Every time I listen to the epistle reading during Sunday service, I have the feeling I’ve walked in on the middle of a movie. What happened before? What set up this letter Paul is writing this time? What arguments were going on, disputes being debated? What did I miss?
To be honest, it was this sense of not knowing what was going on that often had me distracted during the epistle reading, just biding my time waiting for the clearer (to me, at least) Gospel.
Last year, however, I read an excellent book about Paul (Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People) that opened my eyes somewhat to this interesting, flawed, brilliant, loving, exasperating, complicated man.
The reason I say “somewhat” is because understanding Paul is still difficult, and I still do feel at times I’ve come in on the middle of his movie, this grand story of his life and how hard he tried to be a good Christian and a good leader after his conversion, using his great intellect to impart wisdom.
Wisdom–sometimes I feel as if it’s always scampering ahead of me down the path, never quite clear enough to grasp except as a vague shape.
This past Sunday, we heard part of Paul’s letter to the Philippians (3:4b-14) , and this is the passage that stayed in my heart:
“For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”
This passage comes, of course, after he lists his religious bona fides from his days before being a Christian, how upright he was, what a good follower of the law he was. But the law wasn’t enough, he found out as he caught elusive wisdom in a sunburst of epiphany. The spirit of the law, and especially the message of love that comes with it, is what’s important.
This message cuts across time, doesn’t it? It seems so simple, yet how hard it is sometimes to find and live the essence of that message as we try to follow the law…and its spirit.
After hearing this epistle passage this Sunday, my mind once again went back to the old hymn “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.” These lines from that hymn don’t usually show up in the condensed version found in many hymnals. They are worth repeating:
“But we make His love too narrow, by false limits of our own
And we magnify His strictness, with a zeal He will not own.”
Paul’s writings are often used as reasons for being against this or that behavior or policy, but I think at the core of Paul is the core of the gospel itself, the good news of light and love, of “wideness in God’s mercy.” And that’s what I took from his letter to the Philippians.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her latest novel is Fall from Grace.