How Religion Can Lead Us to Oppose God
How Religion Can Lead Us to Oppose God
January 12, 2014
In what sense could the apostle Paul have considered himself the worst of sinners? We’re looking at the life of Paul on Thursday nights, and I’ve been wondering about that. Here is a guy who says, on the one hand, that he was one of the most zealously religious people of his day and in terms of the Mosaic law “blameless.” But on the other hand, he says that he was “unfit to be an apostle,” that he was the “chief of sinners” whom God has forgiven in order to prove that if Paul could be forgiven, anybody could be forgiven. Hmm.
In the listing of Paul’s religious résumé we read from Philippians 3, Paul doesn’t sound like a person who is too weak-willed to control himself, or a person who is in open rebellion against God. No, he says that he was a person doing everything he could to please God. And even so, he found himself an enemy of God. In his zeal for God and for his religious tradition, he hated Jesus enough to try to destroy his movement. Paul thought he was doing the right thing, but it turned out that he was doing the very thing that for him defines the word “sin”: opposing God.
God was up to something new in Paul’s world, but he did not perceive it. Later he must have reflected on the words of Isaiah we read earlier:
Do not remember the former things
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing:
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:18-19)
But Paul was so determined to be faithful to the God of the Bible that he could not see what God was doing. My point is not that Paul would have been better off to have ignored the Bible; he would have been like the pagans then, and had no way to understand what Jesus’ life and death meant to the world. My point is that in some ironic way Paul’s confidence that he knew all about God and understood the rules led him to become the enemy of God when God acted in a new way in Jesus Christ. And, of course, the same thing can happen to us.
In Philippians 3, Paul is arguing against some who were so intent on being “biblical” according to the law of Moses that they insisted that every male who wanted to be part of the church had to get circumcised. In other words, that you had to become a Jew before you could become a follower of Jesus the Messiah. Paul replies to them not as an outsider who resents the privileges of Jews. He replies as one of them. “Look at me. I’m even more Jewish than you are.” His point is not that Jews have a religion that is rubbish, although later interpreters gave these verses an anti-Semitic spin. His point is that Jews who believe in Jesus have to lose their bigotry against Gentiles, thinking ethnocentrically that their way is the only way. Jesus has done something new—and the result is that God is making one people out of Jews and Gentiles, because our relationship with God and with one another does not depend on following the rules which for us have defined who is in and who is out.
Listen to Paul’s religious resume: I was born into the Jewish nation (not a convert); I was circumcised as a baby (as you think everyone needs to do); I was part of the tribe of Benjamin, which remained faithful to Yahweh and the Temple when other tribes fell away; I was a Hebrew-speaker born to Hebrew-speakers; I was a Pharisee, a member of the strictest denomination, devoted to faithfully observing every law; I was so zealous about my faith that I persecuted the church to defend the Jewish faith; and as far as the standard of righteousness you can attain by following the Mosaic law, I was completely faultless. By your definition, I was without sin. And yet I gave it all up so that I could know Jesus Christ.
When Paul headed up the road from Jerusalem to Damascus, with warrants in hand for the arrest of heretics who said that the dead Jesus of Nazareth was in fact the Messiah, he was doing what he believed was God’s will. It was a measure of his zeal, he says, that he persecuted the church. That was proof that he loved God and hated blasphemy. But then on that road to Damascus, he met the risen Jesus, who appeared in a bright light and spoke to him: “Paul, Paul, why are you persecuting me?” In that moment, and over the next few days when Paul could not see, it dawned on him that he was wrong about Jesus. And if he was wrong about Jesus, he was wrong about a lot of things. He had thought he was serving God, but he had been opposing God.
What Paul discovered over time was that what God was up to in Jesus was providing a way to reconcile the whole human race to himself, Jew and Gentile, with a right relationship that came not by human obedience to rules but by God taking an initiative of grace and mercy. I think Paul knew from the scriptures that the God of Israel was always a God of grace and mercy. But Paul had gotten off track by thinking that God’s grace was channeled only through the Torah—the same way some people today think grace comes only through the sacraments and the church, or only through reading the Bible. And because his view of grace was so structured and limited, he had wound up opposing God’s action to save the world.
I can’t help but wonder if we don’t sometimes get so set in our religion that we wind up opposing God. It seems to be a commonplace in American journalism today to say that one of the sources of evil in the world is a fanatical dedication to a narrow and, one could say, bigoted form of Islam. And I guess most people would say that the tiny Christian cult that teaches that God brought down the Twin Towers and is killing American soldiers as a judgment on homosexuality is also opposing God. But do we ever ask it of ourselves? Is it ever possible that we might fall into sin the same way Paul did?
It’s not hard to think of historical examples. I grew up Southern Baptist, as you know. That denomination was formed in 1845 for the purpose of allowing slaveholders to serve as missionaries—and in a broader way to be done with abolitionists who had infected Baptists in the North. I can’t wait to see Twelve Years a Slave, but I won’t be surprised if some of the bad guys in the movie are Baptist slaveholders. Of course the same denominational divisions took place among Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians. The thing is, some of the people who led in that effort were great theologians and wonderful preachers. Like Paul, I guess. But they were convinced that the Bible prohibited the mixing of races and that slavery was God’s will. The Bible commanded that slaves obey their masters. Period. But looking back at that period now—or even looking at racism that persists in some churches—it seems clear that these people were opposing God. God was opening the eyes of believers to the sin of enslaving brothers and sisters in Christ and treating them as property for financial gain. God was bringing judgment on the whole economy and on the whole nation. And all the time the people who held slaves thought sincerely that they were doing God’s will and obeying the Bible. They thought that people on the other side were succumbing to changes in the culture.
