Updated: Feb 9, 2022
We tend to think of the Apostle Paul as one of the heroes of the Bible. He wrote a significant part of the New Testament – at least 7 letters (some say a few more) at least 7 letters to communities he loved and served. Paul’s letters are among the earliest written words we have about Jesus – written years before the four gospels were written down.
The Apostle Paul took the Good News of Jesus on the road: From Judea, Paul travelled the known world – all around the Mediterranean – with an urgent need to spread the Good News of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. He founded and nurtured communities in Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Corinth and more. And it wasn’t easy.
Everywhere Paul went he had opposition – folks opposed to these new ideas; authorities who thought he was disturbing the peace; officials from back home who disagreed with what he was doing and were basically chasing him around trying to undo his work – and then, these communities he loved, well, they were often at each other’s throats – trying to do their best – but it was messy. Paul’s letters give us a glimpse of his travels; The Book of Acts tells the story like a swashbuckling adventure – there are shipwrecks, and jails, and earthquakes that shake those jails open.
And through all that – Paul perseveres. For Paul – God’s love for us in Jesus Christ – the new creation breaking forth in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus – this is all that matters. It is world-changing, world-saving Good News. And so, what Paul wrote along the way has been handed down to us over the years – words that have shaped our world, our lives, our understanding of the broad expanse of God’s love and its power to transform, re-create and liberate the world from every power – even death.
The Apostle Paul wrote things like this:
From last week – “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy. It does not boast. It is not proud. It is not rude. It is not self-seeking. It keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth. Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
The Apostle Paul wrote: “What can separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all things we are more than conquerors through the One who has loved us. For I am convinced that neither life nor death; neither the present, the future, nor the past; nor any power; neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And: “You are the body of Christ, and each of you a member of it.”
And: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation – the old has passed away, the new has come into life.”
The life Paul lived and the words he wrote have opened up for us – and for the ages – life-giving, world-transforming Good News.
And, even so. This morning’s Scriptures – one written by Paul himself – remind us that before all that – before this Good News came to life in Paul; before the travels, and the life and love in community, and the letters; before all the good work and good words – before all that – well, there’s no way to sugarcoat it – Paul was a nasty piece of work. Paul – who started out with the name Saul – was a vigilante persecutor and a murderer. We have the stories, and he says that himself. He owns it. You see, before Paul embraced the Good News – or before it embraced him – he opposed it – passionately and violently – with everything he had.
We get one painfully vivid glimpse of that in the first Scripture that Lindsey read – the stoning of Stephen. Stephen is an early apostle – one who has experienced the Risen Christ and is now sent to share the Good News. He’s doing “great wonders and miraculous signs” among the people – causing quite a stir – and the Powers don’t like it. So they agitate the crowds, and he’s brought before the court – and the charge: “This guy never stops talking – we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will change all that we know.” And everyone in the court looks to Stephen – and Stephen speaks – and, as our Scripture today describes, the powers and the crowds get so enraged at what he says that they take him out, and they stone him to death.
And there on the sidelines – holding their coats while the mob kills Stephen, cheering them on – is this young man, Saul – whom we will come to know as Paul. From that point, a great persecution breaks out. And Saul/Paul begins to destroy the church – the early Christian community. He goes house to house – dragging women and men out of their homes and putting them in prison. We’ll find out later in Acts, that he tries to get them to recant; he has them beaten; and he urges that they be put to death.
And years later – in this letter we call First Corinthians – the Paul we know – stops his letter midstream – and says – “That guy – that guy was me.” He does that in this letter to the Corinthians, and also in letters to the Philippians, and the Galatians. In a way it’s so strange. In each of these letters, Paul does this at the moment when he is offering his credentials – his bona fides. Here’s why you should believe what I’m saying. Paul is writing these passionate letters – trying to convince these communities of this life-saving good news – so urgent, his desperation is almost palpable. “Listen up -- I’m an apostle – I witnessed the Risen Christ.” But then he stops and says, “And remember, I was that guy. I persecuted the church and tried to destroy it. I was the one breathing threats and violence. I tried to kill people like you.” At the moment he most needs to convince his audience – he stops and says this: “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle because I persecuted the church.”
“But... but... by the grace of God, I am what I am.”
