Volume 4: Number 7

August 10, 2013

Volume 4: Number 7

The Gospel and the Apostle Paul

Fortunate One: Spiritual Warfare in the Pauline Epistles
Fr James Parnell

Who “Invented” Christianity?
Fr John Breck

Growing Up With(out) Paul
Dn Jason Ketz

The Apocalyptic Prophet
Ms Tracy Gustilo

More information about the authors can be found here.

Fortunate One: Spiritual Warfare in the Pauline Epistles

August 10, 2013

Fortunate One: Spiritual Warfare in the Pauline Epistles

Fr James Parnell

Throughout his letters, St. Paul stresses a sense of urgency and vigilance that we have long since lost. This emphasis is based on the reality of a conflict described plainly as a war against evil. It can even seem foreign to us, as it is spoken of in terms far different from the culture wars in which the sins of others become the targets for our Bible bombs and canonical cannons. No, the conflict he most often references is not that of public conflict with other groups/individuals, but of spiritual conflict. Even conflicts related to those who preached other doctrines (focus on circumcision, spiritual gifts, etc.) are viewed as but a manifestation and example of a spiritual reality:

navalwar“For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.” [1]

In this vein, his letters are filled with military and athletic references which help illustrate his focus on preparing his flock for a contest, a war. St. Paul minces no words when describing the imminence and regularity of conflict, both with the world and within oneself. He twice describes the life of a Christian as “a good fight,” and speaks at length of a war within himself.[2] The snares of the devil and the powers of evil are not conjured up as a metaphysical metaphor or scare-straight-tactic, but spoken of as a reality of warfare.

St. Paul’s famous encouragement to arm oneself with spiritual armor and weaponry is expressly based on the real threat of engagement by the enemy.[3] In Ephesians, it’s not described as a possibility, but rather a promise. Indeed, the conflict within this world between good and evil is realized in the expectation of suffering. “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict which you saw and now hear to be mine.”[4] Suffering as a Christian is not simply an occupational hazard, but rather a job description. Yet we are not called to do so in a masochistic way, seeking humiliation and abuse for the fun of it. It is an expectation that a life lived in Christ is one which naturally comes to a point of intersection with a death like Christ’s, even if, in America, it is not with wood and nails.

“When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” [5]

St-Paul-Preaching-in-AthensYet as Christians in America, we often take one of two paths to excess when it comes to “spiritual warfare.” One is abuse and the other is apathy.

Culture wars and Christianity can often seem synonymous in popular media. Pope Francis is quoted as saying, “Who am I to judge?” and the papers are ablaze with wonderment that a Christian leader might dare to withhold from judging another person. Imagine it … a Christian who doesn’t point the finger at someone else over their sins. Pick your hot topic, and there’s a “Christian” group that sounds more like a hate group than a light on a hill. We take the conflict that Paul describes and use it as fodder for war against flesh and blood, under the guise of protecting the faith or fatherland. Yet, despite the media hype, the majority of us probably feel more comfortable on the sidelines, just slightly outside the danger area, away from the main push of the battle. We wait for the end, if we even take notice of it at all, and when pushed to suit up and wade into the thick of it, or perhaps simply when jostled by another running to fight, we ask, like the demoniacs from the Gospel a few weeks ago: “Have you come to torment us before the time?” We perhaps know too well who the victor will be and feel no need to risk our own skin.  We can take comfort and rejoice in the fact that Christ trampled down death by his death, that he won the victory already, and indeed St. Paul encourages us to do exactly that. Yet, though the victory has been won, the fight drones on, for the enemy still fights as though he doesn’t know he’s beaten. We, as Christians, as the Church, the Body of Christ, are called to be that reality: to embody Christ today, here and now, and make that victory a reality in our lives today, and in the lives of those around us. We are here to fight the good fight and it is for this reason that Paul speaks of his own suffering for the Gospel.[6]

Daniel_warYet for many of us, there’s just too much going on. With timelines and hash tags, memes and viral videos, 24-hour news channels and up-to-the-minute as-fast-as-you-can-share-it information at our fingertips, it can be hard not to get caught up in it all. There’s a sense that we must keep up with the ever-changing, as though the news is always new and newsworthy. Those things that seem to us to remain the same: stagnant, still, and steadfast, these are often put on hold, ignored, in order to focus on that which seems different: the new, changing, and constantly updated, globalized world. The temptation to check your e-mail instead of praying in the morning, to read the news feed instead of the Bible, to attend a social event instead of Vespers, or update your social media persona instead of visiting the sick is so powerful exactly for this reason. We know that the prayer book, the Bible, the services of the Church, and those in need will still be there tomorrow. We take God for granted and, at best, assume that we’ll have time to get to it later, once everything slows down. Yet, they never seem to, and we are stuck in a Groundhog Day scenario of never quite making time for that which time was made. Before we know it, the enemy has won a small victory in the battlefield of our hearts. Our senses are deadened to the realities of God working in our lives, of Christ in our midst. We become at ease in our sins and at peace with our spiritual laziness. We take a rest. We begin to doze off.

