Why I Like Paul More Than Jesus (And Why That Might Not Be Good)

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I have been reading and studying the book of Acts since right before Easter.  Other than Revelation, Acts stands alone in its uniqueness compared to other New Testament books.  If Revelation is the blond headed step child of the New Testament, than Acts is the tall, dark and handsome eldest child who seems to do everything well.  What I mean by that is Acts isn’t really one genre but it does all the genres.  If you want epistles, you will find them in Acts.  If you want crazy gospel miracle stories you will find them in Acts.  If you wants sermons, Acts has them in plenty.  And if you want apocalyptic visions, Acts even throws a few in there for you.

But it is not just the weird confluence of biblical genres that makes Acts unique.  Also helping Acts stand alone is its main protagonist, the Apostle Paul.   The famous apostle and letter writer is introduced in the 9th chapter, making the previous 8 seem like prologue.  He becomes the main character in the 12th.  From then on out the book is not so much about the Acts of the Apostles or the Acts of the Early Church but the Acts of the Apostle Paul.

With that said up until last month I had not spent much time studying Acts’ portrayal of Paul.  I have read through Paul’s letters hundreds of times.  I have memorized a few of them.  I have led Bible Studies and sermon series through most of them and even claimed some of Paul’s words as my “life verses.”  I absolutely adore the Apostle Paul.  I even thought for some time of becoming a Pauline Scholar.  This dream was undone by a wonderful and blunt mentor who said, “oh, those are a dime a dozen.”

Still I am a Pauline Scholar, just not in the formal academic  sense.

And yet I have never truly read Paul in Acts.

And yet, to no surprise, as I have studied Acts’ Paul this last month I have fallen even more in love.  The Paul in Acts just as attractive as the Paul who wrote to Philipi, Corinth and Ephesus.

Speaking of Ephesus, Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 is beautiful, every bit as beautiful as his letters.  I am planning on preaching on it in a couple weeks and excited for that sermon.  So too is Paul in Athens.  He begins his sermon there with a very typical Pauline sarcastic insult and then weaves it into greater truth.

As far as studying the Bible goes, this has been a great month!

But therein lies the problem.  You see, I stand in the now old Protestant tradition who has placed the words of Paul above the words of Jesus.  At first the Protestants claimed “Sola Scriptura.”  Then they began claiming “Sola Paul” and then “Sola Romans.”  In fact I have spoken and read books by several biblical inerrantists who claim that the rest of the Bible has to be true only so that we know that Romans is true.  None of Scripture is formational except Romans.  It just helps us prove Paul knew what Paul was talking about.

At one point several people have even said that nothing Jesus said was binding for us.  Jesus just preached the sermons to show us how hard earning our justification by works was so that we would listen to Paul in Romans.

Under that thinking we shouldn’t love God or our neighbor or our enemies.  We shouldn’t pray in prayer closets.  We definitely shouldn’t mimic the good Samaritan or the prodigal’s father.  Silly Jesus was just letting us know how hard it is so that we wouldn’t do anything he told us to do.

I was raised in this tradition and so it is of no surprise that when Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:24) I laugh it off as silly Jesus just setting us up for failure.  But when Paul says, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith” (Eph. 2:8) I yell a hearty “amen!”

I am not implying we set up a dichotomy between Paul and Jesus.  Paul words are sacred Scripture and it is because I believe that, that I also truly believe he was following in the very teachings of Jesus and even pleads with his audience to “follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:1)

If you read Romans 12-15, you find it is nothing but a sermon about the sermon on the mount.  This comes after all the saved by grace stuff in Romans 5-8 which implies that the saved soul follows Jesus’ teachings, and yes it is not the other way around.  We are not saved by following Jesus’ teachings.  To put it perhaps too simplistically we are saved to follow Jesus’ teachings.

Or to put it another way, true Paul scholars should never minimize the teachings of Jesus, only maximize them in their lives.  A good reading of Paul should cause us to stop, reflect and then flip back a few books to the gospels and read Jesus again.

Speaking of reading Jesus, it is only fitting that I close with these very true words of His from Matthew 5:19: “Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

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Sola Fides: A Wesleyan Pastor’s Return to Faith

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I grew up in what some people still call a faith tradition.  I was taught that it is by grace we have been saved (read Romans) and that grace is sort of activated through faith.  That is standard 4 year old Sunday School terminology in the Evangelical world.

