Monday, June 3, 2019

The scum of the earth.

What if I suggested that there was an apostle, one of those godly men, hand-picked by Jesus, that everyone hated, not only in his own time, but even down through history, and especially today, especially amongst the modern church?

Who do you think I would be referring to?

Well there was a man named Judas, who was chosen by Jesus, and who, we know, in the end betrayed him, and later, out of uncontainable remorse (but not repentance) killed himself.

Despite the fact that Judas did not become an apostle, he is not the one I am referring to. 

(An apostle refers to one of those significant people, who were part of the initial formation of the church at Pentecost, were eyewitnesses of Jesus, and upon whose teachings the whole church is built. The best example is Peter.)

Yes, Peter is probably the most famous apostle.

But who is the most infamous, the most controversial, the most hated, even in his own time, even by the church, then and now?

Of course, I am referring to Paul of Jesus (Saul of Tarsus).

As I re-read the book of Acts, I am again transfixed by this man chosen by God. Chosen not because of his faithfulness, or abilities, as he is first introduced as a key enemy of the Christian church, and all who believed in Jesus. He was passionately on a mission to find and arrest, and even kill Christians for their offensive seeming irreverence of Moses and everything Jewish, and their delusional belief in a self-acclaimed religious charlatan called Jesus. This cult was labelled the “Nazarene cult”. How could anything good come from Nazareth?

Yet, Saul, of all people, was stopped in his tracks by a blinding light, the Lord Jesus who clearly identifies himself. And Saul was left blinded, with specific instructions for his future. From this point forward, Saul, who later became known as Paul, was single minded, and unswervable in his mission to give witness to, and preach the foolish, offensive yet powerful message of forgiveness of sins that comes through trusting in the name of Jesus, the chosen one of God, who will soon appear to judge the living and the dead.

Paul was willing to suffer hatred, humiliation, imprisonment, stoning, slander and even shipwrecks in order to go where he believed God was leading him. Even with repeated warnings from his dear friends that he would suffer imprisonment and death, he stubbornly returned to Jerusalem, where he was quickly arrested and falsely accused.

Paul was even willing to go and preach to the people that no-one in their right-jewish mind would go to. The gentiles. That's us. To Jews in those days, the gentiles were unbelieving pagans, not worthy of true religion. It would be like throwing pearls before swine. Thankfully that did not stop him.

What was his motive?

Was it money?

Yes, he was eager to collect provisions for the church in Jerusalem which, by implication was suffering poverty. (But not for himself)

Was it fame?

Yes, he was willing to refer to himself as the top of the pile. The chief of sinners.

Was it sex?

Yes, he was quick to point out to young men that it was better to marry than burn with passion. But for those that were like him, it was better to stay single, and be single minded in serving the Lord. Because having a wife or a husband seemed to allow in the worries of the world.

It was Paul who wrote the majority of the new testament. Probably much of it from time imprisoned.

His most beautiful writing must be the chapter on Love, in the 13th chapter of 1Corinthians.

His most deeply theological writing must be the book of Romans. (Even Peter admits that his writings are hard to understand).

And his most hated writing today must be that of the role of women in the church, followed closely by his specific warnings about the sin of homosexual acts. (He never highlighted homosexual acts above other sins such as dishonouring of ones parents)

Why is it that this man suffered as he did?

Even when he was arrested in Jerusalem, it seems as though the church there abandoned him, having his own nephew come to his aid and help avert an ambush that would have killed him. Though they celebrated his mission to the gentiles, did they ever really get over his persecution starting with the death of Stephen?

Did they feel his sins had finally caught up with him, and it was his turn to suffer what he himself had inflicted on the church previously? (This is pure conjecture on my part)

God had plans for, and reassured him that he would witness before Caesar himself.

Did Paul ever become disillusioned?

My reading of Acts as well as all of his letters suggests no.

The closest we come to is Paul’s words that he pleaded with God three times to have his “stake in the flesh” removed, a messenger of Satan, something that caused him continual suffering. What this was, we don’t actually know, but he found acceptance knowing that God’s grace was more than enough, and that this pain was actually a blessing that would prevent pride. Paul could so easily have had pride in all he achieved even in his own life time.

His own words were “To live is Christ, to die is gain”.

In other words, while ever he had life and breath, he would gladly witness to the truth of Jesus crucified, risen, and glorified at God’s right hand.

And this he did.

And what of the signs and wonders?  At one point after he healed a cripple in the name of Jesus, the crowd wanted to worship him and his companion Barnabas as the gods Hermes and Zeus. But Paul and Barnabas refused, tearing their clothes. (That went quite badly leading to a near death experience. Was he dead or not, after being stoned?, you be the judge.)

Even his shadow and his aprons and handkerchiefs had power to heal.

How unbelievable it is that today, our modern church scholars so easily dismiss this precious instrument of Jesus.

How sad it is that many in today’s western church ridicule his teachings.

What if we, in raising ourselves above this humble, diligent, committed, obedient and loving servant of our Lord Jesus, experience what those seven sons of Sceva did, taking on themselves the ability to pronounce the name of Jesus, whom Paul preached, independent of Paul’s and Jesus authority?

The demon they were trying to cast out said it clearly; “Jesus I know, Paul I’ve heard of, but who are you?, and they were beaten badly.

I worry that some of our theologians, teachers and leaders of today believe that one day they will stand before the Lord and be rewarded for “sorting out” the “erroneous” teachings of Paul.

Instead, their work will be burned up, and they themselves will escape but only just, like someone escaping through the flames.

Paul himself warns us about building carefully on the foundation that he laid, which is Christ, that he too, is Holy Spirit filled, and that he himself carries the marks of Christ.

Yes, Paul referred to himself as the chief of sinners, the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world, and never allowed himself to forget that he once persecuted the church, which by default, according to Jesus’ own words, was persecuting Jesus himself.

And Jesus did show Paul how much he would suffer for his name.

Yet, if there is one man to whom Jesus would say “Well done my good and faithful servant” I believe that man would be Saul of Tarsus, Paul of Jesus., the Apostle to the gentiles, the Apostle to us.