“But as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see – we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” (2 Corinthians 6:4-10)
Yes, I’ve decided to persist with Saint Paul this week. That’s in part due to the inspiration I received last week from Steff’s treatment of Paul, but it’s equally because I find Paul an inspiring man. I love him.
I appreciate that Paul to this day has no shortage of detractors. Muslims tend to dislike Paul and blame him for distorting the original teachings of Jesus – making the Christian religion about Jesus rather than about the teachings of Jesus – and yet we don’t have to look outside of the Christian community to find opponents of Paul.
For a start, a good number of Christian theologians have agreed with their Muslim colleagues – that Paul did indeed invent a version of Christianity that was a long way from the original teachings of Jesus. Many feminist theologians, similarly, take a dim view of Saint Paul because he always seemed to insist on a male-dominated system of patriarchal control, whether he was talking about families or about churches. Inclusive Christians, similarly, often see Paul as exclusive. Catholics often see him as a bit Protestant.
Even the Apostle Peter had trouble with Paul. We know that they had a stand-up stoush in Antioch, early in Paul’s career (see Galatians 2:11-14), but even in Peter’s later letters we get a reference to Paul that has no parallel elsewhere in the New Testament. Peter says of Paul, “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort.” (2 Peter 3:16)
I think that’s a beautifully delicate use of words by Peter. Yes, some things Paul says are “hard to understand” and, evidently, lots of people did misunderstood Paul – “ignorant and unstable people” says Peter, graciously.
It seems quite bizarre, when you think about it, that Peter, who probably had very little formal education, could be so delicate in his choice of words, whereas Paul – a trained academic – so often spoke in a sort of stream-of-consciousness monologue, and I envisage him speaking quite quickly.
“in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute…”
When I first read that again last week, I thought ‘I don’t know anyone else who speaks like that’, and then it occurred to me that I’ve known plenty of people who speak like that, but they are all people we normally label as being mentally ill.
Not many of you would know where Ange and I met. Once upon a time, we were assigned to the same Bible-study group when I was in Miranda (two of the toughest years of my life). Meeting Ange wasn’t the tough part, of course, but the study group could be tough, largely because almost everybody in that group, apart from Ange and myself, turned out to be struggling with what’s now called ‘bi-polar disorder’.
I still remember very vividly one of our young men, standing on the balcony of what was then my house and speaking very rapidly. I don’t remember exactly what he said. Indeed, it would have been impossible to remember exactly what he said because he said so much and spoke so fast. Even so, the overall gist was that life was great and that things were getting better and better. He then ran off, and I found out that about half an hour later he threw himself in front of a truck, breaking almost every bone in his body, but somehow, he survived (thanks be to God).
Now, I’m not suggesting that Paul spoke exactly like that, and I’m certainly not suggesting that Paul suffered from pi-polar disorder. Indeed, if anyone were to suggest such a thing the immediate comeback would probably be “yes, but what Paul said made sense”, but did it?
‘We commend ourselves through afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger …’
Let me ask you, ‘How do you commend yourself to anybody through a riot?’
I’ve been involved in two riots in my life – one serious one and one not-so-serious.
The not-so-serious one took place out the front of our church building back in the 1990’s. I can’t remember what started it now, but it was our youth-centre community – a group of around 50 kids on the day, if I remember, and they all spilled out on to the street and it started with lots of loud and harsh words being exchanged.
Between myself and the youth-centre staff we managed to get things under control, but then one of the neighbours decided to get involved, and he pushed one of the young girls, in response to which one of the boys punched the neighbour in the face, and we lost control again. Shortly after that the police arrived, swinging batons, and then all hell broke loose!
That was the not-too-serious riot I was involved in. The more serious one took place in Dimona, in Israel, shortly after our dear brother, Mordechai Vanunu, was released from prison. There were thousands of people lining the streets that day, and most of them were screaming for his blood. The police and the army were there to keep control, but once the prisoner was driven out of the gates, the police-cordon broke and most of the military followed the vehicles, and the street descended into chaos!
I ended up being mobbed by a group of settlers who surrounded me and started cursing me, and then spitting on me and then punching and kicking me, and I really didn’t think I was going to survive that experience, and yet, as St Paul would say “See, I am alive!”
My point is that the riot at Trinity’s Youth Centre did not commend our young people to the greater community of Dulwich Hill in any way, and neither did the riot that I was a part of in Dimona commend anybody to anybody, so far as I could see. What does Paul mean – that he commended himself to the Corinthians through riots, and through imprisonments, sleepless nights, calamities, beatings and hunger?