It was reinforced in every grade and every age until I went to college where over time faith took a back seat to every Wesleyan’s favorite buzz word, “love.”  In college and seminary we talked a lot about love.  Love became that word that both began and ended all theological discussions and debates.

So now when I read Scripture my head just naturally bolds and underlines the word “love” in the text.  If love appears in any pericope, I know what my sermon is going to be about.  If it doesn’t appear, I try hard to make it appear, sometimes a bit too hard.

And I think our tradition is justified in that hermeneutic.  After all the great Apostle Paul himself said, “Now three things remain:  Faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.”  Love is more important than faith, more important than grace, more important than doctrine and knowledge and data.  Love is the crowning virtue, the eternal truth, the reconciling doctrine.  See, just that one verse is enough to get me waxing poetic about love.  I guess you could say that I am in love with love.

And to my great frustration, it would seem the other half of evangelicalism, namely the Calvinist half, doesn’t agree with us Wesleyans on that.  Actually the Calvinists have become so numerous in Evangelical circles that they are not half of us.  They are 9/10s of the movement.

And this huge majority just likes faith better than love.  They talk about it more.  They bold and underline “faith” in the text.  if faith isn’t in the text they find a way to put it there.  And every one of their sermons quickly follow behind, adopting the mantra, “believe or be damned.”  Now, I know that is not a fair generalization but it does seem to at least describe the majority of their tradition.

Lately as I have been reading and studying Exodus, and through Exodus revisiting what Paul has to say about laws, works, circumcision, Abraham, Moses and the old covenant, I have rediscovered they may be onto something.  Faith has incredible value.  After all, “Abraham had faith in God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

As I have studied that one verse and how Paul uses it, I have come to believe that faith didn’t allow God to overlook Abraham’s sins, but faith made Abraham stop sinning.  Faith is what makes us holy and righteous.  Faith is what makes us innocent, though we be guilty.  Simply put, as a good Arminian, this is imparted righteousness, not just imputed.

If I am right about this, that means faith is about holiness and holiness, in turn, is activated by faith.  If we want to express holy love, we must first trust God.  In fact, love without trust is not very loving.  You might say that faith without works is dead and love without faith is six feet under.

And therein lies one of the problems of the entire Evangelical tradition.  The great Reformers, Luther and Calvin and Zwingli, fully understood that faith meant trust.  But their heirs, gradually over many centuries, started defining faith as a mental assent to doctrine.  So now when we talk about faith, we are not preaching trust, we are instead claiming that “by correct doctrine you are saved, not works.”

As I have talked to people who preach this false faith, I have come to believe that they think the entrance room to heaven is going to be an SAT exam room.  You will be given a test with a bunch of true false and multiple choice questions and if you don’t pass it, you are going the other way.

But faith isn’t about doctrine.  It is about trust.  We trust God like we would trust any employer, any parent, hopefully any spouse.  We trust that God has our best and the best of the world in mind.  We trust that God created the cosmos and so can save said cosmos.  We trust God to provide for us when we are starving in a desert.  We trust God not to kill us for petty reasons.  We trust this God to heal us, if not in the present, than in eternity.  And, yes, we trust God to raise us from the dead after sin has claimed our mortal lives.

Faith is all about trust.  And when we trust God enough to enter into a loving relationship with God, we become holy.  God’s holy love emanates out to us and saturates us so that we become a people not defined by our hatreds or lusts but by a trusting obedience in the God who created us and everything else.

Correct doctrine will not save you.  The tongues of men and of angels will not save you.  Good works definitely won’t save you.  Only God will save you and only if you trust Him and out of that trust, obey.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Brueggemann’s “Prophetic Imagination”

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A very strange thing happened indeed this week.  I actually finished a book!  April was a crazy month full of Easter worship and District Assembly gatherings and online debates and very little reading.

So I decided to mark my return to grace by reading an especially wonderful author whom I have always quoted but never read, Walter Brueggemann.  A friend at District Assembly referenced “Prophetic Imagination” several times so I downloaded it and worked my way through it this week.  As is the case with many books, it spoke “prophetically” into several facets of my current experience.  Or did it speak “imaginatively?”

