1st Sunday after Trinity
18.6.17 St Barbara’s
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Today we turn our attention to one of the most important figures in world history, and after Christ, probably the most important person in the history of the church. Without Paul, and if someone else hadn’t come forward to do what he did, Christianity may have remained an off-shoot of Judaism, largely following Jewish laws and believed in only by Jewish people. We would in all likelihood not be here in church today. Nor would the message he proclaimed have permeated throughout Europe, shaping our culture, our laws, even our language. As well as travelling thousands of miles around Europe and the middle east he also wrote or influenced 13 of the New Testament’s 22 letters. He is a person of extraordinary importance.
And he is someone who stirs up strong emotions. I wonder what your first thoughts are when you think of him? Admiration, respect or dislike? He is certainly a contentious figure who divides opinion even within the church. Over the next few weeks we are going to be looking at his letters to try and understand him better and to allow God to speak to us through his writings. But to start with, we are going to do a whistle-stop tour of his life to put things in context.
Paul was born in Tarsus in south-east Turkey, but spent most of his childhood growing up in Jerusalem learning at the feet of one of the leading Pharisees of the day, Gamaliel. Such an upbringing hugely influenced him: he became a rabbi himself and was passionately devoted to a strict interpretation of the Jewish faith, with an emphasis on keeping the ways and laws of his Jewish ancestors. Thus he was appalled at what he saw as the heretical cult springing up that claimed that a mere human being had been elevated to be Messiah, especially one who had criticised the Temple and who had died the death of a criminal. For Paul, this was just horrific blasphemy, so with a passion that was the mark of his entire life he set himself to persecuting and destroying the church.
He played a minor role in the stoning of Stephen, holding the cloaks of those throwing the stones, and then began to relentlessly hunt down Christians, going from home to home, and city to city. It was on his way to Damascus that everything changed. Paul was suddenly blinded by a vision of the risen Christ, and over the coming days his entire life was turned around: from the fledgling Christian faith’s most implacable opponent, he came to be its most ardent advocate; from a despiser of Jesus, he came to be his most passionate follower. From that point on, he knew that God was calling him to tell others about Jesus, and remarkably, for someone whose Jewish faith was so central to his whole identity, to tell Gentiles, non-Jews about Jesus. Paul was one of the first to realise that Christ was more than just for the Jews; he had come for the whole world. And so with extraordinary passion and perseverance he went about that task.
For the next 10-15 years Paul slips a little under the radar. We know he spent time in Arabia and Tarsus, almost certainly reflecting on his Damascus road experience and sharing his new-found Christian faith there. But then a key leader of the early church, Barnabas, tracks him down and brings him to Antioch to help him there.
From there in about 45AD Paul and Barnabas are sent off by the church to start spreading the news about Christ. They go first to Cyprus, where they share their faith with the Roman governor, who remarkably becomes a Christian. On from there, they head to the Turkish mainland, and they start visiting towns and cities in that area. A clear pattern begins to emerge which we heard in our reading about Iconium. Paul and Barnabas would arrive in the town, make their way to the Jewish synagogue and preach to the local Jews. Some would believe, but soon faced by opposition, they would leave the synagogue and speak at other gatherings, where large numbers of Gentiles would also believe. After a while, opposition to them would often turn violent and they would be forced to flee the city. But usually that meant only going up to the next city further along the trading route and starting the same pattern again.
So Paul went in turn to Turkish or Pisidian Antioch, to Iconium, to Lystra (where for a short time people started worshipping them as gods until Paul managed to persuade them to stop) and Derbe. And despite the danger to their lives they returned to each of those cities on the way back, appointing leaders for the churches. Paul was not just interested in making converts; he wanted to establish healthy, positive churches that would continue to thrive long after he had moved on. So when he returned back to Antioch, he wrote these churches a letter to encourage them and support them. As all these churches were in the Roman province of Galatia, this letter became called “The Letter to the Galatians”, and we will look at what he wrote to them next week.
