Monday, February 27, 2017

Who Is Paul?

            Probably one of the larger surprises I had when I began serious Bible study in Seminary was the need to pay some attention to when some of the material was written and how various duplicate versions of the same account might make sense. 

            Galatians 1: 11-24 is one of the examples.  In this passage Paul tells of his background (a very limited autobiography.)  Of course the version of Paul’s life story I knew was from the book Acts of the Apostles, chapter 9.  There you have the familiar story most of us learned in Sunday Schools.  Saul goes out with letters of authority from the Jewish religious leaders to find and persecute (in whatever fashion he felt appropriate) any followers of The Way (followers of Jesus).  He is sent out toward Damascus. 

            Damascus, Syria is a distance of about 138 miles from Jerusalem.
The writer of the Acts of the Apostles places Paul’s Conversion Story somewhere on the outskirts of this city.  There, according to Acts of the Apostles, Saul had a vision, was  temporarily blinded, and from that day forward was a fierce preacher of the Christian faith, establishing churches throughout the Mediterranean.

            I thought that was the one and only story of Paul’s beginning ministry.  Not so fast.  The version in the Acts of the Apostles was written about two generations after Paul by an unknown writer who was given the name “Luke”, but was not the Luke of the earlier generation who worked with Paul.  The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles (volume one and two,  as it were) were written sometime in the early 2nd century.  Paul died around 67 Common Era. 

            We do have Paul’s account of his beginning ministry.  It is found in these verses of the book of Galatians, which he wrote around the year 50 Common Era.  There are places where the two accounts agree and places where they do not.  Bible scholarship gives a preference to the earliest version, particularly when the source is the person himself.   So what can we know about Paul?

            The first thing Paul wants everyone to know is that his vocational call was directly from God’s Own Self.  In the book of Acts, Paul gets his authorization for ministry from the Jerusalem leadership of “The Way” (as the early Christian Church was called).
In Galatians Paul says he got his authority from God and God alone. 
            For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

            Paul’s account in the book of Galatians gives a broad hint that he was persecuting Christians in Damascus (he says he returns to Damascus after this time in Arabia).  He gives no indication he was sent to Damascus from Jerusalem.  In fact the Jewish leadership had no authority to do such a thing.  Besides, 138 miles is quite a distance from their jurisdiction!  Paul was likely a member of the Jewish community there in Syria who did not like the emergence of this Jewish based by Gentile leaning community.  Paul admits to violently persecuting the followers of The Way and trying to destroy it.  He was definitely a Jew:
            I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.  (Rom. 11:1)
            Are they Hebrews”  So am I.  Are they Israelites?  So am I.  Are they descendants of Abraham?  So am I.  (2 Cor. 11:22)
            I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.  (Gal. 1:14)

            Why would a Jew be so vehement against those who followed the teachings of a Jesus teacher who lived and died as a Jew?  It would make more sense to see this level of vitriol coming from the Roman Empire.

            By this time Rome was well engaged in controlling any threat of the Jews to Roman sensibilities.  In fact around 70 Common Era the Jewish people would loose  literal battles to control the territory, including the city of Jerusalem and the Temple itself would be destroyed.  Rome didn’t need to have individual zealots tamp down an emerging religious strain of Judaism.  They had Roman legions to do that.

            The Jewish religious leaders did not have their own forces.  Nor could they authorize persecution as the account in the book of Acts suggests.  There was growing tensions between the established Jewish leadership and this upstart group called “The Way”.  There was growing tension between Jewish Christians and converts to Jesus’ Way also.  To both Jewish authorities and the Jewish Christians, the appropriate way to follow Jesus was to become a Jew (circumcision and adherence to all the teachings of the Law) as well as affirmation of belief in the Risen Lord.  People were finding something important in the teachings and the experience of Christ and were not feeling the need to also become a Jew.  That was a problem.  That was the issue, no doubt, about which Paul was so adamant.

            In Galatians Paul says that he had an experience of God that was life changing – and life affirming.  God revealed God’s Self to him.  God revealed to Paul that the “Good News” of Jesus was open to all people – Jews and Gentiles.  There was no need to become a Jew to become a Christian.  Jesus had broken that barrier.  When Paul is writing his letter to the churches of Galatia he is confronting them about this same issue.  The missionaries that were on their doorstep were telling them they were inauthentic Christians because they had not become Jews first.  Paul says no emphatically and illustrates with his own experience.

