Paul, Part 3: Jesus and Paul: Two Paths Through the Faith (4/2/06)
Dr. Gary Cox, University Congregational Church
Today we conclude our three part series on the Apostle Paul. In week one we took an overview of Paul’s life, which whatever else one thinks of Paul, we must admit was truly a life of adventure. Last week we looked at some of Paul’s writings that have caused problems in the modern church, especially those writings about women and same-sex relationships. And I attempted to separate Paul’s writings into two parts: those writings that pertained to specific situations in the churches he had started—writings that were culturally conditioned by the 1st Century world in which he lived; and those inspirational writings about Christ that transcend the 1st Century, and speak directly to our hearts today.
Today I want to consider the differences between the teachings of Paul and the teachings of Jesus. The fact is, there are many paths through the Christian faith, and those paths are, in large part, defined by the way one balances the teachings of Paul and the teachings of Jesus.
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I will try to do the impossible, and summarize the teachings of both Paul and Jesus in a few sentences. The teachings of Jesus are actually fairly simple: Love God with your heart, soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
The teachings of Paul form what the church calls Pauline theology, and can be summarized in this way: Jesus Christ, the perfect Son of God, died on the cross for the sins of the world, and through his resurrection from the dead overcame all evil. Accept the Risen Christ into your heart, and through your faith, God’s grace will grant you eternal life.
Those teachings of Paul are the foundation upon which the church is built. Fred Craddock, the great professor of preaching, once said, “Jesus came preaching God; the church came preaching Jesus.” There is certainly some truth in that. Many read the Gospel of John, and claim Jesus pointed to himself as the one and only Son of God. But the fact is John, like Paul, writes to explain the theological importance of Jesus Christ, and does not attempt to reveal the exact things Jesus said and did. That is why John’s gospel is so different from the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—which attempt to recall the actual events of Jesus’ life.
And so, broadly speaking, there are two paths through the Christian faith. One path is based on the writings of Paul, with support from John’s gospel; and the other is based on the teachings of Jesus, found in Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Now, our first inclination may be to think, “Hey, I’m going to base my religious thinking on Jesus and not on Paul. After all, Jesus is the centerpiece of the Christian faith.” And we hear this all the time. We hear people say things like, “I don’t know about God, and heaven, and eternal life, and all that stuff—I am a Christian because I follow the teachings of Jesus.” When I hear this I always want to shake that person’s hand, and say, “I knew there must be somebody in this world who is following the teachings of Jesus—it’s a real pleasure to finally meet you!”
Think about it. What would it take to actually follow the teachings of Jesus? And forget the gray areas—the thought provoking confusion that his parables often arouse. Just consider the Sermon on the Mount. Are any of us actually following the teachings of Jesus? Let’s list some of them—they are relatively unambiguous. They don’t give us much wiggle room. They tell us quite specifically how to act in given situations.
You have heard it said, “You shall not murder, or you will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister you will be liable to judgment…if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire.
You have heard it said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throws it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
Okay, maybe some of us are thinking we’ve cleared those hurdles—that we have control of our anger and our lustful thoughts. How many of us can say we follow the following teachings all of the time:
Do not resist an evildoer.
Give to everyone who begs from you.
Do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.
Do not worry about your life, what you will eat and drink, or what you
Do not judge.
Jesus sets the bar pretty high, to say the least, and knows it, because after all of these teachings, just as he must have known people would be thinking, “There’s no way I can be that good,” Jesus says, “The gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
There are those in the modern church who honestly attempt to follow the teachings of Jesus—the path he established through the faith. They are pacifists in all situations. They live lives of poverty, giving away all of their possessions and committing their lives entirely to the well being of others. But most of us, myself included, live lives that do not fit through that narrow gate Jesus talked about. Most of us fall far short of the mark Jesus established with the living of his life, and fail miserably in walking the path he defined for us.
Enter Paul. Paul tells us that Jesus of Nazareth was more than just a great teacher. Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. Paul tells us that if we want to understand God’s nature, all we need do is look at Jesus—especially Jesus as he hangs from the cross. Paul was much more concerned with how Jesus went out of this world than with how he came into it. The cross—that is where we see God’s love best exemplified. At the cross we see a God who says to us, “You can torture and kill me and I will still love and forgive you—that‘s what makes me God.”
And this establishes a second path through the faith. It is a path not based on righteousness as much as it is based on faith. It is not based so much on what Jesus taught as it is based on who Jesus was. And according to this path—to the path established by Paul—you can accept the Risen Christ into your heart and your faith will justify you. Your sins are not counted against you. God’s love wipes them out. And Jesus Christ forms the perfect path into the heart of God’s love.
The problem with this path is obvious, and it is not new. As we saw last week, the Corinthians decided that if God’s love was that perfect and that unconditional, they could do anything they wanted and still be forgiven. And we see that attitude in the modern church. We call them Sunday morning Christians. They piously show up at church on Sunday morning, confess their sins to Jesus, and through the week live lives that are in direct opposition to everything Jesus taught us about how to live in this world and how to treat others. And most frustrating of all, they take enough time off from robbing the poor and plundering the earth to ask the rest of us if we’ve been saved!
