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.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Paul and the Jews

Paul the apostle has appeared in a modern university! After three years of staying with and learning from his friend, Don—a professor of Hebrew literature—he is now answering question in a lecture hall on the university campus.

Tom: Thank you for calling on me. After listening to your answers, I truly believe that you are the real Paul from the first century, although I have no idea how such a thing could be…
Paul: Nor I. It is just the power of God at work to do the mysterious and previously unknown. I am here to just do His will.
Tom: That is wonderful. It is also wonderful to finally be able to talk to you because you can see our world through clearer eyes than we can ourselves.
Paul: I guess that remains to be seen.
Tom: For instance, I would like to have you tell the truth about the Jews and how they are corrupting the world with their greed and hatred.
Paul: Well, I am still a stranger in these times. What do you mean by “Jews”?
Tom: What else could I mean? The false people in synagogues who call themselves “Jews” but are really trying to undermine our society and way of life…
Paul: Please excuse me. How are these “Jews” false?
Tom: First of all, they are ethnically impure, unlike you or Jesus. They do not come from the same bloodline as the Jews of ancient days, but are from European descent.
Paul: Certainly Jews today are ethnically different. But that nothing to do with “purity”. There is no such thing as a “pure” ethnic line. I belong to the tribe of Benjamin, but my tribe has Egyptian blood as well as some Ammonite and others. Even David, the blessed king of old, had Moabite blood in his veins, but few argued against his pure Israelite blood. Frankly, God, in his establishment of Israel, desired many nations and peoples to be drawn into Israel and mixed—especially the many nations of Japheth, the son of Noah, of which you are one. The only people God called impure were the Canaanites—and He also withdrew his command to destroy those people in order to have them accepted.
Tom: No—all the Canaanites were to be destroyed!
Paul: That is right, they were in the books of Exodus through Joshua. This is because of their impurity and the need of God to have a pure land for his people. But because his people did not destroy the Canaanites but assimilated them, God withdrew his command to destroy them in Judges 2. What do you think was the worst sin done in Scripture?
Tom: Marrying the impure bloodlines.
Paul: (Chuckling) My, you have a one-track mind, don’t you? No it was the sin Sodom attempted to do—to rape and degrade homeless immigrants. But Sodom was unsuccessful in their attempt to accomplish this sin in Scripture, even though they had the intent to do it. Do you know who was successful in this sin?
Tom: The sin of homosexuality? Well, the Greeks and the Romans…
Paul: No—listen. Not homosexuality. The sin of raping and degrading the homeless immigrant. Taking hospitality and perverting it to feed one’s lust to punish the stranger. That was the sin of Sodom. And it was the sin of Benjamin. My tribe. Benjamin is the smallest tribe because they were almost annihilated as punishment for this sin. They were successful, where Sodom didn’t fulfill their attempt. But the Jewish people—the pure of blood. God doesn’t care about blood. God cares about purity of heart. It is not the pure of blood that see God, but the pure of heart.
Tom: Well, Jews aren’t pure in heart either.
Paul: You seem to be having some trouble yourself.
Tom: Why do you say that?
Paul: Because you are excluding a people based on their race, instead of their actions or faith.
Tom: But you spoke against the Jews yourself. You know how evil these false Jews are.
Paul: Really? Where did I speak against the Jews?
Tom: First Thessalonians chapter two. You said, “The Jews are not pleasing to God, but hostile to all men—they always fill up the measure of their sins, but wrath has come upon them to the utmost.” Clearly, you understood that the Jews were opposed to God, even as John did, as he said, “Those who are of thoe synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie, I will cause them to come and bow down at your feet.”
Paul: And who was John writing to again?
Tom: To the church of Philadelphia.
Paul: That makes sense. Let me explain the situation. First of all I was not speaking of all Jews, nor those who are ethnically Jewish, but those who persecuted the church. Note that both the Thessalonians and the Philadelphians were in Asia Minor, what you call “Turkey” today. The Judeans in that area hated all Christians, whether Jewish or Gentile in origin, and felt that we were destroying their way of life—just as you say the Jews are doing today. Neither I nor God were opposed to them because of their ethnic origins, nor because of their religious background. Rather, they were judged by God because they persecuted God’s people. Everyone who hates and tries to destroy God’s people will be destroyed. The emperor Claudius was attempting to take away some of the privileges Judeans had enjoyed previously, and he even excluded them from Rome. This, I believe, was because they were persecuting God’s people who had risen up within themselves—and was a punishment that initially came from Jesus, at the right hand of God.
