From Saul to Paul: A Long Journey

This sermon was given on Sunday September 4th at the Lutheran Church of the Cross in Nisswa.

From Saul to Paul: A Long journey

The Lutheran Church of The Cross, Nisswa MN
The Rev. Dr. George H. Martin
September 4, 2016
(Philemon, and Luke 14: 25-33)

Today’s sermon is about your name and the common name we all share. It’s a sermon based on the letter to Philemon, the one letter in the New Testament we read in its entirety at one sitting when it appears once every three years. It’s only 25 verses long.

The letter sent to Philemon was one the Paul wrote while he was in prison, or as he said at one point in the letter, while he was in chains. One Pauline scholar even has a book about Paul titled “Chained in Christ.” I dare say Paul would have a hard time seeking a call as a pastor to most churches because a background check would reveal the number of times he was arrested.

In that world, in the first century, when you were arrested and placed in jail, it meant you were awaiting a trial. But you could wait a long time in a dark damp cell that was more likely some underground set of caves in which the prisoners found their hands or legs attached to iron fetters and chains set in stone. Whatever food and water you might have would most likely come from a visitor, or a fellow prisoner who shared what they had. And we know from this letter that Philemon had sent his slave Onesimus to assist Paul.

Two things about Oneseimus as a slave. It never says that he was a runaway slave. Exaclty the opposite. It seems Philemon wanted to help Paul and had done so.

Second: We can’t expect Paul in this letter to make a political stand against an economy that depended on slaves. It just was the way it was in that world. It was true in every part of Paul’s world. As N. T. Wright, the scholar says, slavery was like electricity in our world. We all just take it for granted. But what Paul said about Onesimus becoming like a brother to him, and then suggesting the Philemon see him as a brother. That’s an amazing statement.

Now, about some names. We have to learn about the meaning of Paul’s name. There’s the meaning of the name Onesimus. And there’s the name we all have in common. And there is your particular name.

My full name is George Harvey Martin. The name “Martin” is my surname. Some people actually get the name “Martin” as their first name. Anyone like that come to mind here? Of course. Martin Luther. My first name George, in Greek, means farmer. It’s Jorge in Spanish, and I really like the Italian version, “Georgio.”

I’m named after my two grandfathers. What about you? How about if for about a minute you turn to someone near you, maybe someone who doesn’t know your name. Tell each other what your name is, maybe what it means in some language, and why you were given that name, if you possibly know.


Now about the meaning of Onesimus. In Greek it means “Useful.” What we need to understand is that slaves always had a name from their previous life—unless, of course, as often happened, they were born into slavery. All slaves were given their name by their owner. The owner of a newly purchased slave might look at him and say, “From now on your name is “Tertius.” You’re my third slave. Your number three. That’s all.”

And Onesimus. His name meant “Useful.” Maybe Philimon saw something positive in him and knew he had some particular skills, and told him, “I like what you know and can do. I’m going to call you Useful, your name is Onesimus from now on.” Or maybe his name was a joke. That he was a klutz who dropped and spilled things. We don’t know.

What you can be sure is that no self-respecting Roman citizen would ever name a child Tertius or Onesimus. And neither would in that first century would they name their child Paulus.

Paulos was the Latin name of Paul. I’ll tell you what it means in a minute. I think we can assume that Paul wasn’t his given birth name. He most likely had a Jewish name. One source for this is the book of the Acts of the Apostles, which tells us his name was Saul. Never once in any of the letters, though, did Paul mention that his previous name was Saul, but he did refer to his proud heritage as “…a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews…” (Phil 3:5) But he didn’t keep or use that name once he was called—his words were “called through God’s grace” Gal. 1:15)—to proclaim Jesus Messiah among the Gentiles. His name was Paulos.

For years I never knew what that name meant. Most of us don’t. You will now. It’s the Latin word for “small” or “humble.” Those who knew Paul might have told you that “small” was the better definition. A late second century document described Paul as a short bowlegged man.

What’s really significant in the context of this sermon is that Paul is a slave name in the 1st century.

Taking on a new name in the course of making a decision to follow Jesus actually continues in our day. I was privileged to attend the ordination of an Armenian Orthodox priest in 2010. I don’t remember the name that priest was given by his parents, and if you were to ask him, I’m willing to bet, he wouldn’t tell you what it was. You see, when the Armenian Archbishop laid hands on him and made him a priest, he gave him his new name. As he knelt there the Archbishop gave him his stole to wear. They placed a chasuble over him, and then he had him stand and face the congregation. And the Archbishop said, Please greet and welcome your new priest. And for the first time the priest, his family, and his congregation learned his new name. Please welcome “Father Gregor” he said, named after Gregory the Great one of the early church fathers.

At baptism each of us gets our name. The Pastor asks “Please name this child.” And if you are well coached you give their first and middle name if there be such. When I got to baptize my last grandchild, I said please name this child, and my daughter Kate said “Spencer George.” She didn’t add his last name, or what is called his surname, which is Martin-Jones. That’s name tied him to each side of his family. At his baptism, though, Spencer received another last name. Just as each of you did when you were baptized. You see each us of became a member, at baptism, of the Christian family. And your new last name became “Christian.”

I know you don’t like that Gospel reading where Jesus said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children…” and the list goes on. It’s really not a very good translation of the Greek word “miseo.” Eugene Peterson in the translation called “The Message” did much better.

Jesus turned and told them, “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s own self!—can’t be my disciple. Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple. (Luke 14.26 The Message)

Let me connect this to Paul’s core message to Philemon to Onesimus. You see Onesimus is different. He has received Christ, and he isn’t the same person anymore. Thus Paul is telling his owner Philemon, who is Paul’s friend, that Philemon should see Onesimus as his brother in Christ.

What if Philemon had said to Paul, well I can’t see him as my brother. But if you want him, I’ll set him free and you can have him? That would have been a defeat for Paul, and for Philemon. Paul’s issue is the reconciliation of all, and in this instance of Philemon and Onesimus in the context of Jesus, Lord and Messiah.

Over and over in this short letter of 25 verses we find not one, but eleven times some version of the phrase “in our Lord Jesus Christ.” In “Kyrios Iesous Christos” is the Greek.

And Paul literally meant “in” as Located in, found in, discovered in, residing in, attached to, and we might even say using that language of cartology “geographically placed at this particular point on this map.”

Paul once said, in describing in Galatians his call to proclaim Jesus as Messiah that early on in this ministry he “…was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ.” Let me repeat to you the key phrase. They are the churches of Judea that are in Christ. Paul isn’t saying you find these churches in Judea. Go looking for them there. No, go looking for the Churches of Judea that are found to be living in and with Christ.

Send them a letter, but not to Judea per se, but to their real address which is “in Christ.”

And you and I with our common last name. What is it? It’s “Christian.” Where are we to be found. Right here. You and I are in the right place, along with all the others, who called Jesus Lord and Savior. In “Kyrios Iesous Chistos”. Maybe you might say those words to yourself as you open your hand this morning to receive the body and blood of Christ. As you reaffirm that this is your family.

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Chapter 2: Paul in Arabia

This is the second chapter to my book on “Meeting the St. Paul You Never Thought You’d Meet.” If you haven’t read the Introduction, which is posted here, I suggest you start there. Subsequent chapters will be posted as they are completed. I welcome suggestions, editorial ideas, and questions. George

Chapter 1                       Paul in Arabia

 “Thus the narratives which we live out have both an unpredictable and a partially teleological character.” [Alastair McIntyre, After Virtue, 215 – 216}

It is almost impossible to find any specific dates for the life of Paul, except for the hint that comes from one little verse in the 2nd letter to the Corinthians. Paul made the strange claim, at least rare in the Roman Empire, that if he was to boast in anything, he said “…I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” He went on to tell a tiny, but significant, story of his escape from Damascus.

“In Damascus, the governor under King Aretas guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.” (2 Cor. 11:32-33)

There is another source with the same basic story. This is one time when the Acts of the Apostles is a more helpful. Even with some important differences with regard to the details Acts described Paul’s escape from Damascus in a basket. Acts places this escape within days of his meeting Jesus while on his way to Damascus. He was called “Saul” and not “Paul” at this point in his story.

“After some time had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night so that they might kill him; but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.” (Acts 9:23-25)

The facts that matter are that Paul escaped Damascus and did so in a somewhat large basket lowered over the wall, most likely at night, though that detail wasn’t confirmed by Paul’s version of the story. Some of the other discrepancies between these two accounts will emerge as our investigation continues. There is one more account from Paul’s own hand that needs to be added, and that is a puzzling geographical reference he made in Galatians.

But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. (Gal. 1:15-17)

This is Paul’s own story of God’s revelation to him that Jesus was the Messiah as well as his specific call to preach that message among the Gentiles. His reference to having traveled to Arabia, before returning to Damascus, along with the little story in 2 Corinthians are the critical pieces leading us to place Paul in a particular year in the first century—we can know when this happened. This investigation begins with the reference to Arabia.

Finding Arabia

To the south of Jerusalem and Judea lay a great desert which on a contemporary map includes Saudia Arabia, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Kuwait, and parts of Southern Iraq. None of those governments or boundaries existed in the first century, but there were Arab traders, now mostly forgotten, called the Nabataeans, who mostly settled into what we know as Jordon. Over a period extending three hundred years they had become wealthy and prosperous by controlling the north and south trade routes that extended across the Arabian desert up to the ports on the Mediterranean Sea, with Damascus as the key point in that exchange of goods. The Silk Road bringing goods from the Far East also ended in Damascus, as precious silks, spices, and jewelry were carried on ships to Greece and Rome. In Paul’s world, and strangely still in our time, Damascus has remained a city at the heart of great geo-political issues.

Paul’s first journey after his revelation was to Arabia. Why he choose that destination remains a mystery. We can, however, make an intelligent guess that he went to one or both of the important cities in that kingdom in the first century. Most likely he was in Petra the Nabataean capital, but he may have also traveled to the most southern city of Madain Saleh, which is now in Saudi Arabia. Both were cities carved out of sandstone, which have survived through the centuries, today favored by archeologists and world travelers.

Our knowledge of the history of the Nabataeans does not go back very far because they left few written documents, but their magnificent cities carved out of stone are a lasting testimony to their artistic creativity and prosperity. Written records, from other sources, of their story in history date from the mid-third century prior to the birth of Jesus. We even have different pictures of them. One is that they “…were an uncommonly energetic and successful nomadic people.” [Bowersock, Roman Arabia, page 16] Another description was that they were a “sedentary people…given to the acquisition of possessions.” [Bowersock, Roman Arabia, page 16] Maps of the Near East showing kingdoms and nations at the time of the birth of Christ, show the Nabataean Kingdom and that huge desert following various trade routes used by its traders. [NOTE: A suitable map will be helpful here.]

Paul lived at a time when the Nabataean kingdom was seeking to expand it’s territory—probably to have better control over its trade routes. It’s capital was Petra. Called a “rock-bound city” it was located in the cavernous mountains southeast of the Dead Sea. It was an almost impregnable fortress-like city fortunately supplied with a constant stream of water—engineered through a series of manmade aqueducts. There have been many archeological excavations of various Nabataean cities which have “…brought to light a prosperous civilization in that territory which was at its peak by the time of Paul’s visit.” [Betz, Galatians, p. 73] The ancient city of Petra is the most popular tourist attraction in Jordan today.

Paul’s mention of going to Arabia meant he traveled south to the Kingdom of the Nabataeans. In the face an ever-expanding Roman Empire, with Pompey’s army, Judea was conquered by Rome in 63BCE. That army, though, never made it to Petra, and the Nabataeans enjoyed a rare kind of relationship with Roman rule in the century before Paul wandered into its territory to contemplate and understand his revelation of Jesus. He actually may have spent less time trying to understand his revelation, and more time starting his ministry as Apostle to the Gentiles.

It is an intriguing story involving some of those known to us from the gospels including John the Baptist and King Herod. Julius Caesar along with Anthony and Cleopatra play a part as well. For some reason Paul had to escape from arrest in Damascus when it was under the control of the Nabataean king Aretas IV. Putting all these people together in a continuous story requires attention to the political history in the century before Paul was born.

When Alexander the Great died (323 BCE) his kingdom was broken up into various power blocks. All of Mesopotamia in the East and then extending west to Syria composed the Selucid dynasty. That dynasty finally dissolved when Pompey (the Roman General) turned Syria into a Roman province in 63BCE. Horsely called Pompey’s easy victory in conquering Palestine a “….major step in this new phrase of Roman expansion” with Pompey boasting that he had “liberated the cities of Palestine.” [Horsley, “Jesus and Empire” p. 78 in Horsley, The Shadow of Empire.]

The Selucid dynasty is important to our story because of a failed attempt of Antiochus Dionysus (87-84BCE) who attacked the Nabataeans. Through all the years of the Selucid dynasty they had never been attacked. It had remained an independent kingdom. Not only was the army of Antiochus defeated but the Selucid dynasty also lost Damascus, thus giving to the Nabataeans for about fifteen years complete control of their trade routes from the Persian Gulf all the way to the north to Damascus. The Nabataean’s lost control of Damascus when Pompey’s army finally put an end to the Selucid dynasty, but it was clear they never forgot its importance.

With Roman control of Judea and Syria we encounter one of the key figures in this dramatic story who was just a child when Judea was conquered by Rome. His father was Antipater the Idumaean[2] who had been placed in charge of Judea by Pompey. He had then given Galilee to his son Herod. The shifting politics of the middle east were in great flux in that time.

In 40 BCE the Parthians attacked Jerusalem and Herod fled to Rome, where he was a friend of Anthony. The senate named Herod King of the Jews, and provided him an army as the Romans wanted to maintain control over Judea. Three years later, at the age of 37, Herod was the unquestioned ruler of the land.

