why storm in this classroom and demand we stop our activity based on that which you claim you do not know?
Fred: Well, I know that what you are saying isn’t true.
Paul: Why? Based on what?
Fred: Based on my own experience. People don’t rise from the dead. The supernatural doesn’t exist. God doesn’t exist.
Paul: You base this on your experience of it? How can you experience the negative of something?
Fred: Well, I prayed when I was younger and it didn’t happen.
Paul: So you are assuming that something isn’t true because you didn’t experience it. Does a non-experience equate the non-existence of something?
Fred: What do you mean?
Paul: Well, let’s say, for instance, that you denied the existence of the president of the United States. Sure, every newspaper speaks of him, and you could hear his voice on the television, but perhaps it is all a hoax, or simple confusion. So you set up a test—you call the White House and demand to meet the president so you can be sure he really exists. But you never meet the president—you never even receive a call back. Can you non-experience of the president then drive you logically to the conclusion that the president doesn’t exist?
Fred: Well, no, not by itself.
Paul: If you have never seen a Gila monster, does that mean they don’t exist? If you have never seen a ghost, does that mean they don’t exist?
Fred: Well, I’ve never even seen a picture of a ghost, I don’t see…
Paul: But you’ve seen a picture of Godzilla—does that give you confirmation?
Fred: Of course not. That is in the context of fiction.
Paul: Correct. The context communicates truth. And one’s experience often determines what we know or don’t know. That doesn’t mean that our knowledge—the interpretation of our experience— is correct. But our experience is all we have. And we have to accept what we have experienced. A non-experience doesn’t necessarily communicate anything. But an experience is something we must explain to ourselves, if no one else.
Fred: True. But what does this have to do with this forum or your ridiculous assertions about yourself or Jesus or God?
Paul: You are so firm in your assumptions that you must deny the obvious truth of what I am saying. I agree with you that everything I have affirmed is ridiculous. Foolish to even speak of. But it is what I have experienced. I am not speaking of conceptual truths. I am speaking of my personal experience—my memory, my life, all that I have. I remember being raised in Tarsus, and having my first education there. I remember hearing about Jesus and having the same feelings about him that you just expressed—ridiculous, impossible to any thinking person. All that changed when I met Jesus.
Fred: What? You had a vision? You woke up and presumed it real?
Paul: No, I saw him face to face, body before body. I could feel the heat from his body, I could hear his voice. I could see the details of his flesh—pores and scars. If it was my imagination, then it more active than it ever has been or will be. He appeared before me and said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Fred: How can you still say that you are Paul the apostle? That his experiences are yours?
Paul: Because I have nothing else! I don’t remember hearing English before I arrived, just outside this door. I know ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. In none of these languages that I knew was there a word for television or factory. I had to learn these concepts from Professor Don. I had to learn English from him, which is why my accent is so heavy. I experienced Jesus blinding me and healing me. I experienced laying on hands of hundreds of people and they were healed. I experienced commanding spirits to go and the person became sane. I remember writing the letters that you now have in Christian Scriptures. I experienced arriving here on this campus and meeting Don and living in his house. I remember learning English and history and contemporary issues over the last three years. And you can tell me that I am an idiot—but it is the only experience I have!
Fred: (Subdued, realizing Paul is sincere) Perhaps you are schizophrenic…?
Paul: Yes, I thought of that as well. But I do not hear voices, except the voice of the Spirit. I do not have compulsions to do anything others would call insane—except to speak about that which I have personally experience. And that is no different from anyone else. Except, perhaps you.
Fred: Why do you say that I am different?
Paul: Because you are compelled to speak and insist upon that which you have NOT experienced. Because you have not experienced people rising from the dead, you say the dead cannot be raised. Because you say that you have not experienced God, you say that God cannot exist. Because you say that you have never experience the supernatural, you say the spirit world does not exist. So I wonder, then. Which is more foolish—a forum here based on what I did experience or a lecture founded on a philosophy on what cannot be experienced? Let me ask a question of the audience here. I would suppose that there is about a hundred people here. How many of you have had an experience of God? Not just the idea of Him, or a belief in Him, but God or Jesus actually changed your life? How many of you have experienced a miracle, an answer to prayer, God speaking to you? Please raise your hands if you have had an experience like this.
(The far majority of the room raises their hands.)
Fred: (Shaking his head) This isn’t proof of God. You can’t prove something by a survey. And their experiences doesn’t mean that it is anything more than delusion.
Paul: I agree. Just as my whole life may be a delusion. Just as your whole life may be a delusion. What I am saying is this: You cannot tell them that they did not experience what they did experience. It is like believing that the president exists. You can deny it, and say that everyone is deluded. But the majority of people have some experience of him—and you will not convince them otherwise. And why should you? The burden of proof is on you. We should be demanding of you some proof that our experiences need to be interpreted differently than we do. And since you have offered nothing but assertions and assumptions, I—and I am sure most of the people in this room—choose to assert that our experiences are true. Unless you can prove otherwise.
Fred: How can I deny a fool the choice to persist in his foolishness? (He walks out.)
Paul: I must agree.