Tom: So you see how the Jews are destructive to God’s people!
Paul: The Judeans of that day had nothing to do with Jews today! Not only were they ethnically different, as you mention, but they were religiously a completely different creature! The Judeans were assured of their salvation because they were caretakers of God’s temple, which they felt was the center of God’s blessings. If anyone was going to be saved before God, it was going to be through the bathing, sacrifices, levitcal blessings and the prayers at the temple. They opposed us because we had a different temple, a different priesthood and a different sacrifice, all through Jesus. We declared the corruption of the old temple and the coming destruction of the temple and the cult. All of which happened, according to the word of Jesus, within a generation of Jesus’ death. They already were punished by God because their greatest connection with God was taken away by the hand of Jesus.
Tom: And so that punishment continues to this day.
Paul: Don’t you understand? The punishment occurred two thousand years ago! It’s done. Those that call themselves Jews do not even have the same Scriptures as we had. They cannot, because the law of Moses focused on the Temple and cult as well as the ethical obligations. They focus on the teachings of the rabbinic schools begun in my time, which, for the most part, excluded teaching about the Temple because the schools existed mostly after the Temple was destroyed. The hope of a renewed Temple remains—which is one of the points of the celebration of Hanukah—but the focus of the Judeans in my day just does not exist. Another thing—you note that I do not use your term “Jew” but “Judean” when talking about my ancient enemies?
Tom: Yes—why is that?
Paul: Because the term “Jew” is mostly an ethnic term, and a modern religious term for rabbinic Jews. But the ethnic Jews nor rabbinic Jews were not my enemies. My enemies were those who felt that salvation was found in joining the nation of Judea—a rite of citizenship that is centered in circumcision. To belong to the nation of Judea, they felt, was to belong to the temple, and so to belong to God’s people. For this reason, they strongly opposed us Christians as enemies of their state, because we were declaring a new nation in the person of Jesus. To be in Jesus is to be a part of a new nation with Jesus as king. To be a Christian is to be the citizen of a nation whose only temple is found in heaven, not a corrupt one on earth.
Tom: That may be so. But you don’t know, Paul, how modern Jews have corrupted Christians and have taken away all that we have. We must defend ourselves against them, separate ourselves from them….
Paul: You have forgotten the heart of Christianity. Jesus died so that Jews could come to God again. He didn’t destroy them or separate himself from them. He confronted them when they opposed him, but He never hated them, He never accused them of worldwide secret conspiracies. What was well known among all the people was enough. He exposed their corruption, the murder in their hearts, the idolatry in the Temple, the disloyalty to God by their own actions. He did not have to make false accusations of terrible deeds. He pointed out what was obvious to all. And he called them to be pure before God. I also did nothing in opposition to the Judeans. I prayed for them, and asked for their deliverance. I would have burned in hell for eternity if only I could have delivered my people—my initial nation—back to God. But this was not God’s call. God’s will was for Jesus to sacrifice himself for the Judeans, so to create an opportunity for them to be right with God. God’s will was for me to be persecuted for years and to eventually die so that the Gentiles could come to God so the Judeans would see God’s blessing and turn to Jesus themselves. All that we did, we did for the Jews. God loved the Judeans and sacrificed his best people for them. God loves the Jews today and many of his best people are calling them back to himself through Jesus. God also loves the Muslims today and the best of his people are sacrificing themselves—not to destroy Muslims, but to die for the sake of Muslims believing in Jesus. God’s way is not to destroy a people who hates his people—at least not for now. God’s way is to have his people’s lives be destroyed so that His enemies might come to love Him.
Tom: But…
Paul: If you wish to be saved, son, if you wish to follow the way of Jesus, you will find a way to set your life aside for your enemies. You will love the Jews so much that you will do anything to bring them back to God. If you do this, then God will bless you. But if you only express racial prejudice and encourage fear then you will be one of the persecutors God will destroy on the last day. The basis of persecution isn’t hatred, but fear. And if you think you have separated hatred out of your heart, you need to pray that God would take away your fear and replace it with love for your enemies.