We forget that we are at war.

[1] II Corinthians 10:3-6.

[2] I Timothy 6:12 & II Timothy 4:7; Romans 6-8.

[3] Ephesians 6:10-20.

[4] Philippians 1:29-30.

[5] Romans 8:15b-18.

[6] Colossians 1:21-29.

Who “Invented” Christianity?

August 10, 2013

Who “Invented” Christianity?

Fr John Breck

A certain mentality current in the middle of the last century lingers on in many quarters today. It is the notion that Christianity, as we know and celebrate it in the Church, is attributable not to Jesus, but to the Apostle Paul.In the mid-twentieth century, German Lutheran theology popularized a radical distinction between “the Jesus of history” and “the Christ of faith,” a distinction most Protestant theologians later modified, if not abandoned. In the minds of many laypeople, however, this emphasis provoked a radical disjuncture, often found today outside the Orthodox world, between history and theology.paul_iconIn this view, “history”—meaning “fact,” that is, “what really happened”—presents Jesus variously as an itinerant Galilean missionary, a thaumaturge (spiritual healer), or political revolutionary. His message focused on the coming of God’s Kingdom or Reign. He called a dozen or so disciples to accompany him, and they in turn were served by a group of women for their daily, practical needs. Jesus had no intention of creating an enduring community (the Church). Through his preaching he ran afoul of Jewish religious authorities by threatening to overturn Mosaic Law (reflected in the so-called “Matthean antitheses”: “You have heard it said…, but I say to you…”). He and his itinerant band managed to threaten Roman political and military authority as well (Judas in this scenario was a Zealot, and perhaps Jesus was as well). As a result, he was arrested, crucified as a political rabble-rouser and revolutionary, then buried in an unmarked grave, whose location was quickly forgotten. His disciples declared publicly and loudly that he had “risen from the dead” and that this “resurrection,” with his subsequent disappearance, would be followed by a “second coming.” But such things never actually happened.

“Faith” then shaped select elements of Jesus’ teaching and activity into a “Christ-myth.” This was structured according to current Hellenistic mystery religions, which focused on a “saved Savior,” a divine figure who died and rose from the dead, and whose followers gained salvation by ritual participation in his death and resurrection. The story of the empty tomb and Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances were devised as etiological legends, to explain the enduring belief that he was indeed alive after his crucifixion and burial.

Paul Conversion

Paul (Saul of Tarsus) experienced an unexplainable “conversion” while he was on his way to Damascus to persecute the increasingly bothersome Christians. This psychological phenomenon gave birth to the image of “the Christ of faith.” “The Christ” no longer signified either the Davidic king, as in portions of the Old Testament, or the hoped-for Messiah (Christos is the Greek form of the Hebrew title Messiah or “Anointed One of God”). In Paul’s re-imaging and re-imagining of the person of Jesus, the man of Nazareth became the pre-existent “Son of God,” an ancient Hebrew title designating the messianic roles of prophet, priest and king. After Jesus rose from the dead, he was rendered “present” among his followers by the Holy Spirit (or Spirit of God, Spirit of Christ, Rom 8:9-11). As the dying and rising God (Rom 6:3-4), Jesus works salvation for his human followers: he is the “new” or “second” Adam, whose obedience to “death on the cross” reverses the condemnation pronounced against the first Adam, through whom “sin came into the world.” Paul subsequently developed a “Christ-mysticism,” a notion of intimate, personal participation of the believer “in Christ” or “in the Body of Christ” (cf. Gal 2; 1 Cor 12-14, etc.).

Paul’s disciples later elaborated on these themes in letters to the Colossians (“in him the fullness of the Godhead was present bodily”) and Ephesians (on the Church as the universal “Body of Christ”). This kind of theological reflection laid the groundwork for what German theology called “Frühkatholizismus” or “early Catholicism,” marked by a conception of the Church as a hierarchical institution rather than a charismatic community of believers. The Pastoral Epistles (I-2 Timothy, Titus), claiming Pauline authorship and thereby Pauline authority, pressed this to the further stage of defining an ecclesial hierarchy of episkopos and presbyteros, or episkoposand diakonos, leading finally to the threefold ministry of bishop, priest and deacon.