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As many of you know, I began pastoring a new church two months ago.  The transition forced me to ask myself the hard practical questions about what a church is and how a pastor should lead it.

At the same time my district gathered to elect a new Superintendant.  In the end most everybody agreed we elected the right person.  Still, the process forced me to think long and hard about who I want as a “pastor to pastors.”  Do I want an executive with a plan?  A leader with a vision?  A friend with a shoulder to cry on?  A prophet with an imagination?  Or all of the above?

Likewise, as most of you know, I have been closely following three scandals in the Church of the Nazarene.  One concerns our Publishing House.  The other two concern our universities.  There seems to be a failure in the upper realms of our leadership to really follow the dictates of love, justice and honesty especially when money is on the line.  Where did this failure come from and why have we been so hesitant to be honest about it?

A key topic in all those discussions was the comparisons and contrasts between churches, businesses and universities.  A friend of mine summed up those differences well in the chart below.

At the intersection of all this stands Brueggemann’s “Prophetic Imagination.”  His brief but in depth discussion of the biblical prophets and holy communities illuminates several disparities between the church’s current state and our divine calling.

I could waste a lot of words fleshing out those discrepancies, but I will stick with a list Brueggemann gives in the preface to the 2nd edition.  He mentions the key characteristics of a Prophetic Community:

1) The community must have a long and available memory that sinks the present generation into an identifiable past made available in songs and stories.

2) There is a sense of pain that is cited as a real social fact.

3) Hope (not optimism) is actively practiced.

4) There is an effective mode of discourse that is distinctive and richly coded in ways only insiders know.  (i.e. a shared language).

The church I now pastor has quite a few families who now serve or once served in the US military.  As I have gotten to know them, I feel a sense of humiliation for the Christian church because the US military does those 4 things way better than most congregations.  They have songs and stories that root their identity in the great conflicts of the last 200 years.  They have a coded language with scores of acronyms that I can barely keep up with.  They have a real sense of pain and loss from living in a world where armies are necessary and they have a profound sense of hope that the US military can be the solution (or at least an integral part of it) to all the world’s problems.  All of this encourages scores of otherwise helpless young men (and some women) to join up.

I am frustrated that the church struggles to garner the same enthusiasm.  As Brueggemann argued convincingly, our insistence on catering to the powers and adopting their vocabulary has completely numbed us to our God given calling.  Now we get together to figure out how to co opt the powers and as we do, we ourselves are being coopted.

But all hope is not lost.  Brueggemann insists that the prophets in Scripture (from Moses to Jesus) did two things to awaken the holy community.  First they led the people in mourning.  Second they sang songs and told stories that energized faithfulness.  To put it more simply, they called the people back to worship and led them in the same.

And this is where the prophetic imagination informs my questions about the church, its leadership and our current scandals.  After all, it is no secret that the evangelical tradition has not done worship well.  We have filled it with the words of our culture, not the words of our ancient faith.  We have sung the narratives of the empire and not the songs of the redeemed.  And we have shared in the anger of the people, not in the compassion of our God.

If that is the case, then it might be possible that after attending those numbing services for decades, certain denominational leaders found themselves closed off to the hope of the gospel.  Instead of being emptied of all but God, they became filled with the edicts, deadlines and demands of the dominant culture.  If that is true, when they became leaders of institutions (like businesses, universities and churches), they had no Christian hope to add meaning or depth to their work and so made the controversial decisions that landed them in the hot seats.

If that is what happened, it means that who we choose to lead us in worship is so incredibly important.  Instead of vision casters, we need creative story tellers.  Instead of institution growers we need professional mourners.  Instead of money makers we need selfless givers.  And instead of relevant hipsters spewing the modern lingo, we need Biblical scholars who can make accessible the rich language of our tradition.

That all sounds poetic up above, but I am reminded by Brueggemann that this all has to start with me in my own setting and context.  After all, it is quite possible that I am currently leading a congregation that will include future CEO’s, University Presidents, Pastors and Superintendants.  It is a high and necessary calling to sing the songs and tell the stories of our ancient faith every week so that they can be grounded in compassion and justice, not in power and money.  Needless to say, the risk of failure is great.

Therefore, pray for me and pray for my church and I shall endeavor to do the same for you and your church.  And I pray the God of all history continues to call up prophets in this time and place who will sing the right songs, cry the proper tears and energize the needed love.