Early this week someone said to me, “I’m a synoptic Gospels Christian.” (The synoptics are Matthew, Mark, and Luke.)
A few days later, completely unrelated, a colleague commented, “Without Paul’s explanation of the faith, maybe even his re-creating it, I’m not sure what or if I could believe.”
I laugh to think of the perceived dichotomy. Is it Jesus or Paul who bequeathed us our faith? I’d suggest that we could not have Christianity without both. (And a whole lot of other people, right down to you and me — but that’s another, albeit important, point all together).
Without Jesus, there could have been no Paul (in fact, that’s literally true as he would have still been Saul).
And without Paul, it’s a real question if the Way in which Jesus led his followers would have become or survived as the religion we know.
Still Paul certainly elicits strong emotions and reactions. His distinctions between the flesh and the spirit are often questioned (and misunderstood) today. Likewise his teaching on human sexuality has not held up well over the ages. Often his pronouncements come off heady and hard to grasp. And in writings attributed to him — that he probably did not actually pen — some awful reactionary ideas are stamped with his imprimatur.
But Paul also offers some of the most eloquent poetry of our faith:
“I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, neither height, nor depth, nor any other thing in creation, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39).
The whole of the 13th chapter of his first letter to the church in Corinth.
“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. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)
People often find Jesus easier to handle than Paul. Everyone likes stories after all, and when you string together the stories about or by Jesus, you get the Gospels.
Letters may be a bit old-fashioned these days, but a heartfelt one is always welcome. But sometimes Paul’s letters become “disquisitions.” A friend of mine, when she’s talking about preaching, puts it this way, “I prefer anecdotes to arguments.”
But I want to say to you that it’s ok… not just ok, but wise to approach faith through one or the other of its many voices, the one that helps you most. Of course, as Christians we approach God through Christ. But if the words and explanations of Paul are how you encounter and understand Christ, give thanks to God and draw near. If Paul is off-putting, but Luke is dear to you, give thanks for those parables and stories and miracles of Jesus.
Along these same lines, if John’s Gospel and its “I am” self-descriptions of Jesus warm your heart… Or if one of the Hebrew Scripture’s prophets’ thundering challenges makes you feel God is in the room… go with whatever pricks your spirit, makes your mind race or your heart beat faster.
If it’s Augustine’s Confessions. Or Julian of Norwich. Or Simone Weil. Or C.S. Lewis. Or Desmond Tutu. Give thanks for how another’s witness strengthens you, and continue on the journey.
Beloved, to find someone else’s religious reflection, in Scripture or elsewhere, that opens you up to God, this a particular blessing — grace itself. Lean on it. Lean into it.
We all have our own take, and, therefore, different needs when it comes to accessing faith. (Maybe this is why there are so many different churches and interpretations of tradition?) But ultimately, what is important is that you find the help that brings you closer to God.
Back to Jesus and Paul! They are really just different sides of the same precious coin. Or one faith, albeit in the inflections and accents of two distinct voices. But there’s no coin without both sides. Because we could not have the Christianity we have inherited without both.
Sometimes people suggest that Paul messed up the simple faith and practice of Jesus. Yes, of course, as Christians, we need Jesus’ teaching. And his example. And death and resurrection. But we also need Paul’s preaching of about how Jesus’ resurrection-witness and our faithful-lives make a difference.
Maybe too, alongside relying on the angle from which the faith makes the most sense to us, we should also stretch ourselves and try to grapple with one of the perspectives that’s harder for us to embrace. Because as important as fellow-travelers are, the discontinuities of those who are different can also teach us something important about ourselves, the world and God.
I sometimes think of church as the place where we are brought together to be supported in our similarity and challenged in our difference.
I hope to see you there,