This fall our congregation, along with congregations throughout the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ, will study the writing of the Apostle Paul. Someone recently asked me, “Why Paul?”
We study him for three basic reasons. First, Paul’s writing accounts for ¼ of the New Testament. We simply can’t understand the New Testament without coming to terms with Paul. Second, Paul’s writing is the oldest in the New Testament, composed even before the Gospels. We can’t know the start of Christianity without Paul. Lastly, but to me most importantly, every great innovative time in our tradition came as people re-read Paul. Augustine, Aquinas, Luther - all the momentous change moments came from a re-reading of Paul. Some people think the Church is at one of those epoch moments of change again. Whether it is tremendous change in our tradition or a more personal revolution in our own lives, guidance can come from Paul.
And yet to learn from Paul we need to reimagine him. Centuries and millennia of religious art depicted Paul always on his own, writing a letter in a secluded place. Rembrandt, whose painting we used in our ad for the Paul class in your bulletin, showed him in prison as an old man. It looks more like a comfortable house arrest then a prison in Wisconsin. But regardless, the art encourages us to think of Paul composing his letters with long stretches of peaceful solitude, as if they were thoughtfully and carefully crafted messages for the ages.
But honestly, Paul wrote letters in the heat of the moment, with flashes of sarcasm and humor, writing as he could in the midst of frenetic travel. Often the congregations he wrote were in the midst of conflict, accosted by outsiders and contentious with each other. We do better to remember Paul chased out of town, or arguing late into the night, or attempting vainly to get the attention of a crowd than to see him serenely writing a letter.
If I were to paint a picture of Paul, I would draw a scene from the Acts of the Apostles. Paul had traveled throughout his career with Barnabas; they were inseparable friends. But then an argument arose, an intractable conflict about a disciple named John Mark. John Mark had often traveled with Paul and Barnabas, but at a crucial moment, he’d left them. Paul considered John Mark an unreliable friend of no worth; he refused to travel again with a man he considered a deserter. Barnabas wanted to forgive John Mark. The best friends argued late into the night; by morning they went their separate ways never to meet again (Acts 13:13, 15: 36-41). Paul knew in his bones the pain of estrangement and loss.
Taylor Swift’s top forty song “Bad Blood” captures how Paul must have felt at this and other moments of his life. Swift sings of a relationship gone bad:
Now we got problems
And I don't think we can solve them
You made a really deep cut
And, baby, now we got bad blood
And in my favorite line she adds:
Band-aids don't fix bullet holes
You say sorry just for show
If you live like that, you live with ghosts.
Paul carried the pain of conflicts - of friends who disappointed him, of people who rejected him, of his own horrible mistakes; he carried this pain with him as he wrote his letters. He knew in his heart he had problems and he didn’t think he could solve them.
Our reading from Romans today, shorn of Paul’s lived experience, would sound too pat and too conventional to matter much to me. We read, “live in harmony with one another.” I think I once saw that on a motivational poster from Successories. Or his comment to “let love be genuine.” It could be a cheap greeting card.
But Paul carried bad blood in his heart. He wrote knowing of the times he hadn’t been genuine, of the ways he hadn’t lived in harmony, of the struggle to be at peace. Paul didn’t write from some serene tower looking back on his life with grand spiritual sight; no, he wrote from the trench warfare of life, where he fought with friends, felt abandoned, lived with persecution, and dreamed of reconciliation. Perhaps he even wandered the Mediterranean, hoping to catch up to Barnabas to make amends.
Read this way, the whole point of the passage is not a saccharine list of do-gooder thoughts, but rather a plea, a hope, a desire for change in his life. What emerges then is this opening passage: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, which is your spiritual worship. Be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can discern what is good and acceptable.”
Grace is an often used but rarely defined term in scripture. But Paul, writing from the trenches of life, knew moments of transformation and renewal are the moments of grace. Grace comes in the changing of our minds, grace comes in the softening of our hearts, grace comes in tender transformation of our bad blood moments.
Poet Christian Wiman once started a poem he could never finish. Four lines which end mid thought; he wrote:
My God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing nothing believe in this:
Wiman wrote of this incomplete poem, and of the impossibility of describing all he believed. And part of the challenge came from the continual renewal of his mind. Instead of something he could capture and pin down with words, Wiman found his faith continually shifting. Life drove changes in Wiman’s faith, sometimes unpredictable changes, twists and turns affected by the uniqueness of his own particular story. As he said, “Even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived -- or have denied the reality of your life.”
God’s grace worked through Paul’s life to bring renewal and change. Once he told women to be silent in church but later he commended the leadership of Prisca. Once he sent a slave back to his master but later he declared there is no longer slave nor free. Once he demanded an adult man be circumcised before conversion but later he found what mattered is in the depths of our hearts instead of the marks on our bodies.
Paul’s bad blood experiences of life left him yearning for the renewal of his mind. And reading that life context into the rest of our scripture lesson opens up its meaning. We heard it in two sections - the first simply read, the part about the renewing of our minds and the image of the body; and the second read responsively, the part describing the ways we ought to treat one another.
In the first part, about the body, Paul writes, “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” Paul didn’t invent this metaphor of a group of people as a larger communal body. It was a common political metaphor but one used to explain the rule of the elite over the poor, of the “brains” over the “feet.” Paul reworked the metaphor into one of equality: each part needs the other, each person belongs to the other.
This strong affirmation of equality and unity can’t be separated from Paul’s own experiences of brokenness and disunity. He must have written these lines thinking of Barnabas and John Mark. He described an ideal he didn’t realize in his own life. And so the beautiful metaphor of equality and unity comes as a confession of Paul’s inability to realize it in his own life. “We are members one of another.” How could he not think of people he’d cut out of his life?
The confessional quality of his letter continues in the second part of our lesson; I tried to emphasize it by having us read it responsively with the refrain from Psalm 51, “create in me a new heart.”
Paul’s exhortations come as confessions of his own need for change. And each exhortation, each confession, seems to ask more than the next, as if the renewing of his mind demands ever more transformation of Paul. “Let love be genuine” becomes “bless those who persecute you” which becomes “do not repay evil for evil” which finally becomes “overcome evil with good.” Each round antes up the need for change; surely this is the voice of man who wishes he could re-do the fight with Barnabas, offer a bit of forgiveness to John Mark, and live as if they were all one in Spirit despite their differences.
The man who lost his best friend because he couldn’t forgive now prays for God’s grace to renew his mind that he might let love be genuine.
Paul’s long reflection on his fight with Barnabas and John Mark left him more open to forgive and more committed to seeing his dependence on others. The renewal of Paul’s mind left him more quick to forgive. The renewal of my mind leaves me more slow to judge.
The grace of God works in all our hearts, especially in those relationships marred by bad blood. How will the renewing of your mind change you? Alleluia and Amen.