Bible · Church · faith · Following Jesus · Jesus · Theology

New Light On St Paul

OK. It’s been a while. I’ve had so many ideas but never got round to getting it down. Here’s a few thoughts from Tom Wright, otherwise known as N.T. Wright. He was Bishop of Durham for a while, but is best known as an academic whose whole adult life has been spent studying the life and writings of St Paul.

He wrote a book about the life of St Paul that came out three years ago. I haven’t read it, but heard him talk about it on the Nomad Podacst.

To start with, his name is originally Saul. He comes from a conservative tradition in Judaism, and as the book of Acts describes, will do anything to protect Judaism from what he sees as unhealthy, misguided influences. One of those ‘way out’ movements is of course, what he would see as the cult of Jesus. Saul is basically a fundamentalist, and will track down followers of Jesus, and condone killing them for the cause of religious purity. Hence the stoning of Stephen, one of the prominent members of what we would call the early church. Saul is at this point a violent man, determined to put a stop to this abberation of the faith that he treasures.

But to call it the early church is slightly misleading – at this early point in the evolution of the Jesus movement, we’re talking about a community that is mostly made up of Jews before the word Christian has even been uttered. When we read the word ‘church’ in our English translations, the original Greek word is better translated by ‘gathering,’ ‘assembly, ‘ or ‘company.’

Tom Wright reminds us how important it is to understand the first century context of the words that we read. Another example of where we might have been reading this wrongly is to do with what we might have called the ‘conversion’ of Saul. Growing up, I had the impression that on the road to Damascus, when Saul has his experience of Jesus, it is at that point that he ‘becomes a Christian.’
(You can read the account in Acts chapter 9)

But at that point in time, there was no such thing as a Christian. There was no separate religion called Christianity. Saul was a Jew who had such a profound and mystical experience of the risen Christ, that he suddenly sees that he has been mistaken, and that Jesus is in fact, the Messiah of God. He doesn’t stop being a faithful Jew, and would in all likelihood continue in exactly the same way as he had done before regarding his religious observance, but now seeing that the promised Messiah has in fact come – in the person of Jesus Christ.

After this life changing encounter, at some point early on, Saul disappears off to Arabia for three years. It’s not clear exactly where he went or what he did during these three years, but Tom Wright has a theory … first a bit of background:

Back in the First Testament, * the prophet Elijah is at a turning point in his life. He had just defeated the 400 prophets of Baal, and was on the run from king Ahab and his wife Jezebel. At this time of great stress in his life, where does he go ? To mount Horeb. Mount Horeb is essentially the same as Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. So Elijah is going back to the place where it all started. The place where God made it clear that the children of Israel were a ‘set apart people.’ They had a call to be God’s people for the nations. At Mount Horeb, God meets with Elijah and he gets the commissioning and strength that he needs for the next phase in his ministry. God tells Elijah that he is to ‘Go back the way you came, to Damascus.’ Once there, he was to anoint Jehu as the new king of Israel.

Tom Wright’s theory is that Arabia was the region that included Mount Sinai. Where would Saul go to think through the experience that he had on the road to Damascus ? Maybe back to where it all started – to Mount Sinai. Saul’s roots are in the ancient story of Israel’s deliverance from slavery; the journeying through the wilderness; the call to live as the people of God. So Saul goes to Sinai, to learn what this new call to follow Jesus will mean. And at the end of those three years, where does he go ? Back the way he came, to Damascus. And once there he will share the news that a new king has been anointed – Jesus. And that this good news of Jesus is for all people, both Jew and Greek, men and women, slave and free. And that this new community will be different from any community previously known, because it will not be according to your ethnic group, or whether you were a man or a woman, or a slave or a free person. This new community will break all the rules and be for all.

I feel like I should read the book !

And, as I was pondering on this alternative, radical new community that we see in the book of Acts, it made me think about my own experience of the church, and to what extent the churches I have been a part of have been ethnically diverse, with men and women both accepted fully, with class, background, education and social status not being an issue. Sadly, it seems that churches by default become fairly monocultural, not at all the vision that Paul had … 2000 years later it’s still a work in progress. Additionally, there are movements within the church that see the growth of the church being most effective when this mono approach is used – because like attracts like. This is in sharp contrast to the kingdom vision of a diverse community, which although it is often a more challenging environment, has within it the possibility of fully enacting the principles of love. Such a Christian community is truly a thing of great beauty.