            It seems to me there remains a relevance here to our life experience.  No, no one is encouraging members of any church to become Jews and undergo any ritual of circumcision.  However, it seems to be that the Church is at odds within itself in many ways about what it means to be a “Real” Christian.  On one side of the spectrum we are hearing that real Christianity means certain things, including: a born-again experience (time and date identifiable), a pro-life stance that is unerring in relationship to birth but little else, a strict adherence to the Law as found in Exodus and Deuteronomy.  The other side of the spectrum has it’s own litmus test, including:  broad vision of justice and advocating for the poor, a variety of experiences that lead people to God, an appreciation for the multiple religions of the world.    It goes on in the ways we worship (high church, low church) and govern (hierarchical or individual church).   Each side seems intent on declaring that if you don’t believe as we do, you are not Christian.

            I do think there is a lot of danger in this.  The more we concentrate on the litmus tests to faith, the less we pay attention to the actual words and teachings and attitudes Jesus himself taught.
We become so divided we cannot work effectively in a community to address the needs of people, to walk the path of Jesus.  We become so divided into our various ways of faith that those who are seeking meaning in their lives get a very confused choice placed in front of them.  How might we cross lines of differences within our faith communities to affirm our common discipleship to Jesus Christ?

Grace and Peace

Rev. Clara

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Alternative “Good News”?

         When is the Gospel not the Gospel?” might be the question Paul is addressing in Galatians 1:6-10.  No doubt our response would be there is no “Alternative Gospel” or “Fake Gospel”.  The Gospel is the Gospel, end of story.  Yet six verses into his letter to the churches in Galatia Paul dispenses with the traditional words of thanksgiving and begins scolding them for listening to “Alternative” versions of the Gospel (a word that means “Good News”).

            For Paul, and indeed the essence of the meaning of “Gospel”, the good news is that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ God acted decisively for humankind.  Grace is not just a kindly attitude.  It is God’s reconciliation of the world to God’s Own Self through Christ’s self-giving on the cross.  We don’t earn it.  We don’t deserve it.  We can’t buy it either at full price or on sale.  And in that remarkable gift of grace, God has taken control and the Realm of God is present, then and now and always.

            The folks in the churches of Galatia were doing well while they kept this message front and center.  But then some other folks stopped by – well meaning folks – folks who also shared the Christian faith – folks who felt their interpretation of the faith was a little more authentic then those newcomers – folks with a missionary zeal.
They traveled the Mediterranean area looking up new Christian communities and proselytizing their ideas about what “true” Christianity was all about.  Since many of them had once been Jewish and had since become Christian they wanted to make sure their particular  Judeo-Christian tradition was kept.  They wanted these Christians who had come from other traditions (Pagan) to add to their confession of faith in the saving power of Jesus the practices of the Law of Moses.  In particular they were insisting that all men undergo a rather painful surgery in a ritualized form that is known as circumcision.  In doing so they would become children of the covenant as well as confessors of Jesus.

            Paul emphatically says no – that is a “fake Gospel”.  The relationship with God is in the cross.  God has already acted for their salvation. 

            Fast forward a couple of thousand years and we do not see the discussion raging about circumcision as an act of church membership.  Its pros and cons are within the context of health recommendations and even that is changing.

            We do, however, see the conflict present as some within the umbrella of the Christian faith go beyond the message of the Gospel (God’s reconciling work in and for the world) and begin to insist on specifics – Levitical laws to condemn those who are Gay; insistence on the Ten Commandments to be visible everywhere (even when strict adherence to each of those commandments is not always closely followed by the advocates); reading science discoveries through the lens of pre-scientific thought; holding women to their “place”; lifting up the texts around slavery as a verification of superiority. 

            Throughout Jesus’ teachings he would say things like “You have heard that it was said, but I say unto you…”.  God’s reconciling work on the cross began in Bethlehem.  In Jesus we see God showing us the nuts and bolts of the Realm of God.  In Jesus God breaks into human history in a profoundly different way and initiates the Realm of God.  In Jesus those around him, and those who would learn about him, see the Gospel, the Good News.  In Jesus we see the real thing – nothing alternative nor fake about him.  In Jesus we learn how to live by love and radical welcome and  justice. 

            There have been other times when someone in the spirit of Paul has challenged “alternative” gospels.  The following is written by Richard B. Hays, Professor of New Testament, The Divinity School, Duke University, Durham, NC in his commentary on Galatians in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol XI, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 2000, page 207.

