Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
is where Paul lived for a couple of years. It’s in modern Turkey, west of the Mediterranean, the remains of the temple of Artemis still one of the wonders of the world.
We were there in the Spring of last year; an astonishing moment to sit in the theatre where Paul had once stood. He is probably writing from prison in Rome, certainly he refers to his imprisonment seeing it almost as a way of honouring Christ: ‘I am a prisoner for Christ Jesus’, he says. The letter has a quite different flavour from the few others we have from his hand. It is less personal. Only at its end does he refer to anyone by name: Tychicus, ‘ a dear brother and a faithful minister in the Lord’. Some scholars assume that this may therefore have been a circular letter sent via his friend to others in various churches Paul had founded. Some of the earliest copies of the letter don’t specify Ephesus at all.
If that is the case it helps to explain the different style of the epistle.
Some scholars doubt whether it was written by Paul at all, for whilst it includes many of his traditional themes, it does so in a new, rarefied, dogmatic way as if it was Paul’s final and considered theology. He writes with enormous authority. All by himself, perhaps, without comforters and friends, his incarceration means that he focuses on what for him is the essence of the new faith he has so bravely advocated, often against much opposition and despite physical violence. He writes as a Jew but specifically to Gentiles. All the old so called ‘rules’ about the chosen race have been cancelled by the coming of Christ and he makes some quite enormous, even formidable claims for the centrality of Jesus to Christian faith. Let’s look at some of them.
First, then, Jesus himself.
Paul rarely refers to him as Jesus, more often as Christ Jesus or Christ. The man of Nazareth who went about healing the sick and teaching the poor as we have heard this morning in the gospel reading, has become for Paul an elemental figure, existing before the foundation of the world and now set in heaven as the power that is above all earthly powers. It is almost as if the earthly ministry didn’t happen and the terrible end to it on the cross and the wonderful resurrection that followed it are of lesser importance than these almost apocalyptic views of the glorified and ascendant Christ. Nothing is too great for Paul to claim in his vision of the person and power of Jesus.
Reading these tremendous ideas I was reminded of the colourful and technically brilliant otherworldly films of popular culture, where all that is normal has been transcended into a new realm of reality beyond our sight and senses. But whereas in such culture, the baddies often seem to win, and there’s more gore than glory, in Paul’s imagination this is an elemental story of goodness triumphing. Sometimes we perhaps claim less for Christ than we should. Paul urges us to see the coming of Christ and his impact on the human story in a far wider perspective than we are used to. He writes of the ‘immeasurable greatness of his power….’ruling from heaven’. But the work that will go on, for the glorified Christ will purge us of our sins so that we can be re-created in him. So Paul will have nothing to do with the meek and mild picture of Jesus, and claims for him everything that otherwise we might associate with God.
Second the Church
There is no doubt in Paul’s mind that the Church is part of the gospel – born of the good news and destined to convey the good news to the world and for Paul, the Jew, particularly to the Gentiles. The church is gifted by God. Many members but various gifts. He names some of them. ‘Some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the full stature of Christ.’ So what was true of one man, Jesus, our gathered gifts form some sort of equation to his.
That’s a very high definition of the Church indeed, and one not easily recognisable in any picture of your average local Church. And yet if we lack such depth and richness of spiritual life, we do have at least an intention associated with his. Whilst we know that we aren’t all the same; and honour our differences; we seek a unity of common life. We live in utterly different times from Paul, this stern but dear man trying to guide his churches from the uncompromising incarceration to which he has been reduced. But his vision is an inspiration and a rebuke to us – when God welcomes us into the community of faith, he equips us to live as brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s a high aspiration but without it we are in danger of becoming creatures of habit, limiting our life together because we don’t expect anymore from each other than we have had before. For Paul the Church is a vital creative experiment in how people can live together, creatively, peaceably and in love.
Third, individual Christian behaviour. Paul the puritan comes to the fore in these six chapters, again reflecting perhaps his limited horizons as he sits in his prison cell. He is fiercely moral in his expectation of how Christians should live, as ‘children of the light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.’ As opposed to what he calls ‘unfruitful works of darkness’. So – don’t get drunk, for that is debauchery; don’t be foolish (he would have been appalled at the mak average programme on TV designed for triviality and titillation, as I am ); put away all bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling and slander and be kind to one another. Obscene, silly and vulgar talk is entirely out of place, he says. He warns against greediness which he sees as a form of idolatry, a timely condemnation for us of the astonishing and insatiable greed of certain bankers for whom clearly money (our money often) has become a plaything and a god. Instead we are to be imitators of God as beloved children, living in love as Christ loved us.
It’s when Paul gets on to family relationships that we become aware of the years that divide us from him. The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is head of the Church, but they are to be loved, the two becoming one flesh, a brave statement against the customs of his day and one that still has to be remembered in our day. Children are to obey their parents, and slaves (ouch!) are to obey their earthly masters with enthusiasm and masters mustn’t threaten them.: knowing that both have the same master in heaven. Whilst it’s true that slaves in that age were often members of the wider family and treated as such, we have learned that no one has the right to rob another of their liberty. And Christians have eventually been foremost in arguing for that belief.
A sectarian is someone whose belief takes them away from society and lands them in a small self-interested group which by choice exists alongside rather than with the rest of the world. (Back to the bankers and into all the religious weirdoes who listen to no one but each other). Despite his high doctrine of what the Church should be like, Paul is less of a sectarian than we might imagine. He was, for example proud of his Roman citizenship and whatever the failings of that imperial nation, he recognised its global reach and the rough justice by which its subjects were governed. Paul is in Rome because he demands that– as a Roman –his trial should take place there. It was precisely against Jewish sectarianism that Paul argued for the right of everyone to hear the gospel and be changed by the generous and gracious love of God.
From the Father, says Paul, every family in heaven or on earth takes its name. ‘We must speak the truth to our neighbours’, he says, ‘for we are members of one another’. One of the three churches I was responsible for in the 1980’s was a small community church in the Borough of Newham, surrounded by low rise flats.( And its still there!). We had a morning and then an afternoon service, when only three or four of us, sitting in a circle, were the congregation.
I was doing the equivalent of preaching one Sunday afternoon and said we must love our neighbours. ‘You should meet my neighbour’ said Doris, and gave us a long spiel on what she was suffering from the woman in the flat above her. And it was terrible. Well, it’s like that. Unless we are extremely saintly, we don’t instinctively love the funny people around us. And yet, they – even the really nasty and totally irresponsible ones who live as if no one else mattered – are part of the human family. Paul, the strict moralist, still accepts that the saints and sinners, kind and cruel, gentle and violent people are all and equally part of a broken unity, but one which has the potential to be made whole.
I have hardly done the beginning of justice to the six chapters of Paul’s deeply thoughtful letter, but trying to do so raises the question of how we read the bible. The words of scripture and our reading and reflection on them can be – should be -two different things. The biblical tradition is where we meet each other as Christians in fellowship and at worship. Without that binding of lives in common belief, we would just be a load of individuals paddling our own canoes and looking around sometimes to check that other boats are moving roughly in the same direction as we are. The bible’s varied writings gathered over many years, is our book of reference. But belief without reflection can be little more than a habit we have grown accustomed to. So read it, a little of which we have done this morning, but read it as yourself in the day in which you live, and with a devoted but critical eye. Thank God for St Paul. But you are not him, and each of us as ourselves and within a Christian community, have to find our own way. The Bible is not an excuse to ignore our intelligence, but a profound way to enrich it.