Lesson 16: Paul’s Christian Ethics

Saint PaulBob, Rita, and Derek all observed we do not base our lives entirely on what Jesus said in the Gospels, because we are sinners and live in a sinful world. From the very beginning, Christians understood this. They struggled with what Jesus’ words meant in this interim period between Jesus’ lifetime and the establishment of the Kingdom of God.

Paul’s summary of Christian ethics is found in Romans 12. He claims we should allow the Risen Christ to transform our minds, so we can discern what we should do in every situation. Rather than conforming to what others in the world think, we should become witnesses of the better way God offers. Paul clearly understands we are not going to be able to change everything or everyone else. Nevertheless, we are to live in peace with the world “as far as it depends on us.”

The transformation of which Paul speaks could be a one-time life changing event, such as he experienced on the Damascus Road; but it also involves everyday insights as we live among people who speak God’s Word to one another and share sacraments of love that keep us in contact with the Jesus story.

Paul claims this enables us to have a realistic perspective of who we are and where we fit into God’s plan and the community. To be humble is not to have false modesty, but to be realistic. We think it makes more sense to co-operate than compete, share than hoard, act in kindness rather than hostility. There are many in the world who would agree, even though this goes against the way our society operates.

We lose many of these, however, when we proceed to Paul’s further definition of Christian ethics. “Bless those who persecute you… Do not repay anyone evil for evil… If your enemies are hungry, feed them… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” It’s here that the militant atheists accuse us of being immoral, because living like this would lead to the destruction of our people. I expect others would agree with them, if they came clean and admitted what they really believe.

At other places, Paul likes to describe the Christian life as faith, hope, and love. He does not mean faith in other people but in what God is doing– not hope in where our society is going but in what God promises– and not love as feeling empathy with some people but acting to take care of all other people. One of the face-to-face classes suggested Paul calls for a redemptive response to all situations that could take many different forms.

All this brings up the questions Rita, Bob, and Derek raised about what this means for Christian public policy. In a world in which everything has become political we are forced to ask, but also forced to acknowledge we certainly have not found a very sophisticated Christian answer on the right or left yet.

Next week I want to continue examining how Christians have defined love as casting out fear, an important insight in our society that is more and more based on fear.

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