I recently had to write an essay on Paul for a course I am taking part in. In order to do it justice, I felt compelled to read all of Paul’s writings as contained in the New Testament. The thought initially filled me with dread. I’ve never found Paul very easy to get on with. I’ve never understood him. I’ve always found him to be dogmatic, inconsistent, judgemental and generally quite irritating. And yet I’ve always been convinced he met with the risen Jesus, and so it is hard to dismiss him as these negative things.
I expected to come away irritated by the stalwart Conservative Christian Paul. Reading through Paul’s thoughts – his exposition of scripture, his explanation of the death and resurrection of Christ, and his thoughts on the way to live in light of this – I found myself confirming more and more what I have been thinking for some time.
Jesus came to get rid of religion altogether, but we’ve created one in his name, and we’re short changed in life as a consequence.
Not only are we short changed, but our message doesn’t appeal, and we’re watching the demise of the Kingdom of God.
I don’t think it has to stay that way. I don’t think it will stay that way.
I’ve outlined in the past how Jesus’ death makes sense to me. It’s the ultimate sacrifice and the ultimate message to the Jews’ of his time that they could not possibly make sacrifices any more. They could not make things right with God. Jesus does away with the system once-and-for-all (I suppose that’s where that phrase comes from?).
The ‘Law’ (i.e. the Torah) that Jesus fulfilled was put in place to show us our sin, according to Paul. It also gives us incentive to sin and helps us to find creative, new ways to sin – again according to Paul. But it was a step forward from the self destructive sacrifice systems of the ancient near east.
So the Law replaced an out of control system of sacrifice (pre-Law), and then Jesus replaced an out of control system of sacrifice (the Law) with … well … nothing.
There’s nothing behind the curtain.
There’s no set method of salvation.
There’s no way to make things right with God any more.
I think there are two possible reactions to this. The first is to make new ways of making ourselves right with God, and the second is to accept things as they are, embracing them. The first is called Christianity and leads to dissatisfaction, burn out and guilt. The second doesn’t have a name and is the narrow path to the Kingdom of Heaven.
So the Church came along and invented new ways of making us right with God. I’ve argued before and I’ll argue again that this started with Constantine, but my history is sketchy. What I do know is that the very idea of a service whereby we have an altar and we take part in confession lends itself towards religious guilt and a system of “sacrifice” (Even if it is just our time and/or our money that we are sacrificing), never mind the atrocities of indulgences or Catholic confessionals, or money grabbing faith healers who insist that God isn’t at work in our lives because we aren’t good enough.
The Church hasn’t actually moved beyond the crude religiosity of its predecessor. It is trapped, I believe, because of a fundamental misunderstanding of Pauline theology.
The Church has for a very long time taken Paul’s words (and Jesus’ words when they back Paul up – can you sense a problem here with the priorities already?) as Law. Paul talks about the Law of Love. Yet we end up, however implicitly, behaving as though we believe in the Law of Paul.
The Law of the Ancient Near East
The Law of Moses
The Law of Paul
So we say that we’re forgiven and free in Christ. And then we go on to condemn and reject people for their affairs, we ostracise those who support non-heterosexual marriage, we hold people up to our “new” set of standards given to us by Paul. We even end up returning to the Law given to Moses to justify the death penalty! We insist that week in, week out, we must confess our sins before “Almighty God” (doesn’t that phrase just make you shudder!) so that we can be absolved and go about trying to be good people and failing for another week.
We solemnly remind ourselves that Jesus was put through the pain of the cross in order to atone for our sins. We then feel bad (rightly so according to orthodoxy) for “putting Jesus there” (I don’t recall ever wanting to see a man executed). We’re slipping back into the legalism, into technical law-breaking guilt.
Jesus frees us to be so much more than that.
Jesus frees us to feel remorse and out of that remorse to forge a genuine desire to be the change we want to see in the world.
Remorse is so much more than law-breaking guilt. It is a recognition that we have hurt the other. It is a recognition that our actions do not match up with our own internal standards. A recognition that we are simply not behaving as though we are made in the image of God. A recognition, however subconscious, that things are not as they should be and that they could be so much better.
Jesus’ death was supposed to give us the power to see this, to recognise this, to have this for ourselves. It was supposed to set us free from guilt and allow us instead to have our hearts broken for the mess the world is in.
Instead, the Church has domesticated Jesus. The Church has performed the most blasphemous, heinous power grab and has used Jesus’ death and resurrection to subordinate people instead of setting them free from the need to worry and fret and fear.
So we need to move beyond this crude, messed up religion called Christianity and once again recognise that we’re free to be who we were made to be. We’re free to be whoever we want, however we want.
“What shall we say then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may abound? By no means!” (Thanks, Paul)
I don’t think we are left with that option. I think that’s what Paul is getting at. The reason he outlines moral guidelines isn’t to make us stick to them but to point out where we haven’t really freed ourselves from the guilt-law religious system at all. For when we are truly free, we begin to recognise a new, better way of life. And we’d be daft not to live it!
The Law has become limp, ineffective and pointless. Modern society rejects religion as controlling, unhelpful and restrictive. I think God knew this would happen. I think that’s why he sent Jesus. I think he knew that we had to have a better way.
The real question is, what does that look like?