This rapid sketch represents a gross generalization and simplification. Its purpose is simply to indicate the disjunction between “the Jesus of history” and “the Christ of faith” that has endured (in the popular mind and in that of a number of influential theologians) through the past several decades. That disjunction was based on the conviction that a movement occurred after Jesus’ death that turned Christian faith from a “proclamation event” into a “religion of salvation.” The focus, primarily under the influence of Paul, shifted from Jesus’ message to Jesus’ person, thus making Paul himself the true founder of the Christian religion. In this perspective, Paul, and not Jesus, is the real “inventor” of Christianity.

The corrective to this notion is provided by the reality of “tradition,”paradosis. The key passage is 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, where the apostle declares that what he transmits as the foundational content of Christian faith (Jesus’ death, resurrection and post-resurrection appearances) is nothing other thanwhat he received from the beginning (cf. I John 1:1-3!). He receives the eye-witness accounts of Jesus’ followers and transmits that witness faithfully. Paul invents nothing. The “Pauline Church” is in fact in total continuity with early Christian communities such as those in the region of Damascus, which Paul originally sought to destroy.

gospelThe tradition Paul received and passed on would eventually find written expression in the Gospels. In his own “occasional letters” he bases his entire teaching on what was known and experienced in the earliest Christian communities under the influence of Christ and the Spirit (Christ present and active in and through the Spirit). That prior witness, received by Paul and faithfully transmitted by him, already—before his conversion—derived from the experience of the living Christ within the preaching and sacramental life of the Church. Paul’s own witness is nothing other than his inspired theological reflection on the meaning of that earlier ecclesial memory.

Paul by no means “invented” Christianity. He received living tradition from those who came before him, who themselves had journeyed with Jesus during his earthly ministry and experienced his glorified presence within their respective communities of faith (see Galatians 1:11-24). Through the dramatic event of his conversion, Paul became a vital link in a chain of Holy Tradition. He became perhaps the most profound and influential interpreter of that Tradition, which, as the entire New Testament canon testifies, and the experience of Christian believers confirms, is grounded directly and unequivocally in the very person of the crucified and risen Christ.

Growing Up With(out) Paul

August 10, 2013

Growing Up With(out) Paul

Dn Jason Ketz


I suffered from an uncommon ailment in my childhood.

I grew up in a large OCA parish in the upper Midwest, which had a robust Church School program for the parish youth. From Pre-K all the way through 11th grade, each grade level met separately for instruction every week through the school year. Our curriculum covered all of the expected subjects: sacraments, liturgy, church history, doctrine, etc. In fifth grade, we studied the Bible. It was also in fifth grade that I contracted this malady of mine. But several years passed before I ever had any symptoms. By then, I realized that many of my classmates were also ill.

After our 5th grade “intro to the Bible” course, we moved on to other topics. There was more to being Orthodox than just reading the bible, right?!  More precisely, there was an expectation (unrealized in my own life, and in the lives of most of my classmates) that the scriptures were read at home. In addition, we attended Divine Liturgy regularly, so in Church we were receiving a weekly dose of epistles, gospels and all the other scriptural snippets that comprised the liturgy, with a sermon to emphasize the texts we were hearing. On the premise that our scriptural education came from elsewhere, our Church School program made no concerted effort to return to the scriptures for further study.

This lack of scriptural review was the cause of my childhood illness. It was not a disease, but a deficiency that ailed the youth of our community. But it was very hard to recognize. On the surface, we were average Christians, with a basic and comfortable – if unimpressive – knowledge of scripture. We had successfully heard the Gospel stories as they were read each Sunday, and while they were all jumbled in our heads in lectionary format, large tracts of the Gospels had been imprinted in our minds.

But we knew almost nothing of the Apostle Paul!


We had grown up without any instructive or critical discussions on the epistles, and because of this, we were spiritually and intellectually anemic. We were like the British sailors of old, suffering quietly from Scurvy of our faith. Indeed, to stretch the metaphor, the weekly doses of Paul’s epistles heard in the Liturgy were little more than limes and lemons for us to chew, providing just the bare minimum vitamin content to keep our teeth in our mouths until we reached harbor. Thanks to the very genuine and in many ways very effective efforts of our community, our rich understanding of Orthodox beliefs traditions and practices provided us with all the navigational equipment one would need to navigate the treacherous waters of life with our rich understanding of Christian beliefs. But for all that preparation, we were malnourished and half-starved!