The assassination of Julius Caesar took place shortly after Herod was named King of Judea. In Rome a civil war was about to erupt primarily pitting Mark Anthony against the adopted son of Julius Caesar, whose name was Octavian. The eruption of that civil war (lasting about ten years) involved the armies of Anthony and Octavian. No one in power anywhere in the Roman Empire could remain neutral. Herod sided with Anthony because he owed his title to Anthony. It was the wrong side to choose, but ultimately not fatal to him.

Octavian defeated Anthony[3] putting an end to the civil war that divided Rome. Anthony committed suicide in Egypt in 30 BCE. We can’t forget that Anthony had a son by Cleopatra, an affair deeply disturbing to most people in Rome. Would her son, an Egyptian come to rule Rome? With Anthony gone Cleopatra knew all was lost. She died by her own hand with the help of a poisonous snake, or so the story goes.

Having backed Anthony the future for Herod was in doubt, but he was skillful as a diplomat, and ready to switch sides. Herod won favor with Octavian. He even received as a gift 400 Galatian soldiers who had formerly protected Cleopatra. [Josephus, Anitquities, AJ, XV, 217] He remained King of the Jews.

We know Herod, especially from Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus as the ruler who was terribly suspicious and afraid for the child born in Bethlehem when the Magi visited him. (Matthew 2:1-1) There’s no secondary confirmation for that story from another source but the historical record is that Herod’s entire reign was ugly and oppressive. Few were sorry to see him die—even though they had to wait a very long time.

Herod’s rule was remembered for its harsh brutality and onerous taxes. Though he claimed to be a Jew they also knew about the many ways he violated Jewish customs and laws. He may have called himself “King of the Jews,” but he never held the affection of many Jews, whether in Jerusalem or Judea. Upon his death in 4 CE, there were riots throughout the land along with many voices crying out for freedom from Roman rule. The next 70 years were marked by this unrest—rebellious actions and voices that finally brought the might of Rome to destroy Jerusalem and its sacred temple in 70 CE.

Emperor Augustus (formerly Octavain) followed the directions in Herod’s will that his three sons would rule over different parts of the Jewish kingdom. Herod Archelaus ruled over Judea, Samaria, and Idumea. Because of his incompetence his rule didn’t last long. Augustus replaced him with a Roman prefect—an appointed Roman official, namely Pilate. Another son of Herod was Philip who became tetrarch over the territories to the east of the Jordon River and he had control over Damascus.

It is the third son that concerns us. His name was Herod Antipas. He was tetrarch of Galillee[4]. It may not have seemed a significant piece of territory, but it was along the major trade routes which extended up to Damascus. (Southern Syria in our maps today.) Roman armies were stationed in Syria, Judea, Gallilee, and just to the east in parts of modern day Jordon.

To the south was the Nabataean kingdom ruled at this time by King Aretas IV. Their caravans still traveled with goods through the inhospitable desert of the Arabian peninsula, most likely stopping in Madain Saleh and then Petra on their way north to Damascus always passing through Galilee over which Herod Antipas ruled.

The peaceful King Aretas IV was a wise and skillful diplomat who wasn’t above allowing an arranged marriage to preserve the all important trade routes that his caravans traveled. Most likely during the second decade of the first century King Aretas IV permitted his daughter Phasaelis to marry Herod Antipas. Marrying his daughter to Herod Antipas provided a diplomatically valuable tie for the Nabataean caravans to travel north safely. But the marriage didn’t last, and the diplomatic ties were severed. This is where John the Baptist comes into the story.

The daughter of King Aretas IV would unfortunately only be the first wife of Antipas. The details around his second marriage are equal to any of the tales being told in today’s tabloids. We can thank Josephus and the Gospel accounts in Mark, Matthew and Luke for this part of the story. (Mark 6:14-29; Matthew 14:1-12; Luke 9:7-9) Josephus, in particular, seemed to relish the telling of what eventually was the downfall of Antipas. We need to begin with the failure of the marriage to the daughter of Aretas IV. It happened around the year 27 BCE.[5] The account that follows came from Josephus.

About this time Aretas [the king of Arabia Petres] and Herod had a quarrel on the account following: Herod the tetrarch had, married the daughter of Aretas, and had lived with her a great while; but when he was once at Rome, he lodged with Herod, who was his brother indeed, but not by the same mother; for this Herod was the son of the high priest Sireoh’s daughter. However, he fell in love with Herodias, this last Herod’s wife, who was the daughter of Aristobulus their brother, and the sister of Agrippa the Great. This man ventured to talk to her about a marriage between them; which address, when she admitted, an agreement was made for her to change her habitation, and come to him as soon as he should return from Rome: one stipulation of this  proposed marriage was  that he should divorce Aretas’s daughter. [Antiquities, AJ, 18.109-112]

Word of the intentions of Antipas to divorce Phaeselis came to her while Antipas was still in Rome. To stay in Judea would give Antipas opportunity to have her murdered. In the words of Campbell, “…she was the unfortunate party thrown over so that Antipas could marry Herodias…” [Campbell, An Anchor for Paul’s Chronology, p. 288] Several generals, supposedly, connected to Aretas helped her escape back to the safe custody of her father in Petra. He was understandably incensed at this turn of events, which from any middle-eastern point of view was considered outrageous and immoral—it was a matter of honor as well. He would have to strike back, but would wait for the right opportunity to enact revenge. Aretas threatened to go to war and resolved to seek the defeat of Antipas, but waited for the optimal time to avenge this public insult. Bowersock says that Aretas was “enraged.” [Bowersock. P. 65]

We can presume that Aretas never met John the Baptist, but he most likely heard about this prophet who had dared to expose Antipas. He probably didn’t care that the prophet was decapitated, but he had to be pleased that Antipas had been publicly embarrassed by him. It was the kind of accusation Antipas had to take seriously as it could lead to more unrest among a people easily motivated to rebel. It is generally presumed that John the Baptist was imprisoned in 27ce and murdered the following year..

Death always plays such a critical role in this narrative. Two deaths occurred which gave Aretas a window of opportunity to strike against Antipas. The first death took place in 33ce when the appointed governor of Syria (which included Damascus) died. Then, a year later, Philip, Tetrach of the Decapolis died. This was the moment Aretas choose for his revenge. It would be another year before Rome would send A. Vittellius to govern Syria, but when Vittellius arrived from Rome he choose to take up residence in Antioch, and not Damascus.

Aretas went to war with Antipas in late 36ce and won a stunning victory. Vitellius, the Roman General, who had taken his Roman armies from Antioch was watching from further to the East (the Euphrates region) and didn’t intervene. Campbell said that Vitellius, “…was personally affronted by Antipas and hence doubtless delighted to see him humiliated.” [Campbell, Anchor for Pauline Chronology, p. 294] The people of Galilee were also thrilled to see him defeated.

This conflict involved far more than issues of family honor, as there seemed to be some “naked territorial ambitions” [Campbell, Anchor, p. 289] at work in this as well. For a brief time following his victory Aretas controlled Damascus. Once more the Nabataeans controlled all of the overland junctions from the southern Arabian peninsular all the way to the treasured northernmost city. It all had to do with trade and tariffs. The Nabataeans, now more urban and settled in their life style, probably also treasured the agricultural opportunities near Damascus. But it wouldn’t last.

The Emperor Tiberius died in 37CE shortly after Antipas had been defeated. Things changed quickly for the Nabataean control of Damascus and the surrounding territory. The new emperor Gaius gave to his friend Agrippa the territory around Judea up to Syria. Agrippa was the grandson of Herod the Great and had been educated in Rome. Even though the details in the history of this event are sketchy at best, it seems that Aretas simply withdrew his forces from Syria and Damascus, rather than risk a war with a Roman army sent to defeat him. He probably left in the Spring of 37.

We can now see Paul’s place in this story. He was probably already living in Damascus during that brief interlude when Aretas and the Nabataeans took control of this important city. Most likely they governed the city, and perhaps the adjacent territory called the Decapolis for the later part of 36ce. The window of time we are discussing might even have been as small as six months.

The significant difference between the two stories of Paul’s escape from Damascus regards the matter of who wanted to arrest him. The account in Acts accused “the Jews” of seeking to kill or arrest Paul, but Paul, in 2 Corinthians 11:32, said it was the Nabataean ethnarch of Damascus seeking his arrest. Paul did not tell us when this happened, but in this single verse, we find the clue need to date Paul in one year in the first century.

In Galatians Paul reported that he returned from Arabia and settled in Damascus. (Gal. 1:17) Paul’s trip to Arabia wasn’t that of a tourist, for he lived there long enough that to become a marked man there! The mystery becomes a little deeper.

Why Did the Nabataeans Want to Arrest Paul?

As we put the pieces of this puzzle together we need to remember Paul’s story of God’s call to him was to be the Apostle to the Gentiles.

But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. (Gal. 1:15-17)

There is so much we don’t know about Paul, but there are clues in what he did tell us. His revelation led him to travel—“I went away at once”—and he became a missionary whose “eyes were on the distant frontier beyond which the gospel had not yet penetrated.” [Knox, Chapters in a Life, p. 89] He didn’t have a crystal ball to see into the future, but he certainly had a powerful “revelation” (apocalypse in Greek) which gave him a passport to become the apostle to the Gentiles. Paul spoke of this call as the time God “was pleased to reveal (apocalypse) his Son to me.” That had come unexpectedly out of the blue. Paul connected that event to a new purpose and direction which shaped the rest of his life. The quote of McIntyre, at the beginning of this chapter, about the unpredictable events that have a teleological character to them seems to encapsulate Paul’s story.

We are left with a question about the length of time that Paul was in Arabia. In the brief passage from Galatians he said “afterwards I returned to Damascus.” It is the next verse that is intriguing. “Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days.” Even though Paul mentions a three-year span of time following God’s revelation we can only guess at the amount of time Paul spent in Arabia. What is probable is that Paul was waiting on purpose for the right time to visit Jerusalem where he was sure to encounter one or more of the disciples of Jesus.

Even Acts acknowledges that such a visit would be questioned by the disciples. Acts framed Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem happening shortly after his conversion on the road to Damascus. According to Acts 9 Paul was preaching and stirring up trouble in the synagogues of Damascus within days of meeting Jesus. Acts even says “Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.” (Acts 9:22) Acts then describes Paul in Jerusalem, but emphasizes the lack of hospitality. Paul was unable to meet with the disciples who “were all afraid of him.” How different Paul’s account is with the added detail that he stayed in Peter’s house and also visited with James, the Lord’s brother. (Gal. 1;18-19)

The differences between Paul’s accounts of these events and the way they were framed in Acts continue to muddy the waters of this story, but only if we start to think that the author of Acts knew more than Paul did. When Paul said that he went to Jerusalem after three years, what he failed to mention (in Galatians) was that he left Damascus in a basket as he escaped arrest. What he told the Corinthians about his escape, which included the mention of King Aretas, offered the clue for the year in which this happened. What he didn’t tell the Corinthians was that he headed off for a short visit with Peter in Jerusalem. The pieces of this puzzle really fit together. Like any storyteller Paul only shared various facts that were relevant to the particular point he was trying to make. His letters to the Galatians and the Corinthians had few similarities and thus we have to allow for some of these differences to exist.

A few scholars have wondered about Paul’s reference to the three year period which began his ministry. The New Testament scholar J. Louis Martyns noted that Paul “,…speaks of a retreat from human community.” [Martyn, Galatians, p. 159] Martyn called it the “motif of the loner” already mentioned in reference to the gospel that he received which didn’t come from a human source. (Ga. 1:12) If Paul really was retreating from human community, then why would he go to Arabia? Martyn makes no reference in his commentary about this detail, but it is a matter we need to consider. At the same time it is hard to imagine Paul as a “loner.”

Another commentary on Galatians also mentions that Arabia symbolized a kind of retreat for Paul, allowing him time for meditation and preparation for a life of missionary activity. [Cousar, Galatians, p. 27] I remember one preacher suggesting that Paul went to seminary in Arabia, so that for a few years no one would hear from him or about him. That’s all pure speculation as seminaries didn’t exist then.

We can only speculate about what really happened with Paul in Arabia. As one scholar notes all we really have to work with regarding his time in Arabia is Paul’s silence. [Betz, Galatians, p. 74]. Even so he was there long enough to get noticed. He said or did things that brought him to the attention of the ruling authorities who were prepared to arrest him when they controlled Damascus. I agree with Hengel that Paul’s stay in Arabia may have consumed more of those three years simply because “…missionary activity takes time.” [Hengel, Paul in Arabia, p. 65] It also takes time for a community to be formed and develop a common life. If only we had a letter from Paul back to the community of Jesus Messiah people in Petra!

One thing quite clear about Paul’s ministry is that there were few neutral observers. His co-workers were faithful and very supportive, but there were others who had strong disagreements with him. He also didn’t end up in prison, later in his ministry, for example, because he was caught jay-walking in Ephesus. He even started out by persecuting the Jesus Messiah people seeking their arrest. Paul was no milk-toast kind of person. Is it not conceivable that he went to Arabia and there offended some people by his preaching about Jesus Messiah? Something happened that made him a marked man, a designation still in effect when the Nabataeans took control of Damascus.

Paul’s Ministry in Arabia

Most of Paul’s ministry would take him toward the west, but his choice of Arabia stands out because he traveled south to find the Kingdom of the Nabataeans. It is important to note they were the Judea’s closest neighbors speaking a semitic language (i.e. Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic). He certainly had to know there would be some Jewish synagogues there. According to Jospehus there wasn’t “…a single nation to which our customs have not spread.” [Ehrensberger, Paul at the Crossroads of Culture, p. 127] There are some other details specifically about the Nabataeans that may have made it easier for Paul to share his message about Jesus the Messiah.

