Each week I’ll try to post a bridge commentary on the materials I am using for my weekly sermon prep and for the sermon that comes on the following Sunday. Before the end of the year I hope that the sermons themselves will be posted here via audio files but I am so computer challenged! I hope it all works out for the benefit of more than a couple.
As the sermon series has focused on the book of Acts, this week’s message explores the important drama found in Acts 9 and that is, namely, the conversion of Saul and his consequent ascent to the role of Apostle and Saint Paul. S(P)aul’s biopic in chapter 9 has coincided with author Luke’s deliberate inclusion of three main characters found in the second panel of Acts. Stephen, Philip and, now, Saul are three Greek speaking Jews who have become followers of Jesus and through whom the genesis of the church is taking shape outside Jerusalem.
Paul’s conversion and his subsequent role as the chief theologian of the New Testament is not a popular subject these days. Especially among the literati that I hang with. He is seen as a misogynist, a curmudgeon and a desperately repressed ancestor of the puritan movement. Even while I was at Oxford recently, I heard a professor speak of Paul’s “no fun” outlook as being the seedbed of the Victorian era sexual frustration.
I was perplexed about this construct until I recently read Sarah Ruden’s little book, “Paul Among His People.” Ruden is a classics scholar in Greek and Roman literature but she also holds a teaching position within Yale Divinity School. In her book, she has pointed out a dynamic that I experienced in graduate school as well. At seminary, there is very little scholarship done on the secular literature that corresponds contemporaneously with biblical texts and, at the humanities graduate level, there is no study of biblical materials even though they might be considered historically significant. To be sure, I studied Thomas Aquinas and even a little Augustine but there was never biblical text required in any reading assignment. Virgil, yes; Cicero, yes; Sophocles; absolutely. Paul, no.
Thanks to Ruden, I’ve been re-united with Paul. Instead of dreading the inevitable dispersions cast about his crusty chauvinism and homophobic outlook, I’m re-discovering the decrepit state of affairs the Greek and Roman outlook held during the time of Paul. I’m also seeing with new eyes the revolutionary attitude Paul took in personal and societal freedom. In many ways, it’s the freedom of thought that Paul gave to the western world that is now being used to disabuse him of his sense of liberty and faith.
At the very least, give Ruden’s book a read if not a complete re-fresher course on Paul’s letters. I think you’ll experience the sentiment that I had with Ruden when she writes, “How did I ever accept the fairy tale of the apostle walking into communities of happy pagans, at peace with nature and their bodies, and shutting down the Maypole dances…. Instead, he [Paul] sacrifices his home, his health, his peace of mind and eventually his life for the sake of Greeks and Romans…[a culture] it should be called were kindergartners with knives. He must have helplessly, sufferingly loved them.”