Pauline Letters

PAUL'S MADS WERE MADDER and his blues bluer, his pride prouder and his humbleness humbler, his strengths stronger and his weaknesses weaker than almost anybody else's you'd be apt to think of; and the splash he made when he fell for Christ is audible still. It is little wonder that from the start he was a genius at making enemies.

As his own Letters indicate, his contemporaries accused him of being insincere, crooked, yellow, physically repulsive, unclean, bumbling, and off his rocker. Since then the charges against him have tended to narrow down to one; that is, that he took the simple and beautiful gospel of Jesus and loused it up with obscure, divisive, and unnecessary theological subtleties.

Anybody who thinks the gospel of Jesus is simple should go back and take a look at it. "Love your neighbor." "Be ye perfect." "Resist not evil." "I and the Father are one." "Follow me." The only thing that's simple about the gospel is the language.

How? Why? Whence? Whither? These are the questions Paul digs into with all the gentleness and tact of a pneumatic drill. Jesus exploded on the scene like a bomb and blew the world in general and the world of Judaism in particular sky-high. It was left to Paul to try to sort out the pieces.

He wrote the church at Corinth what he got for his pains: "Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked. A night and a day I have been adrift at sea. In danger from rivers... robbers... my own people... Gentiles. In toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst... in cold and exposure... " (2 Corinthians 11:24-27). One hears the whines and boasts of Shylock. One wishes he hadn't been the one who had to say it. But he says it and means it. And then he says, "I will not boast except of my weakness," and he means that too. The God who could work through the likes of him, he says, must be a God and a half.

So with a cauliflower ear and a split lip and whatever he meant by the thorn in the flesh that God gave "to keep me from being too elated" (2 Corinthians 12:7), he went his way and wrote his marvelous punch-drunk, Christ-drunk Letters. Jesus lit the fire, and Paul used it to forge for him a church.

-Originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words

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