            A few historical examples can illustrate the point.  When Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg in 1517, protesting the sale of indulgences, he was confronting the distortion of truth by Christian leaders who had lost sight of the gospel of God’s free unmerited grace.  (It is no coincidence that Luther found in Galatians the clearest articulation of Christian freedom.]  When Karl Barth and members of the Confessing Church in Germany drafted the Barmen Declaration in 1934, they said no to the Nazis’ usurpation of the church.  In this way, they defined the truth of the gospel against a false gospel of nationalism and ethnicity.  Likewise, when in 1982 the World Alliance of Reformed Churches denounced the acceptance of racial apartheid by the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa as a heresy, they were following Paul’s example of pronouncing a curse on a dangerous perversion of the gospel.  If the church is to bear witness to the gospel with integrity in “the present evil age,” it must have the courage to make such discernments and to speak prophetically against destructive teachings that deny the grace of God.

Grace and Peace

Rev. Clara

Wednesday, February 15, 2017


            When I began this Pastor’s Blog last fall I indicated my desire to combine a bit of biblical reflection with the “seasons” of our lives – both the calendar year and the church year.  That purpose was fulfilled with some fall reflections on important holidays and the winter advent series around the idea of Mary remembering the events of Jesus birth.  Now we are in a new year and new seasons and the question arises as to what subject matter might be the lynchpin for this period of time.

            I am inviting you to join me in reading and contemplating the book of Galatians.  This book from the Epistles is generally considered the earliest of Paul’s writings.  I serve as Interim Pastor at St. Paul’s UCC.  That church is about to begin the serious work of writing their Local Church Profile.  They will be asking the questions:  Who Are We?  Who Are Our Neighbors?  Who Is God Calling Us To Be?  We as a faith community are about to begin a “season” of discovery.  The book of Galatians is a letter written to the churches of Galatia around these same basic questions.  It is my hope that this Bible Study Series will help us as a church in transition.

            Simple demographics are included in writing a Local Church Profile (the written document used in the United Church of Christ for the process to find and call a new pastor).  Questions are included such as “When was the church founded?”, “How many members are there?”, “What is the population distribution of the community based on the most recent census?”.  Those questions are much more difficult to answer for the churches of Galatia, because we have no way of knowing the details.

            It appears that the Apostle Paul had something to do with the formation of these churches, possibly during his first missionary trip. That indicates the churches were in the southern part of the region, once a Roman province.  It is equally possible that Paul is addressing churches founded slightly further north in a region settled by some of the ancient Celt peoples, known as ethnic Galatians.  In either case the general region of these churches is what was once known as Asia Minor and now known as that section of modern day Turkey east of Ankara.
            The book of Galatians is really a letter written in the style popular in the Mediterranean region of the time (First Century, Common Era).  Most scholars date the letter to around 50/51 CE.  That means that this is the earliest glimpse we have of developing Christianity and it was written somewhere around 20-25 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. 

            This letter was written with the intent that it should be read aloud in the churches during their worship gatherings.  Paul could not be present with them as they tried to sort out the questions that were troubling them.  Instead he wrote a letter to declare his positions.

            He begins (1:1) with a salutation and identifying himself as the letter writer.  He also includes his belief that he was also an Apostle, along with the original disciples.  His authority came from God.  He was writing the letter under that seal.

            The letter was addressed to the churches of Galatia.  There was more than one Christian community in this region.  This letter would travel by messenger from one place to another and be read aloud in each setting.

            Then in verse 3 we have one of the very first affirmations of faith.  We sometimes get so fond of a particular affirmation of faith (such as the Apostle’s Creed) that we fail to realize there were other affirmations of faith circulating before the Apostles’ Creed gained popularity.  In fact the first mention of an Apostles’ Creed dates to the late 4th century.  The Nicene Creed, another early creed, was developed a bit earlier in 325 CE during the Council of Nicea.  Verse 3 of chapter 1 in the letter to the churches of Galatia includes a faith affirmation dating back to the around 50 CE.

            Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever.  Amen.

            Here we have a fundamental declaration – It is God who takes the initiative to bring peace and reconciliation.  No wonder Martin Luther found wisdom in the letter to the Galatians that became translated as “justification by faith”.  Grace is a gift of God.  That faith affirmation passed down through the centuries reminds us that even when things seem the most chaotic and disturbing, there is something in the nature of God’s Own Self that is willing us grace and peace.  That is a direction on which we can set our compass. 

And in that Spirit…..

