The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      24th July 2022
In praise of Paul
Robert Morley

Open our ears, O Lord,

to hear your word and know your voice.

Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills,

that we may serve you today and always. Amen

This time last week, from this pulpit, you heard a sermon that essentially begun: ‘The problem with Paul is…’ I can well imagine that as being the title of a sermon series, perhaps one in three-parts.
      The first part, which was Graham’s sermon, delivered by Jeremy, last week, went ‘The problem with Paul is that he must have been quite a difficult character to be around’.
      Part Two, the one which must be left to someone else to preach, is: ‘The problem with Paul is that we only have fragments of his correspondence, and never hear the other side of the story; we find ourselves eavesdropping on conversations which were often about particular concerns that seem very distant from our own.’

Today’s reading, from 1 Corinthians chapter 10, brings us to the third problem with Paul: which is that his writing can be so very convoluted.

So there you have it: the problem of reading Paul: character, context, and complexity. There is, by the way, a lovely little book, Conrad Gempf’s How to like Paul Again, for anyone who wants to hear the counter-argument.

Turning to today’s passage, the missing context is as follows: the Corinthians were the metropolitan elite of the ancient world; and their city was a seaport with all the exoticism and depravity of seaports the world over. Their church was a nightmare: its congregation reflected both the entitled liberalism of some of its wealthier members, and the promiscuity of others, while ignoring the plight of the poor and marginalised. Within years of its founding, the educated elite in the Corinthian church were beginning to interpret the Gospel of Christian Salvation as a license to live as one pleased.
      One particular issue that had emerged - but one that it is difficult to find a direct modern parallel for - was that the more sophisticated members of the church were going out to festivals where meat was being eaten that had been offered to pagan gods. ‘Where’s the problem?’, they argued: ‘we know that these idols don’t really exist.’ Paul’s initial response to this, in Chapter 8, had been to say that such an attitude was of no help to the ‘weaker’ members of the congregation. Now he circles back to the same issue with a second argument: to eat meat that has been offered in pagan sacrifices was to put God to the test. And God, the Christian God, the only God, Paul reminds them, is not some abstract world-soul that Greek philosophy might arrive at, but He is the jealous Hebrew God who interacts with his people and who killed off those in the wilderness who had failed to respond appropriately to the blessings that accompanied Israel’s deliverance from Egypt.

Where Paul’s argument becomes complex is in how he reads Christ back into the Hebrew Scriptures, and in how he rearranges the elements of the familiar deliverance from Egypt story. Listen again to the opening verses of this chapter: “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3and … all drank … from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.”
      Let’s begin with ‘Our ancestors were under the cloud and all passed through the sea’: first of all we must not be misled by the English expression about being under a cloud - this has nothing to do with a suspicion of scandal hovering over God’s people; rather, you will remember the pillar of smoke by day and the pillar of fire by night -  this is the cloud that protected and guided Israel in the wilderness. But why is Paul pairing the cloud not with the pillar of the fire, as you might expect, but with their passing through the Red Sea? The key of an answer lies in the phrase that ‘all were baptized into Moses’: Paul is alluding to the Corinthians’ Christian baptism, which is both a water baptism and a spiritual baptism into the cloud of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, Moses struck living water from the rocks in wilderness, and that rock, says Paul, that spiritual rock was Christ.

So here is one clue to liking Paul again: to read him not just as a thinker, as a theologian and a Hebrew philosopher, but to read him as a poet: Paul’s mixing and extension of metaphors often provide the high-wire spectacle that is the gift of a great poet.

What, I wonder, might Paul want us ‘not to be unaware of’? I can think of three things. The first is that the issue of eating sacrificial meat is essentially a matter of faith and culture. It isn’t so much a question of asking what are the idols and demons that we are in danger of bowing down to - though materialism, individualism, secularism, and various political and economic shibboleths offer plenty of candidates; rather, we need to go back to this passage to ask what are the boundaries, the no-go areas, that we need to observe in order to build up the life of the church.

Secondly, Paul goes beyond the common trope of saying that suffering and life’s difficulties are God’s way of testing us, to claim that the reverse is also true: that our behaviour and our attitudes test God. That’s a powerful stimulus for self-reflection: to ask ourselves at the end of each day, how have I put God to the test today? What is there in me that has tested God’s patience? After all, the general confession that we make in our communal worship only makes sense if we make it in the light of deliberate, ongoing self-examination.

And finally, there is something about Paul’s rabbinical sense of history that is startlingly different from our own. He does not go back to the Scriptures to ask how they are relevant to the current situation, or what the Corinthians can learn from them: instead, he flings his Corinthian audience - who, BTW, are a newly-adopted Israelites - he hurls them back into the story of Moses and of Israel’s deliverance from captivity, at the same time as he recasts the wilderness story with Christ as its protagonist.

I don’t know about you, but I have tended to look at the Old Testament world through the wrong end of the telescope: its stories of tribal wars, and plagues, and a rather defenceless nation trying to make sense of it all, have seemed a far cry from my own experience of life in Western Europe in the late 20th and early 21st century. And yet, in recent years, witnessing a pandemic, climate change, mass migration, and now watching one European state attempt to obliterate another, the cruelty, horrors, and chaos of the Old Testament world have become distinctly less distant. Hearing the story of Joseph’s brothers coming to Egypt to beg for wheat in times of famine - what relevance and poignancy that story has at this time!

So perhaps it’s time to reverse the telescope and to look at the Hebrew experience of history close up, and as we look closely at the desert wastes, the busy cities, and the fortunes of peoples wandering across the Biblical landscape, we may well look to St Paul as our guide. But don’t expect a tour guide. Paul will bully and cajole us, he will challenge our conventional understandings; he may even, on occasion enchant us. Let his words, too, serve as an example, for they were written down to instruct us.

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