Part of the truth of Paul’s life is the wrong that he has done.
His credential – the more powerful truth at work in his life – is the Grace of God in Jesus Christ. It’s as if Paul is saying, “The only way that that guy – could become this guy – is by the grace of God.” Or as Billy Graham once said, “If God can forgive the Apostle Paul, God can forgive anyone.”
There are a lot of different ways that we can talk about sin and brokenness:
· There is the sin and brokenness at work in the world – in the systems that we have made and sustain – our corporate, systemic sin that harms people every day. In our anti-racism work, as we learn about those systems, we discover the ways that we participate in that wrong.
· We can talk about sin and brokenness as part of our way of living – at times, it seems like we just can’t help it. We are created good, in the image of God, but even so, we’ve chosen to walk other paths that create harm in the world – that harm the world itself.
· And, we can talk about sin as the particular hurt that we cause in our lives – the hurtful word, the selfish act.
We can talk about sin and brokenness writ large and close to home – all the brokenness we experience in the world, including our own lives and our own actions – we know it in our bones – and we come to the question – what are we to do with all this?
As Paul writes to the community he loves, in all their brokenness, he goes to the heart of that question – and he says this: Remember what I have received and passed along to you – remember the truth on which we stand: Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; he was buried; and that on the third day he has been raised. And the Risen Christ appeared, at first to a few, and then to many, and then even to me. Remember this truth we have received that we now pass along – this truth on which we stand.
The Apostle Paul brings them and us to the Threshold of Forgiveness. They stand in the mess of their world – the contention, the oppression. We stand in the wreckage of our world – the earth in climate emergency, oppressive systems grinding on over the lives of people, and the wrong we know from our own daily lives – and we come to the threshold of forgiveness – and Paul points us toward a new day – to God re-making us, re-making the world – Paul points us to a new creation.
I want to be clear – Paul points us toward Resurrection. God has come to us in Jesus Christ and taken on all that is wrong in the world. All the wrong the world can do – the power of empire and oppressive religion, the violence of a mob, the scorn, the cruelty, the sense of being utterly alone in the world – all of it – even death – God in Jesus Christ has taken it on – Jesus crucified, dead, and buried. And on the third day, Jesus has walked us all into new life – into Resurrection – birthed us again – into God’s new creation. Everything we have done, every power in the world – they no longer have any power over who we are or who we can become.
In God’s Grace, we are not defined by any mistake we have made.
We are not defined by any wrong we have done.
We are not defined even by the worst wrong we have done.
We are not defined by any power, not even by death.
Through the threshold of forgiveness – through the threshold of Resurrection – everything that lies before us is life. Paul says it even more clearly in one of his later letters to the Corinthians: Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation, the old has passed away, the new creation is opening up to us right here, right now, in this very moment.
If you want an embodied way to think of it – tomorrow morning when you get up – go to your front door or the door to your back patio and open it up. Stand inside for a moment and shake off the day you just lived. Step through the door into the light of morning, and say:
“This is a brand new day.”
Now there’s not time enough in one sermon or in one passage of Scripture to unpack all that this means – to talk about how we embrace that fully, how we repent and change, how we learn to forgive others.
In this Scripture, what the Apostle Paul most urgently needs to say is this: Remember the heart of the truth on which we stand. Remember the saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I was that guy, but now, by the Grace of God, I am what I am. Now, by the Grace of God, you are who you are: Beloved. Forgiven. Free.
At the Threshold of Forgiveness – by God’s grace – we stand in the life we have lived till now – aware. And then we step through... into the life we find in Jesus Christ – we step into the new creation – into a world filled with love, and possibility, and hope.
© 2022 Scott Clark
 This understanding of the life and theology of the Apostle Paul draws from Udo Schnelle’s comprehensive work, Apostle Paul: His Life and Theology (trans. M.E. Boring) (New York: Baker Publishing Group, 2005). For background on Paul and the Corinthian community, see also J. Paul Sampley, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. x (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2002), pp. 800-13; Boykin Sanders, “First Corinthians” in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008), pp. 280-82.  See Carla Works, Commentary on Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-3/commentary-on-1-corinthians-151-11-6  See Schnelle, pp.83-86.
Photo Credit: Luke Besley, used with permission via Unsplash