Grace and Peace

Rev. Clara

Friday, February 3, 2017

February 3, 1943

            In my office is a certificate stating that my name was registered on the honor roll of the Memorial for the Four Chaplains.  It was given to me as a thank you for my volunteer work at one of the several Post Chapels that were part of my life as an Army Wife.  Believe me I did nothing spectacular at all.  I was a consultant in matters around religious education.  That said, I considered (and still do) that recognition as a high honor and it has been the reason I have continued to tell the stories of these remarkable chaplains.  So as I write a blog on this day, let me introduce you to these men.

            George Fox was a Methodist minister.  He was born in Lewiston, Pennsylvania and served in World War I in the ambulance corps as a medical corps assistant.  From that war experience he was awarded the Silver Star, Purple Heart and the French Croix de Guerre.  In the years after the end of WWI he returned to Pennsylvania eventually marrying and also becoming an itinerant minister of the Methodist church.    He decided to join the Army Chaplain Service and went on active duty August 8, 1942  His son Wyatt enlisted in the Marines the same day.

            Alexander D. Goode was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1911.  His ties to the Washington DC area include graduating from Eastern High School in 1929.  He then went to Cincinnati where he graduated from the University of Cincinnati and Hebrew Union College.  He eventually also received a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1940.  He went on active duty as a Chaplain in the U.S. Army August 9, 1942.

            Clark Poling was born in Columbus, Ohio in the year 1910.  He graduated from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, attended Yale Divinity School and was ordained in the Reformed Church of America.  He served churches in New London, CT and Schenectady, NY before entering the Chaplain Service.

            John P. Washington was born in 1908, in Newark, NJ.  His story was that of an immigrant family struggling to make a new life in America.  His Roman Catholic upbringing brought him to make the vocational decision for the priesthood.  He was ordained a priest in 1935.  He served parishes in New Jersey before being appointed as a chaplain in the United States Army.  He went on active duty May 9, 1942.

            I share these mini-biographies so that these men acquire a face and a story for us.  You can go online to for more of their biography and more about their story.  (The “rest of the story” will come soon in this blogpost.)

            In the Gospel of John we hear these words of Jesus:  This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

            This is the Bible passage I think of each time I see that certificate on my wall and each time I find an opportunity to share the story of the four chaplains in worship. 

            I think of these four men who come from rather ordinary backgrounds and experiences.  I think about their families:  the parents that instilled values and the wives and children who survived to carry on their legacy of sacrifice.

            I think of the word “sacrifice” and its profound meaning.  Sacrifice has nothing to do with minor inconvenience.  Sacrifice has everything to do with being willing to put one’s life on the line for the sake of others.  Sacrifice in most of the dictionaries means giving up something of value to oneself for the sake of others or a greater good or as homage to that which is Holy. 

            I believe Jesus is calling each of us to be willing to live life fully and completely – but also at a sacrificial level where we love one another so deeply we would be at least willing to entertain the thought that we might have to give the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of others. 

            Certainly those who serve in our Armed Services know the meaning of sacrifice.  I think though of those who were willing to love for the sake of others during World War II when they put their lives and possessions in jeopardy to protect the Jews and to speak out against the atrocities of Nazism also understood the cost of sacrifice.  I think of  those who got on buses and headed to areas of the deep south to register people to vote, or to march across the bridge at Selma, AL, or who did the quiet work of caring about the civil rights of black men and women and children.  I think any time any of us risk our reputation and personal well-being for the sake of any of God’s children who are oppressed or brutalized by word or deed then we too will come to know the cost of sacrifice and  the cost of discipleship.  For Jesus, by ALL that we know of Jesus would be there loving people.

            The story of the four chaplains takes these men on board the UST Doncaster, a troopship, and into the icy waters around Greenland.  There, early on the morning of February 3, 1943, a torpedo from a German U-Boat found its target.  The Doncaster was hit and it sank.  The four chaplains took off the life jackets they were wearing and gave one to each of four men so that those men had a chance to be rescued and live another day.  The four chaplains died as the UST Doncaster succumbed to the icy water.

            I commend to anyone who reads this post the website for the Chapel of the Four Chaplains. 

            I also challenge each of us to prayerfully read those two verses from the Gospel of John.  Jesus calls us to love radically and sacrificially.  And Jesus never puts a limit on whom we may love.  As we listen to the rhetoric of the news and as we see one another in the street – ALL of these people are the people Jesus gave his life for and asks us to love at the same extravagant level.  How would loving sacrificially change the dialogue in the world?  Worth considering.

Grace and peace

Rev. Clara