Frensham Village Churches

Richard Rohr on St Paul

The following extracts are from Richard Rohr's Meditation, a daily email from his Centre for Action and Contemplation.


Who Is Paul?

Sunday, March 29, 2015 

 

This week we begin looking at the next part of my wisdom lineage, St. Paul. This man is in a category all his own, with no parallels. He is the outsider who dares to challenge the insiders--first of his own Judaism and then of the new sect that we now call Christianity. Paul is a Greek-speaking Jew and an educated Roman citizen living in the Diaspora (the dispersion of Jews beyond Israel), from the little town of Tarsus in what is now south-eastern Turkey. He pays his way by tent-making and yet is a pastor and mystical theologian of the first magnitude.

 

Paul is not one of the Twelve Apostles, and he never knew Jesus in the flesh. In fact, he hardly ever quotes Jesus directly. Paul writes his astounding letters in a seeming vacuum, several decades before the four Gospels were written or before there was such a thing as Christian theology. Approximately one third of the Christian Scriptures are written by Paul directly (the authentic seven letters), written by Paul's students (Colossians and Ephesians), attributed to Paul (2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, Hebrews, and Titus), or written largely about Paul (Acts of the Apostles).

 

There are those who say that Paul is the founder of the Christian religion, a case one could strongly make. Jesus proclaims the Reign of God; Paul gives shape and structure to the implications of that message. He tries to bring Jesus' teaching down to a practical, ethical, pastoral level, so that it can "happen." Paul wants to create a concrete vehicle for the Christ vision. He begins the inevitable organization of the message, the ministry, and the shape of what became Christianity. Whether or not we like it, Christians have to acknowledge and pay attention to Paul.

 

Adapted from Jesus as Liberator/Paul as Liberator



A Man of Contradictions

Monday, March 30, 2015 

 

Paul's conversion experience on the Damascus Road, which we'll explore in more depth tomorrow, is the source of his immense inner authority and most of his themes. It is a phenomenal transformation of consciousness, which is why he becomes such a courageous teacher of what he is convinced is the very mind of Christ. Paul is able to trust his own experience of Christ against Peter (Galatians 2:11), James, the "circumcisers," many of the Jewish Christians, and his own early training as a Pharisaic Jew. He undoubtedly has a huge ego, which God uses to good purpose. Paul often comes across as arrogant and overly self-assured. He is a complex man and seems to humbly admit in a number of places that he is a mass of contradictions--which allows him to proclaim and even define the mystery of grace and the meaning of mercy.

 

Paul accomplishes a lot in his brief ministry, nearly half of which he spent in jail. His three missionary journeys take him through Cyprus, Asia Minor, Crete, Greece, Malta, and on to Rome. These took place during the only hundred-year period in the first millennium of Western history when safe travel was possible, thanks to the roads and protection of the Roman Empire. The house churches he starts in places like Corinth, Ephesus, and Philippi were probably each composed of only forty people, but Paul was confident that this "leaven" of transformed people, living in a transformed way, would make a qualitative difference in the debauched, egocentric society of the time.

 

Paul is one of the most influential thinkers and doers in Western history. He is the first Christian theologian and mystic, which I will illustrate in the weeks ahead. He is probably one of the most misunderstood and disliked teachers in the Church, largely because we have tried to understand a mystic with our simplistic, dualistic minds (there are several anti-feminist paragraphs that we now know are later additions to his letters or found in letters not actually written by Paul). But his many unitive paragraphs and memorable one-liners are more than enough to allow us to love him and forgive Paul. He joins all of us in being both terribly human and wonderfully divine at the same time.

 

We will have the key to understand Paul once we understand his capacity to participate in a deeper and universal reality, a cosmic notion of a new humanity. His central theme is that the new temple of God is the human person. It made his message magnificent and utterly magnetic for an empire overrun by slavery, abuse of women and minorities, debauched sexuality, oppression, and injustice. He almost single-handedly changed the assumptions of an Empire--toward love.

 

Adapted from Great Themes of Paul: Life as Participation,


    

           Paul's Conversion Experience

             Tuesday, March 31, 2015 

 

As we will see over the next three weeks, all of Paul's major themes are contained in seed form in his conversion experience, of which there are three descriptions in Acts (chapters 9, 22, and 26). We assume that Acts is written by Luke about twenty years after Paul wrote most of his letters (c. 50 CE). Paul's own account is in the first chapter of Galatians: "The Gospel which I preach . . . came through the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1:11-12). Paul never doubts this revelation. The Christ that he met was not the Christ in the flesh (Jesus); it was the Risen Christ, the Christ who is available to us now as Spirit, as "an energy field" that we eventually called the Mystical Body of Christ, the Cosmic Christ.

