Paul and Jesus, one gospel
Paul took Jesus’ Good News and twisted it.
He changed it and distorted it so much that ever since his day, Christianity has been getting further and further away from Jesus’ message and into worse and worse problems. The church’s problems today are all Paul’s fault.
That’s what some people say. These people almost want to rip all of Paul’s letters out of the Bible and only read the four Gospels and Acts so that we can get back to the ‘true church’ that Christ established.
Other people, such as the imaginary people being blamed for our woes today, hang on Paul’s every word to the point that they almost ignore Jesus entirely. And some people try to get along in the middle but find themselves struggling with who to follow.
This is an important question for us today, because we are told to take the gospel (good news) to all the world and Paul is very much our first example of someone doing just that.
What Paul clearly did not do is go out and use all the same words and stories that Jesus used. He did not, for example, memorise ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ and perform it as a monologue on every occasion. He did not even copy Jesus’ style and tell parables.
But if we look at Paul’s life and words we can see that he was delivering the same message as Jesus, but adapted to his audiences and their cultures.
Jesus has bequeathed to us his successors a radically different situation with new problems, new questions, new opportunities, and new requirements. Paul was building on Jesus’ foundation, and we are building on all of the foundations that have been laid down by our spiritual ancestors from Paul up to today.
Jesus ate with prostitutes and tax collectors. Paul ate with Jews and Gentiles. They both taught and lived inclusion. Who do we eat with? And who do we exclude?
Jesus said ‘the kingdom is at hand’. Paul says ‘the kingdom has come’. Verse 13 of this morning’s reading said God ‘has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son.’
He talks in Colossians 4 about fellow workers for the kingdom. In all Paul makes over a dozen references to the kingdom that Jesus spoke of.
There are also more subtle ways in which Paul talks of the kingdom of heaven, and when we realise this we shall suddenly see how much of Jesus’ own message about the kingdom is living in Paul’s letters.
Paul is translating a Jewish message for his non-Jewish hearers around the world. In his environment, everyone was under the hard yoke of the Roman empire. The image commonly employed was of the Roman Empire as the ‘body politic’ and Caesar as the head of that body. Paul takes that and changes it so that the church is the body and Jesus is the head. Everyone understands his image. Today we live in a new environment and so we need to use a new image.
The pledge of loyalty in the Roman Empire was in Greek ‘Caesar ho Kurios’ – Caesar is Lord. Whenever a Christian said that Jesus was their Lord they were pledging their allegiance to a different king and a different kingdom. That is the biggest reason they were persecuted.
Today we would share the message of the kingdom using new imagery that resonates with the people of our culture and our society.
Look at verse 15. It says that Jesus is the image of God.
Today in North Korea every house, office, school and factory has three portraits high on the wall in a place of honour. There are statues too, and paintings and lapel pins. The image of the leader of North Korea is ubiquitous. This is to maintain the illusion that he is watching your every move, and that he is above all other people. That he is always watching and always caring.
In the Roman Empire the image of Caesar was on all the coins. Remember the deceitful question asked of Jesus? Paul is clearly suggesting here that there is now another king and he is God, and another kingdom has been established on our planet in rivalry. And God’s image is not on a coin but in a living breathing person named Jesus who is here among us right now.
This was inflammatory teaching in Paul’s day, and you can see just how outrageous the false gods of North Korea find this challenge to their position today. The gospel of Jesus Christ is dangerous stuff. And not just North Korea but whenever men try to raise themselves above the gospel.
In the case of Caesar, as in North Korea, power passes from father to son. That is how a kingdom works. It is not a democracy.
Paul twice proclaims that Jesus is the first-born son of God and heir of the creation, and heir of the new creation since he was raised from death. The leader of a kingdom has absolute power, Caesar was the ultimate authority, and now Paul is saying that Jesus is ‘supreme over all’ and has the top spot. He even goes so far as to say that Jesus ‘made’ all thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities.
This of course suggests that Caesar has got Jesus to thank for his kingdom and his power, and that he is actually just a small fish in Jesus’ big pond.
The Roman emperors and the North Korean leaders claim to be gods.
We say that’s nothing. We say God lives in Jesus.
Paul is clearly telling Jesus’ kingdom message in words that his hearers will understand.
We can do the same. We must do the same. We must expose the false gods of our day, whether in North Korea or right where we live and work. And we must share the same kingdom message in ways our friends and acquaintances can relate to.
The peace and unity and prosperity of the Roman Empire was enforced by brutal violence, as the public executions by crucifixion attested. But in the end it fell apart. The status quo in North Korea is enforced by even worse levels of brutality, with public executions and death camps. It too is going to fall apart one day.
This may point to the starkest contrast between the kingdom of heaven and all the false kingdoms of this fallen world.
St Augustine said that the only difference between an emperor and a pirate is that a pirate has just one ship while an emperor has many.
The false empires of this world use violence and torture to maintain power, they shed the blood of everyone else. They work by conquest and oppression. But this new kingdom comes by peace, and because the king has shed his own blood.
The purpose is reconciliation. Reconciling man to God. Reconciling brother to brother. Reconciling sister to sister. Reconciling North Koreans and South Koreans. Reconciling Roman Catholic with Orthodox with Coptic. Reconciling liberal with conservative. Reconciling Christians with Jews and Muslims.
Ephesians 1:9-10 – “God has now revealed to us his mysterious plan regarding Christ, a plan to fulfil his own good pleasure. And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth.”
Paul often calls it a ‘mysterious’ plan where Jesus might have called it ‘the kingdom’ plan, but it is one and the same plan. And we are part of it.
We are as Paul was, walking talking parables revealing this mysterious kingdom plan of God for all people. By word and deed we are called to live as Jesus and Paul would have in our time, our society, our situation, our culture, our age and reveal this marvellous good news to everyone we meet.
The good news that the evil kingdoms of this world – Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran, North Korea – are on the way out and peace and love are on the way in for all people, because of the way you live today.
Hope is written on your hearts and in your lives. That is good news.