The passion of Paul

Last year I travelled to Turkey, Greece and Rome, ‘in the steps of St Paul’, the man we are familiar with through his letters in the New Testament and the accounts of his journeys, preaching and tribulations in The Acts of the Apostles. An enigmatic figure, Paul, the fervent Pharisee who in the first few decades after the death of Jesus persecuted those followers of the Way of Jesus with great vehemence, determined to rid the earth of that ‘scourge’. And then, something happened, and with even greater passion he set out to spread the message about the One who had so profoundly entered and changed his life. As I travelled from place to place, delighting in being in Ephesus, Corinth, Thessaloniki, Philippi, Rome, all those places where early Christian communities formed and to whom Paul wrote, I became increasingly fascinated by Paul the man. What drew me in? His passion, dedication, fervour. He was both drawn and driven to spread the word of Jesus and the word about Jesus. He did that tirelessly and often at great personal cost. And remarkably, he did it in an  extraordinary setting – in the mighty Roman Empire of the first century CE. He was attacked, hounded out of towns, vilified, imprisoned, persecuted. And he was welcomed too. His message touched hearts, his passion was contagious, and so the good news spread. He inspired conversion, he taught, he reasoned and he scolded. He counselled, he wrote letters imploring the new communities to live in a manner worthy of this good news, and he developed Christian theology. His letters, written in the 50s are the earliest Christian writings – the Gospels only appeared later. He made bold declarations about who Jesus is. His words are beautiful! But he wrote within the context of his day for he was a man of his time, and so in his letters we also find statements and counsel that jar the modern understanding of issues such as gender equity. In the first century Paul was both loved and hated. And perhaps that is still true today. 

In the mid first century, Paul went to Ephesus. Ephesus, close to the modern town of Selcuk, is on the west coast of Turkey. In Paul’s day Ephesus was a busy city port, a city of the powerful Roman Empire. And it must have been marvellous! The ancient ruins of Ephesus are stunning. A pagan city, a place of merchants and trade, of noise and business deals, of market place chaos and cultural mix as the ships sailed in and out. I wonder what they made of Paul. What did those Ephesians think? What did they make of his message of a crucified Lord, those pagan merchants? For Paul told a story of self-emptying, a story of forgiveness, of humility, of putting the other first. How strange did that all sound to their ears? A Lord whose glory is revealed through a humiliating death as a criminal! Beaten by the might of the Roman authority. The very same power that ruled in Ephesus. No wonder there is passion in Paul’s letters to the people of Ephesus! But there he ran into trouble with the pagan Ephesians and had to leave. That certainly wasn’t the only time that happened to Paul! And after leaving each place he went to the next and began again. The passion of Paul!

Why was Paul chased out of the places he preached in? To understand Paul we must remember the Roman context of the beginnings of Christianity. The grandeur of Roman culture, architecture, cities, achievements. Their religious system. Roman religion was pagan. They worshipped a number of deities and the Roman emperors themselves were considered divine – they were called ‘sons of god’. The Romans persecuted those early Christians for they saw their monotheism as a threat to their polytheistic system. However, it is interesting that they didn’t persecute the Jews. Why not? The Jews were traders and merchants who brought revenue into the Roman towns and cities and the Romans taxed them. Therefore they tolerated them. The Romans always allowed occupied people to continue worshipping their gods with the condition that they add worship of the Roman Emperor to that. The Jews, however, with their monotheistic religion, were exempted from Emperor worship because their ethical and moral systems were held in such esteem. The Romans did not take on any of their rituals and laws such as kosher rules, but respected their ethics and their way of treating people. At that time, the followers of Jesus were still well and truly within the fold of Judaism. They were Jews, following the Way of the Jew, Jesus. However, Paul’s preaching at Corinth was a turning point for those early Christians. The exemption from Emperor worship and freedom from persecution for the Jews changed. The Romans didn’t like that Paul was threatening their customs. Some of the Jews too who didn’t like what he was saying complained about him to the Roman authorities. The Romans would not have been interested in inter-religious disagreement but they did respond to the concerns that he was threatening their customs.  

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Ms Kerry McCullough

Dean of Mission