Tuesday, March 17, 2020

In their own words: Day 21

In the second part of this series of reflections we meet St Paul in “his own words”. Of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament, only seven are widely thought to be his own work, and I have drawn from these for our reflections. They are 1 Thessalonians (written around 50 AD), Galatians (c. 53), 1 Corinthians (c. 53–54), Philippians (c. 55), Philemon (c. 55), 2 Corinthians (c. 55–56), Romans (c. 57). Of the other letters, three are believed to be too late in date to be by Paul, and different in style – 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus – and three are disputed – Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians.  We’ll be looking at words from the seven authentic letters.
It’s important to remember that we are reading letters, of course, and we only have one side of the correspondence. We must be cautious, therefore, about how we read them. Things which Paul may have intended as advice for specific people in specific situations can be dangerous and misleading if they are taken as establishing doctrine for all time. What we can be sure of, though, is that Paul was often addressing divisions between Christians in the churches he wrote to, divisions between those of Jewish and Gentile ancestry, men and women, rich and poor. He called them to welcome each other’s gifts in this new body.

Who was St Paul?

Paul was from Tarsus, in what is now Turkey. His Hebrew name was Saul – people often used different names in different cultural contexts, as they still do. Tarsus had a large Jewish community, and was known for its reputation for scholarship, so Paul had a good education in Judaism. He was, by his own account, a Pharisee, (Galatians 1) and originally shared the opposition of many Pharisees to Jesus’ message. How could a crucified man, who had died disgraced by the Romans, be the long-awaited Messiah? Surely God would not have let that happen to his chosen one!

We first meet Paul guarding the cloaks of those who are stoning Stephen to death for blasphemy. “And Saul approved of their killing him,” says the author of Acts (8.1).  He then embarked on a mission to root out the Christian movement wherever he found it. It was only when he heard the voice of the risen Jesus himself, while on the road to Damascus, that he changed his mind and his life. (Acts 9) He was shocked to the core when he realised how wrong he had been, and how much damage he had done. He was literally struck blind by the light of this realisation, but a Christian called Ananias was sent to him to heal him and, more importantly to welcome him into the Christian community.

He seems to have taken well over a decade reorienting himself. In Galatians 1.17 he tells us that he spent fourteen years, first in Arabia, then in Syria and Cilicia, simply absorbing and pondering his new life, before seeking the approval of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem for his ministry. After that, however, there was no stopping him. He travelled far and wide around the Mediterranean, sharing his message. He founded many small churches, meeting in peoples’ homes. He was often opposed, challenged, arrested, beaten and threatened with death. Eventually he claimed the privilege he was entitled to as a Roman citizen, a status he probably inherited from his father, to appeal directly to the Emperor in Rome. Acts tells us about his journey there, including a shipwreck on the island of Malta, and the last we hear of him he is under some sort of house arrest in Rome.

Tradition says that he was beheaded around the same time as Peter, in 64 AD, under the rule of Nero. His symbol is the sword which killed him. His letters are his legacy to us, the first attempt to explore the theology of this new faith and apply it to the situations real groups of Christians faced. The verses I have chosen they aren’t a systematic or thorough outline of Paul’s thinking, but I hope they give a glimpse of the man behind the letters.

Day 21 - 1 Thessalonians 2.8

So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is the earliest Christian document in existence. The earliest Gospel, Mark, wasn’t written until almost twenty years later.
In this letter, Paul’s great and very personal love for the people he is writing to shines through very clearly. It is this love which compels him to continue his work, in the face of hardship, sharing “our own selves” – Paul often travelled with companions, and is speaking for them too – “because you have become very dear to us.”

·         Has anyone ever gone above and beyond what you would expect to care for you? How do you think it felt to the Thessalonians to hear Paul’s words?

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