Still, the fact is, the two paths through the faith—the path established by Jesus and the path established by Paul—are not mutually exclusive. Let’s go back to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus established that beautiful but unattainable moral code. In that same sermon Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” I’m really glad Jesus said that, because it means that he recognizes our lack of perfection. He seems to be saying that God understands our shortcomings, and all God requires of us are hearts oriented in the right direction.
How do we orient our hearts in the right direction? By finding the right balance between the two paths. Paul makes the point repeatedly in his letters. If you say you are a Christian but do not attempt to follow Jesus, you are lying to yourself. The great thing about combining the two paths is that we can go about our daily routines knowing God loves us and forgives us for our shortcomings, but at the same time orienting our hearts in the direction of God. We recognize that we do not possess the perfection of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean we ignore Jesus’ teachings. Those teachings both inform us and condemn us. And Paul’s teachings are there to remind us that the very love that Jesus exemplified—the perfect love we can only imitate in minor ways—that same love is there to rescue us.
That’s why it is called the gospel—the good news. There is a lot of confusion over that word. The literal translation of the word gospel is good news. If you ask many people to explain the gospel to you, they will give you a brief overview of Pauline theology. They will say that the good news is that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, and by believing in Jesus we can receive salvation from God.
But here’s the problem: The Bible tells us repeatedly that Jesus traveled around telling everybody the gospel—the good news. Are we to think that Jesus’ message was that he would one day be crucified? Of course not! There is no indication that Jesus, as he traveled around Galilee spreading the good news, ever said a public word about his approaching death.
So what was the good news that Jesus was proclaiming? Jesus was proclaiming that God’s nature is not righteous anger, but redemptive love. That is the good news. Jesus was proclaiming that those ancient prophets of Israel were right when they said God is not concerned with rituals and rules and temple sacrifices, but with love alone. The good news is that God loves us, and we have the ability to love God, and to love our neighbors. And Jesus showed us how. Jesus showed us how to live a selfless life, a life anchored on goodness and lived for the sake of others. Jesus life was all about love, and the gospel—the good news—is all about love.
Now, after Paul had his amazing experience on the Damascus Road, and then looked back on the life and death of Jesus, he saw something in Jesus that he had not seen before. The good news that Jesus had proclaimed—the gospel message of God’s redeeming love—had become embodied in that person—Jesus of Nazareth. Paul came to believe that Jesus had been the living, human expression of God’s love. And so Paul tied Jesus’ gospel message of God’s love directly to Jesus himself. And that is why there is so much confusion over the word gospel. For Jesus, the gospel was the good news about God’s love. For Paul, the gospel was the good news about God’s love as revealed in Jesus Christ.
I recognize that this is sort of heavy sermon. Theology is not easy, but it is important. And Christian theology almost always comes down to the study of Jesus and the study of Paul. Those are the roots. The way we worship—the way we live out our lives as Christians—is determined by the way we balance those two paths through the faith. And really, we need those two paths. In fact, they form two lanes of the same superhighway, heading in the same direction, and with the same ultimate destination. We should try to stay in the lane that follows the path of Jesus. Since we are human beings, we sometimes stray off of that perfect path. But the good news is that we are then in Paul’s lane, forgiven for our imperfections, and still headed in the right direction.
And the most important thing to understand is that both paths are founded on love. More than any other religion, Christianity is all about love. And when I say the word love, I’m not talking about the love two people feel for one another when they are in a romantic relationship, although that is certainly one form of love. I’m talking about real love—the love that permeates the universe.
God is love. Paul and Jesus certainly agree on that. Love is the strongest force in all of reality. Love is the only thing powerful enough to have called creation into being in the first place, and love is the only power strong enough to hold it in being moment to moment. Love is the force that binds the neutron to the proton, and keeps the electrons on their charted paths. Love is the power that hurls the galaxies through the unfathomable emptiness of space. Love is the force that breaths life into this dust, that calls us forth from the endless ocean of nothingness and grants us life.
Jesus and Paul saw the world the same way. Jesus said the Kingdom of God is within us. Jesus saw God in us. And because of that Paul saw God in Jesus.
Well, it’s time to bring this little series on Paul to a close. I told you from the beginning that I continue to have a sort of love-hate relationship with Paul. His 1st Century social commentary is often in tension with the way I see the world; but his theology is powerful. And the personal indebtedness I feel to Paul is beyond my ability to express it. For all its faults, for all its arguments, for all its petty quarrels, I love the church. I love this thing called Christianity, and I love the church, that in all its varied forms, carries the message of our faith from generation to generation. And I don’t believe the church would exist if not for the work of Paul.
And so, to end this series, it is only fitting that I let Paul speak for himself. Remember, this is a man who had every reason to be bitter. He was imprisoned, chained, beaten, whipped and stoned for spreading the gospel. Toward the end of his life the church he had started in Philippi learned of his imprisonment, and responded with prayers and gifts to supply his needs. He responded with a letter of thanks, in which it became clear that even in the midst of persecution, his love for all had not faltered. I close with these words of Paul, written not only to the Philippians, but also, perhaps, to you and me, as he lay in prison, beaten and bruised, knowing he would soon be killed for proclaiming his faith.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Jesus Christ.