While they spoke an Arab dialect it is reported that they corresponded in Aramaic. [Hengel, Paul in Arabia, 49] What’s critical to this analysis is that they honored Abraham and practiced circumcision. There was also a treasured holy mountain in their kingdom which Paul identified when discussing the heirs of Abraham in Galatians. Paul mentioned that Hagar came from Mount Sinai in Arabia. (Gal. 4.24-25; Paul’s second mention of Arabia in this letter.) Paul, the Jew, didn’t locate Mount Sinai in southern Egypt, its traditional location, but in Arabia. Near to Paul’s identification of this mountain was the Nabatean city Hegra, a name connecting it to Hagar in the Abraham story.

By coming to Arabia Paul did not have to learn a totally new language. Hengel insisted that Paul would have found synagogues in Petra and Hegra, though none have been discovered. [Hengel, 59] Typically there were gentiles called “God-fearers” who attended synagogues as well.

Even though Paul’s letters come much later I would be surprised if Paul said it took him a long time to figure out his message about Jesus. It seems that from the very beginning he had a specific missionary strategy. There was Paul’s comment in Romans 15:20 that his plan had always been to preach the gospel where no one else had been. By his own admission, until his call, he had been persecuting followers of Jesus. Maybe he knew that none of those Jesus people were living in Arabia, but they clearly were to be found in Galilee, Judea, Jerusalem, and Damascus.

Another clue worth considering with regard to the Nabataeans is the importance that Abraham played in Paul’s understanding of his mission to the gentile world. It almost seems as if Paul decided to follow Abraham with his new life in Christ. “Like Abraham, God’s call of Paul resulted in his living an itinerant life among people who were not his kin.” [Eisenbaum, Paul was not a Christian, p. 174] We know from Galatians and Romans that Paul used the story of Abraham as the frame that placed all gentiles inside of God’s story.

Hengel noted other factors that made Paul’s first missionary journey possible. First of all he wasn’t married with a family to support. There has been much speculation about this aspect of Paul, and it will be considered in more detail with the discussion of his relationship with women. There are scholars who deny that Paul was able to speak Aramaic but Hengel is certain that he could. Paul nearly always called Peter by his Aramaic name “Cephas” and expected Jesus people to know a few Aramaic terms like “Abba” and “Maranatha.” That Paul also went to Syria, where there were some Aramaic communities, adds to this possibility. Lastly he had a trade and could support himself. More importantly that trade may have been his entry into relationships with others engaged in the same work wherever he went. Concerning Paul’s relationship with the Jesus community in Thessalonica, Ascouth believes that “…Paul and the Thessalonians worked at the same trade or trades within the same general area.” [Ascouth, Paul’s Macedonian Associations, p. 174]

The similarity of Paul’s ministry in Thessalonians and his first community in Arabia may have been that both experienced persecution. It’s clear that was the case in Thessalonica because we have Paul’s letter. We can only wonder what happened for Paul to be remembered by the Nabataean authorities, but clearly he’d caused some kind of trouble.

What is hard for us to conceive when we have the freedom to practice our faith as we choose is the contrast with the first followers of Jesus. They were carving out their common life of faith in contrast to the norms of cultic devotion that defined life in the Roman empire. If they were Jews who believed in Jesus Messiah, it meant being a particular sect within first century Judaism. At least as Jews they had some rights to practice their faith under some permissive Roman laws allowing them a degree of religious freedom. That wasn’t the case for the gentile followers of Jesus.

In reference to Paul’s letter to the Philippians the scholar Pheme Perkins reminds us that conversion meant withdrawing from participation in the public events of the imperial cult. It meant that “….they would easily be suspected of subversive activity.” [Perkins, “The Theology of Philippians,” Pauline Theology Vol. 1, p. 93]

We can never know exactly what Paul was preaching when he was in Arabia, but his other letters let us see the clarity of his message. A Jewish messiah had been crucified, raised from the dead, and would return to judge the world. In Arabia he might have said “…so you see, those who believe are descendants of Abraham”. (Gal. 3:7) That seems likely. It was part of Paul’s message as he envisioned communities shattering the barriers that kept people apart from each other. Such mixed communities (Jew and Arab united in Jesus?) may have seemed to King Aretas IV to mark Paul as a “dangerous political enthusiast.” [Hengel, Paul in Arabia, p. 65] Hengel thought that King Aretas may have notified his ethnarch to seek Paul’s arrest: “…the ambitious and suspicious ruler eventually became alert to the unpleasant workings of this strange messianic Jew and notified his ethnarch in Damascus to capture this notorious troublemaker.” [Hengel, Paul in Arabia, p.53.]

Whenever Paul left Arabia and journeyed back north, eventually arriving in Damascus, his reputation went with him. Little could Paul know that the Nabataean army would follow him. Based on his original revelation Paul had to know that there were Jesus people in Damascus. He probably returned to them sometime prior to the arrival of the army of King Aretas IV.

Paul had to be surprised to wake up one morning and see Nabataen soldiers guarding the city. He thought he was safe, but knew of the trouble he would find if he ever returned to Arabia, but now the Nabataeans had come to him. In Paul’s own words their intention was to “seize me.” (2 Cor. 11:33). He just didn’t make a very bold, courageous or glamorous escape.

A Possible Chronology for Paul

This discussion has been based on my research reading the Pauline scholars who have studied Paul’s place in history. John Knox did the seminal work on this topic with publications starting in 1936. Thirty one years later he published a revision of his earlier book Chapters in a Life of Paul. Important work on this topic was done by Gerd Luedemann in Paul. Apostle to the Gentiles: Studies in Chronology (1984). Two more recent, and most helpful books are New Chapters in the Life of Paul: The Relative Chronology of His Career (2006) by Gregory Tatum and Framing Paul: An Epistolary Biography (2014) by Douglas Campbell.

Unlike envelopes stamped with a date by the post office, or the date we place at the top of a letter, none of Paul’s letters have a certifiable date. With a clue to follow from 2 Corinthians and with the help of various Biblical scholars along with those studying ancient history prior to Christ, we are able to place Paul in Damascus sometime around late 36 CE or maybe early in 37 CE.

What amazed me is that Paul was called to know Jesus as Messiah within a few years of the crucifixion. There is another problem, however. Scholars are not certain about the year in which Jesus was crucified. The suggested probable, but not provable dates are either 27 or 30 c.e. If we take the latter as the date (which is just a guess) Paul’s commission to preach Jesus as Messiah came perhaps within three years of the crucifixion. Even if we can’t be certain about the date, we know Paul spent time with his disciples. What follows is a rough chronology that combines the work of a few scholars.

Prior to 34 CE:               Paul’s previous life as a Pharisee

Early/mid 34                   Apostolic commission

Early 34- mid 36            Activity in the region of Damascus

Activity in “Arabia”

Return to Damascus

Late 36                           Escape from Damascus

First visit to Jerusalem, 2.x years after commission

37:                                  Activity in Syria and Cilicia

…second visit to Corinth…

39                                   “Paul’s independent mission in Europe: Philippi, Thessalonica”

41                                   “Edict of Claudius concerning the Jews”

Paul in Corinth: 1 Thessalonians

2 Thessalonians

Late 49/early 50              Antioch incident

Second visit to Jerusalem, 13.x years after first

Late 50:                          [Previous Letter to Corinth]/ activity in Asia

[Corinthian reply]

51                                   1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians

                                       Third visit to Corinth

[Previous letter to Philippi], Galatians, Philippians

Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians

52                                   Romans

                                       Third visit to Jerusalem

This is only a suggested chronology based on the work of Knox and Campbell. I have taken the liberty of including 10 letters that Paul wrote, but that matter is contested within the academy of Pauline scholars. (This is discussed in “Paul the Letter Writer,” Chapter 7)

This chronology depends on this rather long and convoluted story I’ve told. Our focus was on King Aretas IV, the Nabotaean king, who held the territory of Damascus for a very short time. It is a provable date. The rest of the dates in the chronology above rely on the autobiographical comments in Paul’s letters, and the various statements about previous letters, as well as past and potential visits that can be discovered in the letters themselves. At no point does this frame for Paul’s ministry rely on Acts, except for its mention of the basket used for the escape.

A Smelly Basket

Finally, what about that basket? It had to have been well-constructed and sturdy enough to hold a grown man. It most likely had some large handles from which ropes were attached. Maybe three or four of Paul’s friends came to help him. We can only speculate, but it’s possible one of them said to the others. “At least he’s not a big man. I think he’ll fit in the basket. Let’s hope the basket or the handles don’t break.” The handles didn’t break because Paul survived. But what kind of basket was it?

The two accounts differ with regard to the words used for “basket.” In Acts the Greek word is spuris (Acts. 9:25) which was a round basket used “…for storing grain or provisions.” [Zodhiates, ed. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament, p. 1308]. Paul in Corinthians used a different word for the basket: sargánē. It’s means “fish basket.” “The σαργάνη [sargánē.] was a plaited or braided basket, primarily used for fish. Fish names were popular in comedy and mime, especially as terms of abuse.” [Welborn: The Runaway Paul, p. 158] Paul might have been telling the Corinthians, “I can still smell that basket to this day.”

Based on Paul’s account in Galatians when he left Damascus, and it most likely was in that basket, he headed off for a fifteen day visit with Peter in Jerusalem. I can imagine Paul telling him about the basket, the sargánē, and Peter saying, “Just like we used in the Sea of Galillee, when Jesus called us to follow him! I will never forget that smell, either.”

What is left unsaid, but which had to be apparent to the Corinthian followers of Jesus who read this letter of Paul were the contrasting images and impressions of this apostle. The one who had preached so boldly of his faith in Jesus seemingly lost his nerve and left Damascus in an inglorious almost shameful way. Crunched up in a fish-smelling basket in the dead of night he was lowered down to the ground, and ran away toward Jerusalem. Why would he even admit to such a cowardly escape into the darkness of that night? He had to know that in telling this story to the Corinthian community that some would be laughing at this picture of a St. Paul who smelled like dead fish.

That basket story isn’t the only picture we have of Paul as a failure, though. He often talked about his weaknesses and clearly admitted that there was “something laughable in him.” [Welborn, Fool for Christ, p. 110] This is the Paul who said that he bore in his body the marks of the cross. In this one snippet of a larger story he admitted to being afraid and having run away from an arrest. It seems so unmanly and about as far away as you can get from a man who proudly stands his own ground and fights for what he believes is right. But the picture of weakness, which Paul saw in his own mirror, is what allowed him to stay faithful to Jesus. It’s just as much a challenge to us to accept this truth about Paul, as it was for those to whom he was writing, which will be come clearer in the chapter on Paul as a fool.

Footnotes to Chapter 1 “PAUL IN ARABIA”

[2] A curious detail, but not one central to this argument, is that Antipater was married to Doris, a Nabataean. [Hengel, Paul in Arabia, 48]

[3] The Battle of Actium in 31bce, a naval engagement, was the decisive battle in which Octavian defeated Anthony, and became Emperor over all the Roman Empire.

[4] In some historical accounts he is known as Herod the Tetrarch

[5] Note that in this account by Josephus his reference to Herod, is to Herod Antipas, son of King Herod

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Introduction: Meeting the St. Paul You Never Thought You’d Meet

Meeting the St. Paul You Never Thought You’d Meet

I welcome feedback, editorial suggestions, and questions. I’m going public with my chapters as they evolve in the proper order. I’m am also seeking a major publisher who will publish this book. Let me know what you think using the comments part of this website. George

Chapter 1


“Because of the entrenched nature of the traditional paradigm, it is very difficult to see Paul with a new set of eyes.” Pamela Eisenbaum, Paul was not a Christian, p. 216

“Jesus, yes; Paul, never!”    Richard Rubenstein, My Brother Paul, 1972

Telling people that I was writing a book about St. Paul would occasionally evoke “Who cares?” More often than not, I’d hear, “I just don’t like Paul.” There was a third category of responses, and it was the one that brought me to this topic, “I just can never understand Paul.”

It seems that many accounts regarding St. Paul begin with these negative assessments. Consider the title of a recent book by Karen Armstrong “St. Paul: The Apostle we Love to Hate.” Her intent in writing wasn’t to lead her readers to draw further away from Paul, but it seems implied in that title. There’s a book by J. R. Kirk with the title, “Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?: A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Paul.” Kirk’s “problem with Paul” became the main topic of another recent book “Paul as a Problem in History and Culture: The Apostle and His Critics through the Centuries.” [Patrick Gray] I’m not alone in this pursuit of Paul, except that I find myself to be far less critical. I actually like Paul, and hope that is conveyed in this book.

This book is different. I want my readers to have a number of reasons to admire and appreciate St. Paul based simply on his own letters. Clearing up every question regarding him is beyond the scope of this book, but once we realize how many stories he was telling and living there are good reasons to admire and respect him. I think there’s a way to read the letters of Paul that is more like listening to another friend tell us a story. We listen with sympathetic ears and are eager to know more.

What if the story of St. Paul hasn’t been told correctly? What if we’ve been given the wrong picture of this “least of the apostles”? (1 Cor. 15:9) Those are some of the questions addressed in this book. The Paul I have found, through his own writings, may not always be likeable, but he has emerged in my eyes as one of the most fascinating men to have ever lived. I would love to have him come to my house for dinner. The conversation could last long into the night or longer if I could get him to stay. Having studied Paul so intently for a number of years I realize there are so many things we don’t know because our reliable sources for him are so limited. In this book I acknowledge issues with our sources, but I continue to maintain that the lost identity of Paul is revealed, often overtly and sometime covertly in his letters.