I became keenly aware of this curious condition of mine in college. Beyond the myriad encounters with Christians of different creeds, I first noticed felt my ignorance – and my hunger! – when a professor in a Philosophy course asked us to read 1 Corinthians one week, and be prepared to discuss Paul’s philosophy, as it compared to what we had read of Aristotle and Plato.

It was an eye-opening experience for me to read an epistle in its entirety, and then think critically on what the letter was actually saying. I remember reading 1 Corinthians in one sitting for the first time ever in my life. I then spent the remainder of the week trying to figure out how I had missed so much of Paul, even though I had been hearing his epistles on a weekly basis. But alongside this frustration with my past came a very refreshing revelation, for it was in college that I first saw the depth and complexity of the epistles. So many of the intricacies of Paul’s writings (so many ‘mysteries’ from my church school years) were suddenly laid bare and dissected in discussion in a secular classroom. But to my surprise, rather than damage and disgrace this sacred text, my professor’s lecture and the discussion that followed actually redeemed it. If Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians was any indication, Christianity was not merely some peasant religion of a bygone era. St Paul was a genius, and his faith and his writings endure and have forever changed our world. For nineteen hundred years, the world has had to contend with Paul. It has been unable to silence the Apostle, or to explain him away, or excuse him, or to ignore him, or even to provide an adequate set of ‘cliff notes’ for his letters. It may be a divine joke that the various synopses of Paul’s letters are longer than the letters themselves!

That college philosophy course was my first true encounter with the Apostle’s writings, and it piqued my curiosity of how we treat Paul’s writings in our Church. As I observed more closely how we handle Paul liturgically and socially in our communities, I started to notice things. For instance, I began to notice that the manner in which the Epistles are read in liturgy (by this, I mean the lectionary) makes the letters almost inaccessible to a person unfamiliar with Paul. The letters are divided into pericopes, very few of which can be understood in isolation. This is no surprise. I could no more hope to make sense out of the middle paragraph of an email (or the middle characters of a tweet) than I could grasp completely what is going on in Romans or even First Timothy when hearing a single excerpt. The Gospels, with narrative structure and embedded parables, lend themselves better to such division. But the epistles…not so much. And so the point must be emphasized: the epistle readings do not comprise a catechism. And in a liturgical setting, they simply could not. Providing scriptural knowledge to the uninformed is a burden that neither the liturgy nor the lectionary can bear. Too much is assumed in our Liturgy and in our lectionaries to provide a comprehensive catechesis. The first assumption is that we are not hearing these words for the first time.  Neither the Church nor Scripture seems to address people who have never before heard the message.

I also began to notice how little attention Paul’s works are given when people have the opportunity to comment on his writings. Writers and theologians flock to Paul in droves, but our priests, in my experience, seldom speak (helpfully) on Paul’s writings.  I say this not as an insult to the preachers I know and have learned from – many have routinely given brilliant sermons. So I suspect that thosewho remain silent are shrewdly and carefully avoiding the same trap that ensnares commentators. That is, don’t complicate a simple message. To be sure, Paul’s message is not a simple one, but it can be needlessly and even dangerously over-complicated when fumbled.


Paul’s writings are especially challenging for those who wish to learn (or teach), because their complexity exists on two levels. It goes without saying that they dense writings, and letters, too, which makes them only one half of a dialogue. In addition to this, Paul’s works have picked up immense amounts of historical baggage. For instance, Paul’s writings about the Law and the Jews and Justification by Faith is not merely a debate in Paul’s own day. These debates were used so extensively in early Protestant writings that now the debate between Paul and the Circumcision Party is hard to separate from the debate between Lutherans and Catholics. A more innocuous example is our tendency to project a modern (or at least Byzantine) idea of the Church backward into the epistles. Whatever the assembly in Corinth looked like, it was not an OCA parish, nor the Hagia Sophia! Time and again, history has shown that it is very tough for Christians to set aside our own presuppositions, and actually hear the message that Paul preaches.

But if we can successfully peel back the layers of history, and get back to the text on it’s own terms, then what is Paul’s message? I assure you, it’s a simple one. I have heard it distilled into modern parlance, and I have confirmed it myself (just to be sure), and I remember that moment that I received this message as clearly as I recall my Classic Literature course in my freshman year of college: it was simply revelatory. It’s as if all the tumblers fell into place, and a locked door swung open.

Paul’s message is, quite literally, the Gospel.

Before the four Gospels, there was the good news, and Paul preached it!  Anybody who has heard this before is liable to take it for granted, to dismiss as a tautology what I consider a revelation. That Paul preached the gospel cannot be overstated, especially to an audience with a rich liturgical tradition that makes frequent, ritualized use of the Gospels, and in so doing makes an obvious display that sets these four special texts above and apart from Paul’s letters. So one can can appreciate – or at least imagine – the paradigm shift required of me to consider that there was a gospel message that was the infrastructure behind the writings of Paul and the evangelists! It was an absolute abandonment of what I thought a Gospel was, and what background knowledge I believed was required in order to believe in Christ.

