Just a Thought - Paul: A Misunderstood Missionary.
Some three years ago, I had to opportunity/ privilege to go on a pilgrimage in Western Turkey. We traced and followed the journey of Paul. That part of his travels ended in Turkey, from where he crossed over into Greece. In September 2014, I took up part of that journey, visiting places where Paul walked, stayed and spread the Gospel. From his life experience he told them about Jesus of Nazareth - about his mission and message. In Greece he founded several small Christian communities - in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Corinth. To these communities he wrote letters. These were never intended to be timeless theological tracts - just letters.
Back in the 50s AD, there were no creeds or gospels. It would be another twenty years before Mark put quill to paper. The message of Jesus had been delivered, and thanks to people like Paul and others, was spreading rapidly in the cities of the eastern Roman Empire. Working out what it meant to live a Christian life in those different and difficult environments was no easy matter. Now Paul, as we know, was not always that energetic and creative follower of Jesus. A radical change came on that road to Damascus. And in the days and months following that dramatic u-turn, Paul did not have to have any public engagement with the new faith. He could have taken himself off and kept a low profile. In fact, that is what he did for several years, during which, he was trying to work out the implications of the ‘Jesus Movement’ and his part in it. Paul was essentially a man of action. It was his deep convictions and zeal that led him to become one of Christianity’s foremost apostles. We are so used to the story of Paul that we do not appreciate how difficult this was for Paul, because those first Christian communities were deeply suspicious of him. Was he not the Saul, the persecutor? Those first years had to be uncertain and difficult times for Paul.
Now I named this JAT - ‘Paul, a misunderstood missionary’, and for the reason given there about his initial unacceptance. But there is another reason- one that persists to this day - Paul often gets a bad press. More often than not, he is seen as the epitome of all that is unattractive about ‘organised religion’ - narrow-minded, bigoted and set in his ways. I don‘t accept that view.
Perhaps the area where Paul has been most maligned is in his attitude towards women. A particular passage is Romans: 16. Yet in the final section, he lists all the people he knew in that city, and asks that they would vouch for him. A third of all those people are women, and they are referred to by Paul as deacons, apostles and leaders of house churche. Also it is noteworthy, that this letter - his most important of all - was sent to the community by the hand of a woman - Phoebe
As the century wore on, the situation of the early Christians changed, as did the society in which they lived. Christians gained a more secure footing in the cities of the East, the earliest generations of Christians had died. Yet so great was Paul’s legacy that the followers of Paul, began to write letters in his name. Their concern was how to fit in with Roman society, to restrict the role of women, and to present a well-ordered and respectable faith to the world. Scholars are generally agreed that letters to Ephesians, to Timothy and Titus, and possibly Colossians and 2 Thessalonians were not from Paul himself, but by his late first-century followers. We should not be shocked by this. What those disciples had learned from Paul, was that, as long as the core beliefs remained intact, the Christian gospel could and should be adapted to the surrounding world. I sometimes wonder what Paul might think if he knew that, 2000 years later, we are poring over his letters. He never wrote them for posterity. But what he wrote has still so much to teach us. Such is his legacy!
He can remind us to-day, that new challenges and situations don’t mean that we have to retreat to the past; but rather that things have to be faced head-on, with energy, creativity and an openness to the Spirit. That’s what Pope Francis has so often said. Perhaps Paul’s greatest legacy isn’t in his letters at all, but his advocacy of an ongoing dialogue between our Christian communities and the world around us.