The difficult challenge in this book is the picture of Paul coming from the Acts of the Apostles, which is the second half of the gospel of Luke. For almost two thousand years, when preachers and biblical scholars have wanted to share something about Paul, in biographical terms, they nearly always begin with Acts for most details regarding Paul’s story. There we find the dramatic account of his call to follow Jesus when Paul was on the road to Damascus. He was going to Damascus to continue his persecution of followers of Jesus. The same story, with a few variations, is actually told three times in Acts. Ever since this is the story most Christians tell. Paul who had been the one persecuting followers of Jesus suddenly and dramatically became a “Christian.”[1]

In the first account of Paul meeting Jesus the author of Acts used his previous name Saul—clearly a Jewish name. Four chapters later, without explaining anything about the reasons for the change, the author of Acts simply reports that Saul was also called Paul. (Acts 13:9) That becomes the name used for the rest of his account. The dominant narrative line continuing through the last half of Acts, where Paul is the focus, is that he was continually attacked by “the Jews.” The author left Paul’s old name behind. It’s as if he had stopped being Jewish. These early threads of anti-Semitism are the precursors to what became a clear separation between Jews and Christians in the centuries after Paul. Much was forgotten about the Judaism that belonged to both Jesus and Paul. A contemporary Pauline scholar, N.T. Wright, reminds us, “Paul remained a stubbornly and intentionally a deeply Jewish thinker.” [Wright, Faithfulness of God, p. 1408] That’s news to many Christians! It seems it might even have been news to the author of Acts, though he was thoroughly familiar with Jewish ways and stories.

My goal is to introduce you to the Paul found outside of Acts. I’m relying, for the most part, on seven of the letters that nearly all scholars can agree came from his hand. One of the challenges regards what to do with the other six letters[2] that purportedly came from him? That question needs to be addressed because in most of these six outlier letters there is some biographical information about its author that may help or hinder getting a clearer view of Paul. Actually at least four of the questionable letters (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, and 2 Thessalonians) may offer erroneous and even contrary information about Paul. A more conventional institutionalized Paul seems to emerge from these four letters that were perhaps composed some 30 to 50 years after he died.

The main focus on my work is to introduce my readers to some surprising, intriguing, and admirable aspects of Paul’s story. My methodology is to rely mainly on what Paul wrote in his letters. Any other external information that can confirm or substantiate something Paul said will be helpful to this enterprise. Acts at times is exactly a source that confirms some data found in one of Paul’s letters. The other side of this process is the premise that any stories or facts that contravene something Paul said must be treated with great suspicion.

As I’ve already indicated Acts usually is the frame for what most people know as Paul’s story. My intent isn’t to trash Acts or to have it removed from the New Testament canon. We can bring historical criticism to this account and still admire the creative narrative handed down to us by the author of Acts, even while questioning its historicity. I would hope the readers of my book appreciate that I am taking Acts as an important account of the emergence of early Christian communities, and that I am treating it in a serious manner. I would wish for the same assessment accorded to an earlier Biblical scholar, John Knox, who questioned the historicity of Acts. It was said of him that he did “…indeed take Acts with the utmost seriousness; instead of assuming its reliability he subjected it to the rigorous cross-examination that is required in good historiography.”[ J.A. Hare, “Introduction” in John Knox, Chapters in a Life of Paul , p. xl]

As an example of the process I am using we need to begin with the fact that there isn’t a single reference in Acts to Paul having written any letters. Not one! By the time Acts was written (probably somewhere between 85 to 120 CE) we can conclude that Paul’s letters were saved and preserved—or at least some of them were. Some disappeared. A few seem imbedded as parts of recognizable letters of Paul. Even at the time he may have put his own letter collections together, and thus they may have been shared and copied within and between communities at least known to Paul. [David Trobisch. Paul’s Letter Collections] Even though Acts ignores important verifiable data regarding Paul’s story the author of Acts was placing Paul on the same footing of importance which he gave to Peter and James. Just a few generations from Jesus himself his early followers had clearly found their heroic figures in the first disciples who lived in Jerusalem, but also in Paul’s story as the “apostle to the gentiles” which was equally treasured. But, at least in Acts, some of the details regarding Paul’s story were ignored, lost, or, perhaps, intentionally distorted. Why, for example, did Acts make so much of Paul being a Roman citizen?

In Acts we are told that Paul was from Tarsus (in Syria), brought up in Jerusalem, trained as a Pharisee under Gamaliel (Acts. 22:3) and a few verses later on has Paul claiming he was a Roman citizen. (Acts 22:25) Not once in any of his letters, however, did Paul claim to be a citizen or from Tarsus. We have some indications from a few of his letters about his ministry in Syria, however, and thus it could be that he was from Syria. There is no collaborative evidence from other sources, though, and this must, consequently, be one of those unanswerable questions. The more important question concerns whether or not he was a Roman citizen? This is one claim that cannot be substantiated within the corpus of Paul’s letters!

Letting Paul’s voice be heard, especially as he came to know Jesus as God’s Messiah, leads us to consider that Paul had little respect for the claims of Caesar. It appears that the Romans may have had reasons to raise questions about Paul and the early followers of Jesus. Paul’s frequent arrests make sense as we consider how the new Jesus Messiah communities could have been considered to be seditious in the eyes of some Roman authorities. Some of these clues appear in Paul’s letters when we discover the subversive character of some of his arguments and words of encouragement.

Please don’t think for a second that the Paul to be met in these pages is some kind of dour pipe-smoking theologian tucked away in a book filled office writing systematic theology. The books he had, mainly the stories from Torah and the prophets, were already in his head. He never needed a library as such. His books (i.e Torah, the Psalms and Prophets) were memorized, which is most likely the way some of his letters were carried and treasured. Paul is also more than ideas or facts offered in some logical or systematic arguments. The Paul I’ve encountered in my research is filled with marvelous stories, some of which he tells, and others which are just hinted at in the course of some particular argument or example. Be warned, though, that this isn’t a biography in the traditional sense of that genre.

The book of Acts also could not serve as a source for much of what you’d find in a contemporary biography. Acts didn’t tell us when Paul was born or anything about his parents, or siblings—if he had any brothers or sisters. We know nothing about his death, though we can presume the author of Acts knew the when and how Paul died. That author made a decision, though, to tell a story in which Paul was still alive, albeit under house arrest in Rome when he concluded his account. Obviously this particular author wasn’t writing biography in a form we would recognize. Paul wasn’t writing an autobiography either, but he was clearly telling things about himself and what was happening. It’s just often overlooked. Until now!

The Structure of this Picture of Paul

This book is divided into three main sections. It begins with “Finding the Real Paul.” Even without knowing when he was born some reasonable guesses can be made regarding when Paul met Jesus. It is also possible to offer a rough course of his ministry based on information found in his letters. Paul’s revelation from God that Jesus was the messiah may have happened within three years of the crucifixion. The two were most likely close in age, with Jesus being perhaps a few years older.

This section begins by placing Paul in the context of the history of Judea and the Roman occupying forces known to both Paul and Jesus. Taking one small clue from one of Paul’s letters it’s possible to attach a particular event to a single year in the first century. That is the crucial date for constructing a Pauline chronology.

Finding the real Paul means seeing how he remained a Jew who happened to develop a focus and passion that gentiles must be invited to the story of God that he knew from his days as a child. Once called by God to know Jesus as Messiah the ministry of Paul was to offer pagans a monotheistic faith more clearly defined through Jesus Christ. Paul did this because he was a storyteller who lived the very story he shared as he founded one new Jesus community after another. Finally this section brings us to the key issue that emerged at least within fifty years of Paul’s death. Paul was somehow institutionalized and made far more respectable than he really was. As the church became more separate from Judaism and eventually hostile to Jews, Paul became less Jewish and more like the first Christian. I call it a case of first century identity theft.

“Paul and Friends” is the title of second set of chapters. Here you’ll find Paul writing to communities of faith and commending a way of living the story of Christ. Each community was to demonstrate to the world what life in Christ was all about. Paul did not go about his ministry on his own. He had various teams of those engaged in ministry with him, and many of its members were women. This gives me a chance to partly right the ship that declares Paul a misogynist. There are some fascinating things to learn about how Paul composed his letters, saved them, and thankfully how they serve two thousand years later to be our source for seeing more of the real Paul. Though always Jewish this Paul lived as a gentile among gentiles[3]. He would just be hard to pick out from the others seeking to survive from one day to the next. Paul comes clearer into view when we realize what it meant that he worked with his hands and had a trade. It was probably something he could never have imagined doing prior to encountering Christ. Bound to the story of Jesus Paul became the “fool” for Christ.

The last section is titled “Inside Paul’s World.” I noted earlier that’s it’s impossible to construct a true biography, but we can read between the lines of Paul’s letters and ask some “wonder questions.” I wonder if Paul had a watch and knew much about the history of his time? I wonder if he paid attention to politics of his day? What was it like for Paul to be in prison and why was he arrested so often? Was Paul really poor and to what extent did his work provide for his daily needs? What about those who seemed to have been patrons who offered housing and sent him gifts? Did Paul have just one spiritual encounter of Jesus? Finally, what about the journey’s of Paul, first to Jerusalem with a collection for the poor and then to Spain, not Rome, as his ultimate goal? There are, at least, some provisional answers to all these questions that can help fill in some of empty spaces in Paul’s story in the context of a world where most struggled for their daily bread. Paul did as well.

Finding the Real Paul: Chapters 1-3

It has already been suggested that the book of Acts is problematic for the task at hand, but all is not lost. The first chapter “Paul in Arabia” places Arabia, where Paul went after his revelation, in the context of the larger history and geography of the first century. The little detail that he went to Arabia has puzzled Biblical scholars, but it connects in a fascinating way to the story of Paul escaping from Damascus in a basket one night. It’s an event he mentioned in 2 Corinthians, and it was also told with different details in Acts. The many pieces to this puzzle can actually provide us the date for a particular year when we can locate Paul. That year, in turn, allows for construction of a chronology for Paul’s ministry based mostly on his letters. This chapter also places Paul in the same critical and dangerous time, under vicious and pervasive Roman domination, that led Jesus to be crucified. The Roman army played a critical, but curious, role in the events that led Paul to escape Damascus and when he, subsequently, made his first visit to Jerusalem.

Once more when turning to Acts and we find a number of accounts of Paul visiting the leaders of the Jesus community there—in particular Peter and James, the brother of Jesus. Acts has Paul making more visits to Jerusalem than can be accounted for from Paul’s letters, but that is a minor detail. More important to this enterprise is an understanding of the kind of relationship Paul had with the disciples who were identified as Apostles by the author of Acts. Never did that author credit Paul with the title “apostle.” Yet Paul called himself Apostle of the Gentiles in a number of places in his letters. Paul, on the other hand, never used the word “disciple.” Mysteries abound!

“Paul Apostle to the Gentiles” (Chapter 2) focuses on Paul’s Jewish identity. Pamela Eisenbaum’s book “Paul was Never a Christian” sets the stage for this chapter. Paul was a Jew reaching out to Gentiles, but not to make them Jews within the concept of ethnicity. One issue of consequence in this chapter is that no one in any of the communities founded by Paul would have ever called themselves a “gentile.” “Gentile” was a category created by Jews who defined all others as gentiles, which essentially meant “not Jews.” Paul, uniquely, saw these others in a whole different light, not because he had some early ethic of “tolerance” towards all, but precisely because in Judaism he knew the stories of Abraham and some key prophetic visions regarding the gentile nations. Paul is the Jew who lives as a Gentile, and welcomes all people to know themselves to be located in the Jewish story. Paul may even have conceived his ministry as Abrahamic.

In “Paul the Storyteller” (Chapter 3) you will not so much find a Paul who tells stories about Jesus, but rather a man committed to living the story of Christ. Paul will even go so far as to say that it is Christ who lives in him. Such audacious claims were made knowing they came with a price, and it was a price Paul was willing to pay, even with death, if need be.

I will also be exploring the possibility of telling Paul’s story in light of another detail found only in Acts, where we learn that Paul’s previous name was Saul. Never once in any of his letters, however, did Paul admit to having any previous name. In his letters it’s always Paulus[4] but in the letter to Philippians he discussed his rather creditable and noble Jewish heritage, which included coming from the tribe of Benjamin. (Philippians 3:5) The traditional understanding of most biblical scholars has been that Paul was given two names at his birth: Saulus Paulus. (Two names: one Hebraic, the other Latin). The account in Acts seems to imply this. I will suggest another theory, namely, that upon discovering Jesus as God’s messiah he gave up the name “Saulus.” I was a simple letter change to become “Paulus,” a name that in Latin meant small. I’m proposing it gives us a window into the real story Paul was telling as a follower of Jesus Messiah.

From a small Paul to a tall Paul is the story in “Paul a Victim of Identity Theft.” (Chapter 3) Here I am asking serious questions regarding Paul’s status in the first century as he traveled along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean sea, and then headed west into Macedonia, eventually after some detours, heading to Spain, intending only to spend some rest time in Rome. Was he really a “Roman citizen” as tradition tells us? Or would we have a hard time recognizing him amongst the multitude of common people struggling on a day-to day basis? Here is the discussion about the history of “fighting over Paul’s legacy” that has marked Pauline scholarship beginning in the 2nd century. We will not encounter Paul the professor of theology, but Paul the founder of nascent communities of followers of Jesus, carving out a common life with each other, needing the counsel of Paul and members of his team, and most importantly his incarnated example of living “in Christ.” In this same chapter I will introduce you to what has been called the “New Perspective on Paul,” and then unpacking the letter to the Galatians leading to what I call Paul’s unexpected identity—that which was lost to our sight for so long.

All of this focus on the identity of one person, namely Paul, is actually contrary to something that is so clear in his letters. Even though he uses his own story, and does that in a variety of ways, his continual focus was always on the life and unity of the communities of those living the Jesus story. The very idea of someone all alone in the world, who reads the scriptures, and who decides they are a Christian, would leave Paul shaking his head and asking, “How can that be?” In Paul’s world there was only one way to follow Jesus, and that was in the company of others committed to the same Lord, and the same shared life of mutual support. If you were to ask Paul, “How can I be in Christ?” He’d tell you “only with others in Christ!” What was one of the most important noun-phrases in all of Paul’s letters? It’s “one another” or as Bridgett Kahl spells it “one an-other,” with the emphasis being on living with those we once thought of as “other.” This is the profound theme in pulling together all of the chapters in the next section.

