“St. Paul the Bully”

I Timothy 1.12-17

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

St. Paul was a bully.

Now you might think that I am referring to Paul’s pronouncements on sexual morality. I’m not. I think most of Paul’s ethical teachings simply reflected the contexts in which they were made.

Even when his teachings seem to us to be narrow and prejudiced, I don’t think Paul was being judgmental. He was writing against the culture of the Roman Empire where it was often the case that anything was permitted. He was just trying to encourage his fellow Christians to live less selfishly.

Nor am I referring to other theological teachings in Paul’s letters–his interpretations of Christ’s message that he sent to the various Christian communities, interpretations that were copied and passed on to other churches, and then to later generations of Christians.

These are forceful texts. Our Second Lesson today comes from one of them, the First Letter to Timothy, which may have been revised by other church leaders after Paul’s death. Paul’s writings do contain strong words. But they weren’t written to push people around.

No, I am referring to Paul’s behavior before he was converted—when he was called, “Saul.” Some twenty years after Jesus died, Saul travelled around the Mediterranean world, persecuting Christians. He saw himself as someone who was defending and purifying his Hebrew faith.

At the same time, he happened to be doing the dirty work of religious leaders who felt threatened by the rapidly growing groups of Christ’s followers. As Paul admitted in the Lesson we heard earlier, “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.”

What stopped Paul from being a bully? The crucial moment for him was his conversion experience on the road to Damascus – when he saw a blinding light and heard the words, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” By the time he had regained his sight, he had been gathered into a community that was part of the same movement he had been persecuting—and “Saul” was now “Paul.”

But, even after this spectacular change of heart, Paul was by no means perfect. He remained a frail creature of flesh-and-blood—as he himself readily admits in his writings, which make up a third of the New Testament.

Paul recognized the many failures of the human will. He realized that he needed to take his own advice if he was going to avoid the aggressive behavior that he once relished.

Thus, in today’s Lesson, he says, “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me…” Power, for Christians, comes from their inner connection to Christ.

Most bullies push people around because they need constant reinforcement of their status. They try to prove they are strong precisely because—deep down inside–they feel weak!

Now, we don’t know what caused Paul’s insecurity. There have been many speculations about what is called his “thorn in the flesh”. Perhaps the thorn was some weird character trait; perhaps he had an embarrassing physical disability.

Whatever Paul’s problem, he managed to overcome it. He found a strength in Christ that compensated for his human weakness. He no longer felt called to use violence. He could influence people without forcing them to follow a certain set of beliefs.

No wonder Paul became an evangelist! He wanted everyone to know that they could find confidence in their relationship with Christ. And that’s true for us, too: if we don’t feel empowered by our faith, we’ll be missing one of God’s most precious gifts.

And yet: how often do we look to God to give us strength? We may seek comfort and assurance from our faith. But we hesitate to ask God for courage. And that means that we deprive ourselves of a rich blessing.

Think of the times when you’re worn out by all the things you have to do. Or when you feel drained emotionally—maybe as a result of some disappointment or failure. Or when you feel overwhelmed by the flow of events around – a flow that you can neither influence nor stop.

For Paul, relief from these secular ills comes only from God. He testified that, “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” Inner strength comes to us when we let the spirit of Christ overflow into our hearts.

Divine strength can be given to us in many ways. It can arise from specifically religious events. Robust choral music and hymns remind us that God sustains us, whatever happens.

And these rejuvenating experiences remind us that true strength doesn’t need to push people around. True strength allows us to stand firm in our inner selves. In every situation, we can depend on God’s grace within us—as our Assistant Minister said so well in a sermon a few weeks ago: “God is with us, in us, and that reassures us that there is a part of us that is solid and steady, rooted in God, that doesn’t get carried away by others’ needs or desires or emotions.”

Today, as the South African leader, Nelson Mandela approaches the end of his long life, we might also profit from his example of inner strength. At every stage in his political career, he resisted attempts to make him compromise or yield his principles.

The apartheid government couldn’t break him; revenge-thirsty members of his political party couldn’t manipulate him; corrupt members of his own family couldn’t sway him.

Mandela remained his own person. He couldn’t be bullied. Nor did he ever give in to the temptation to be a bully himself.

Although baptized as a Christian, Mandela’s personal religious convictions remain hidden. But he embodies the strength and courage that St. Paul found when he stopped being a hatchet man for the Roman empire—when “the grace of our Lord overflowed” in him and when he discovered the power of “the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

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