Untangling the Gospel #1: Arabian Retreat

In my closet, there is a blue Reebok shoe box that I use to store audio and video cords. These cords are useful when I am working on a stereo or home entertainment system, or my computer, or when I create music on my keyboard, and I’m trying to connect the keyboard and my computer.

The box is a mess. Usually, I end up pulling a gigantic ball of twisted wire out of the box: gray, black, white, all bundled up together. Its a chore just locating what I need from the clump of wire. Then, it is a major project just finding some way to get the thing untangled from this glob of rubber, plastic, and metal.

The apostle Paul never owned a stereo system, but I’m pretty sure he knows how I feel.

Paul is one of the most highly recognized authors in the New Testament. His letters to early gatherings of Christians in various cities, called “epistles”, are widely read and quoted, even to this day. Probably most remarkably, Paul is credited for being the primary force that made it possible for Jewish believers and Gentile believers to live and work together in the same churches. Principaly, he believed that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised to be followers of Jesus.

Paul, however, was not always a follower of Jesus. During the days immediately following Jesus’ resurrection, he was a persecutor of Christians. He was also someone known as a Pharisee, a believer in following all of the laws of God (including the law of circumcision), and then an additional set of rules that were set up to be even more strict than the laws of God.

How Paul was transformed from a member of a hard-core, exclusive Jewish sect into someone who welcomed all people into the communities of believers in Jesus is a remarkable tale, but if you are not careful, you will miss a part of his story.

In Acts, which is the bible’s account of the activities of some of Jesus’ followers after his resurrection, we learn that Paul became a follower of Jesus as a result of a vision that he experienced while he was traveling to the city of Damascus. Acts tells us about how Paul then spent some time teaching in Damascus, and about how Paul had to be covertly removed from the city because of the hostility that his preaching engendered. The next thing that Acts talks about is Paul arriving in Jerusalem, and shortly after that, his famous missionary journeys – and the related epistles to the gatherings of Christians in varous cities – began to unfold.

If you only read from Acts, you might think that Paul went straight from Damascus to Jerusalem, but in one of Paul’s letters, we learn that three years elapsed before he made that history-making journey. During that time, Paul apparently spent most of his time in Arabia.

Here is a question that is really fascinating to me: What did Paul, the hard-core legalist who had seen this remarkable vision of Jesus do during this time?

The bible is silent about this subject, but – if Paul was anything like me – I suspect that this was a time for untangling things. Paul had to decide exactly what it meant for Jesus to be the promised messiah, and what impact Jesus’ coming would have on the way God was reaching out to all of the people of the world. Paul was ultimately convinced that the good news about Jesus meant that everyone, not just the Jews, could now find a place among the people of God. A lot of his assumptions about how the world ought to work, in terms of the laws of God and the rules of the Pharisees, had to be thought through, and ideas that were not a part of God’s plan had to be tossed aside.

In the same way that I have to untangle the cord that I need from the huge glob of cords that I don’t really need, Paul had to decide what – among all of the things he had learned and been taught – was really the message of God for his day.

I say all of this not only because I think it is a fascinating event from the history of early Christians, but because – like Paul – I feel like I am on an Arabian retreat of my own these days. I feel like my views of God, what he is doing in the world, and what he wants from me have become all tangled up with a lot of other things that I’m starting to discover are unimportant, erroneous, and even harmful to myself and those around me. I want to untangle the gospel of Jesus from all of the cultural and social influences that have rendered it less potent, and that – in some cases – have even made it seem offensive in ways that are contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

For the next few posts*, I’m going to explore some of the issues that I am confronting in that process.

* As always, I’m sure that I’ll occasionally reach a break in these posts, to blather on about the latest CD I have discovered, to muse about my experiences playing a computer game, or to speak lovingly about one of my kids – but I’ll come back to these as I can.

Other posts in this series:
-on my long-held sneaking suspicions about the postmodern shift
-on the postmodern shift itself
-on embracing mystery
-on scripture as story
-on what it means to be “saved”
-more on being saved
-on the incredible meaning of baptism
-on “church
-on evangelism
-on the beautiful sound to be discovered when things get untangled


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