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.
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.