Faith Again? Come on Paul.

Hebrews 11:1-3                 Rev. Tyler Amundson                  July 14, 2013

St. Paul’s UMC Sermon

 This summer as I preach I am doing a sermon series on one of the most interesting characters in our Bible, Paul.  Paul is described by some as the “appealing or appalling apostle.” [1]  He gets this designation for two reasons:  He says and writes some of the most amazing things.  For example he writes the message we hear from 1st Corinthians 13 at weddings.  “Faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.”  Then he turns around and says the most appalling things.  “Women be subject to your husbands.”  Paul’s words have been used to free one group from oppression only to be turned quickly into a vice for another group in history.

We focus on Paul because it is in Paul’s writings that much of the practice of Christianity is determined.  It is from these letters of Paul that the debates rage on in the Christian tradition.  It is in the letters of Paul that deeply spiritual insights are drawn from.  Paul is a powerful writer.  His work toward sharing the Christian message only survives to this day because it had incredibly deep meaning in its time and throughout history.

I gave one other reason we were going to study Paul at my first sermon about Paul on father’s day back in June, because our church was named after Paul.  Now I wanted to share with you the amazing visioning process as to why we adopted that name over 120 years ago.  I sat down looking at history of the church and was reading So Many Beginnings: The Story of the Methodist Church in Helena and I finally found out the reason.  I read through several years of history and finally honed in on to why we are called St. Paul’s.  This is according to George Harper’s research.  St. Paul’s was called St. Paul’s Rev. Raleigh  came from Cincinatti and his church their St. Paul’s is the structure which much of the newly built Methodist church came from.   That’s right we became St. Paul’s cause that was the name of a church in Cincinatti, no great stories about the apostle Paul led to our naming.  About as much thought went into that naming as me deciding we are going to preach on Paul this summer, it was simply what one pastor thought was a good idea.[2]

The name stuck though.  So maybe it is worth understanding our namesake here at the church.  At least I as one of the pastors thinks so.  If that was good enough to name the church, its good enough to pursue now.

Paul’s story should always be taken in context of his conversion experience in Acts 9:1-19.  Keep in mind as we hear the story that Paul is having a mystical experience of God.  That is to say it is an intense spiritual experience.  These are the experiences that many people including myself seek to find in Religion because they make the world feel intense and clear all at the same moment.  (Acts 9:1-19 told here).

For Paul this story sounds like it would be the guiding experience in his life.  It was a deep interaction with the love of Christ, a mystical experience that would give him the enthusiasm to carry Christ’s message throughout the Roman Empire.  This experience of God’s love in a vision of the risen Christ was an incredible change for Paul, who was before this called Saul.  He moved from seeing Christ followers as the enemy to being one himself.  While we know this account of Paul’s experience was written down well after it happened, we can imagine Paul shared this experience throughout his ministry.  He was blinded by Christ’s love, taken in by a Christ follower, and went to teach the world that faith with Christ created a vision he believed the world needed to know.  Paul truly had a vision that world could be a better place if people were to know Christ and the message of God’s love revealed in Christ.

The thing about this story I have read multiple times in my study, is that like the gospels, Acts is written by the same writer as Luke, we have no way to verify the validity of the story of Acts.  Was Paul’s conversion this dramatic? We have no way of knowing for sure.  From his letters we never get nearly this detailed of a description.  I tend to think that Paul’s conversion took time and multiple experiences with Christ followers.  Slowly as he saw them living Christ filled lives he felt as though his vision was cleared and he experienced Christ.  Like many mystics it was not a singular event, but multiple encounters with the divine that pushed him to be the Paul we read in the letters.

And so we come today’s scripture and message:

Hebrews 11

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith* our ancestors received approval. 3By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.*

After all that intro about Paul, my first statement to you about these beautiful words in Hebrews is Paul did not write them.[3]  Paul for centuries was attributed to writing Hebrews, but modern scholars through review of early manuscripts and literary analysis have concluded that Paul is not the original author.  However, these words are the quintessential understanding of faith that many of us have heard throughout our lives.

And faith is the exact thing Paul carries throughout his ministry as the new reality of Christ.  Faith is the new answer the problem of separation from God.  For Paul growing up as a Jew it was violation of the law that separated people from God.  He would have learned from an early age the laws of the Torah.  A violation of those laws would have been possible each day of life, and it was through sacrifice and ritual that atonement would be achieved.

