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Sunday, October 05, 2008

Sermon for World Communion Sunday

Who Did Paul Hang Out With?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
October 5th, 2008
World Communion Sunday

I Corinthians 10:23-11:1
I Corinthians 11:17-34


Last week I talked about the historical Jesus and what he may have actually done. I referenced the popular bracelets, WWJD that stand for “What Would Jesus Do.” The assumption here is that Jesus if he were here, would do the right thing. More than that, he would do the God thing. But we know virtually nothing about him as an historical figure. We have nothing that Jesus wrote. We only have what others wrote about him.

One of those key writers is Paul. From an historical perspective we know a lot more about Paul than we do Jesus. We have writings from Paul. But for some reason the phrase “What Would Paul Do” hasn’t caught on. Not too many folks wear WWPD bracelets.

Determining what Paul did is an easier question but not nearly as sexy. We care a lot more about what Jesus did than Paul because Jesus became a mythical figure. Paul remains just a guy. He is an important guy, though. Paul helped shape the mythos of Jesus. It is because of what Paul did that we care about what Jesus did.

The church taught us how to read the Jesus tradition by the selection of books that made it into the canon and by the ordering of those books. The New Testament begins with four gospels. They are followed by the book of Acts that tells us its version of the early church. Half of it is devoted to Paul. Then, finally, we have Romans, a letter from Paul.

However, we have known for some time that the gospels and Acts are later than Paul’s letters. Paul did not have the gospels in front of him. Paul has nothing to say about the birth of Jesus, his teachings, his parables, his miracles, the details of his crucifixion, or the empty tomb narratives. Why? Probably because he didn’t know about them. The probable reason he didn’t know about them is that they weren’t written in his time. Let me put it more bluntly. They hadn’t been created yet. If you are interested in that provocative statement, I recommend Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions.

The gospels are written after Paul and Paul likely had influence on the gospel writers. It is likely that Paul is a source for them as they wrote their gospels rather than the other way around.

Any information that Acts has about Paul outside of what we find in Paul’s letters is highly suspect. The Jesus Seminar is now working on Acts. According to them, Acts is likely second-century and is likely historical fiction with the emphasis on fiction.

We have one more myth to debunk. All the letters attributed to Paul were not written by Paul. 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians and Colossians were written by other people, even though they are written as though they are from Paul. Critical scholars affirm seven letters are by Paul: 1 Thessalonians (the first), 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon, Galatians, and Romans.

If we want to look at Paul, the historical person, we need to put aside the gospels and anything they say about Jesus, Acts, and those other letters. They are all later.

This is a good time to talk a little about critical scholarship and confessional scholarship. Confessional scholarship uses critical means up to a point. That point, that ceiling, is the confessional heritage. That ceiling may be in a different place based on a particular confessional tradition, but it is there. Critical scholarship does not recognize that ceiling in terms of historical and literary study. For critical scholars categories of orthodoxy and heresy have no authority. Critical scholarship gives voice to the individual voices in the tradition. What became known as orthodoxy sought to put these disparate voices into one confessional tradition. I have been doing this Bible cover to cover from a critical point of view, not a confessional point of view.

I am not saying that the confessional tradition is not valuable. In fact, people can embrace critical scholarship and find the confessional heritage helpful for ethics and meaning. The value that I find in the confessional heritage is its creativity. The confessional tradition is a product of myth-making. And it didn’t end with the Bible. Our task, in my opinion, is to look back at the wide and deep Jesus tradition and find those things that are valuable for our meaning-making or myth-making today.

We get inspiration from our pal, Paul. Paul was one of the first Christian myth-makers. Paul did not know the historical person of Jesus. He did know those who knew Jesus, Cephas and Jesus’s brother, James. Paul isn’t interested in who Jesus was as a person. He cares about the mystical, cosmic Christ. Paul relies on his experience of mystical revelation as much or even more than Cephas or James who knew Jesus.

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians:

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.”

For Paul, Christ is the mystical, cosmic bridge between ethnicity, gender, and all category. Not only is Jesus the Christ, but by being in Christ we see ourselves and others in a new way. Paul writes in Galatians 3:28:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

That is a radical statement in the first century as well as the twenty-first century. In 2 Corinthians 5:17:

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

Paul used the phrase “in Christ” to describe this new creation. What does it mean to be “in Christ?”

Have you ever had an experience in which the limitations of your social existence were lifted? And this experience enabled you to belong in a way that you do not normally belong?

African-Americans especially before civil rights yet still today had an inferior social position. As an African-American you would be addressed by white people younger than you by your first name, as we would a child. It was an insult. It was degrading. It was meant to be that. Every aspect of social existence was demeaning and a hassle.

