Available: The Gifts of Paul 1 of 10

June 2, 2024

    Series: June 2024

    Speaker: Rob McClellan


    Today's Sermon


    "Available:  The Gifts of Paul 1 of 10"


    Available:  The Gifts of Paul 1

                  We will get to the scripture readings momentarily.  First an introduction, and before an introduction, an image.  Imagine yourself a child again, you are about to embark on an Easter egg hunt, and you are lucky enough to live in 2024 when we don’t mess around with little bitty Easter eggs, but giant oversized expansive eggs.  What could await inside?  The moment comes and you are turned loose.  You dash into open space, darting under every branch and bush. You can barely contain the excitement you feel when you crack open that egg to see what’s inside.

                  We are not going to do an Easter egg hunt today.  Instead, we are going to begin a 10-sermon series on Paul and the book of Romans.  How do you feel hearing that?  Be honest.  If you’ve not been raised in the church, you may be the least likely to be turned off.  Others of you may have long been repelled by Paul and so you have turned the page on him. Paul is anti-woman, anti-gay (neither is true).  Paul is closed-minded, rigid.  Paul is a determined gatekeeper.  Admittedly, part of the way through planning this series, I started to wonder if it was a good idea.  People responded so well to the 10 weeks we did on the Sermon on the Mount last year, where we got away from all this talk about Jesus in favor of simply what Jesus taught.

                  Why then?  Well, as a friend used to say provocatively, Paul is the one who made Jesus - Christ.  Paul, more than any other, is responsible for how the Jesus event is framed in Christianity. I don’t mind if you don’t like Paul; only if you misunderstand him.  Paul is wrestling with his world in light of God and I believe in watching him, we can find hidden gifts our wrestling.  I’m challenging you to go on this journey, to hear these words with fresh ears, or to use a very Pauline metaphor, with new eyes.  It will at times be challenging, but no good Easter egg hunt comes easy.

                  Now, let’s begin. 

    Romans 1:18-20
    18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse;

    Romans 2:1-4
    Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. 2You say, ‘We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’ 3Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? 4Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 

                When seen through old eyes, the body slumps, and we say, here we go, Paul is shaking his judgmental finger at us out of the gate: “Therefore you have no excuse” and this comes after an opening about the wrath of God!  Let’s start there, and let’s try on our new eyes.  Imagine you believe what happens in the world is the result of God’s direction.  You would interpret tragic events for your people as the wrath and judgment of God. Indeed, this is how our spiritual ancestors thought and talked.  How many times in the scriptures did they interpret their nation’s defeat as the result of unfaithfulness?  While we may say we disregard this way of thinking, you still hear it in certain forms. Some still blame tragedies on their interpretation of unfaithfulness.  Others are skeptical about God but fervent in “putting things out to the universe” with real expectations it will deliver.  Many, religious or not, say when a tyrant falls, a bully is toppled, “What goes around comes around.” “They got what was coming to them.”  “Karma is a…” Sometimes we too attach a greater propulsion to the world’s movements.

                Onto the bit about there being “no excuse.”  No excuse for what?  For judging others.  Paul isn’t scolding people for drinking or having sex or worse, dancing! Paul is saying there will be judgment for those who…judge.  Wait, my old eyes told me Paul was so judgmental.  I’ll have to rethink that.  Romans is Paul’s most comprehensive accounting of his theology and at the outset he establishes a prohibition on judging others.  Are you starting to see differently?

                Why there is no excuse for people who judge?  Because everyone should know better.  This is key. This may thekey to the whole understanding of what Paul is wrestling with, what he is, in fact, unlocking for us.  Paul believes there is a deep knowing, a wisdom, a truth that is universally available. It is not the possession of any one person or people or religion, even as he is an unapologetic evangelist of his. 

                It’s a bit of a paradox.  While Paul holds a special place in his heart for his Judaism, his whole life’s mission is to say, it is for all, and you don’t have to follow his people’s way to follow the way.  “Ever since the creation of the world,” writes Paul, “God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (1:20).  Have you ever said, “I find God in nature.”  Paul too. 

                God is found inside and beyond our tradition. That’s likely not news to you, but you may have been made to believe you need to keep that belief secret in the church. I should be clear, this is not about what I call “smorgasbord” spirituality:  I’ll take a little Christianity, a side of Buddhism, some pseudo–Native American spirituality on the side, going a mile wide but an inch deep. It’s merely saying when you study other traditions, when you study anything with any depth, you will see glimpses of this way, and that’s not to gloss over the particularities of each tradition.

                I just read for the first time the Tao Te Ching, a foundational text of Taoism. Several times, I almost got chills because the lines I was reading could have come straight out of our tradition, straight out of Jesus’ sermon on the mount.  Read it for yourself, but make sure you’re sitting down.

                Paul says judging despises the riches and kindness and forbearance and patience of God (2:4).  Don’t you see?  Paul is the opposite of a gatekeeper.  He is determined to remove the lock on the gate’s door. 

                I would hazard a guess that on this search, if you take it seriously, if you had a negative view of Paul, the Paul you will discover will be closer to the opposite of who you thought him to be.  And the egg has just begun to crack.