Now it is not clear that Paul ever changed his mind on this for Jewish people, but he most certainly started to seek ways of getting around this for gentile people.  Paul was a both/and sort of person all his life.  “Has Jesus’ act of faith rendered the covenant between God and Israel meaningless? God forbid! On the contrary, we who are members of Israel are fulfilling the prophesies of Torah by acknowledging God’s redemption of the whole world.”[4]  Jewish people could find connection through God through both practice of the law and Torah, and gentiles had access to Faith now.

It is important to remember that Paul never wrote down his theology word for word.  Instead it is through letters and living that we receive Paul’s message.  Just like a letter out of context for us can be misconstrued, so to Paul’s theology in letters has been taken all sorts of different ways.  The reason tis is important is Paul lives his practice and teaching, it is what he felt to be true by the experience of God and the Holy that he experienced.

Paul’s continuing message to the readers of his letters is that Faith is trusting that God’s grace is available to us, and all we have to do is accept it.  That salvation, truly feeling God’s presence comes when we are able to accept God’s love and live life filled with the hope of this love.  In fact the reason this Hebrew text is so often attributed to Paul is because it was written to mimic Paul’s great message of Faith.

For Paul there was a separation between this world and people, and most especially the people and God.  The goal was to connect people to God through Faith and it seems for the Jewish people through the law.  However, the goal was to connect people back to that experience of God and remove that which made people feel unworthy, unholy, or just plain separated from the divine source of creation.

Faith is that belief that gets you out of bed in the morning that promises you will be enough to accomplish some good in the world.  Faith is trust that when you live your life and do it by honoring God and neighbor and self that you will have accomplished something.  It literally is the ideas that drive us to trust we are doing something worthwhile in our world.

Faith really is holding a sense of purpose in our heart, a feeling that there is something for us to accomplish in our world.  However, I want to share that I think that sense is becoming increasingly hard for individuals to maintain in their lives.  In this day in age when we are the most in debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult population in US history.[5]  We have countless experts linking these addictions to a sense of depression and a lack of purpose.  And I believe them.

When I was in seminary we had counseling available to us for no cost.  Thank God for that.  The divorce rate in seminary is over the same as the US population %53, rates of depression go up in seminary, and mental illness is something that comes up for many people.  That information is not in the brochures for seminary let me tell you.  And while that divorce rate might not seem so remarkable, let me remind you that these are the people we are asking to be our spiritual and life skill leaders.

In Seminary one of the most challenging things was that we challenged our faith daily.  The class scenarios posed to us would have us questioning: God’s existence, God’s goodness, God’s ability to be present in our lives.  This is incredibly taxing on a person.  Especially because faith generally is what helps you be motivated to live, to work, to play, and to engage the world.  When you challenge it daily you begin to question fundamentally the very reason to do anything.  It tends to push you reconsider who you are, and it can often alter how you live.

This may sound like a situation relegated to seminary, but I would argue that in the multi-mediated society we live in today that most people experience this regularly.  This is perhaps one of the reasons our adults in the US have some many addiction issues.  There is a sense of needing to compensate for the impact of receiving so many messages.  Just preparing for this sermon I came across a talk online that challenged the notion of my understanding of the universe.  It took 5 minutes to change my whole outlook on how the universe functions.  If experiences like this are happening to us that quickly, then our sense of faith is being challenged.

Within Paul lies the answer though.  Paul’s letters are never written to teach faith to just individuals.  Even the letters written to individuals were letters to be read to a community.  Paul is clear on salvation in that it belongs to the community.  God loves individuals no matter what, and salvation is not their problem.  Instead salvation was about the community learning to reconcile together itself to God and the world.  To overcome those things that made individuals feel separate from God’s love and to make right their relationship with the rest of creation.

For us that means Paul’s message was we get to do this faith thing together.  If faith is to be challenged we should find a community to support us in the process.  A community that can help us to see the value we have despite the challenges surrounding us.  It is my hope that St. Paul’s is that for us all, and we hope to continue to be that place for the people of our community.  We want to continue to be a place to welcome people to experience God, and each other.

One final note, which I did not mention in my sermon.  Faith gets  challenged at the highs and deepest lows of life.  This is another time that community is vital, communities that support and fill us with love help us to navigate when it is hard.  And they allow us a place to celebrate the joy when things go well.  Faith is about being in community to share life, to connect with God, and to live to sustain the beautiful world we live in.

[1] Borg, M., & Crossan, D. (2009). The first paul. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

[2] Page 89, So Many Beginnings: The Story of the Methodist Church in Helena.  September 1993

[3] Hebrews circulated anonymously, and it is likely we will never know who the author of this text was.  Eisenbaum, Pamela (2009-11-19). Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle (p. 21). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[4]   Eisenbaum, Pamela (2009-11-19). Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle (p. 249). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[5] The Power of Vulnerability around 15 minutes

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