We can almost see Paul talking himself down sometimes, can’t we? Like in this weekend’s letter to the Corinthians, he tries so hard to find humility, but he just can’t help inflating himself. Then he brings it down again, trying to temper his enthusiasm.
Recalling the events of Christ’s death and resurrection, Paul reminds the Corinthians about all the witnesses to the Paschal events, getting really fired up about the message of salvation. But then it comes, the Pauline humblebrag:
Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me. For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
It’s like, dude, ok, you’re admitting that you persecuted the People of God and may not be so worthy of mercy, but you’re also calling yourself an apostle. Do you know anyone else who didn’t know Jesus in the flesh who goes around calling themselves apostles?
Paul makes me laugh.
He goes at it again in the next lines, beginning in this prayerful reverie, recalling God’s work in his life, but then pumping himself back up to claim his place as apostle extraordinaire:
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective. Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them; not I, however, but the grace of God that is with me.
Then he kind of realizes what he’s doing and wraps up really quickly, basically going, “but who cares who the best apostle is, right? I mean, whether it was them or whether it was me, we preached, you believed, it’s all good. Doesn’t matter who!” (Actual Scriptural text: “Therefore, whether it be I or they, so we preach and so you believed”).
I feel like I see him wiping the sweat off his brow, like, “Ok, maybe they didn’t notice that I just started talking about myself for no reason again. Nobody noticed. Nobody noticed. I’m just preachin’ the Gospel. Be cool, Paul, be cool.”
Actually, I love Paul. He’s such an asshole, but in such a relatable way. I really appreciate it. Well, let’s be honest: I appreciate Paul because he humanizes discipleship, not even concealing his flaws in what become canonically Scriptural letters, and because I recognize myself in him. In all of his angry, Christian-persecuting, self-righteous affirmations. I feel like raising my hand: done that!
And then I lower my head in humility, remembering the mercy of God.
Speaking of the mercy of God, my husband and I found ourselves snowed in at the same time this past week, and actually got about an hour and a half to spend together, sipping coffee and having a genuine conversation at the breakfast table. Our children catapulted off couches in the next room, singing the My Little Pony theme song on repeat, but miraculously, they left us to our own devices.
We talked about how our spiritual lives had evolved, and what had prompted our conversions of heart. We’d both had a fairly zealous youth, having both embodied something like the early Pauline/”Saul-ine?” desire to purify the world of evildoers, through debate and “evangelization.” Yet somehow, somewhere in our early 20s, we both ended up actually meeting a loving God.
Eric talked about taking a class on heresy, of all things, and discovering that, contrary to his most deeply held beliefs about himself, he did not embody “orthodoxy” at all: he was a classic Montanist heretic.
I hadn’t remembered what that was, but Eric filled me in. Montanism showed up in the Second Century. It was famous for extreme asceticism, spiritual arrogance, and a huge reliance on esoteric prophecy, the kind that only the “special, spiritual Christian elites” had access to.
“Suddenly I saw myself, and it was like, ‘oh, my gosh, I’m not a Christian.’ It felt like my mind had literally been blown open, and it changed my whole life.”
“Whoa! Did you go straight to Confession?” I asked, half serious, half giggling, remembering how often he used to go.
“No. No, actually, I don’t know that I’ve actually ever gone to Confession for any of that.”
At first that seemed wildly bizarre to me, that of all things, this life-changing self-discovery would not have warranted some sacramental purification.
But then it hit me.
“You know, in middle school and high school, I used to go to Confession all the time for impure thoughts. But I don’t know that it ever once occurred to me to go to Confession for like, being a shitty person,” I said.
Eric almost spit out his coffee. But really, upon reflection, it’s true. I had known to feel shame for any stirrings of sexuality, but treating people unlovingly? Judgmentally condemning anyone who didn’t think the way I did, or feeling shame for acting harshly with people? No way, man. It would be years until I would make the connection that real sin was about a lack of love and the way I treated people in my life.
And so I turn to the example of Paul. He thought he was doing the right thing all those years of persecuting those Christ-followers. They were weak, they were blasphemous, they didn’t follow all the rules, right? Yeah, man, I knew the feeling.
But like Paul, Jesus had mercy on me too. It sounds trite, I know. I did not become temporarily physically blind like Paul, but I did have to learn to live in community, to receive the mercy and love of others when I absolutely didn’t deserve it. I did experience my world turn upside down when I found out in college that one of my best friends was gay, but she didn’t follow any of the stereotypes, and knew more theology and Church history than I did. I experienced an illumination when I started actually praying with the Gospel, listening to the words of Christ, rather than just reading Scholastic philosophy all the time, trying to manipulate the universe into logical categories. I’ve had to become vulnerable over and over again in relationship, and each time, more of my defenses have been stripped away, and more of my heart has been pierced. It’s true, Paul, I get it: “By the grace of God I am what I am.”
But enough talk about me. So you preached, and so I believed.
Holly Mohr works in ministry, trying to build a meaningful life grounded in love, along with her husband, Eric, and two babes. She keeps her snark in check by laughing and praying with the Scriptures, and trying to enter deeply into relationship.
Adorable donkey courtesy of Pixabay.