 

Paul continues, describing his life pre-conversion: "You have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church beyond measure. I actually tried to destroy it. And I advanced beyond my contemporaries in my own nation. I was more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers than anybody else" (Galatians 1:13-14). Paul is claiming his Jewish orthodoxy. A Pharisee by training, Paul had achieved some status in the Sanhedrin, the governmental board of Judea during the Roman occupation. He was delegated by the Temple police to go out and squelch this new sect of Judaism called "The Way" (not yet named Christianity).

 

"Saul [Hebrew for Paul] was breathing threats to slaughter the Lord's disciples. He had gone to the high priest to ask for letters addressed to the synagogues that would authorize him to arrest and take to Jerusalem any followers of the Way" (Acts 9:1-2). At this point, Paul is a black and white thinker, dividing the world into good guys and bad guys. All zealots start here.

 

"Suddenly, while traveling to Damascus, just before he reached the city, there came a light from heaven all around him. He fell to the ground, and he heard a voice saying, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?' He asked, 'Who are you, Lord?' The voice answered, 'I am Jesus and you are persecuting me'" (Acts 9:3-5). This choice of words is pivotal; Paul must have pondered: "Why does he say 'me' when I'm persecuting these people?" He comes to this insight that there is a complete, almost organic union between Christ and those who love God. The voice continues, "'Get up now and go into the city and you will be told what you are to do.' Saul got up from the ground, but even with his eyes wide open, he could see nothing at all. They had to lead him to Damascus by hand. For three days he was without sight and took neither food nor drink" (Acts 9:6-9).

 

Paul realizes on the Damascus Road or shortly thereafter that, in the name of religion, he had become a murderer. In the name of love he had become hate. Paul becomes an image for all generations of religion, showing that religion can be the best thing in the world, and it can be the worst thing in the world. That which makes us holy can also make us evil. If the ego uses any notion of religion to "wrap God around itself" it will be the source of the ultimate idolatry: God serving us instead of us serving God. That is why, for the rest of his life, Paul is obsessed with transformation. He has seen sick religion, because he had become sick religion. This is possible in every religion and every age if religion does not lead to an authentic God experience. Paul is forever the critic of immature, self-serving religion, and the pioneer of mature and truly life-changing religion.

 

Adapted from Great Themes of Paul: Life as Participation,

  

Life as Participation

Wednesday, April 1, 2015 

 

After conversion, you don't look out at reality; you look out from reality. In other words, God is not "out there"; you are in God and God is in you. You are in the middle of Reality! You're a part of it. It's a mystery of participation. After his conversion experience, Paul is obsessed with the idea that "I'm participating in something that's bigger than me." In fact, he uses the phrase "in Christ" around one hundred sixty times to describe this organic unity and participation in Christ. Paul has the best one-liner of all to describe himself after conversion: "I live no longer, not I; but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). Now that's a transformed person!

 

This is a completely different experience of life. I don't have to fully write my private story. It's being written with me and in me. I am already a character on the stage. I am being used, I am being chosen, I am being led. You will know that after conversion. You will know that your life is not about you; you are about life. You are about God. You're an instance in both the agony and the ecstasy of God that is happening inside of you, and all you can do is say yes to it. After transformation, it's not about doing it right; it's about doing it with pure intention. It's not about being correct; it's about being connected.

 

After conversion, you don't experience self-consciousness so much as what the mystics call pure consciousness. Self-consciousness implies a dualistic split. There is me over here thinking about that over there. The mind remains dualistic until you have a mystical experience. Then the subject/object split is overcome. You can't maintain it forever, but you'll know it once in a while, and you'll never be satisfied with anything less. In unitive experience, you're freed from the burden of self-consciousness; you are living in, through, and with another. That's the same as the experience of truly being in love. Falling and being in love, like unitive experience, cannot be sustained at the ecstatic level, but it can be touched upon and then integrated within the rest of your life.

 

True union does not absorb distinction, but actually intensifies it. The more one gives one's self in creative union with another, the more one becomes one's self. This is mirrored in the Trinity: perfect giving and perfect receiving between three who are all still completely themselves. The more one becomes one's True Self, the more capable one is of not overprotecting the boundaries of one's false self. You have nothing to protect after transformation, and that's the great freedom and the great happiness we see in converted people. There's no "little richard" here that I need to protect because it's precisely that little richard that got in the way, and has now passed away--with no noticeable losses. Or as Paul puts it, "Because of Christ, I now consider my former advantages as disadvantages . . . all of it is mere rubbish if only I can have a place in him" (Philippians 3:7-8).