* Christians have generally called the first part of the Bible ‘The Old Testament.’ But there are dangers in that. It might lead us to think that we can leave all of that behind. Now we have the New, we don’t need the Old. The New Testament gives us everything we need. In a sense that is true, but we are greatly impoverished in our undertanding of Jesus if we do not understand his roots, which lie in the work of God through Israel. If we only know the New Testament, we don’t know the New Testament! There is so much richness in the books of Moses, the history books, the wisdom and the prophets that we need to attend to. There has been a move to call these writings ‘The Hebrew Bible,’ but others are more inclined to use the phrase ‘First Testament,’ which gives those writings a more exalted place than ‘Old Testament,’ and unlike the phrase Hebrew Bible gives them their righful place within the whole revelation of God’s love and purposes.

Grace and Peace

Bible · Church · faith · Theology

Walking Backwards Into The Future

In case you haven’t been here before, I’m writing from a Christian perspective, and seeking to understand more fully what it means to live ethically and authentically as a follower of Jesus Christ. This post was triggered by listening to an interview with Rev Sam Wells, the vicar of St Martin in the Fields (London, UK).

I love this image. If you ‘walk forward’ into the future, you will have little idea what resources you might discover that will help to face the challenges you will meet. If you ‘walk backwards’ into the future you see the resources that people have used in the past that can help you in the future.

He couples this image with the idea of history being like a five act play. Tom Wright first suggested this as a way of seeing history. Sam Wells takes the idea and tweaks it:
Tom Wright: 1. Creation. 2. Fall. 3. Israel. 4. Jesus. 5. The Church
Sam Wells: 1. Creation. 2. Covenant. 3. Jesus. 4. The Church. 5. Consummation: New Heaven and New Earth

In the Sam Wells scheme, the Bible forms key parts of the script – Acts 1 – 3. Our life of faith is like a performance, where we are the performers, acting out our part in Act 4.

But we are not acting from a set script. It’s as if we are in an improvisation, and playing our part, but in keeping with what we have seen already in Acts 1 – 3. Scripture is not a rule book to follow, but a story where we have our part to play.

The idea of improvisation is a fascinating one. It’s not about trying to be the clever, witty one who plays it just for laughs, because that can just kill the story. That’s a very individualistic approach. It’s more of a collective enterprise where we are responding to other in the improv, trying to create the best that we can together. That makes it a bit like a game of ‘keepie uppie,’ where you and your friends are kicking a ball around and trying to keep it in the air for as long as possible. That’s not about doing an amazing kick, but simply keeping the ball in play.

As we play our part in Act 4 of the story of God and humanity, we walk backwards into the future, receiving all the gifts that God has given us to play our part.

A key aspect of the life of faith is the extent to which we live – day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year – actively seeking to allow God to shape and reshape us. It is this disciplined practice that will allow us to act in ways that contribute our best as God’s people for God’s world.

There are many examples of the ways this works – I have one ‘true life’ example and one fictional. The first is the account of pilot Chesley Sullenberger, so brilliantly told in the film ‘Sully’. In the film Ches is piloting a plane and has just taken off from La Guardia airport. The plane is hit by a flock of birds and the engines disabled. Knowing both engines are not functioning, he makes a deicision not to try and get to an airport, but to land the plane on the Hudson river, which he does, with no loss of life. A subsequent investigation suggests that he made the wrong decision and that he could have landed safely at La Guardia or Teterboro airports. It’s only when they run a simulation that faithfully recreates the situation in real time that he is proved to be right. If he had tried to get to an airport, it would have been certain disaster. It is his years of flying that enables him – in just 35 seconds – to make the right decision, almost by instinct. he was called a hero, but his reponse was “I’m not a hero, I’ve been rehearsing for this.” It is similarly the disciplines of faithful godly living that will help the Christian to make the right ethical decisions in the heat of the moment.

The fictional story, that I have mentioned in another post is the book by John Irving – A Prayer For Owen Meany. Once more, it is years of self discipline that makes it possible for Owen to make the right decision in the moment of crisis that is the climax of the book.

Sadly, the church has not always received the resources that God has provided. The result being that we have chosen scarcity and not plenty. It is only in recent years that the church of which I am a member (Anglican / Church of England) has begun to accept the ministry of women. Other gifts that we have been slow to receive are the treasures that we have missed by neglecting, rejecting and even oppressing those with disabilities and the LGBT+ community and what they could bring to God’s church.

Last thing, before I go for now. There’s a wonderful phrase that is originally in french – La disponsibilite – coined by french acting instructor Jaque Lecoque. In English the best translation is probably ‘relaxed awareness.’ Sam Wells uses this phrase to describe what our attitude might be to playing our part in God’s story.

It’s not about us being the ones to save the world. That’s God’s domain. It’s about following Jesus as best we can, and waiting expectantly for those opportunities to put our faith into practice. We don’t have to get it all right. God can deal with our mistakes.

None of this is mine – it’s just me trying to process what I’m learning and pass it on – in this case my thanks to Sam Wells and Tom Wright. If you get a chance to listen to the Sam Wells interview (highlighted at the top), please do

Grace and Peace.