Paul and America

Paul the Apostle suddenly appeared on an American university campus and has spent three years with his good friend, Don, who is a professor of Hebrew literature. Now Paul is having discussions with different students on the campus.

Kevin: (A music major continuing his discussion) You just mentioned a little bit ago that you were “amused” by American concepts of tolerance. Since you have been in America for three years, what do you think of it? Is it better or worse than the society you lived in?

Paul: America is certainly different than anything I ever experienced in my previous life. It is as if all the values of the three societies I was involved in: the Jewish, the Christian and the Roman—were all put in a bowl and mixed thoroughly poured out, baked solidly and then covered with a layer of new technology. America has very little of what I call innovative, except the superficial significance of technology.

Kevin: Isn’t technology significant, though? The industrial revolution changed our way of life and the information revolution continues to change us today.

Paul: Well, it is certainly unique that agriculture isn’t a major force in most people’s lives in America. But that was mostly true among the urban minority in my day as well. America has urbanity as a national way of life that I understand has become pretty common throughout the world.

Kevin: Not everywhere, but you are right, it is pretty common. How does our urban life compare to ancient urban life?

Paul: Well, your streets smell better. But every time I am in a room with a bunch of Americans, like here, the smell of rotting meat is just disgusting. But I’m getting used to it.

Kevin: Smell of rotting meat? How do you smell that?

Paul: It comes off of your bodies. In my day, meat was a feast food, not a normal meal. Most of the time we ate vegetables or fish. But you all eat so much beef, that it seeps out your pores. You are all used to it—it is the smell of a “normal person”, but all I can smell is your bodies processing the meat. I hope I have not offended you with that.

Kevin: Not me. I’m just surprised is all. Your previous statement fascinates me, though. How is America a mix of Hebrew, Christian and Roman culture?

Paul: Your nation has a focus on the law much like the Hebrews. Your national law system is much more complicated and just as strict as the Jewish system—if not more so. Your purity laws are certainly as strict, especially in public serving places. Yet, like the Romans, there is a division between law and religion. That is unique. Somehow a group of men and women who do not live like the majority of people will determine what is good or evil without reference to God. Amazing and almost unheard of in my day. What is most like the Romans, though, is less the government, but the use of force as authority. America uses their military might to control not only their own cities, but also nations outside their soverign control. Only empires ever did that in my day. Of course, America is a modern empire.

Kevin: No, that’s not true. America doesn’t have colonies or control foreign governments—well only a couple, anyway.

Paul: An empire isn’t that which has only political control over the world. Babylon was an empire before they conquered the world, and Egypt was an empire although they rarely left their own nation. They were empires because they had control over every resource they desired, and the nations of the world served them whether the were specifically politically controlled by them or not. America desires economic control of the world, and most of the world serves them economically. Thus, America is just as much an empire as Rome was, and a very successful one, at that.

Kevin: So how is America influenced by Christianity?

Paul: The power of non-profit organizations and charity. Charity is really a Hebrew concept, but it was Christianity that turned charity into a force that could develop an entire civilization. In America non-profit organizations is a powerful force that has changed how one sees one’s nation and the world. The idea that one should have access to books or financial assistance as ones right simply because one was in need, or because one is a part of society is just amazing. In the ancient world, benefit is given to those who have authority or wealth. Much is made of Roman bath houses and sewers, but they weren’t available to everyone for free—only to the patrons of our world. The rest of us still survived on wells and buckets.