But Paul’s ministry was stirring up controversy. Many people converting to Christianity were not Jews. Some Jewish Christians were insisting that to be fully Christian the Gentiles also needed to obey the laws of Jewish religion such as circumcision and food laws. Paul strenuously argued against this – indeed we find many of his arguments in the letter he wrote to the Galatians – and at a big council in Jerusalem, the leaders of the church agreed with him. It was a huge moment in the direction of the church.
Paul immediately got back on the road. He wanted to tell the churches in Turkey/ Galatia in person what had been agreed, and so he goes back there. From there Paul wanted to go into uncharted territory in Western Turkey to take the Gospel message there, but instead he has a vision from God calling him to Greece. So he heads over to Phillipi, a Roman colony and the main city in northern Greece. Luke tells the extraordinary story of what happens there. On the first Sunday he is there Paul meets up with some women praying by the river. Lydia, a purple-cloth merchant, becomes a Christian. A riot is then stirred up against him when he heals a girl who has earned a lot of money for her owners through a prophesying spirit. Paul is flogged and thrown in prison. An earthquake sets him free but he refuses to leave, the result of which is that the jailor and his whole family come to faith, and Paul preaches to the city Council.
From there in turn he goes to Thessalonica and Berea – in both places people believe and churches are established, but he is forced to flee due to riots and death threats. He then heads south to Athens, the cultural capital of the world, where he debates with philosophers, before heading to Corinth. Corinth, a bustling port, seems to be a much more receptive and tolerant place, and Paul is able to stay for a whole 18 months preaching and establishing the church there. Whilst there, it is thought that he might have written his two letters to the church in Thessalonica, sharing with them things he may have wanted to share in person before his abrupt departure.
Paul heads home to Antioch before once again resuming his travels. He pops into the churches in Galatia before getting to Ephesus, a city of huge religious and political importance to the whole region of western Turkey. He stays there two and a half years, teaching and writing letters. Ephesus became the hub from which churches spring up across the region. And from there we think Paul wrote both his letters to the church in Corinth.
After Ephesus he headed over to Greece to encourage the churches there, before travelling to Jerusalem. During his travels the churches had raised money for the poor in Jerusalem, and he was anxious to deliver the gift there. His plan from there was to head over to Spain, a place where no-one had yet been with the news of Christ, but it was not to be. Anti-Pauline Jews visiting Jerusalem from Turkey stirred up the city against him and for his own protection and to keep this vociferous faction happy the Roman governor arrests him and puts him in prison for two years. Paul claims his right as a Roman citizen to have his case heard before Caesar in Rome, and so he is then sent there. A terrible storm hits their ship and after 14 days of horrific seas they are shipwrecked. Paul eventually makes it to Rome, where he is then kept under house arrest for another two years. Its during that time that he writes his remaining letters to the churches.
We don’t know how Paul dies, but it seems likely that it happened a few years after arriving in Rome as part of the mass killings carried out by the Emperor Nero who blamed the Christians for the great fire that destroyed most of Rome.
How does this history relate to us?
Well firstly, I hope it gives us the context to understand Paul’s letters when we come to read them. Paul was not writing theological treatises in a vacuum. He was writing to real people in real situations, people that he had visited and spent time with, people with whom he had suffered with and experienced beatings and riots with. These were his friends. They mattered to him.
Secondly, his story is one that gives us hope that God can touch the life of even the least likely of people. We may have friends or family that we would love to know God but seem so far away from believing in him. The story of Paul gives us all hope for them.
And thirdly, we get the sense of the extraordinary passion and drive of Paul, his willingness to keep going. Those were qualities that were already in evidence even before he became a Christian, but now they are channelled for the purposes of God. All of us here have unique personalities, strengths and qualities. Like Paul, those things can be used for good too and we can be open to God using them.
This week, why not take time to read more about Paul’s life. It is an extraordinary and often exciting read. Take away the reading sheets and use them or if you would like a daily email reminder with the passage so that you can read it on your phone or tablet at a convenient point in the day, email me or sign up at the back.
I hope you will all be inspired to find out more about this man we call Saint Paul.