“Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not? If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities…”
We are born into this world of ours. We call it “our world” when in fact it is the other way around: we belong to the world; I am one among many of this world’s instantiations of being. I do not arrive and make my mark upon the world; I arrive and the world begins to make its mark, many marks, upon me. Being-in-the-world, I am assigned a place, not my place, but their place for me in the world. As I mature, surprisingly at first, other worlds spring up around me: the world of my family and later the world of the street I lived on; the world of the first grade class, the world of my home town, the world of this nation, and the world of human existence. I did not arrive on the world scene giving instructing to the world; but I arrived being instructed and given a narrative. Being-in-the-world, any and all of these worlds, “they” tell me what is important, what matters, what doesn’t matter; “they” tell me how to behave, how not to behave; “they” tell me what to expect and what I may hope for. Hope lures me into the future, a future that is ever opening up another future. At some point along the line I may ask myself “Who am I and what am I doing here?” and the world responds with diversions, with chatter and a narrative. As I experience the death of loved ones the question of who I am becomes more important. One day I will no longer be, so who am I now? But the world is always prepared to relieve me of the need, the burden of knowing who I am; to take the edge off of being authentic by presenting and re-presenting to me their narrative. To really question that narrative requires more energy and courage than most people have. We are too easily distracted or entertained and so I find myself very much at home in the world.
This is what I am saying: this is the condition of being-in-the-world and though it may appear innocuous – it is a trap:
“And they which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection.”
The “riches and pleasures of this life” prevent the maturing of true human happiness, and how we love to wag our finger at these devils; but it is equally true that the “cares of life,” masquerading as noble virtues, do just as much to keep us in our place; so whether we are speaking of the “riches and pleasures of this life” or the lofty “cares of life” they are narratives, lures, sedatives, sweet distractions from the Word of God. The world says this is what really matters in life, this is what you work for, and this is why you are here. These narratives come to us from friends and family, in the form of education, in the form of entertainment, in the political promises, in the form of threats from outside our world. The upshot is that they prevent us from hearing the voice of God.
St. Paul’s life illustrates what I am talking about. In the epistle for today Paul is annoyed with the Corinthians because they were being torn apart by preachers who were saying that Paul had not given them the whole truth of Christ. But these “super-apostles,” as Paul calls them, had the whole truth. How was that possible? Because they were Jews and they had inside knowledge of the whole truth that Paul was watering down.
Paul began his response this way:
“Are they Hebrews? so am I. Are they Israelites? so am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? so am I.”
This is a recurring theme in the work of St. Paul: it seems at times that these Jewish quasi-Christian preachers followed him everywhere he planted a church and when he moved on they would move in. And when they moved in, their first piece of business was to slander Paul’s status as a Jew and an Apostle, and they always made much of their Jewish identity. I don’t want to oversimplify this but it appears that something like this occurred: after slandering Paul, these Jewish quasi-Christian preachers presented a different Gospel. Christ made Israel, the Jewish religion, as it stood, not only a necessary part of the Church but somehow superior to the Church and certainly superior to gentiles. This was manifested by preachers from Jerusalem who proclaimed that one must first convert to Judaism and become a real Jew before one could be a real Christian. But this is exactly what St. Paul would have nothing to do with because he knew what it meant to be a Jew. Not only here in Corinth, but in Philippi and Galatia as well, Paul lays out his pedigree demonstrating his authentic Jewish identity as he declares that he was:
“circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee…”
But that was not all because when we add to Paul’s epistles the Acts of the Apostles, the story lines, the characters, and the plots that make up his Jewish narrative, a narrative of Saul the Pharisee emerges. He enters the Christian story first as Saul holding the coats of some other Pharisees in Jerusalem as they stoned the deacon Stephen to death. Saul the Pharisee lived up to the Jewish narrative:
“Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law blameless…”
It is nearly impossible to change the narrative of the world in which we have been made to feel so at home. For Paul his life was very much a whole story of high purpose and meaning without Christ. Paul was not in search for the meaning of life, he was busy living out a terrible and false religious narrative. And this is important as well: though the first apostles of Christ may not have had Paul’s religious and educational advantage, they too were very much at home in the narrative Israel.
Let me ask this question: once we have been placed and made to feel at home in the world, in a specific narrative, why on earth would we look for something else? We would not look for something else. Paul was a Hebrew born of Hebrews and the only way he would ever leave what for him was a rich, full life of dedication to the Law would be for something more powerful from outside of that world to penetrate it, break it, and eventually give it new meaning. And that is exactly what happened. In his zeal to destroy the Church, Saul the Pharisee was bound for the city of Damascus bearing legal papers that permitted him to arrest Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem for trial. But on his way, entirely unexpected, the resurrected Christ appeared to him:
“Now as he approached Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul arose from the ground; and when his eyes were opened, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.”
We know what happened after that: A Christian named Ananias, in obedience to God, found Paul:
“So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized…”
You can see how Paul would take the reintroduction of Judaism to the Corinthians not merely as a betrayal of himself, but more importantly as a betrayal of Christ:
“These super-apostles have proclaimed another Jesus than the one we preached…a different spirit from the one you received (and)… a different gospel from the one you accepted.”
Here is Paul’s concern: God himself has broken into this world as one of us, he died on the cross and on the third day he was raised from the dead and his resurrection has called all other narratives into question. God has entered our story and made it his story. The Son offered his life up to the Father for this broken world when he died on the cross. But God’s human narrative did not end in death and non-being like all other human narratives; God’s human narrative broke death as the Son was resurrected to life eternal. All other narratives are false apart from the love of Christ and until they are re-interpreted by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead they remain dead letters. Paul’s Christian converts in Corinth, having been freed from the fatalistic narratives of the Roman world through the Gospel of the Resurrection of Christ were being seduced into bondage once again by teachers who were convincing some of them that they had to be good Jews to be real Christians. The message is so destructive that Paul compares these teachers to Satan; to attach Judaism to the Church would be equivalent to turning one’s back on Christ.
What is the point I am making? My point is that the resurrection of Christ must re-interpret all our lives. His resurrection from the dead is the turning point of all history. Paul’s story or his status in any story meant nothing to him apart from the bodily resurrection of Christ and his devotion to Christ. He summed that up best to the Philippians: