Mystical Paul  

Posted by Joe Rawls

For today's feast of the Conversion of St Paul, I was invited by the monks of Mount Calvary at St Mary's to give a brief homily, followed by comments from the congregants, at the regular Friday morning liturgy of Lauds/Eucharist, which is attended by 20-25 people from the local community. 

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The Gospel:  Matt 10:  16-22
I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.  Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.
Be on your guard against people; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues.  On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.  But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it.  At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.  Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death.  All people will hate you because of me, but whoever stands firm to the end will be saved.

Last week, when Brother Nicholas asked me to speak, he admonished, "Say something positive about Paul".  So, in monastic obedience, I will not make snarky remarks about Paul the misogynistic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, opinionated windbag.  Instead, I will talk about Paul the mystic.

"Mystic", of course, is not the first word that pops into most people's minds when they hear the name Paul.  There definitely is, however, a mystic side to Paul, which we have to recover if we are to rehabilitate him from his image as a kind of first-century male version of the Church Lady.  But to do this, I must beg your indulgence and skip momentarily to a different scripture passage.

2 Corinthians chapter 12 describes an episode in Paul's life in which he momentarily left our familiar space-time continuum and experienced God directly:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven.  Whether it was in the body or out of the body, i do not know--God knows.  And I know that this man--whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows--was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.

In first-century Mediterranean cosmology, "the third heaven" is the place where God dwells.  "The first heaven" would correspond to what we think of as the earth's atmosphere, while "the second heaven" would be outer space.  So Paul had an ecstatic experience in which he encountered God directly and acquired esoteric knowledge.

Of course, there was also Paul's conversion experience on the road to Damascus.  And, less dramatically, he constantly refers to being "in Christ" in his letters.

Scholars have connected Paul's "third heaven" experience to earlier visionaries such as Isaiah, Elijah, Ezekiel, and Enoch, and to later things like the Jewish Merkabah tradition, a predecessor of Kabbalah.  So his experience was not eccentric but deeply rooted in his original Jewish faith.

So how do we tie all this in with the Gospel reading?  Christian-Jewish dialog has progressed to a point where we no longer have to fear getting beat up in synagogues.  But what if we interpret this passage as a metaphor for confrontation with the leadership of the church?  It's no secret that all churches, particularly the mainline denominations, are under serious financial and organizational stress.  The temptation to preserve the institution at all costs, to double down on what has always worked in the past, is very strong.  We may not be mystics as was Paul, but most of us are strong contemplatives.  We have something to offer the larger church--a reason to exist that goes beyond stewardship campaigns.  If we witness to the truth of our experience to the church powers, we will often be politely ignored or even ridiculed.  But if we allow the Spirit of our Father to speak through us, we will indeed stand firm to the end, and perhaps bring new life to our beloved, crazy-making church.

This entry was posted on Friday, January 25, 2013 at Friday, January 25, 2013 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

1 comments

Very nice, Joe!

January 25, 2013 at 7:22 PM

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