Paul and Friends: Chapters 4-7

The next step in discovering Paul involves an emphasis on those who worked alongside of him, and who took his message (his letters) to others. There was a constant flow of information and stories in Paul’s world. To be sure there was no CNN reporting on TV to the whole world what just happened. Yet news of events did travel those Roman roads, and was carried on the ships transporting goods. Most important of all were the people who carried the news and stories. It’s a fascinating collection of people who were helping Paul, and what’s surprising to many is the role of women in that story. This second section is the one with the most emphasis on what Paul believed, but not as if we abstracted his brain from is body. What he believed was how he lived “in Christ.”

“Paul in Community” (Chapter 4) is an attempt to capture in words what a grand family portrait would be like had Paul stood in the midst of one of his communities of faith for their annual church picture. We probably wouldn’t be able to recognize Paul from any other others, especially if we thought he might look more distinguished by the way he dressed. I don’t think he’d even be seated at the center of picture. If we have any clue to where Paul might have been in such a picture it may come from the Latin meaning of Paulus. It’s the word for “small.”

Paul was living in what one scholar has called “a remarkable new boundary-blurring human community made up of Jews and Gentiles together…” [Hays, What is Real Participation In Christ. #8] The essence of that shared life was the narrative of a world story centered in the cross, resurrection, and expected parousia (or coming) of the messiah. Inside this story was a way of living with each other and it was this message, above all others, that is so clear in Paul’s letters. It wasn’t a faith to be explained as such, and it wasn’t just to be “spiritual” as if you had to have certain ecstatic experiences of faith. Actually Paul scolded the Corinthians for what he saw as a mere “soulish” approach to faith. [Mc Clendon, Narrative Ethics, # 21] It was a call to “a new humanity” in which identity would be shaped by the other. It wasn’t about finding yourself, but finding Christ in these new brothers and sisters, and then sharing in the story of Christ.

The sharing wasn’t knowledge about the faith, but the actual practice of faith in a community that was challenging all the usual boundaries from the previous worlds of its participants. N.T. Wright has implied that ethics was a kind of team sport for Paul.[Wright, Faithfulness of God, Note #340] His favorite pronoun is the second person plural or, in a more colloquial way, “Y’all.” To be sure Paul called for obedience to the gospel from all within each community of faith. The emphasis was consistently on serving one another, which makes Paul’s frequent references to himself as “slave of Christ” most unexpected in his world. “In fact, the very use of the word [slave] would repel, rather than attract, any listener who is part of the upper ranks of Roman society.” [Ascouth, Paul’s Macedonian Associations, p. 123.

“Paul and this Team” (Chapter 6) introduces the many who shared in ministry and leadership with Paul in what had to be a unique and surprising network which relied on the Roman roads, and the many ships that plied the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The author of Acts also knew that Paul had partners in ministry but the critical issue will be between the reliability of that account in contrast to Paul’s word. The partnership with Barnabas will be an example of this argument. The two parted company but the differing accounts lead to the conclusion that Paul’s story needs to be one followed. There is also the important data regarding a large number of co-workers and friends of Paul cited in his letters. There are even indications that many of them were slaves based simply on their names.

A goodly number of those Paul knew as associates in ministry were women, and one in particular—Phoebe— seemed to have earned his trust and confidence for one very important task, which was to take his letter to the communities of faith in Rome. There were other women of importance mentioned in the letters. Careful exegesis of some of Paul’s comments particularly regarding marriage and the role of women in worship will also serve to counter some of the assumptions that Paul was patriarchal and dismissive of women. He wasn’t.

If the term side-kick is appropriate then it’s also clear that Timothy fit that role. Paul thought of him as his “son” (Phil.2:22), and said he was “…doing the work of the Lord just as I am.” (1 Cor. 16:1). On the basis of the opening greeting in 1 Thessalonians we can even credit Timothy as one of the authors of that particular missal. There were so many others accorded the recognition of sharing in the ministry alongside of Paul. Aquila and Prisca seemed to have played a special role with a community that gathered in their house (probably in Ephesus). That city was perhaps the base for much of Paul’s extensive ministry. It’s actually a rather long list of names on Paul’s team when we add up all that appear in his correspondence.

In “Paul the Letter Writer” (Chapter 7) one of the more fascinating aspects about such correspondence is that it was sent to communities in which the majority of people were not literate. How Paul would be surprised to see so many church people today, with heads down in worship, looking at a bible or the bulletin with the lessons of the day printed while someone reads the assigned readings for the day.. That couldn’t have happened in his world. There—people listened. That’s how they learned the stories of their faith. It was an oral culture. Our world is also a story-telling world, particularly in our daily discourse, when we recount what just happened or what we heard.

There are two main parts to this discussion of Paul’s letters. One focus will be on the way the letters were probably composed, written, saved, and most likely performed from memory. Since a number were composed in darkened prison cells where Paul would not have access to any writing instruments, we can conceive that he was writing in his head, and sharing his ideas with those who came to visit. Of particular interest is why Paul signed the letter to Galatians, and made reference to the “large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand.” (Gal. 6:11).

Letters generally accepted as by Paul Some scholars believe these are by Paul—others disagree General consensus that these are not Paul’s letters
Romans Colossians 1 Timothy
Galatians Ephesians 2 Timothy
1 Thessalonians 2 Thessalonians Titus
1 Corinthians    
2 Corinthians    

The second part of the chapter on Paul’s letters will examine the question of which letters are authenic, and why there are legimitate questions to ask regarding the other six letters which bear his name. (Almost all scholars, by the way, dismiss Hebrews as one from Paul’s hands because of content and language which simply isn’t like Paul at all.) Ongoing controversy reigns among biblical scholars regarding 2 Thessalonians. Some scholars offer some valid reasons that Ephesians and Colossians were written by Paul, but there is not a strong consensus around that idea. The earliest codex (a collection of letters or documents) actually had nine letters of Paul, but it didn’t include Philemon [Eisenbaum, Paul was not a Christian, 118] , Philemon is considered definitely from Paul. The most questionable, but frequently cited letters are what are often called the pastoral epistles, namely 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus. When these letters are compared with those we know came from Paul they fail because there is hardly any correspondence with regard to “….style, vocabulary, theology, polemical devices…” [Dennis R. MacDonald, The Legend and the Apostle, p. 113] to what Paul wrote. Most significantly these three letters show evidence of “hierarchical ecclesiastical leadership” [Ibid] clearly nothing that Paul knew in his world of Jesus followers.

The concluding chapter in the section Paul and his Friends focuses on Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians where, in both letters Paul called himself a “fool” and at the same time offered various litanies of sufferings, trials, and struggles. This is the Paul who might write “…letters that are weighty and strong but his bodily presence is weak and his speech contemptible.” (2 Cor. 10:10) In his first letter to the same community he said he purposefully didn’t use “lofty words or wisdom” (1 Cor. 2.1) and then proceeded to praise foolishness. (1 Cor. 3:18). The autobiographical material is like a huge waterfall in the second letter. Paul asserted he was among “apostles” who had become “… a spectacle to the world…we are fools for the sake of Christ.” (1 Cor. 4.9-10)

In “Paul the Fool” (Chapter 8) I am also asking questions about the work that Paul did to support his ministry. What is interesting about the work he did with his hands, is that he most likely didn’t need to labor so hard. He could have, and at times, did accept help from others, in a world where patronage was considered noble and honorable. Others did help Paul and this will be noted. The more interesting side of Paul is that he had some skill that allowed him to provide for his daily needs but not much more. I am also going to entertain the possibility that Acts was wrong in telling us that Paul was a tentmaker, and that is why he stayed with and worked with Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth. (Acts 18:1-3) There is a clue in this story, though, because Paul most likely did belong to a guild of like-minded people with a specific trade. They might even have been in the world of “theater”, making “stage properties” instead of making tents. Paul seemed to know a great deal about the role of “fool” in the theater of his day.

Inside Paul’s World (Chapters 9-13)

 “Paul’s Politics” (Chapter 9) begins this last section because there was never a day when Paul could have forgotten the claims of Caesar to be the savior of the world and the one who brought “Pax Romana” to the Empire. It wasn’t that Paul believed any of those claims. We see over and over in his letters that he had decided that Caesar could never be his Lord—only Jesus. It was a dangerous decision, but one that Paul knew how to negotiate with his biligual and bicultural skills. One scholar maintains that ‘…Paul and his team functioned as bilingual and bicultural translators and mediators – as go-betweeens…’ (Ehrensberger, Paul at the Crossroads, p. 97]. This is the chapter that wrestles with the truth of the claim made by Moltmann that “The crucified Christ has become a stranger to the civil religion of the First World and to that world’s Christianity.” [Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, Page 65] Paul would probably write with the same subversive skills he used about 2000 years ago were he to be writing letters to our faith communities.

The next chapter, “Paul’s Watch” (Chapter 10), focuses on a Paul who would be very surprised to find that the history of violence born out of theories of domination and submission, which he knew at the heart of the Roman empire, would continue for over 20 centuries. He thought he was living near the end of time with the expected coming of Christ which could happen any day. “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” (1 Thess. 4:16) Paul’s choice of a word to image the coming of the Lord was parousia which was known in his world to describe the coming of Caesar or one of his representatives. Paul used the word in a subversive manner.

If you had asked Paul “What time is it?” he wouldn’t tell you the hour or even that evening was near. He might have given a more obscure answer, perhaps by saying, “This is the time that remains.” That’s the concept offered by the theologian Agamben who wrestled with Paul’s understanding regarding the coming end to the world. This is the chapter where I address questions about Paul’s apocalyptic thinking. Is it the main thread for his ministry and teaching? There is a divide among biblical scholars regarding Paul’s sense of time between those who emphasize his apocalyptic theology, and those who focus on Paul’s sense of continuity with the Jewish concept of the covenant.

“Paul in Chains” (Chapter 11) explores what it was like to be arrested and put in prison in the first century by orders of some Roman official. Paul was in chains for considerable periods of time and on multiple occasions, and this is all by his own admission. Five of the letters came from him while in prison. Douglas Campbell has noted that Paul was “an experienced detainee.” [Campbell, Framing Paul: An Epistolary Biography, p. 304] Were Paul to apply to serve one of our churches I suspect his arrest record would be troubling to most call committees.

In Paul’s world those who were thrown into prison were waiting for some kind of trial. Prison wasn’t the punishment that was administered, though it was a place of shame and deprivation. More importantly for our consideration of the letters Paul wrote from prison most prison cells were usually dark caves. There is evidence that friends could bring a prisoner food or come to visit, and that seems the case with Paul’s references to those who shared in his trials.

We don’t know anything about the length of various times Paul spent in various prisons, but certainly they had to last for weeks of maybe even months. He had plenty of time in which to think and compose in his head the letters he might send. More importantly were the hours he spent praying and that brings us to “Paul the Mystic” (Chapter 12). The usual story of Paul, as framed by Acts, is that Paul had a single mystical encounter with the risen Lord when he was on the road to Damascus. As noted earlier this is the model for what some consider Paul’s conversion[5]—an idea that is challenged in a number of places in this book. When it comes to Paul’s mysticism there is plenty of evidence from his letters that he had many deep spiritual encounters in his life in Christ. The kinds of experiences Paul had must have been born out of a deep prayer life which had it’s roots in the Jewish world that shaped his spirituality.

“Paul’s Last Journey” (Chapter 13) brings up more questions than answers, but fits within the scope of this book because of its focus on a few interesting clues regarding this remarkable man. Once more there is a discrepancy between the account in Acts and what Paul wrote. The last chapters of Acts (23-28) focus on Paul who was arrested in Jerusalem and eventually sent to Rome where at the end of the account he was living under house arrest free to welcome all who came to him, still able to preach and teach. The problem is that in his letter to Rome that wasn’t his intended destination. He would only rest up there with his hope to go to Spain.

Why would Paul want to go to Spain to continue his missionary work? That’s the important question addressed. N.T. Wright made an interesting comment about Paul’s missionary work in the cities of Corinth, Philippi, and Rome (to name just a few). They were places where Caesar’s power was the strongest. (Wright, Faithfulness of God, p. 1502). There was one more journey Paul wanted to make. “He had travelled the central heartlands of the Roman empire, and it was now time to head for the city at the very heart itself, and to go on from there to the key western outpost of Rome’s wide domains.” [Ibid, p. 1502] What Wright didn’t say was that Spain was the most recently conquered territory in the Roman Empire. From a Jewish perspective it was also considered the “end” of the world. These are the clues followed in what may have been the journey that Paul did not, in the end, take.

Paul’s last journey also took him, at least in terms of his intentions in Romans, to bring a collection gathered from various Jesus communities in Greek-speaking parts of the Mediterranean world to the poor followers of Jesus in Jerusalem. The story of this collection weaves in and out of various letters, obviously receiving support in some communities, while challenged in others. There’s something in Paul’s understanding of the prophetic message that lent great importance to this collection. Even if we maintain that he was able to bring this collection to Jerusalem the lingering question will still be, “How was it received?”

In the “Conclusion” of the book I offer a brief review of the aspects of Paul uncovered in my research. I will also add some thoughts about the things that would perplex and trouble Paul about Christianity as we know it. We even have to wonder if Paul would decide to call himself a “Christian.” What cannot be denied though, as we continue to read Paul’s letters in our worship and in our study of the early followers of Jesus that the book of Acts was correct. Acts concludes with Paul living in Rome where “…he welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ, with all boldness and without hindrance.” (Acts. 28:30-31). He still is teaching and proclaiming. His voice continues. And hopefully we have a better sense of the man himself and his powerful story.