At the very least, that ought to give us some humility about the way we use the Bible to defend our political positions. We have seen the same thing repeated in the way we understood biblical statements about the role of women. You may recall from the movie Lincoln that some people opposed giving the vote to former slaves because it might lead to the absurd situation of having to give the vote to women! While Christian women were the leaders in the women’s suffrage movement in this country, many who opposed them claimed that the vote would be a violation of God’s order as spelled out in the Bible. In my own lifetime, we went through the same thing in terms of the issue of women in the pulpit. When I was in seminary, there were still very few women pastors anywhere. And the argument against them was always that it was unbiblical, that God had laid out certain rules that we had to follow to please him, whether they made moral sense to us today or not. It turned out that there were plenty of other passages in the New Testament—and in Paul’s writings in particular—that could be used to make a case for women as preachers and deacons.
In recent years the hot issue has been whether gays can have leadership roles in church and whether they can enter lifetime committed unions with the church’s blessings. I myself once accepted the doctrine common among Catholics and Protestants both: that homosexual orientation was not a sin, but acting on it was. My religion taught me that heterosexual love is moral and homosexual love is not. But like you, I kept meeting more and more gays who were out of the closet and seemed normal and moral to me, and some of them were devout Christians. I was prompted to read those scholars who were saying that some of the texts we had used to clobber gays didn’t originally mean what we thought, and the Bible says nothing at all about the phenomenon of love relationships freely chosen by persons who understand themselves to be homosexual. It began to seem to me that God was still moving us toward justice—as he had with slaves and women—and that it did not seem to be God’s will to continue to oppress gays.
I am not claiming that Paul shared my opinions about women or gays, but that the same factors that led him to oppose God and the Jesus movement on the basis of his religion might lead us to oppose God in his work in the world today.
But I want to return to Paul’s story and what he says about having to give up his religion. He said that he had all these assets on the basis of his religious heritage and his own performance in it. But when he met Jesus, his perspective on value changed. What on his personal balance sheet he had counted as assets, he now considered worthless. And the one asset that he gained—knowing Christ—was worth far more than the things he had lost. To be emphatic, Paul says that he now regards the things that he once valued as rubbish. Actually, the Greek is much harsher than that. The word genteelly translated rubbish is closer to the King James rendering of “dung.” Paul practically uses what we would call “the s-word”—“All that religious behavior that I prized so highly I now see as just so much s-word.” It’s something like the parable of the pearl of great price that Jesus told. A man found a pearl worth more than anything in the world and gladly sold all that he had to be able to purchase that pearl. At the cost of everything he had, it was a bargain. Even at the cost of your religion or your ethnicity, Jesus is a bargain.
Paul says, I’ve given up the whole idea of trying to gain a righteousness of my own, making my self right with God by my good behavior. It won’t work, and even when I thought I was doing right I was doing wrong, hating Jesus. It has never been God’s plan to make Jews right with himself by works; it was always by his mercy and forgiveness—and now that is extended to the whole world. We religious people were the ones that turned faith in God into a contest. It was never about scoring points with God. It was always about realizing that God was faithful to us and choosing to be faithful to God.
I don’t want religion any more. I don’t want to enforce the rules. All I want is to know Christ. That’s it; that’s the goal of this race, the thing toward which I am stretching with all that I have. It might surprise you that Paul would say that. You thought he already knew Christ. He’s the preacher. But no, Paul understands that knowing Christ is not like knowing a fact. Knowing Christ is like knowing your spouse—you never get to the bottom of her. We are all beginners in coming to understand Jesus and all that he is.
Here’s what that involves. Paul says he wants to know the power that raised Jesus from the dead, meaning that I want that same power from God to raise me from spiritual death to a state of being alive to God. But then here is what happens when I become alive: I want to become like Jesus. I want to share his sufferings. Not “I want to be saved so I can avoid suffering,” but I want to share Christ’s suffering because that is the way to know him more fully and become like him. I even want to become like him in his death; he died for loving all kinds of people and telling the truth, and he died so others could be reconciled to God. And my hope, he says, that somehow—I don’t understand how it works or when it will happen—I will be raised from the dead like Jesus to eternal life.
In chapter 2 of this letter, Paul described the Jesus pattern: Christ didn’t consider his privileges something to be used to his advantage, but he gave them up and humbled himself and took the form of a servant who became obedient to the point of death. This is the pattern Paul took for his own life, and the one he is urging upon us. It is a kind of parabola. We start from privilege, as we understand it, but we give it all up to become one with Jesus, becoming servants in the process. And after we hit the lowest point, when we become most like Jesus, God raises us up. We go down so that we may be raised up. Following the Jesus roller coaster down then up is the only way to know him. And that, friends, is the goal of life. Paul doesn’t claim to have achieved this. He is still stretching out for the goal of knowing Christ that lies before him. It lies before us as well. Let us join him on the journey.
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