Kevin: But what about America, as a nation. Is it a good nation? Are you happy to live here?

Paul: America—by which you mean the United States, I believe—has many good characteristics, I believe. The best and the worst of America is found in the word used most frequently, “freedom.”

Kevin: That is the best AND the worst?

Paul: Well, let me remain positive. The most unique thing about America is what it borrowed from radical Christian sects—that even if one held to different values or beliefs than the authorities, one ought not to be harmed. There was a certain amount of this in Roman times. The Jews and the Romans had a political agreement, and the Romans tolerated the eastern mystic religions, as long as they remained personal and didn’t get involved in politics. But Rome was very much opposed to Christianity, of course, and the majority of people felt that it wasn’t just a possibility, but a responsibility to kill and persecute those who had different values than they. In America, law is not usually based on religious values, but only on the values of what is good for society as a whole. Interestingly enough, the main arguments in America have to do with who is included in society. Are blacks a part of American society? Are slaves? What about women? And today the argument revolves around the unborn and creation—do they have rights under the law? It is all interesting.

Kevin: Do you think then that America is fundamentally focused on the basic law you mentioned: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Paul: America has a very different understanding of that law than I do. That law, from America’s understanding, is, “Don’t do harm to anyone who belongs to our society,” and their law determines the perimeters of what means. When Jesus first spoke that law, he really defined it as, “Do as God would have you do to all people.” God is the one who defines what love is and what harm is, not a legislature, not studies, not one’s personal conscience.

Kevin: Isn’t there a problem with just saying “God” as well? After all, different people understand God or Jesus differently, and that creates conflict and persecution.

Paul: Yes, it could, and it has. I have suffered much of that, although I persecuted no one in my teaching of Jesus. And Jesus purposed to use this persecution to indicate who really understood God and who didn’t. He established a sect to be persecuted, but to persecute no one else. In this way, they showed true faith in God, trusting in Him whether they were harmed or killed or not. Thus Jesus used the lack of freedom as one tool to indicate God’s power and reality.

Kevin: Is this one of the weaknesses of freedom, that Jesus’ plan is circumvented?

Paul: It isn’t really, even in this society. It is just more subtle. And Christianity has been so corrupted over two thousand years, that the more acceptable forms are not the forms that Jesus presented. True trust in God isn’t encouraged, either by American society or by the church. So those who display true trust in God are still discouraged and persecuted.

Kevin: So how would you critique American freedom?

Paul: First of all, American freedom actually allows too much self-destruction. They have laws against drugs and driving without a seat belt, but not against the ideas that cause fear, lust, self-deception, pride and greed. And in not discouraging these items, they end up encouraging them, and so their society is destroying itself.

Kevin: How do these destructive agents show themselves in our society?

Paul: Lust in pornography and the sexual focus of your graphic-focused media. Fear in the news and local gossip that sees harm for the vulnerable around every corner. Self-deception and pride in encouraging children and adults to ignore their own weaknesses but only to speak “positively” or boasting about themselves. Greed in the very economic system that is the foundation of the country—to only grant to others what you will get an equal or greater value for, and to not give unless that value is granted.

Kevin: Do you think these things should be illegal?

Paul: No, I suppose not in an ungodly nation. Each nation chooses their own means of shame and destruction. America isn’t yet ready to be destroyed—their good will to the poor continues to make them useful to God. Eventually, however, their usefulness will be played out and it will be divided and powerless, just like every other empire that ever existed.

Kevin: Was there something else you wanted to say?

Paul: One last critique. You note that American freedom is really only a freedom of values and religions, not anything else. Because they emphasize the significance of everything but values and religions, they create an atmosphere in which ethics and religion is insignificant. If they are not spoken of, or they are marginalized, then it becomes insignificant. You will find that a society which accepts all ethical or belief systems ultimately has a belief system without ethics. That which you do emphasize becomes the reality, while all else becomes nothing. For this reason, true Christianity—the persecuted people who live our God’s values—will always have a place. America will become like the Romans, rejecting the godly because they emphasize that which they do not want to speak of. The true Christians will be persecuted in America again simply because they want to live for Jesus. A false Christianity will be created, and is already here, which guts the heart of Jesus out and leaves but an empty shell. But even as every society creates its own means of destruction, so does every society create its own way of marginalizing God’s true people—usually by creating a religion that meets it’s spiritual need, but still separating themselves from the true God of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Paul and Sin

For a purpose unknown, Paul the apostle arrived at a university campus three years ago. Now, with his friend Don who is a professor of Hebrew literature at the university, Paul answers students’ questions.

Sharie: (A student of art history) So, Paul, I’ve read all of your letters…
Paul: I’m honored.
Sharie: (chuckles) Well, I suppose a lot of people here have read your work. It’s not like they’re long.
Paul: Yes, I know that in this age you expect long texts. But writing materials were expensive and everything had to be written by hand. As well, I had a busy life, teaching the gospel of Jesus, traveling from place to place, dodging stones…
Sharie: Yes, I’m sure. Anyway… Dang. Now I don’t know that I want to ask you this question. You seem so different than your writings. More… pleasant.
Paul: Well, I was famous for that. The churches would say that I was harsh in my letters, but as gentle as a lamb in person. My enemies used that against me, saying that I was hypocritical. But that’s the way ministry should be, I think. You say the hard things when away, but in person be as personable as you can. But, please, feel free to ask me anything. I won’t kill you with my sword, I promise.
Sharie: Okay, then. Well, in reading your letters I notice just how much you talk about sin. Jesus spoke so much about forgiveness, but you don’t seem to be on his wavelength. You seem… harsh, I guess. You are always talking about how people will be punished for their sin. Is all that really necessary?
Paul: I find it interesting that you contrast me with Christ Jesus. He seems much more harsh than I. After all, he called the Jewish leaders all kinds of names, and I never did that…
Sharie: Although you did make reference to your enemies being castrated at one point…
Paul: That was a joke! And not one that I would make to my enemies directly. I was just pointing out that if they were going to be consistent about circumcision, then they shouldn’t limit their cuts to the foreskin.
Sharie: Yes, well, to go back to the point…
Paul: Of course. I think what you may be asking about is the significance of sin. Why talk about it at all?
Sharie: That’s right. Sin just doesn’t seem important. After all, God forgives us, doesn’t He? So why should we even bother talking about sin? Let’s just move on to forgiveness. After all, we know what we’ve done wrong.
Paul: Actually, this is one of the things I’ve noticed about your society—you have no idea as to what is right and wrong. I suppose no more than the Romans did, but even the Christians don’t have any idea as to what is right and wrong.
Sharie: Well, we know that we need to love our neighbor. Isn’t that enough?
Paul: If you knew how to apply it. What does it mean to love your neighbor?
Sharie: Well…. Be… nice to them, I suppose. Don’t kill them or harm them.
Paul: Okay. What about have sex with them?
Sharie: Well, that’s up to your relationship with them. You wouldn’t want to cheat on someone you’re going with or rape or abuse anyone, but whatever else is up to the relationship.
Paul: You see, you are fully understanding what it means to “be nice” but you don’t understand relationships when God is involved with them.
Sharie: Huh?
Paul: As a follower of Jesus, we don’t just live with other people, but God is in every relationship. When we say “love your neighbor” in the church, we mean, love them in relation to how God loves them. Part of God’s ordering of relationship has to do with purity, so we only have sex with those whom we are committed to for a lifetime. But if we do not relate to people AND relate to God in every action, then we are heading toward sin. To deal with other people is to not only love them, but to also love God at the same time. Okay, so if you are cooking a meal for a friend and they hate brussel sprouts, then what will you not feed them?
Sharie: Well, I wouldn’t want to give them brussel sprouts. But there’s plenty of other things I could give them.
Paul: And if there were two friends coming over for dinner and one of them didn’t like brussel sprouts, but the other did, would you serve it anyway?
Sharie: No. I’d want to serve things that both friends liked.
Paul: This is the way it is in all of our relationships. We need to keep in mind what is for the benefit of our neighbor, and we need to avoid what is displeasing to God.
Sharie: But you say that we don’t know much about what God calls sin?
Paul: Christians are very good sin-pointers, but for the most part they point at the wrong things. Dancing and various kinds of profanity and smoking just aren’t important. Most Christians understand about sexual purity, but get carried away about alcohol.
Sharie: Could you summarize what sin is?
Paul: I don’t want to take up our time with a list right now. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll make one up and get it to you, okay?
Sharie: Okay, fine. So you’re saying that sin is just God’s dislikes?
