Michael Gorman: St. Paul’s Epistle to the American Churches

Michael Gorman: St. Paul’s Epistle to the American Churches December 15, 2019

In the best display of anachronistic pseudonymity that I’ve read, Michael Gorman’s new book, Participating in Christ: Explorations in Paul’s Theology and Spirituality, includes a letter from Paul to the American churches. You can read the whole “letter” at Christian Century. Here’s part of it:

To be in Christ is also to be an alternative community, even an alternative political community. Your Christian communities need to be more political. I do not mean that you should be trying to grab political power or looking for ways to restore Christendom’s civic muscle and influence. That was and is a really bad idea. Why? Because the central reality of our gospel, the one message I preached everywhere, is Christ crucified—and that is the antithesis of worldly political power.

What I do mean by political is that the Christian community is an alternative way of being in the world, an alternative way of ordering relationships, an alternative “body.” Actually, it is not only an alternative. It is the alternative—a sign of the new creation that God has inaugurated in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

One of my favorite Christian writers, C. S. Lewis, once penned these words: “Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.” (Who would have guessed that C. S. Lewis would anticipate the so-called apocalyptic approach to my theology?)

This benevolent sabotage is not aimed at the state or any other institution. It is not a Christian takeover, a religiously based coup d’état. The goal of the church is not to take over anything but to be a foretaste of something—the new creation that has come and is coming.

All of this leads to my third point about being in Christ. To be in Christ as an alternative community is to be a living exegesis, or faithful interpretation, of the gospel. It is to become like Christ and therefore, in a profound sense, to become the gospel by becoming communal commentary on it. That, brothers and sisters, is true fellowship—participation in God’s work.

I lived in the time before Christendom in the Roman Empire. You now live in the time after Christendom in North America. So our contexts are remarkably similar despite all the differences. I therefore resonate with the words of Bryan Stone, who summarizes his book Evangelism after Christen­dom as follows: “The most evangelistic thing the church can do today is to be the church—to be formed imaginatively by the Holy Spirit through core practices such as worship, forgiveness, hospitality, and economic sharing into a distinctive people in the world, a new social option, the body of Christ.”

My last words for you would be these from Ephesians, which I consider to be a commissioning prayer. I hope that it will inspire the conversion of your imagination as you—individually and together—try to discern where and how God is calling you to be the church more fully and thereby to participate in the saving, healing mission of God in your part of the world. “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Oh, and here is my endorsement of the book:

Michael Gorman is one of the leading Paul scholars of our time, committing his professional career to expounding the significance of union with Christ for both academic theology and for practical Christianity. In this collection of essays we find Gorman at his erudite best, combining Pauline themes of participation, justification, cruciformity, mission, resurrection living, and spirituality with rare poignancy and power. Few volumes are both informative and spiritually uplifting–this one is!

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