By Dr. Randy L. Hyde
Let’s be honest here. After all, we’re amongst friends, aren’t we? Sometimes Paul – you know, the Apostle Paul – well, sometimes Paul gets under our skin.
For one thing, he was obviously quite intelligent, and some of us, who have been blessed with less native brain function, don’t appreciate those who are smarter than we are… especially when they use their intellect to lord it over us.
I have a friend who is so intelligent he uses it sometimes to intimidate people. And he knows it. It’s part of his charm, he says.
I was in a meeting one time with a group of ministers who pastor urban churches. We were sharing ideas about ministry, talking earnestly about how we could keep up with all that is going on in church life.
This is strictly an aside… For those of you who might not know it, the religious landscape is being busted wide open these days. The church to which I gave my early allegiance doesn’t exist anymore, and I’m not just talking about what has happened in the Southern Baptist Convention. It has affected all churches of all denominational traditions. Churches are going through more and faster changes right now than ever before in the 2000-year history of Christianity. In fact, there have probably been more changes in church life in the last twenty years than in all the span of Christian history before that. Meetings like the one I attended are going on everywhere because ministers are scrambling to deal with all the complexity of the challenges confronting today’s and tomorrow’s church and world.
One of the younger fellows in the group with which I met is something of a “child prodigy.” He has been recognized by my peers as an expert in strategic planning, has served in significant positions on a national level, and is in great demand for his services, not only in churches but in the corporate world as well. And he has the rather substantial ego to go with it. In a private conversation he informed me, without my really asking, that he has a photographic memory.
Don’t you just hate people like that? Well, hate may be too strong a word. How about resent? Yeah, that’ll do it. Don’t you just ha… I mean resent… people like that? Doesn’t even have to use notes when he preaches. I have a feeling Paul was like that. Intelligent, almost to a fault.
One thing is irrefutable. Paul was strong-minded, and certainly ahead of his time. And let’s give him this much: he had the intestinal fortitude to live on the basis of his deepest convictions. I have often said that when Christ accosted Paul on the Damascus Road, he converted his soul but not necessarily his personality. Paul was as tenacious after becoming a Christian and a missionary as he was in the early years when he argued in the councils of the Pharisees. Give Paul an issue with which he believed deeply, and like a bulldog he would sink his teeth into it and not let go.
It stands to reason, then, that my next point follows. Paul was opinionated. I’m condensing his remarks somewhat when I frame it this way, but look at the record. You’ll find it to be true. To the women in the church at Corinth he said they were to keep their heads covered and their mouths shut. Look it up. If you don’t believe me, look it up. He told them if they weren’t married to remain that way, but if their urges were too strong to do that, to go ahead and get married. Who gave Paul the authority to talk to them this way?
He does say that this is his own opinion and not any clear word he has received from the Lord. Oh, that’s big of him. But that in itself seems a bit arrogant, doesn’t it? He’s going to give them advice whether God has his ear on it or not.
Intelligent. Strong-minded. Opinionated. You can go ahead and add pushy to the list. He was in the habit of going from town-to-town starting churches. Once they started growing, developed some leadership, and looked as if they could do ministry effectively and stand on their own, Paul took off for the next challenge.
But he couldn’t leave his churches alone. He wrote them and in some cases re-visited them. We are richer for it, of course, because if he hadn’t done that our New Testament would be a whole lot thinner.
But, as I have said to you before, I doubt very seriously if Paul ever woke up in the morning and said to himself, “Think I’ll write some holy scripture today.” No. He woke up thinking, “I’ve got to write that church in Corinth and straighten them out! Those churches in Galatia are in a mess. They need to hear from me!”
He just couldn’t leave the churches alone.
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My colleagues will tell you that when they assume the pulpit of a church, they don’t want their predecessors to be writing letters or coming back. No sirree. It’s a new day with new leadership, and that’s the way it ought to be. Don’t look back. You’ll turn into a salt lick.
If you were to look at my ministry resume you’d swear I was a Methodist… I’ve moved around so much. Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland, Florida, not to mention a couple of churches here in my native state of Arkansas. But the only time I’ve ever gone back to visit my previous congregations was by invitation… anniversaries and things like that. I’ve gotta tell you, though, it’s getting harder every time we do that to remember names.
Not Paul. He stayed in touch. He never forgot a name. He got involved. Paul was pushy!
Intelligent. Strong-minded. Opinionated. Pushy.
But there is one thing you can’t say about Paul. You can’t say he was a braggart. Oh, he does share his personal history at some points, and makes himself look pretty good in the process.
He tells about having been a Pharisee of Pharisees. You talk about a climber. Paul was catching the notice of the important people in Jerusalem. He had studied under Gamaliel, was not only a Jew of high-standing but had Roman citizenship to boot. Blue-blooded. That’s what Paul was.
But then he said all that was worthless compared to the glory of being in Christ. The word he uses, to be perfectly honest, is not a very nice word and belongs in the bathroom, if anywhere. He says… well, we’ll tone it down a bit (actually, we’ll tone it down a whole lot)… he says it is rubbish compared to knowing Jesus Christ.