Paul: Sin is what God can’t put up with in people. So the people he likes—the ones he can hang out with—don’t do these things. They don’t gossip, they don’t accuse people and the like.
Sharie: But doesn’t God overlook those things? I mean, I have a friend that says things I don’t like sometimes, but I overlook them…
Paul: Yeah, but if you felt that your friend was a bad person, would you still? I hope you’re more picky about your friends than that.
Sharie: Well, there are people I wouldn’t be friends with…
Paul: Right. God is like that. He’s picky about who he’s friends with.
Sharie: But everybody sins. And God, he chooses as some of his people some real bad characters. Look at David—he murdered a man! And Peter—he denied Jesus! It seems to me that God just forgives them and moves on.
Paul: He doesn’t JUST forgive them. There’s a step before that. They have to show regret for their sin and repent from it.
Sharie: What does that mean, exactly?
Paul: Well, let’s say that you have a friend and she went behind your back and said something nasty about you—like you’re a slut. At this point, you might think that she wouldn’t be your friend anymore, right?
Sharie: If I didn’t punch her in the face, first.
Paul: That’s normal. But if she came back to you, even while you were still mad and said, “I am so very sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I was just mad, but I won’t do this to you again.” Would it be okay?
Sharie: Well, I suppose so.
Paul: That’s the way it is with God. Trust me, he gets really mad when we display qualities that show we aren’t his friends—hateful speech, impurity, breaking our promises. But if we apologize and do what we can to make it right, then God forgives and he restores the relationship.
Sharie: But didn’t God just forgive David?
Paul: Oh no. David was punished for the rest of his life for his sin. And he expressed great sorrow over his sin.
Sharie: So sin is just about relationship?
Paul: That’s right. It’s about our relationship with God. Just as we try to keep things right with our best friends or our spouses, this is how we want to make things right with God. We avoid the things he hates, and if we mess up and sometimes do it, then we try to make it right.
Sharie: So sin is an important subject.
Paul: Right. That’s why I kept talking about it.
Sharie: But what about if we keep sinning, over and over again? If that girl called me a slut again, I wouldn’t have her as my friend again, that’s for sure.
Paul: And that’s where Jesus’ teaching comes in. Jesus said that God’s rule is, as often as you repent—make things right because of your sins—then God will accept you. And if God accepts us, then we have to accept each other as well.
Sharie: So if we keep repenting, no matter how often we sin…
Paul: Then God will keep forgiving us, and keeping us his friends.
Sharie: But it’s different for us, isn’t it? I mean, we are human and we can’t keep being friends with someone who keeps doing horrible things, even though they say sorry…
Paul: This is one of the toughest things about Jesus’ teaching. No matter how often they sin against you, if they repent, you accept them.
Sharie: So if that girl calls me a slut twenty different times…
Paul: If she apologizes twenty times, then it is your responsibility to forgive her twenty times.
Sharie: But we are human, we can’t be expected to keep a relationship like that afloat…
Paul: Look, let’s think about it this way. Let’s say that you have two good friends and they are mad at each other. This puts you in an awkward situation. They won’t talk to each other, but they both talk to you. Now, you know that one friend is sorry for what they’ve done, but the other friend still is stubborn and won’t talk to the other. So what do you do, as a good friend to them both?
Sharie: Try to get them together.
Paul: You would probably tell the one friend who’s mad to put it behind them and get on with life. That’s exactly what God is telling us. He says, “Look, they apologized. I’m friends with them—why can’t you be?” This is what Jesus talked about when he said to forgive.
Sharie: But what if they don’t make it right? They think that everything’s okay?
Paul: Then the first friend is the one that needs to be talked to. To let them know that they need to make it right.
Sharie: Ah, but if someone does something wrong with God and they don’t have a relationship with God…
Paul: Then they are not responsible for their actions. How can they apologize if they didn’t know they did anything wrong? This is why I say that we shouldn’t get on the case of people who don’t believe in God. If they don’t believe, of course they are going to do things wrong. But those who are friends with God should know better.
Sharie: That makes a lot more sense. Thanks.
Paul: I hope that we’re friends, then?
Sharie: (smiling) Sure.

