Lesson 3: The Gospel According to Paul

I’ve been messing around for days trying to come up with an academic key to what Paul means by the Gospel. I tried all the usual ones, like our Lutheran understanding that he is all about justification by faith. Each time I ended up conditioning my ideas with “yes, but…”

Then I realized that everything he wrote was based on his experience on the Damascus Road. Everything he said was an attempt to put into words what happened to him there.

I was able to understand why he focused the Gospel entirely on the Cross and Resurrection when I remember his only experience of Christ was a resurrection appearance. He never had any other contact with Jesus of Nazareth.

It made sense that he insisted that our relationship with God is based entirely on grace, because he did nothing to warrant Jesus’ rescuing him. He had to see his revelation as a gift because he was totally unworthy.

And no wonder he described becoming a Christian as a transformation of the entire self.
It totally changed him. One moment he was persecuting the Church, hunting down Christians as enemies to be arrested and killed, and the next he was spreading Christianity to the known world.

At least, I think I find a common thread throughout his many descriptions of the Gospel using his personal experience rather than any theological concept. He was talking about what was going on with his own life when he writes about living in Christ, sharing the spirit of Christ, knowing the mind of God, acting as the body of Christ, becoming a new creation or a new kind of human. One moment he might put it this way and the next that way, but he was always trying to say he felt he had been raised from death to life just as Jesus was.

Reading Paul this way was liberating for me. I did not have to come up with a concept that determined how I should be relating to God through Christ. I realized I was still reading canon that provided a standard for critiquing my experience, but I no longer felt I had to force mine to conform exactly to his. If Paul was sharing what happened to him, my own experience was significant.

It also helped me see Paul‘s Gospel is all about freedom. (I imagine some women might object, but I see passages about keeping women in their places as either a blind spot or something inserted later by someone else. There are just too many other places where he speaks of women leaders.) When he insists his version of the Gospel is the most accurate, he is always contending against groups that believe all Christians must be subject to Jewish laws and customs. His experience showed non-Jews could become part of the Christian community by simply trusting the Gospel message. There was no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. All were on in Christ.

This freedom of the gospel did not mean Christians would lead an immoral life. Paul’s experience convinced him being raised to new life with Christ-inspired people to love one another which he described as a summary of the law. Remember his Gospel proclaimed Christ crucified as well as resurrected. Like Christ, the Christian gives up some of his freedom to serve others.

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