By Lauren R. Stanley
I’ve been having long conversations with the Apostle Paul of late due to some long-term writing assignments in which I am engaged, and the more I talk with Paul, the more I realize, we don’t always know what he meant.
Some of his statements are hurtful. Can you imagine being one of those new followers of the Way in Galatia, hearing Paul call you “foolish” because he doesn’t agree with how you are living your new life in Christ? How about being one of those Corinthians, listening as Paul – who was no longer in your midst – castigated you for re-interpreting what he had taught?
Some of his statements are so uplifting they make your soul climb right into heaven: “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” “The Spirit helps us in our weakness … (and) intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” “If God is for us, who is against us?”
And then there is Paul’s incredibly beautiful statement on love: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” What could be more beautiful than that?
When I am in my most generous moods, I love what Paul has to say. It may not be clear, but through his words, I can catch glimpses of heaven.
When I am in my less generous moods, I rant and rage at Paul: How dare you say that women are to be silent in church? How dare you say slaves have to obey their masters? (Slaves!? Slaves?!?!)
But the deepest conversations come from when I can’t figure out what Paul is trying to say. Lord knows, he’s quoted all the time by anyone and everyone who wants to make a point on any and every subject. And Lord knows, people claim to understand exactly what Paul means, especially on the most controversial of current issues, sexuality.
But me? I think even Paul wasn’t certain what he exactly meant. After all, this is the man who admitted, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been known.”
So when I get to heaven (by God’s grace alone, of that I am certain), I want to sit down with Paul. I want to ask him: What did you mean? Did you know how your statements would be used? Did you think you had the last word? Or did you know, or think, or believe, that our understanding of your words would develop as time went by, and people changed and grew, and whole new cultures were discovered? Which things that you said were immutable to you, and which were to grow in the Spirit of which you speak so frequently, so eloquently?
There are times when I think I understand Paul. And there are times when I know I don’t have the foggiest idea what he means. And there are times, too, which I think, “OK, that was then, this is now.”
But I won’t know the answers to these questions until I get to heaven. Because there, I am convinced, all things will indeed be mediated by God on high, and hopefully, I won’t have to ask any questions, because then I will know fully, as I am fully known.
In the meantime, I struggle with Paul, the Church’s first theologian, who in the immediacy of the moment said some things that he felt simply had to be said, but who might have a different take now, 2,000 years later. I don’t know that – it’s simply what I believe.
I think that Paul must be upset at how his words are used to hurt and exclude people. I think Paul must be pacing up and down in anger some days, as he must have been when he wrote that letter to the Galatians, fuming that we simply don’t get what he meant, and by God, not only does he need to explain it again, we need to listen again, and again, and again, until we finally do get it. And while he is pacing in frustration, I am convinced that he simply must be weeping in frustration and pain, just as God weeps when something awful happens to us, that Paul suffers with us as God suffers with us.
When I am struggling the most, I fall back on the one statement that I know to the depths of my being is true, for it rings not of Paul but of God, in all of God’s glory: “And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” I think Paul knew that in the end, the inexplicable mystery of God’s love is more important than anything else, that love itself is the greatest gift of God and is the only thing that holds us together, even when we disagree with each other.
In the meantime, my conversations with Paul continue, sometimes in complete understanding, sometimes without the foggiest idea of what I am doing or what Paul means. Because by staying in conversation, even without the deep understanding of each other, we are building up the relationship, and that, more than anything else, deepens the love.
The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church serving in the Diocese of Renk, Sudan. She is a lecturer at the Renk Theological College, teaching Theology, Liturgy and English, and serves as chaplain for the students.