Paul and Tolerance

Paul the apostle, dead for 2000 years, suddenly appears on a modern university campus. He has stayed with his friend, Don, a professor of Hebrew Literature, for three years. Now Paul answers questions in the university.

Kevin: (A music major) Paul, it is an honor to meet someone as world famous throughout history as yourself.
Paul: Well I thank you, but I think I had little to do with my fame.
Kevin: I have been impressed by your writings and I think they show some wisdom. However, in discussing this with my friends, we often have speculated why you were not more tolerant of those who had different standards than you?
Paul: What kind of different standards?
Kevin: Well, like homosexuality and others who did not hold to the sexual mores you have. You were certainly oppressive to women and you had some racial remarks as well. I don’t understand why you were not more like Jesus—he was tolerant of all people and welcomed them all.
Paul: Which racial remarks were you referring to?
Kevin: Well, you spoke badly of the Jews. And you made a racial statement of those who lived at Crete.
Paul: (Laughing) Of course, I was not speaking badly of the ethnic group, Jews, because I was one myself. As far as the Cretans, I was actually quoting a Cretan who said, “All Cretans are liars.” It was a clever statement, so I repeated it. But I was not implying that Cretans were any worse than any other ethnic group. We all have our failings.
Kevin: Even so, you could have been more tolerant.
Paul: This statement is just so amazing. Do you realize that in my day, I was accused of being far TOO tolerant of people in general? I welcomed Gentiles into the church as full members, when many Jews wanted the church to be limited to Jews and Jewish proselytes. I was the one who opened the church up to those who were “unacceptable”, as I was led by the Lord Jesus. From what my friend, Professor Don says, if it were not for my work, we would not have any kind of tolerance today.
Kevin: But why couldn’t you be as tolerant as Jesus? He accepted everyone.
Paul: Jesus? Oh, yes, he welcomed people. Just like that Canaanite woman whom he ignored and then insulted because of her race. Or the Pharisees who held a different theological opinion than he. Or anyone who refused to repent. Jesus didn’t welcome these people—but he tolerated people who displayed faith in him.
Kevin: (Flustered) I- I’m sure you’re wrong. Jesus taught love and welcomed the sinners…
Paul: Actually, I have found the modern American idea of tolerance amusing. It is the illusion that we need to be accepting of everyone, no matter who they are or what they’ve done. While the fact of the matter is that Americans are no more tolerant of people than anyone else. Americans are intolerant of child molesters. They are intolerant of revolutionaries—or anyone who enacts violence— that do not hold to their political ideals. Americans are intolerant of anyone they consider “lazy” although that “lazy” person may be very hard working. Look, prejudice exists in every society, in every person. Anyone who denies their own prejudices is simply self-deceived. We all have lines that we draw as to those who are “acceptable” and those who are not. It is a principle of judgment, that every single human being has—even Jesus. Especially Jesus.
Kevin: But didn’t Jesus tell us not to judge?
Paul: Yes and no. It depends on what you mean by judgment. If you mean that Jesus insisted that everyone needed to be “accepted”, then he didn’t teach that. He taught that hypocrites, the sexually immoral, the coward, the ones who cause others to sin, will not enter into God’s kingdom. These were evil folks and excluded. But Jesus did teach that inclusion into the kingdom was God’s choice, not man’s . We can’t determine, by our own standards and mores, who is in God’s kingdom and who is not. That’s not our job—it’s God’s. And so Jesus taught the principle that we can’t just look at someone and say, “Sorry, you’re too evil, you can’t get in.” Jesus said that EVERYONE without exclusion deserves a second—or third or twentieth—chance. No matter what they’ve done. Only those who don’t repent need not apply.
Kevin: So if Jesus was so exclusionist, then why were you so… “tolerant”?
Paul: Again, why do you think I was so intolerant?
Kevin: Well, let’s take your view of homosexuality, for example.
Paul: Please… I’ve had enough of talking about homosexuality. Every time you want to say, “homosexual” say “ a greedy person”—I had the same opinion of both.
Kevin: Okay… So you called… greedy people… evil because they were doing something that culturally you felt was unacceptable…
