This is the script of a sermon I preached at Meadowood senior center, October 8, 2017.
Are there verses in the Bible that you just don’t like?
One struggle I’ve had almost ever since I became a Christian has been dealing with the Apostle Paul.
Here’s the backstory. In August of 1972 I was on my way my bicycle from southern Oregon to Seattle, returning to college from my summer job. God was already chasing me. Already that summer I had been witnessed to on a Greyhound bus by a little old lady from Orofino, Idaho, and in a park by a barely literate hippie kinda guy from the Gospel Lighthouse in Eureka, California. In Coos Bay I’d gone into a head shop, a place that sold drug paraphernalia, looking for a place to stay and the owner had referred me to a Christian street mission. I’d enjoyed the people there so much I’d stayed there an extra night. The folks there had referred me to the home of a Christian lady in Newport, and she had referred me to her niece and nephew-in-law, who ran a communal crash pad called the Shiloh house in Seaside.
After a couple of days at the Seaside Shiloh house I realized that there was something there that I wanted, and I decided not to return to college. After a few more days of Bible study and singing psalms, I started to understand that my problems were the result of my rebellion against God. I say started to understand because I had no idea how deep my rebellion against him was, and 45 years later I still surprise myself with how quickly I find myself thinking seriously about chucking the whole Christian scene.
As I said, the Shiloh house was a commune and crash pad, one of many in the Pacific Northwest at the time. In those days young people were hitchhiking all over the country, and they needed cheap places to stay overnight. The Shiloh houses would let people stay overnight and feed them for free and tell them the gospel. People who lived there would go out on the street in the evening to pass out tracts and witness to the people they saw, and if they saw a “tripper,” they’d invite them to stay overnight.
So even from day one I was out on the street passing out tracts and accosting people. After Labor Day, Seaside pretty much shuts down, so Shiloh closed that house and moved me to Boise, Idaho, where I stayed until almost Christmas, when I felt it was time to move on. But I have never forgotten the daily regimen of two Bible studies per day, singing songs straight from Scripture, and going out on the streets at night to pass out tracts and try to start conversations.
One place people liked to hang out after dark in Boise was the parking lot of the Boise Cascade Corporation offices. They’d park their cars, sit in them or stand around, talk, smoke, and drink beer. We’d go and chat them up. One evening I was talking to a twenty-something girl who passed herself off to me as an off-duty nurse. I’m not sure how the conversation got there, but she was objecting to what she understood as Christianity’s view that women are inferior to men. So I pulled out my King James Bible—Shiloh people used only the King James Bible—and started reading a passage I’d never read before that I thought would assure her that God loves women as much as he loves men, 1 Timothy 2:8–9: “I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting. In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel [Who could object to that?], with shamefacedness ….” Shamefacedness?
Well, that was the end of that conversation. And, of course, there are other passages that to this day I can’t get my mind around. Like 1 Corinthians 11:14: “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?” Um, no, that’s a lesson I haven’t learned. Besides, how long is long? Or 1 Timothy 2:11, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.” Or 1 Corinthians 14:35, “it is a shame for women to speak in the church”: “church” in Paul’s day would have looked more like what we would call a home Bible study, so does that mean women can’t speak in Bible studies? Or 1 Corinthians 11:10, speaking of how women should appear in public worship: “For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.” We take “power” to mean some sort of covering, but it’s a strange use of the term, and how angels fit into the picture I’ve never heard a good explanation. So I’m happy to go to a church where most women don’t wear veils or shawls or bonnets or caps; am I thumbing my nose at the Apostle Paul by so doing? How many of you ladies here would come to these meetings if you had to wear a head covering before you were admitted?
And then there are numerous places where his sentences are grammatically incoherent and he seems to go from one topic to another without any logical connection. He’s not an easy author to read, and I get the feeling that he wasn’t exactly mister warm and fuzzy in person. All in all, he’s a pretty difficult guy to relate to.
Now we Christians tend to look askance at the Muslim doctrine that because Muhammad is God’s prophet, to speak against Muhammad is to speak against God. But am I not doing the same thing by questioning Paul, God’s prophet? To speak against what Paul has written is to speak against the word of God, isn’t it? And God identifies very closely with his word: “The Word was with God and the Word was God.” To speak against what Paul has written is to speak against Jesus. Either that or we have to deny that what Paul has written is the word of God, in which case we have to decide what the word of God is, or even if God has spoken at all, and good luck with that.
So, what evidence do we have that Paul’s words are the words of God?
For me, oddly enough, it comes down to his life, who he was as a person. He doesn’t seem to have been mister warm and fuzzy, but there’s a depth of character there that even I with my blind spots can see.
God called him, as you remember, by striking him blind on the road to Damascus. He then sent a Christian man named Ananias to lay hands on him so his sight would be restored. Interesting, isn’t it, that the name Ananias is the English version of the Hebrew name Ḥanan-Yah, which means the grace of Yahweh, the Lord? What was the primary focus of Paul’s teaching? Grace! The grace of God shown in Jesus. He uses the word 100 times in his letters.