I think we need to be honest here and acknowledge that if this is the wisdom of Paul, it’s a wisdom that makes very little sense when seen alongside conventional wisdom.
As you know, amongst the many things I do, I manage a remote property at the base of the Blue Mountains National Park. I’m now in my 16th year as manager of that property and I would hate to think how many sleepless nights that work has caused me. It has though forced me to learn how to run a business, and the one really good thing about running a business, in my view, is that at least it’s very straightforward – whether or not you are being successful.
If you are making money, you are successful. If you are losing money, you are not. You don’t have to be making a lot of money to be successful, but you do need to make enough to cover your costs. This is the straightforward conventional wisdom that I’ve had to learn as a business owner, and I think that after 16 years of hard work and hard learning I have finally worked this much out.
I wonder how Paul would have gone, managing a business?
“We lost a million dollars last week, Paul!”
“Oh!”, says Paul, “well done!”
“Well … at this rate the banks will foreclose on us pretty soon and we might even end up in gaol if we can’t pay off all our debts!”
“OK! It sounds as if we are on the right track”, says Paul!
It probably wouldn’t have quite been like that, and yet Paul was capable of seeing all the normal signs of failure – poverty, imprisonment, bankruptcy, hunger, and even death – as KPI’s (key performance indicators) of faithfulness to Christ’s mission.
Paul was well aware, of course, of how counter-intuitive his thinking was, and he recognised that his preaching was considered mere ‘foolishness’ by the wise and educated of his day (1 Corinthians 1:23), most obviously because of his focus on the suffering and death of Jesus which, likewise, could hardly have appeared as a selling-point to his contemporaries.
Of course, the two are tied together in Paul’s mind – because Christ suffers, we must suffer, and so suffering becomes the mark of the genuine believer who shares in the life of Christ. Even so, I’m sure Paul didn’t think that suffering was necessarily a mark of piety – it could be a sign of criminality – and he certainly didn’t believe that there weren’t positive things that could also be bundled into the authentic life of discipleship. Indeed, in the list he offers us here, alongside afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, and imprisonments, he also lists purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit and genuine love.
What I think Paul is getting at here is that a faithful life doesn’t always have to be extremely painful any more than it always need be extremely rewarding. It just always tends to be extreme!
I think this probably summarises St Paul’s view of the Christian life – it’s a life lived to extremes – and the further I go on in life with Christ, the more I can identify with this.
I think of the places the Lord has taken me, even in the last 12 months or so:
- Walking through the Christian village of Maaloula in Syria, where the signs of Jabhat Al Nusra’s murderous occupation are still evident everywhere.
- Spinning around a coral reef off Manus Island in the middle of the night in a tiny boat with no motor, trying to avoid the search lights of the navy.
- Boxing with the Iranian amateur champ in Mashad, despite the doctor telling me that I’d never box again after the brain haemorrhage I suffered last year.
OK, I haven’t been imprisoned or lashed as yet (thanks be to God) but I feel like I’m on the same path as Saint Paul here, and what’s more, I don’t think I’m the only one!
I look around at the various members of our church community and I see a lot of people who are likewise really pushing the envelope – living life to the extreme!
There are people here who haven’t eaten properly for a week, raising money and awareness for refugees. There are people here who have given up regular full-time work so that they can pour themselves into things they believe in. There are LOTS of people here who devote enormous amounts of energy and time to the work of ministry that they feel called to – being it fighting discrimination or feeding the food-insecure or supporting asylum-seekers and refugees or any number of other works.
Indeed, one of the things I’m most proud of as a member of Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, is that I don’t remember ever having had a discussion over morning tea on the subject of home renovations. Forgive me if you were all prepped to tell me about your latest renovation project. I do recognise that such things need to be done BUT we live in a society where home renovation is high-rating TV entertainment, as it seems to be the most exciting thing some people have in their lives! How tragic!
When I listen in on things people talk about here over morning tea and over lunch, people are sharing ideas and dreams and letting off steam, and I’m not suggesting that we are always focused on some noble form of mission, but we’re almost always focused on building something bigger than a new kitchen. We’re living the dream!
I appreciate, of course, that not all of you have experienced as many shipwrecks or riots or beatings as I have, though I think some of you just do a better job of hiding your scars than I do too. At any rate, for those who haven’t been shipwrecked or imprisoned yet, give yourself a bit more time! We are on the same path!
This is indeed the point, I think. It’s not that we are looking for trouble, but that we are all on the same path, and it’s the same path Saint Paul was on because it’s the same path that Jesus walked. We live the life of Christ – His extreme life – and so, inevitably, we share in His sufferings as well as in His joys.
“We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see – we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:8-10)