But on Sunday, you wore your best clothes. You were greeted not by your first name but by Mr. Smith and Mrs. Jones. On Sunday, you were not simply someone who washed white people’s clothes. You were a deacon in the church. You had authority. You had responsibility. You had respect and dignity. Together, the community was “in Christ.” You knew who you were and it wasn’t what the outside world said you were day in and day out. Limitations of social existence and identity had passed away and you were given a glimpse of a new reality.

On Monday you went back to washing white people’s clothes, but you knew who you really were because of Sunday. You needed to be reminded of that and you needed to continue that “in Christ” experience on a regular basis otherwise you could forget and lose hope and fall into the belief that you were who white people said you were.

Church at its best was and is that place. The church could also fail to provide this alternative “in Christ” experience. The church could reinforce the same societal prejudices based on race, gender, class and other categories. We find Paul often critical of the communities to whom he writes. They have fallen back on old dehumanizing habits and have not embraced the new creation. Or they bring hierarchical behaviors from the outside world into this community. This is why Paul is upset in the passage we read today regarding the Lord’s Supper.

Communion or the Lord’s Supper was not celebrated in Paul’s time like we celebrate it today. It was a meal that could last for several hours. The best comparison I can see today would be the covered dish supper. We don’t think of the covered dish supper as a sacrament. If it were up to me, we would have a covered dish supper every week.

In my previous congregation we had a Saturday night service. We ended with communion, but that wasn’t the end. We went to the fellowship hall to share a meal. That is where we got to know each other. That is where we built community.

If Paul teaches us anything, he teaches us how to eat. How to eat in a sacred way. In a sacramental way. In an “in Christ” way.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he is critical of those who are piggy with the food at the covered dish supper, which he calls the Lord’s Supper. They have not transcended or passed over the same greedy, status seeking, unequal behavior that they are subjected to in everyday affairs.

The “in Christ” experience enables us to get a glimpse of our real selves. Former categories have passed away and we see ourselves and relate to others in a new and a different way. We become a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects. In Christ means that if we have some kind of status in life that makes us important leave it at the door. If we feel we are not important, leave that non-importance at the door. Here we are one in Christ. For Paul, Jew, Greek, male, female, slave, free, none of it matters.

That is what it means to be a human being and to be in Christ.

That is radical. It is hard to believe and hard to do.

Who did Paul hang out with? Everybody. Kind of like Jesus. Whether Paul got that from Jesus or whether the gospel writers wrote those stories about Jesus because of Paul, I don’t know. However, one of the links between Paul and Jesus is the meal—the sacred meal. The sacred meal in which boundaries are erased.

We have unhealthy attitudes toward food. We think of it as “refueling the tank” as if we are lawnmowers. We eat food without recognition of where it comes from or what it is. We even use strange phrases like “junk food” or “fast food.” Our identification by our culture as consumers doesn’t help with that. It seems to want us to eat fast, eat a lot, and eat alone. While at the same time, so many people all over Earth do not have enough to eat and we face a global food crisis.

Perhaps the task of the church today is to help each other learn how to eat. Perhaps we are needing to learn that what we eat is sacred and how we share it and eat together is sacred.

Today is Worldwide Communion Sunday. It is a time to raise our awareness that we are a global family. We are as Thomas Berry calls us—that is all of us—all living things, a communion of subjects. We live in a beautiful, fragile home. Thomas Berry writes in his book, Evening Thoughts:

“As we recover our awareness of the universe as a communion of subjects, a new interior experience awakens within the human. The barriers disappear. An enlargement of the soul takes place. The excitement evoked by natural phenomena is renewed. Dawn and sunset are once again transforming experiences, as are the sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and feel of the natural world about us.—the surging sea, the sound of the wind, the brooding forests.”

That was Thomas Berry. That is the best description of what it means to be “in Christ” that I know.

On World Communion Sunday, we imagine that we are participating in a worldwide covered dish supper. From around the globe we gather. From Iran, Sudan, New Jersey. It is a beautiful day and we eat outside. We feel the sun and the breeze. We notice the birds. Everyone brings something. Some are able to bring a lot. Some a little. We spread it out. We give thanks to Earth who provides, the Sun who energizes, the Universe who gave us birth, and all is Divine. We go through the line. We want to sample it all. But there is too much. That’s all right. There will be other suppers. We take what we can eat. We sit with others and we talk. We learn about their lives. We marvel at how strange it is that the nation’s leaders are at war. What are we fighting for? Who is an enemy? Not you or I. After all, we shared a dish. We all have what we need when we share. We know that. There’s plenty left. There is plenty on Earth for us—for all of us. And there is plenty of time to go back and sample one more dish or to take a bit more of that one that was so good. The children eat quickly and run and play. Someone picks up an instrument and we hear a new song. There is no rush. No place we need to be but here, now.

We know who we are. We are God’s own. We are at home in our own skin. We are open and free with others and nothing separates us. We share with delight the different words we have for this experience. Regardless of religion or country, regardless of what we call it, we participate in a mystical union. We are Earthlings. And we belong.
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