[1] The word “Christian” appears in quotes because it wasn’t a term that Paul used for himself in any of his letters. Acts makes the reference to this term in ???

[2] Two of the six questionable letters, Colossians and Ephesians, have a number of biblical scholars maintaining that they were written by Paul. Few will claim that 1& 2 Timothy and Titus are Paul’s letters. There are a few making the case that 2 Thessalonians was an authentic letter from Paul.

[3] It wasn’t actually that unusual as I’ll explain, with one very important difference regarding the people who shared Paul’s life.

[4] Paulus was how he was known. It is a Latin word, translated in our Bibles simply as Paul.

[5] My New Revised Standard Version has a title just before Acts 22:6 which reads: “Paul Tells of His Conversion.” The other two occurrences of this story (Acts. 9:1-19, 26:12-18) describe it as a “conversion.”

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Annotated Table of Contents

What follows is the annotated table of contents for my new book that I hope to complete by December of this year. I welcome comments and interest from others. In early 2017 I expect I’ll be able to be offering seminars and conferences on this topic. Please use the comment section of this web page and I’ll be happy to respond to your questions or reflections.

Annotated Table of Contents

“Meeting the St. Paul You Never Thought You’d Meet”

by George Martin


The reader is invited on a journey of discovering reasons to admire and respect Paul based less on understanding Paul as a theologian and more on Paul who was both telling and living the story of Christ. The introduction reviews the overall structure of the book and indicates some of the reasons for each of the chapters.

Section I: Finding the Real Paul 

  1. Paul in Arabia

This chapter investigates the story of Paul’s escape from Damascus in order to find Paul in a particular year. That date allows for the construction of a reasonable chronology for Paul’s ministry. I have found very few accounts of Paul which logically recount the history of Rome’s control of the world that Paul knew within the context of his letters. Here Paul is connected to Caesar, the Nabataeans, Augustus, and even John the Baptist.

  1. Paul the Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles

The author of Acts never acknowledged Paul as an apostle, but it became an extremely important title that he used, not just for himself, but also for those sharing ministry with him. It’s important to consider how Paul was bringing the history of Israel and its monotheistic faith to the world. This was a “daring innovation.”

  1. Paul the Storyteller

In the eyes of some significant scholars Paul is a called a narrative theologian with regard to his use of scripture to tell his story of Jesus Messiah. Indeed he saw his time as the key point in which God had acted in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. He was embedded in that story. The story of Jesus in a sense became the plot of his own story. Were there clues to his life as he reflected on God’s story in his letters? Most important of all is the consideration of his call to follow Jesus with a particular focus on the letter to the Galatians.

  1. Paul a Victim of Identity Theft

In contrast to a statue of Paul within Vatican square which shows a huge muscular Paul holding a sword toward the sky, the Paul here aligned himself with the nobodies of this world. In contrast to the more individualized concept of faith that has shaped much of Christianity for 500 or more years, Paul’s emphasis was on the “faith of Jesus,” that could become the shape of a community called to live for “one another” composed as a “community of others.”

Section II: Paul and Friends 

  1. Paul in Community

The boundary-blurring community that marked off Paul’s communities probably involved real mutualism in all things including shared meals and the pooling of resources. Exploring the realities of wealth and poverty in Paul’s world locates him in a communities composed of slaves and trades people. What to do about those who didn’t willingly contribute to the common good was a real question. Central to Paul was his understanding of being “in Christ” as a shared life and language, not at all akin to the world of patronage that defined the important people in Paul’s world.

  1. Paul and his Team

The majority of the authentic letters of Paul offer us a picture of a gregarious Paul who must have had friends in every community he ever visited. A few had resources, but most were quite common people. Many were women. Of particular importance was the role that Phoebe played in bringing his letter to the communities in Rome. Timothy may have been his closest confidant. Looking at the people he mentions tells us a great deal about Paul himself.

  1. Paul the Letter Writer

There are aspects about Paul’s use of letters that are intriguing and even strange in our world. Most likely they were composed in his head, then dictated, and memorized by whoever would carry the letter. Once the letter was delivered it was probably performed! Chances are that Paul may have helped coach the best way to deliver it to each community of faith. It was called “speech in character.” At the same time some of the letters may be compositions of two or three letters. Questions of authenticity are also addressed.

  1. Paul the Fool

Sometimes we are perplexed when we discover a saint who could get “angry” or when we find a saint who “sheds tears,” which are two sides of Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians. In this chapter I focus on Paul’s issues with a community that seemingly lost trust in him, and how he challenged them to never think more highly of themselves than others. Paul was insistent on not seeking or claiming privileges at the expense of others. This Paul kept seeing himself as a “servant” and as a “slave” of Christ—forms of identification few in his world would have willingly assumed.

Section III: Inside Paul’s World

  1. Paul’s Politics

There was no distinction between religion and politics in Paul’ world. Worship of the emperor was visible on a daily basis in buildings and art. Most road signs were marked by their distance to and from Rome. Public buildings bore messages about the peace and security brought by Roman conquest and subjugation—a theme reinforced by the violence and terror enacted publicly in the arena. Paul’s focus on the cross (the ultimate terror) meant that God alone could bring life out of death—something imperial Rome could never do. Paul used words like “good news”, “Lord”, and “peace” in language that clearly was subverting Roman claims.

  1. Paul’s Watch

Paul was living in a time between the times, anxious for the return of the Lord and God’s judgment on the evil powers of the world. Paul used the politically charged word “parousia” with regard to the Lord’s expected return. Shaped in a world of Jewish apocalyptic expectations some scholars think Paul was an apocalyptic theologian. It’s better to see the continuity in Paul between the Hebrew story and what was new in Christ. Paul lived in a kind of time described by phrases like “already—not yet” or “the time that remains.” It wasn’t a waiting or wasting time, but was filled with the spirit of God.

  1. Paul’s Chains

Prisons in Paul’s world were unlike any in our time. They were nearly often dark damp caves in which the prisoners hadn’t been found guilty, but were awaiting trial. And they were chained together. They could have friends visit and bring them food, or maybe a blanket. Without any light or writing instruments Paul wrote letters from prison. Unable to work with his hands at his trade, Paul in prison had time to think, to compose, and to share his ideas with valued friends who then carried his prayers and exhortations to dearly loved communities he had founded.

  1. Paul’s Mysticism

For too long Paul has been portrayed primairly as a thoughtful theologian. What’s often lost in the dusty libraries where people study Paul is that he had a passionate and vibrant spiritual life shaped by experiences of prayer, visions, and revelations. He could speak in tongues, and knew the voice of prophecy. To be sure he had cautionary words about these elements in worship, but they were very real to him. When he spoke of a man who was caught up into heaven, it’s evident he was talking about himself.

  1. Paul’s Last Journey

Paul’s letter to the Romans described two trips he had planned. He would take the collection to the poor in Jerusalem, and come to Rome, but not to stay. Spain was his destination. What was it about Spain that Paul felt compelled to bring the gospel there? It was the land most recently conquered by Rome. It’s people, now enslaved, were reminded daily that their lives had been spared by the grace of the Roman army. In Jewish lore it had been called the end of the world. Was Paul thinking that the collection and then the gospel to Spain would conclude with the coming of Jesus? Perhaps.


After a brief review of the significant aspects of Paul emphasized in the previous chapters the book concludes with thoughts on what Paul would question with regard to Christianity today. Having tried all the different expressions of the Christian faith he’d probably want to convene a real ecumenical council. He’d certainly appreciate the fact that he and Peter share the same feast day. I’m sure he would speak to the issues of ethnicity, sexual identity, and class that flame into hostility and violence in our world just as they did 2,000 years ago. He’d want us to think about our time as the “already not yet” and the “time that remains.”


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Glad I Said “Yes” When I Did Not Know What I Was Doing

Glad I Said “Yes” When I Did Not Know What I Was Doing

Greetings to Connie Sowah, Tom Garrison, and Jennifer Walding

On the Occasion of your Ordination to the Priesthood

June 20, 2015

George H. Martin

(Note: I’m sharing this reflection with a wider audience because it’s my story, and one I haven’t exactly told in this way, until now. The three receiving this directly will be ordained as priests to serve at Ss. Martha and Mary Episcopal Church in Eagan MN. It’s the church I helped start in 1986 when we began with one family. The church went through some challenging times, but now with this kind of ordained leadership team in place it has a whole new future ahead for its ministry. Praise the Lord!)

Fifty years ago I was starting Clinical Pastoral Education at the Ossawatomie State Hospital in southeastern Kansas, having completed my Junior year in seminary at Bexley Hall. God had taken some extra-ordinary steps to get me to seminary. I was originally headed off to study sociology at the University of Buffalo. In April of the previous year (our last days at college) newly married to Caroline and both of us happy to get our degrees from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, a phone call came from the Dean of Bexley Hall Seminary. It’s the seminary connected at that time to Kenyon College in Ohio. I’d been there for church camp but wondered why would he be calling me? I didn’t have a clue.

“Ah, George,” he began, “This is Dean Thorp at Bexley Hall Semiary. We have your name from the Rockefeller Foundation people where you had applied for a scholarship. Now I know they didn’t offer you a scholarship to attend any seminary of your choice, but we would love to have you come and study with us at Bexley Hall. Would you and your wife come for a weekend so we can meet you and show you the seminary?”

You might be tempted to say, “Well the rest is history!” But that’s not the case. Yes, I did accept the offer of a free year’s education, but I never thought I’d stay beyond the year. As that first year of seminary started to draw to a close, though, I had to make a decision. Was it that first baby that was on the way? Perhaps. Caroline and I also had many friends there in that seminary community. Truth be told, I was still wrestling with a sense of call, but decided to take my questions into another year of study.

I still had no real idea what I was doing, and certainly had no idea what my ministry would look like in the years that would follow seminary. In those days, though, at least for those of us from the Diocese of Ohio we knew what the next two or three years would bring. The bishop would send us to a parish where we would be a curate. Bishop Burroughs made this quite clear to me when he’d heard that I had interviewed with a priest at a large church in another diocese. “Ah George!” he began in a tone different from that of Dean Thorp. “You said you interviewed with a priest in another diocese. But I thought you wanted to be ordained.” To that I replied, “Yes sir. I do.” It was clear that ordination meant starting ministry in his diocese or not at all. The bishop told us we would be moving to Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio (think Akron) where I would be a curate at St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Two years later I left that curacy and was finally headed off to graduate school to study sociology. This took us to Lincoln Nebraska. In the back of my mind I wasn’t exactly leaving ordained ministry, but I was sure I was called only to be part-time priest but a full-time scholar teaching in a university. As you know God had other plans for me. That is the way it is for many of us.

Here on the eve of your ordination I’m sure you look back on your lives and look at a curious, twisted, sometimes challenging set of paths that each of you are bringing to this new chapter in your lives. I don’t want to offer scary words: but it’s a story that will continue as you serve as priests in the church.

Your ordination on June 20th is one that I am so pleased to attend. The truth of the matter is that I made it a point in my years of ministry to attend as many ordinations as I could. More often  than not I was still wrestling in some way with God’s call to me, and hoping that by listening again to the lessons, the ordination promises and vows, and participating in the prayers I’d get a clearer sense of God’s call. You think after 50 years I’d get more clarity, wouldn’t you? The God who spoke from a burning bush and whose voice was there in a smoky temple in the midst of flying birds calls forth a response, but it doesn’t mean it’s fully comprehended. “Just go!” And so, some us say, “Yes”, but without fully understanding what it will mean and certainly where the Lord will take us.

I was re-reading a book by Eugene Peterson (translator of The Message Bible) titled “Working the Angles: the Shape of Pastoral Ministry.” I wish he’d called it “Working with Angels” but then he knows better from years as a pastor. As a new priest you’ll invite people to offer prayer in the context of “angels and archangels” but also you will be placing bread in empty hands that have known brokenness, questions, doubts, and fears. Actually, I must admit that for me being a priest has everything to do with the hands: my hands and how they play in the sacramental life of faith, and then the hands that reach for those sacramental actions that speak louder than any words.

Peterson offered a reflection on Psalm 40:1-11 in this book that I think is helpful for any us considering what I means to respond to God’s call and to proclaim God in the midst of people who are hurting, searching, or lost. What we are privileged to offer as priests standing at the altar is a story of failure where God meets death with life. There is this powerful narrative that embraces us at the deepest levels of our life, way beyond cognition, because the word of God that gives life is dug into us. Peterson says that the proper translation of the Hebrew in Psalm 40.6 isn’t “you have given me an open ear.” (NRSV) He translate the Hebrew as “you have dug into me.” It’s not so much comprehension or knowledge but a kind of compulsive obedience that leads us into saying “Yes” to a call to ministry.

It’s helpful, I think, to know that priesthood is more about doing than speaking. Yes we offer the sacramental prayers, but how we go about that presiding, and what sensibility we bring to it and to those present in worship is what really matters. We are also priests beyond Sunday morning worship. You will be called as priest to show up at times and places, and not always when it’s convenient or easy. There will be some joyful times of blessing and celebration, but there will also be awkward and even terrifying times when you will feel helpless. You’re not.

Keep the oil of unction, nearby, but not just as a tool of the trade. You’ll be in pastoral ministry when you really will be at a loss for words. Don’t try to speak, but be ready to offer the sacrament if it seems right. For someone fearful of what’s next while facing surgery or even their death it is that oil and those prayers that are mysterious and efficacious. You make the sign of the cross with that oil and then declare that is all about God’s presence at this very moment.  (Be sure to memorize those prayers from the prayer book that have to do with anointing and with laying on of hands.)