Paul: Uh, wait. I know you’re just talking about homosexuals, but I have to say that homosexuals weren’t culturally unacceptable in broader Roman society. Frankly, in Gentile culture, homosexual practice was a normal part of society.
Kevin: But not a part of Jewish culture.
Paul: Yes, that’s true—because it was against God’s law, just like incest or greed.
Kevin: And so you excluded these people from your churches.
Paul: That’s not true. We had people who were practicers of greed and homosexuality in our churches.
Kevin: But they had to stop that activity and call it sin first.
Paul: Yes… Okay, hold on. This conversation doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Let me just tell you how we were tolerant and how we were intolerant, is that alright.
Kevin: Sure.
Paul: First of all, I want to make it clear that we were tolerant of almost everyone who was out of the church. It was not our place to tell people how to live outside of the church, or God’s rule. If they were a follower of Athena, they would follow the tenants of that god, and we understood that. We weren’t out to condemn or to give a hard time to anyone who believed something different. That is their business, between them and their god. Even if someone followed our God, the Lord of heaven and earth, in a different way, it wasn’t our business to punish them in any way. No matter what anyone did, outside of our church, we had no business to get on their case for living out what they believed was true and right.
Kevin: But your writings seem to say…
Paul: I don’t believe that I wrote anywhere that it was the church’s job to punish outsiders. In fact, I think I made it clear that we were compelled not to judge outsiders, no matter what they’ve done. If there was any punishment to be done, it was to be done by God, not by us. God is the Judge of heaven and earth, and we haven’t been appointed as judges. At least not yet.
Kevin: Not yet?
Paul: In the last times, some will be appointed by God, but not now. There are some who are outsiders who I did condemn—those who tried, from outside, to tell us in the church to live against how Jesus taught us to. I spoke harshly against these, not because they lived differently than us, but because they were punishing us unless we lived like them—they were being intolerant of us.
Kevin: But were you really surprised that they acted that way?
Paul: Not really. It was to be expected. Nevertheless, I needed the church to know how serious it was that we, in the church, remained people of Jesus, no matter what anyone else said or did to us if we did.
Kevin: But isn’t it just enough to believe in Jesus…
Paul: Faith in Jesus isn’t just intellectual assent, but a lifestyle. We need to LIVE Jesus, not just talk about him.
Kevin: But you implied that you were intolerant?
Paul: Yes. We were intolerant of those who claimed to be of Jesus, but lived a different life than Jesus commanded. Again, being a part of the church is a lifestyle and those who rejected that lifestyle isn’t to be a part of the church.
Kevin: So homosexuals…
Paul: Greedy people, you mean.
Kevin: Yes, okay… So greedy people weren’t accepted into your communities?
Paul: Of course they were, if they were willing to set aside their sin of greed. They had to be generous because that was part of what it meant to be a part of us. Look, if you had a woman’s club, everyone would find it awkward if a man tried to join the club. After all, it’s exclusive. That’s the same in the church. It’s for Jesus livers only. Other people could observe and see if they want to join us, but only if you are committed to following Jesus can you actually be a member.
Kevin: And if you decided that living for Jesus just wasn’t for you…
Paul: Well, if you made a commitment to Jesus it just isn’t that easy. We don’t give up on people who were a part of us, and neither does God. But if someone decided that the lifestyle wasn’t for them, and they were up front about it, we would pray for them, and they wouldn’t be a member anymore and that would be that.
Kevin: Wouldn’t you punish them?
Paul: We would exclude them from the things that originally made them a member. They couldn’t take the Lord’s supper. But they wouldn’t be harmed in any way.
Kevin: This seems so different than the practice of the church throughout the centuries.
Paul: Well, it’s not because it isn’t clear in the apostles writings! People feel the need to condemn and punish, even if there is not call for it before God. People feel personally offended for how others treat God. But if they are spitting in Jesus’ face, that is Jesus’ issue, not ours! We can feel hurt or even emotionally torn apart because of another’s actions, but it is not our place to punish. We leave that to the government to do, or God. But it is not the church’s place to punish or control anyone.