When God told Ananias to go find Paul, Ananias was afraid that Paul would kill him. After all, Paul had come to Damascus to cleanse the place of Christians. But God says something interesting to Ananias: “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:16). And Paul did suffer. In the Book of Acts, we read of him being thrown out of towns, beaten with rods, and stoned and left for dead. He tells the Corinthians, “Five times I received from the Jews forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with a rod. [Just one of either of those would be enough to get me to stop, but even after seven he kept going.] Once I received a stoning. Three times I suffered shipwreck. [Again, wouldn’t once be enough for most of us?] A night and a day I spent adrift in the open sea. I have been on journeys many times [They didn’t have Holiday Inn or even Motel 6 in those days.], in dangers from rivers [bridges were rare], in dangers from robbers [who would lurk in the bushes waiting for small groups of travelers to come by], in dangers from my own countrymen [who wanted to kill him for blasphemy], in dangers from Gentiles [who hated him for breaking up the unity of their communities that were based on idolatry], in dangers in the city, in dangers in the wilderness, in dangers at sea, in dangers from false brothers, in hard work and toil, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, many times without food, in cold and without enough clothing” (2 Cor 11:24–27). We’re not talking about a one-time deal here; we’re talking about a lifestyle of suffering. Does that sound like someone who sat in a comfortable chair surrounded by ivy-covered walls and sniffed contemptuously at women?
As for the incomprehensible sentences, he didn’t write his epistles with Microsoft Word and distribute them as PDFs. I’m with those who infer from comments he makes here and there that he could not see well enough to write, so he dictated his epistles. He could think faster than he could speak, and he could speak faster than his secretaries could write, and people read at speaking speed—they didn’t speed read silently, as we do today—so editing would have been a difficult chore. I don’t find it unreasonable to cut him some slack on that score.
But let’s get back to the hard passages, the ones I don’t like. As we’ve seen, Paul paid a high price for the privilege of writing every word of those hard passages. Now being willing to suffer for something does not make that something true or morally good. Kamakazes, jihadists who blow themselves up in crowds, and soldiers who fight in imperialist wars are brave. Why do I make an exception for Paul, and say that his life backs up words I have a hard time obeying?
Because he more than anyone else in history speaks of the grace of Jesus, and he follows in a long line of people who had the same message. Moses spoke God’s words of grace—like “It is not because you were more numerous than all the other peoples that the Lord favored and chose you – for in fact you were the least numerous of all peoples. Rather it is because of his love for you and his faithfulness to the promise he solemnly vowed to your ancestors” (Deut 7:7)—and worked miracles, and yet the Israelites didn’t believe him, and he died without setting foot in the promised land. Micaiah spoke God’s words to the kings of Israel and Judah, prophesying doom if they continued on with their evil plans; no one believed him, and the last we hear of him he was headed for prison. Jeremiah wept as he pleaded with his people to repent, but they refused, and he was abducted and taken to Egypt, which is as far as we know where he died. They all spoke hard words in the name of a God who loves his people and is willing to forgive their rebellion if they will only turn to him and repent.
So, however reluctantly, I find myself saying, at least in principle, that Paul’s words are God’s words. And when I have to face my own unwillingness to obey the ones I don’t like, I find myself mentally sitting in the living room of the Shiloh house in Seaside, looking at the ocean, remembering Jesus’ words that those who follow him have to be willing to leave everything behind, and hoping that he would let me keep the stereo set I had just spent $300 on that was now sitting at my father’s house. Well, that stereo was waiting for me after I left Shiloh, but most of my memories of it are associated with things I wish had never happened. We ignore the hard passages in the Bible at our peril.
Let’s close with Paul’s words to his protegé Timothy: “This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ – and I am the worst of them! But here is why I was treated with mercy: so that in me as the worst, Christ Jesus could demonstrate his utmost patience, as an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim 1:15–16). Some say that Paul’s comments about women show that he is indeed the worst of sinners, and they’re welcome to their opinion.
But Paul’s message was not primarily about keeping women in subjection or reinforcing the male-female binary. Everything he said he said to point to Jesus. “We preach about a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). (Notice how he was willing to put up with the resentment of Jews and the scorn of Gentiles.) “I decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).
It was because Jesus had done so much for Paul that Paul was willing to suffer so much for Jesus. This same Jesus died so that his people could truly live for God, and his life is testimony that no matter how much we suffer, it’s worth it even in this life and will be even more so in the world to come.
“The Spirit and the bride [Jesus’ people] say [to Jesus], ‘Come [and rule over us]!’ And let the one who hears [God’s word] say: ‘Come [Jesus, and rule over me]!’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wants it take the water of life free of charge.” Amen.