Your hands are important the sacrament of healing, but also in other sacramental acts that are part of this ministry. As a priest you have the special responsibility to bless the community about to go into the world which is to remind them to go with God and look for God in all parts of life. A special priestly charge for blessing is found in the marriage rite. Take you time when you wrap the hands of the couple in your stole. You can tell them what this means at the rehearsal. You are serving the Lord with this stole and they can serve the Lord in their marriage.  In another context, at a funeral at the graveside, your hands can carry real dirt that becomes a cross when carefully placed on a casket. Maybe a few days before you were conducting the funeral your hands were swishing through the water when it was time to bless the water for a baptism. At that service you took the oil of chrism and marked the forehead of the newly baptized, with the sign of the cross, as Christ’s own forever.

Most importantly in terms of the regular life of priest serving in a congregation are the hands of those reaching for the holy bread. One story relating to Ss. Martha and Mary comes to mind. One Sunday I looked around just before receiving communion and realized we were short one Eucharistic minister to offer the bread. I spotted Aaron Walding (about 16 years old at the time) sitting in the front row. He knew the routine and came forward as I signaled for his help. I placed the plate of communion bread in his hands but noticed that each of his ten fingers wore some different shade of nail polish. There were even carefully drawn artistic designs on a few fingers. I smiled to myself and rejoiced to know the added gift of God all would receive that day from the hands of Aaron.

Speaking of receiving the Eucharist makes me mindful of a practice we followed at Ss. Martha and Mary in those days. Those of us who served communion received bread and wine at the end—after we had served all the people. I know it violates a rubric in the prayer book, but I think it’s true to the spirit of Jesus. “I came not to be served, but to serve.” My practice on this stems from a little book by a Roman Catholic priest ( Louis Everly) who talked about a time at a Papal mass when there were hundreds and then more than a thousand who came forward. They started breaking the wafers in half and then in quarters. And at the end about 75 people received nothing, for all the bread they had to consecrate was gone. One astute lay person said, “There would have been enough, had the clergy waited.” So often in church meetings and worship services we clergy often also get the best seats. I’m not sure Jesus would approve.

That all three of you are connected to Ss. Martha and Mary, and that your ordination keeps you part of it’s ongoing story pleases me immensely. I can’t remember exactly when our paths first crossed, but I have known Tom and Mary and their boys the longest as they were part of St. Luke’s prior to my accepting the call to help plant a church in Eagan. A special tie that I have with Tom is getting to know his dad, Ben, quite well. Ben was a Methodist minister with a secret love of the Episcopal church. He also served in Seward Nebraska where Caroline is from.

Both Connie and Jennifer came in the early days of Ss. Martha and Mary. You know about setting up chairs, micro-waving frozen chrism oil, and even growing and harvesting pumpkins that we gave away.

The life of a congregation can be a crazy thing. No matter how messed things may get, no matter how dark the days or uncertain it’s future, one thing is sure in our practice of the Jesus story: we gather to break bread at the Lord’s table. This is certain for the days to come at Ss. Martha and Mary as you become it’s priests. What a glorious gift this is. Praise the Lord. Thanks be to God.

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To Be A Blessing — Nov. 23, 2014

“To Be a Blessing”
Christ the King Sunday   — Nov. 23, 2014
St. Matthew’s Parish (Pacific Palisades, CA)
George H. Martin

As many of you know this my last sermon as your interim rector. Having preached six other last sermons in six other interims you’d think I’d be pretty good at this, but not so. It has gotten a lot harder. I know I’m leaving while they’re is still another part of the interim to do. Please know that I have no doubt that the leadership here is fully capable of carrying on of the during the last part of this interim time. You will be well served with the experienced hands of Michael Seiler who becomes your acting rector. A part of me really wants to stay; the other part tells me to be a husband, dad, and grandpa and yes to shovel some snow.

I’ve loved being with you. My regret in leaving now is countered knowing that “in between time”—the time that remains— even the next short period for St. Matthew’s can be full of blessings and possibilities. Let me begin by telling you a story of a church that entered an interim time that actually blessed all of us.

It’s what happened at old North Church in Boston in the year 1775. You have probably heard these lines.

Listen my children and you shall hear
The midnight ride of Paul Revere
On the 18th of April in 75
Hardly a man is alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

Thus began Longfellow’s poem. There’s another story you may not know about that night. The first Rector of old North Church was Timothy Cutler—rector for over 40 years. He had come from the Congregational church and converted to Anglicanism. As he reached the end of his ministry the church had an associate but no one liked him or wanted him to be the Rector. So they went searching for another Congregational pastor who would convert, and they found him in The Reverend Mather Byles. Upon his arrival around 1773 he immediately started to complain about his pay. Members of the parish were dismayed that he owned slaves.

Byles was there to preach on Easterday, April 16, 1775, and then came the annual meeting—always held on the day after Easter. The congregation had heard that he had had an offer to take a job at St. John’s Church in Portsmouth and they told him to take it. I think it was assumed that he might have had sympathies with the British as well. The wardens got the keys to the church back. They were then starting an interim time looking for the next rector.

The next night, April the 18th, one of the wardens and the sexton used the keys of the church to open the belfry tower from which they hung out not one but two lanterns. “ …and the rest of the story you know if you read your history books. How the British fired and fled and the farmers met them ball for ball.”

Conclusion: For wont of an interim there may not have been a Revolution.

St. Matthews parish is going to be just fine. Your vestry is in the process of interviewing some amazing candidates. My confidence in our vestry comes from words that we heard from Ephesians this morning. I’m going to twist those words just a bit as I pray that our vestry “will have a spirit of wisdom” as you as a parish discover with the leadership of your new rector “the hope to which God has called you.”

Those of you who know me understand that I hardly ever make idle quotes from a letter of Paul. As I leave you I am sincere about my intention to write a book making St. Paul’s letters more accessible and understandable. I also want to retrieve him from a misreading that is taken place at least for 500 years. For way too long the assumption is that Paul was explaining how we get to heaven through Jesus. In the crudest sense it’s almost as if our job is to get out of this world, or at least get through it in such a way that we have an insurance policy that gets us into heaven. The problem is that for way too long people have looked at the letters of Paul as if they were about theology, when in reality the focus was on a story of God in Christ—yes what God had done—but, the real emphasis was how it was meant to impact humanity—how we are called to live with one another, and how we are to see the world in which we are living as the world being restored through Christ. It’s not that the ethics of Paul trumped his theology. But the focus is on a faith to be lived out in relationship to one another and as a witness to the world proclaiming this is how humanity is supposed to look.

It’s clearly there as well in our last reading for this liturgical year of reading from Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew wasn’t a gospel written to convert people to become Christians. Those in Matthew’s community already knew the Jesus story. Thus in so many of the stories contained in this gospel the emphasis was on developing habits of life, a vision of common humanity, and refusing to adopt any presumptions of superiority in relationship to anyone else—with the intention to embrace and live out a life that showed the presence and love of God as they had seen in Jesus.

So today we have the parable in Matthew 25 that concludes a long teaching section in Matthew’s Gospel that began with the Sermon on the Mount starting in chapter 5 when Jesus said “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” And on to seeing that “…you’re blest when you’re persecuted on his account.”

Then comes the misnamed parable, “The Judgment of the Nations.” I say it’s misnamed because using the word judgment places the focus on some last final event. Somewhere today some preacher, maybe many, will try to use this parable to scare people away from hell into heaven. You won’t get that message from this preacher.

I think there’s a deeper mystery at work inside this parable. Here we can discover a marvelous invitation for us to have a kind of community and a common life that speaks of the generosity and love of God as we really have seen it in Jesus crucified risen from the dead.

Consider the way it begins with the vision of the kingdom of God. It begins with these words “Come, you that are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you get me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

And it begins with an invitation to those who are blessed by God.

As a little aside for a moment. Some of you may have noticed that many times I sign off a short note or an email with the words “Blessings, George.” Why?

I use that word because it’s very profound in our common life with one another inside the Jesus story. Yes we bless our food—blessing in the sense of thankfulness— then we are giving thanks for one another and, finally, and hopefully always being mindful of the needs of others. I like what the scholar N.T. Wright says: “Blessedness,” however, is what happens when the creator God is at work both in someone’s life and through that person’s life.”[1] Blessedness also relates us to the entire covenant story of God beginning with creation. In turn it is a word inviting us to continue to recreate the world, but by being blessings to all everyday.

Thus the power in that line that opens the parable “Come, you that are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation world.”

And then notice that they weren’t trying to manipulate God, they were not trying to obtain credits to get into heaven; they weren’t playing some religious game; and they didn’t even know in any conscious way of this inheritance of God’s kingdom. But they had met those human needs. They had habits of life not born out of a competitive, “I win you lose world.” They had habits of life not borne a world of boasting or emphasizing my worth in comparison with somebody else’s.

And notice that they were not being praised for doing some stupendous, noteworthy inventions or solutions to massive problems. These were little ministries rewarded. There were ministries that met three basic human needs: food, shelter, freedom.[2]

So how will we ever meet Christ? This strange, way too relevant parable, tells us we will meet Christ in someone who is hungry or thirsty. We will meet Christ in someone who is a stranger. And we will meet Christ in someone, who for whatever reasons of sickness or of something they did wrong has caused them to lose their freedom.

You and I might choose to go on a mission trip 1000 miles away to find Christ. But we don’t need to. If you and I are asking “Where is Christ?” we don’t have to look very far. Christ is in our world — daily, sometimes living right across the street, sometimes in our own homes. Even at a corner waiting for a light to turn. At least we ask must always ask this troubling question: “Is that the Christ?”

And yes this world seems to be as dangerous as ever. The violence rooted in ethnic conflict leaps out at us on a daily basis. But please remember this: it was the world in which Jesus lived when he told this parable. We haven’t changed much except, except some of us choose to follow Jesus as King. Some of us want a church community just like Jesus described it to reflect God’s kingdom. And what will it look like? It will be a people who are gentle with one another. It will involve a kind of suffering patient love. It will involve forgiveness. And it will involve the admission of failure.

So it is that we are called to inherit the kingdom of God, knowing that we are inside a world of blessings. As we are blessing one another, we are forgiving one another. As we are blessing one another is means we are serving one another. As we are blessing one another, we see Christ in one another.

In conclusion we cannot dodge the nagging questions about the presence of Christ knowing that in the words of this parable: ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

I’ve seen that this message is grounded in the life of this parish. People of privilege and promise may come here, but again and again in this congregation we are called to seek ways to minister to “the least of those who are members of God’s family.” May this ministry continue to be a blessing to those most in need, and in a profound way to bring all of us to our knees seeking an answer to this question: “How can I more truly pray? ‘…thy kingdom come on earth as it is heaven.’” If’s to be on earth, we are God’s hands and feet. And meant to be that blessing.”

I thank you for the privilege I’ve had sharing the gospel with you this past year and half. Thank you for your love, your support, and for the way we’ve worked together to prepare this congregation for the next chapter of ministry in the name of Jesus.

[1] N.T. Wright. After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, p. 104[2] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook Matthew 13-28, p. 570.

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The Time that Remains — N0v. 16, 2014

The Time that Remains

A Sermon for Nov. 16, 2014

The Rev. Dr. George H. Martin

(Based on Matthew 25:14-30—The Parable of the Talents)

St. Matthew’s Episcopal Parish

 Each week on the radio show that features Garrison Keillor as its host there is a segment on a Private Detective who works in St. Paul Minnesota. It begins this way…

“A dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets. But on the 12th floor of the Acme Building, one man is still trying to find the answers to life’s persistent questions… Guy Noir, Private Eye.”

Twenty miles to the South, just about two years ago I was in my office at home in Rosemount Minnesota. I too was wrestling with life’s persistent questions. The phone rang. It was Howard Anderson, the fifth rector of St. Matthew’s Parish. He told me about his forthcoming retirement and was hoping he could offer my name as a candidate for the interim Rector that St. Matthews would be needing. I told him I was retired and the answer was “No.”

Well I guess I wasn’t very good at saying “No” was I?

It all worked out pretty good for me to come here for this year and a half. And now it’s time for me to retire, head back to that office, and continue to find the answers to life’s persistent questions.

And one of those questions concerns the way things always come to some end. A friend recently was contemplating turning 70, which I’ve already done. He said, “Wow, that age 70. You know you start to lose people you love. I don’t know what time I will have left.”

My friend didn’t know it was he was wrestling with an area of theology called “eschatology.” The study of what comes last. Echatos is the Greek for last. Related is the word “escahton” or the end of time, or the end of the world.

A related word is Apocalypse. Here’s what I said about that word in my very first sermon here in June 2013:

“The word “revealed” in English is the word “apocalypse” in Greek. A “revelation” is an “apocalypse.” And yes, think of it as something that is earth-shattering, explosive, and cosmic in its dimensions. That word in Greek, apocalypse, doesn’t mean it was simply something that had been covered up and which now is brought in the light of day. It’s more than disclosure. It’s more than waking up to some new reality. It isn’t just a new coat of paint or a revision of something outdated. It’s the brand new unexpected world — and it’s the end of the old world. There is no going back in time.”

Why am I starting this homily with the focus on eschatology and apocalyptic thinking? Well, yes, this is my next to last Sermon here.

But we have had two parables in row from Matthew’s gospel: the five wise and 5 foolish bridesmaids with or without oil to greet the Bridegroom. That was last week. Today we had the Parable of the Talents. I presume that some of you might have sympathy for the poor guy with one talent who buried it in the ground, returned it to the man who owned the property and then was thrown out into outer darkness.

Many read this parable looking for a supply side Jesus. The one talent guy didn’t lose the talent. It seems within our marketplace mentality that Jesus is rewarding the first two for making money and becoming successful with that which had been given them. What is actually said is that they were good and trustworthy or faithful. It never says they were successful in an entrepreneurial world—a world unknown in Galilee.

Context is everything in each of the four gospels. They were performed, not read in the early church. Many were probably only written down after they had lived as repeated performances. And yes there were people fully capable of memorizing these completely.