 

Adapted from Great Themes of Paul: Life as Participation,

 

 

Paul as a Critic of Religion

Thursday, April 2, 2015 

 

We need to understand that Paul was a thoroughly Jewish man until the very end. He never thought he was leaving Judaism. That's why he always went to the synagogue when he came into a city. Having met the Messiah on the Damascus Road, Paul thought he had the secret to understanding Judaism and bringing it to its fulfillment.

 

Paul was in love with the Messiah of Judaism and considered himself a Jew, but he did think the religion of his time had gone down the wrong road by its legalism and ritualism. Paul himself was a Pharisee before he met Christ. Pharisees were the fervent ones, concerned with being absolutely orthodox. Whenever you're concerned about being right, some form of "purity code" takes over--religion as requirements, which is largely about rules. God will love you if you do this or if you don't do that. This appeals to many people, as it gives the false self a sense of security.

 

Both Jesus and Paul critique that very mentality, precisely because it is so common. It tends to represent early stage religion, and it cannot get you very far. It becomes all about naval-gazing, about how perfect you are and how terrible other people are, and then leads you to the false conclusion that you're better than others because you don't touch this or eat that. If people get stuck here, the purity codes soon morph into what we call debt codes. It's not just about things that you must do or must not do, but debts you must pay to a wrathful God. It all makes sense inside the small frame of retributive justice. It makes no sense inside of love.

 

Adapted from In the Footsteps of St. Paul

 

  

Paul as Prophet

Friday, April 3, 2015 

 

Paul of Tarsus is able to critique his own Judaism while still remaining loyal to it because he loves it and because he is not an either/or, dualistic thinker; he is a both/and, non-dual thinker. You've got to critique your own religion to love it honestly. This is why I critique Catholicism and Christianity as a whole: I was encouraged by both Jesus and Paul. The more I understand the teaching of Jesus, the more I'm convinced that he gave Paul and us the necessary wisdom for the reform of all religions: non-dual consciousness, powerlessness, nonviolence, and compassionate action--which is the prophetic calling.

 

Paul also radically critiques the so-called new religion that is eventually called Christianity. He criticizes the Galatians for acquiescing to the teaching of the Judaizers who believe the Gentiles needed to be circumcised to join this new "sect" of Judaism. Paul reminds them, "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1). From his experience on the Damascus Road, Paul learned that religion was not to be used for social control and persecution; rather, Christ is about organically connecting us in love.

 

Paul even tells Peter off to his face, because Peter resisted eating with the Gentiles after the conservatives came from Jerusalem and tried to re-impose purity codes (Galatians 2:11-12). Peter backs down and agrees that Paul should lead the way in reaching out to the non-Jews. So Paul calls himself the "Apostle to the Pagans" (Romans 11:13).

 

After being largely rejected by the Jews for many years, Paul decides that this message is bigger than Judaism. I think it's truthful to say that Christianity became a universal religion and not just a reform of Judaism largely due to the influence of this one single person. But have no doubt about it: Paul thinks he is bringing the Gentiles into Judaism and making Judaism a universal religion instead of a tribal or ethnic religion. But then, despite Paul, we repeated the same mistake and made Christianity into another tribal religion. God is so patient.

 

Adapted from In the Footsteps of St. Paul

 

Summary 

Sunday, March 29, 2015 - Saturday, April 4, 2015

 

Paul tries to bring Jesus' teaching down to a practical, ethical, pastoral level, so that it can "happen." (Sunday)

 

Paul's conversion experience on the Damascus Road is the source of his immense inner authority and most of his themes. (Monday)

 

Paul is forever the critic of immature, self-serving religion and the pioneer of mature and truly life-changing religion. (Tuesday)

 

After transformation, God is no longer "out there"; you are in God and God is in you. (Wednesday)

 

Paul was in love with the Messiah of Judaism and considered himself a Jew, but he did think the religion of his time had gone down the wrong road by its legalism and ritualism. (Thursday)

 

The more I understand the teaching of Jesus, the more I'm convinced that he gave Paul and us the necessary wisdom for the reform of all religions: non-dual consciousness, powerlessness, nonviolence, and compassionate action. (Friday)

 

 

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