No, if Paul is anything, one thing he is not is a braggart.
Except when it comes to God. The language he uses is a bit involved, but it makes its point. “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”
He’s not through. He says, “…we also boast in our sufferings.” He frames all this talk about boasting around the atoning death of Christ, and then he says, “…we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
Bragging on God. God’s salvation brings us hope, and according to Paul, that’s worth bragging about. God’s salvation, whether we appreciate this or not, also brings suffering. We can brag even about that, says Paul.
God’s salvation brings reconciliation, something worth bragging about indeed.
Hope, sufferings, reconciliation. But somehow you and I, I suspect, have forgotten how to do that. We’ve forgotten, if we ever knew, how to brag on God. After all, when was the last time you had a conversation with a person, and in the course of talking about the weather or all the stuff that’s going on up on the Hill in Fayetteville or that new car you bought, you bragged about God? You talked about hope? Beyond your bad back, or that kidney ailment kicking up on you again, you bragged about your sufferings? What about Christ’s atoning and reconciling death on the cross? When was the last time you bragged on God for all that?
What I mean is this… When was the last time you told someone what God had done for you? Can you remember when you let another person know that your life has been graced by the One who was willing to go to such great extremes for you to experience eternal life?
Why do you think we are so hesitant to share our faith? Perhaps it is because in our heart of hearts we don’t think it’s a big enough deal to talk about. Or we’re afraid of being rejected, which does indeed lead to a certain degree of suffering. We don’t brag on God because we’re not sure this salvation thing is worth bragging about all that much. We’ve been in church so long we’ve just gotten used to it. Our experience with Christ feels like an old comfortable suit or pair of shoes. It’s just something we wear; nothing to talk about much… just do. And besides, it’s personal, something we prefer to keep to ourselves.
Fred Craddock tells about a boyhood experience. His family had lost their farm and moved into town. Craddock is a rather shy person, and he says the isolation of the farm is the reason why that is true. “Socially inadequate” is the way he puts it. When school started he put on his “new” clothes that had been given him by means of a couple of charities in town and he made his way to class. The teacher said, “Let’s get acquainted and start our school year by everybody telling what you did on vacation.” A bad start.
There was a girl who had spent a week in Florida, another who had gone to Niagara Falls. To Craddock, these places were pictures in books, and they had actually gone there. Another student and his family had visited Washington, D. C. and seen the historical monuments and all that.
Little Freddy was sitting in the back of the room growing more nervous by the moment as eventually, he knew, it would be his turn to tell what he had done on vacation. What was he going to say? He had been on the farm all summer. He had never gone anywhere.
Graciously, they ran out of time, but Fred knew it would be his turn the next day. Later, at home, his father could tell he was worried. “What’s the matter, son?”
“It didn’t go well in school today.”
“The teacher wants us to tell what we did on vacation. All I did was dig potatoes and pick and shell purple-hull peas and things like that. I don’t have anything to tell.”
“Sounds to me like your teacher is asking you for a lie, so go ahead and give her one.”
“But you and Mama have told us we’re not supposed to lie.”
“That’s true, but you’re also supposed to obey your teacher.”
“What am I going to say?”
“Well, just pick out the good parts of several of the other stories and put it all together. You’ll be all right.”
Sure enough, the next day it was Fred’s turn to tell about his vacation, and he tied one on. He told about how he had gone up to Washington and New York. He was somewhere this side of Niagara Falls when his teacher interrupted him and told him to meet her in the hall.
“You didn’t do all that.”
“Well, why did you say all that?”
“I was embarrassed.”
“Why were you embarrassed?”
“Cause all I did was work on the farm all summer.”
Craddock says if he had known then what he knows now, he would have told those boys and girls that he and his family didn’t go on a vacation that summer. He would have told them about sweet potatoes. When sweet potatoes are at a certain stage of growth, Craddock continues, they’re kind of like a long bulb with a tail, which is actually the root. You can take a sweet potato by that tail, he says, and with enough practice knock a squirrel off a limb. Even better, he says, you can send your sister screaming into the house. There are a lot of neat things to do on the farm in the summer.
I should have told them all that, Craddock says. I would have been the envy of the whole class.1
Remember that, will you, the next time you’re given an opportunity to brag on God. You may think it’s not worth talking about, but you never know. You just never know.
Our tradition doesn’t designate sainthood on those who have died, and we certainly don’t pray to them, asking them to intercede on our behalf. But just in case Paul is now Saint Paul, and is looking down to observe us, you can make him proud by bragging on God. And who knows, you might just introduce someone to the kingdom of heaven.
O God, in your mercy and grace may we find the willingness to brag just a little. In the journey of life and faith, help us to tell someone what you have done for us… giving us hope, giving us meaning – even in our sufferings – offering us reconciliation. And may we not be afraid to give all the credit to you, the One who has come to us in Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
1Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward (eds), Craddock Stories (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), p. 46f. (I did adapt the wording of the story to more accurately reflect my way of telling it.)