The gospels weren’t simply stories and parables strung together in a row, but they were plotted and shaped by an author who knew what it meant to live with the story of Christ crucified. The story was repeated and told in the context of a community of people called to wait for …for the End. The conclusion of the story. They were all in an interim time. And thus it continues to be.

What is the question that faced us in this particular interim time, between rectors? Would we still be faithful? Would we hold this community together, it’s worship, it’s ministry, it’s giving support to others, and all that we do in the area of pastoral care, would we carry on in the name of Jesus? And the answer is “Yes.” That is what we have done. We have continued as good, faithful, trustworthy witnesses.

If you read the chapter before this one with the two parables I mentioned you’ll find it is filled with teachings of Jesus about the end times. Moreover the command is to be watchful and to wait. It is said there, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Mt. 24.44)

Thus presumably don’t wait with oil lamps that won’t work. This is the time to give witness to the one you serve. That guy with the one talent seemingly wasn’t sure the property owner would ever come back or that it made a difference if he lived openly counting on the return of the one who gave him that gift.

I remember my friend who was the police chief in Eagan when I was starting the new church. “When are you going to get a building?” he asked me one day at Rotary where we got to be friends. “We’re in the school right now on Sundays and maybe we’ll have a church building in two of three years.” He said, “I’m waiting for the church to be built.” And he said that over the course of a year. And then one Sunday he and his wife showed up for worship in the school cafeteria. I said, “I thought you were waiting for us to have a real church.” “We were,” he replied, “We couldn’t wait.”

And from that moment on he was helping us get to that first church building. What we really creating, of course, was a community, a people of God, a people who witnessed just we do, to the love of God, and the power of God to transform us and carry us even in the most uncertain of times. In interim times.

It’s eschatology. The special Christian understanding that Christ has come and Christ will come again. And the in-between is where we are. Marked not with the Greek word for time that is chronological or sequential, “Chronos” is that kind of time. But we use a different word for time— It is the Greek work Kairos. It means the time of the now— a “now” that doesn’t pass away into history, but is time of opportunity, the time of meaning. It is time that is “already, but not yet.” It is time that one philosopher[1] calls “the time that remains.”

I suspect some of you are still worried about the one talent guy standing in outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Maybe that’s was Jesus speaking about the search for answers to life’s persistent questions.

As an experienced interim pastor I’ve served all kinds of churches. I’ve yet to serve a perfect church. And I’ve met so many people who struggle to understanding the meaning of life.

Over and over I’ve lived in uncertain times when it wasn’t clear at all how it would all turn-out. And that’s the St. Matthew’s story as well. But look we’re here. We’re close to starting a new chapter in this story with the call of your next rector, but this story won’t be ended when that person leaves—that day will come. And you’ll be in another interim time. Just as we have done together bread will be broken and shared. The cup will be shared. The story of Jesus told. New people will be welcome and encouraged to use their gifts in ways that witness to God. The time?…yes…the time will remain.

[1] Giogio Agamben, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans. (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2000)

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Tough Lessons (Stewardship Sunday) 10-12-2104

Tough Lessons

The Rev. Dr. George H. Martin
Sermon for Oct. 12, 2014
St. Matthew’s Episcopal Parish (Pacific Palisades CA)
The Rev. Dr. George H. Martin

 One Sunday morning a man came down to the kitchen, still in his pajamas. He said to his wife. “I’m not going to church today.”

“Yes, you are,” she said.

“Well,” he replied, “give me one good reason why I have to go.”

His wife said, “Last time I looked you were still their pastor.”

So here we are on the Sunday we launch our stewardship drive. I’m happy to be in church, but I have to tell you I’ve been unhappy all week knowing it was my turn to preach. Ordinarily I would have looked ahead and handed these lessons off to someone else.

Why? You ask. Well in particular I think we have some lessons that on the surface do not make God look to good.

We’ve been following the story of the Exodus as Moses led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. And yes there was some grumbling and loss of faith when they were thirsty; and yes they thought about going back to Egypt before God provided daily bread with manna from heaven. Those stories turned out right. But today God has had it with his people.

Moses had been gone, up that fiery shaking mountain for 40 days. Feeling lost without Moses, Aaron who is Moses’ brother, asked all the people to make an offering. He asked for their gold earrings. And that’s where the Golden Calf came from. And when God saw it what does he say? I almost hate to repeat what’s there in the passage.

God said to Moses, “He had to go back down to “Your People.” Note not “My people.” But “Your people.” “They are a stiff-necked people” Then God said, “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them…” God wants to sulk and hold on to his anger?

Fortunately the story from Exodus as we heard doesn’t end with an image of an angry God. It doesn’t change the fact that the theology of an angry God, false in many respects, has been around for a long time in different places.

And it doesn’t get any better with today’s gospel. In fact it gets worse. The parable begins with a good picture: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” Nice beginning. Not exactly a vegetarian menu, more like a Texas barbecue. Then look what happens with the invitations: the people invited snub their noses at the King. But it gets worse. There’s violence in this story. The slaves of the King are mistreated and even killed by those invited. It’s an insurrection. A rebellion against the king. This story has gone way off track.

And then the part that I really don’t like —and why I was open to someone else preaching — it is the rage of the King who destroyed the murderers and burned their city.

I’ll probably get in trouble for this, but at least for this first part of the parable, I cannot believe it really was something that Jesus taught. Part me says there has to be a link to Jesus here, but how? There are scholars who tell us that Matthew’s gospel was written after the year 70 according to our calendar. That means the Matthew community knew about the destruction of the temple and entire city of Jerusalem, as well as the massive crucifixion of many of its citizens. Living in the Roman Empire those early Jesus is Messiah people knew full well just how vicious and violent kings and emperors could be. This parable may be hidden code language for what a king (think emperor) is like that world, as those early Jesus messiah people remembered the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army that belonged to Emperor Vespasian? Maybe.

We know aspects of that world. Our news is filled daily with wartime atrocities and fears of it all getting worse. The natural tendency seems to be to use violence to fight violence. But those early Jesus people didn’t take up arms. Except they looked to one who was a failure, whose arms had been stretched on a cross. A cross to any sensible Roman citizen was failure.

Failure? We measure our place in the world by the word “success.” There isn’t time to unpack the idol, or the golden calf of success. Allow me though to confess that success is something we clergy struggle with and that’s because many times in this world the measures used to judge us are the ABCs: attendance, buildings, and cash. We should add the letter “D” because that gets us to discipleship, and that might lead us into the second part of this parable, and maybe even an even deeper muddle.

Today’s Gospel parable has a second part. Does it help? The wedding feast invitations went out again, and this time both the good and the bad were inside. That’s a good picture isn’t it? We’re all inside. Well, except for the one guy who wasn’t wearing a wedding robe? He was tossed out into the outer darkness, where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Opps. It got worse. Can we find something redemptive here?

For the moment, though, lets go back to Moses. Where we can see another side to God. Moses will be the one who helps us commission our stewardship callers. You are not being sent out as representatives of an angry God, or a stern God. But of a God who remembers.

Each of you are sent out with a message of promise and hope rooted in a faith grounded in God’s love. Remember how special this story is when Moses talked to God: “Remember,” Moses said, “Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I promised I would give to your descendants and they shall inherit it for ever.”

Moses implored God for the sake of the future story that was to be told. And that is a story of covenant and how a people live lives that keep the faith that was given to them. They wear the faith. And God walks with them.

And walks with them in a special way. The lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, (of failure)
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

No we don’t talk about an Angry God at St. Matthew’s. We know there is a world measuring everything by success, maybe even power and fame. But here failure is a possibility, because there is a walk called discipleship. No one has to wear the robe of discipleship. That’s the meaning I think of that man in the parable who was given the robe to wear, but took it off. If you come here and want to know this Jesus Messiah, there are certain expectations.

I believe the second part of that parable may really come from Jesus, because he was so insistent that the disciples live a Kingdom life in which they shared as a family of equals. And it was a welcome to any and all who were hurting, lost, lame, blind, and even those who were failures. I still don’t like the aspects of an angry God in this parable, but I discern that this is to be a community which feeds and nourishes “all sorts and conditions of people” and which involves certain expectations.

I wish we read the epistle. There we would have heard;

“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.… Keep on doing the things that you’ve learned and received and heard and seen… And the God of peace will be with you.” This is from Pauls letter to the Phillipians.

We practice forgiveness. We emphasize mutual upbuilding of one another and serving one another in Christ. And we will talk about making meaningful sacrifices of ourselves, our time, our talents, and our treasure. Yes it involves making and keep pledges. Yes it means we spend less on ourselves, and make sure that our gifts keep this ministry going. It means coming to worship on a regular basis. Growing in our faith. It’s that “D-word”—Discipleship.

Now I’d ask that all of those on the team for this year’s Stewardship Program come forward for a blessing.

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Tableware and Carvings 2014

The bowls and chalices shown were saved from the fire, having originally been just logs in a cord of wood destined for the fireplace. Every carving begins with a chain saw. Then I use a grinder and gouges before a great deal of sanding. The outside is often sealed with a polyurethene coating, while the inside uses a food-friendly mineral oil. If the wood ever feels dry to the touch feel free to freshen up the inside with more mineral oil. Discovering the beauty of the wood and wondering about the seasons of its life is what this art is all about. I begin using violent tools in order to excavate down into the wood to discover patterns and fissures that lay hidden away. Each bowl tells its own story! If you’re interested in other carvings visit and send me an email!

IMG_6262 IMG_7513 IMG_6260 IMG_7214 IMG_7213

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Shield the Joyous

Shield the Joyous
Sermon for Evensong, Oct. 25, 2014
St. Matthew’s Episcopal Parish, Pacific Palisades CA
George Martin

Following my homily we will hear the choir sing the prayer that begins,

“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night..”

They are there in the hospitals, waiting in the emergency rooms, cruising our streets in the middle of night protecting us—they are those who work or watch this night.

And then also awake through the night, but for a different reason are those who weep. Sure as the sun rises some greet it with tears.

Then we pray:

“…and give your angels charge over those who sleep.”

It finds an echo in the antiphon that concludes Compline: Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake 
we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.

Then comes a little verb—the word “tend”—to tend, to pay attention, to be focused, to want something to be right. “Inclined to action” is another dictionary definition.

“Tend the sick, Lord Christ….”

To pray for someone who is ill we do not need to know what it is that has caused their illness or even from a medical point of view what is the best strategy that will bring them healing. It is enough to see Christ there at the bedside. With tenderness.

And then almost like a litany we have a series of petitions for four conditions of human experience that cause us grief and bring us to our knees.

We pray,
“…give rest to the weary, bless the dying, sooth the suffering, pity the afflicted….”

And then comes the last petition. Maybe the most curious prayer to be found in our Book of Common Prayer. The prayer ends with this petition:

“…shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.”

Hmm. Shield the joyous. What does it mean?

I welcome your ideas when we gather for a social time following our evensong. But allow me a few thoughts from musings I found on the internet.

One pastor wondered if those who work and watch at night are charged with shielding the joyous. Some of them wear a shield as law enforcement officers. Some wait in emergency rooms or the quiet long hallways of the hospital upstairs. Maybe. I don’t know

We all know something about the joyous—especially at night. Someone just engaged or discovering love. Maybe a group of friends at a late night dinner. They may not have watched the evening news or are they ware of that last horrible thing that has happened. They may be able to travel home or wherever with a sense of joy—and may they travel safely. May their joy last through a night.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe there’s more.

Another wondered if joy wasn’t always a gift of God waiting to be discovered. Tasted. And held long enough to be a memory—perhaps the memory that would sustains us through some other long dark night of weeping.

To be joyful is to be vulnerable, needing protection lest we are shattered by someone else’s reality.

Do you know the noun agelast (ah-jel-last)? It is someone who never laughs. We have grumpy people we all know. Always ready to remind us how awful something is. Always doubting or criticizing or complaining. The glass is always half-empty.

I think there is a special place in sight of the gate of heaven for the grump people.  And there is smiling joyful angel who greets and pulls aside those who are the most grumpy. He cheerfully addresses each, saying: “On the other side of that gate is heaven. There is no complaining beyond those gates. There is nothing you have to try to fix or even finish inside. We want you with us but only when you’re ready to smile, relax, and enjoy…did you hear? When you have enjoyment, you have joy. That’s what’s ahead if you’ll come.”

And until they meet that angel we pray “Oh Lord, please Shield the joyous.”

Now joy can’t last forever on this side of things. But may it linger. We watch a brilliant sunset we savor its waning moments of light. And then the stars come out. Savor such moments.

Joy can’t last forever, but like that bouquet of flowers, we pull out those that have died, discovering the beauty of the few that remain in that vase.

Joy can’t last forever, but we flip through the family album smiling at the face that fell asleep in his first birthday cake, knowing he’s all grown up, he deals with much reality most of the time, but there was that precious moment of innocence coated in frosting. Yes, shield the joyous.

You have your memories of fleeting joy. We have our memories of fleeting joy in this community. Memories that can be fertile ground for other times of joy to come; other gifts of God’s joy to those who hunger and thirst for peace and happiness.

One more thing. Look for the word joy as it comes in our Eucharistic celebrations.

We say we lift our hearts to the Lord. And the Celebrant responds:

It is right to give him thanks and praise. 
It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of 
heaven and earth.

And as we come to the end of that prayer the celebrant prays for

“the last day” when God will “bring us with all your saints 
into the joy of your eternal kingdom.”

Grumps in this world you will not have the last word. The last word is the joy of heaven. So it is that we pray for now “Shield the joyous. And all for your Love’s sake.

God’s name in this prayer is love. And wearing God’s amour—the God who shields us— our joy is protected in God’s love. Let it be, let it be so. Amen.






Posted in Sermons for St. Matthews 2013-2014 | 2 Comments