It is tempting to understand the progression of our faith along historical lines. This is our default perspective, this historical model constructed from the Gospels and Acts. We read the Gospels, and we encounter Jesus, who was born, lived, died, rose from the dead, ascended, etc. Then followed the descent of the Holy Spirit, mass conversions, preaching, and suddenly, quite late, this fellow Saul was knocked off his horse, encountered Christ, and after some years of careful reflection adopted this rather strange and unexpected belief that non-Jews were to be included in the salvation promised to God’s chosen people through the Law and the prophets.

That’s how the historical timeline is constructed, but our encounter  – the logical progression of our faith – works in reverse. We encounter Christ through [the preaching of] the writings of the New Testament, of which Paul’s works were the first. Moreover, the Gospels are indisputably intended for non-Jewish (Gentile) audiences, which means that Paul’s crazy idea – that we Gentiles could be included in the salvation promised to the Jews – was accepted when the Gospels (as we know them) were written. To overlay this logical progression with our liturgical and sacramental life, we also understand ourselves to have received the Holy Spirit (through Baptism) sequentially before participating in the ritualized mystical supper and sacrifice of Thanksgiving (Eucharist), which reveals and commemorates the death and resurrection of Christ. Our very initiation proceeds in the reverse order of the Gospel timeline. A belief that Jesus is Lord is our point of entry into the New Testament. To be true to Paul’s teachings, this belief is itself based entirely on a faith in the Lord God of Israel, and only after we have committed to these beliefs (or at least suspended our disbelief), are we able to hear and make sense of these wonderful stories in the Gospel texts. But our belief in God and a belief that Jesus is the Christ  – the Anointed One – also has very real consequences.Bible

So it is no surprise, then, that Paul, having already preached the gospel, had a great many questions to answer and issues to address with his audiences. Strikingly, none of the communities he addressed seemed overly concerned with biographical questions of Jesus. Paul does not have long vignettes about virgin birth, John the Baptist, healings and exorcisms in and around Galilee. Perhaps this is because these stories already existed and were accepted in Paul’s church communities, but all the same, there is no evidence that this was a source of confusion or contention in the earliest Christian communities. Instead, Paul was ceaselessly addressing the consequences of this gospel he was preaching.  And he also felt compelled to work out an answer to how Jesus and his followers are to relate (spiritually and socially) to Jewish beliefs, with which there was not yet any clear break.  Indeed, this gospel that Paul preached is much more profound than just a biography of a Jewish carpenter that happens to have a sensational ending.  To experience this depth and beauty, we simply have to hear Paul’s message, again and again.

Paul, in his epistles, has provided us a sublime articulation of our faith. His theology is often dense, the questions he is answering may not seem relevant at first glance, and some of his ideas cut against the grain of popular social beliefs, but we would do well to embrace him rather than avoid him. Because Paul’s beliefs are indispensable to our faith. They are a part of our traditions, our teachings, and are the very fabric of our liturgical prayers. And, while we may not read and discuss his epistles as a regular practice, his teachings and writings are the very foundation of the Church we know and love. His words – like the words of the evangelists – are the cornerstone of our faith.

I jest that I grew up without Paul, and hence suffered this strange scriptural anemia, this biblical scurvy, from which I am still recovering. But really, it was more of a deafness: Paul’s writings were there all along, if I had only had the sense to hear them.


The Apocalyptic Prophet

August 10, 2013

The Apocalyptic Prophet

Tracy Gustilo

The only way to know what St Paul is saying is to read him. His letters are the oldest Christian documents we possess, and they are part of Scripture. We hear excerpts read aloud at almost every Divine Liturgy. On the one hand, reading St Paul is not difficult. He is quite a character! He certainly lived in “interesting times,” as the saying goes. He has plenty to say to striving and struggling Christian communities very much like our own. We would do well to hear him and, when possible, heed his wisdom. On the other hand, as St Peter says, Paul is not always easy to understand:


“Our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him… There are some things in [his letters] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” (2 Peter 2.15-16)

It seems, though, that Paul’s writings are more accessible when we ask some basic questions about the author: who Paul thought himself to be, what kind of mission he thought he was on, and in what sort of “interesting times” he was living.

Above all, Paul was a Jew. (Jesus was a Jew, too.) It’s so easy to forget this. There were no “Christians” – as in, a group of people adhering to another religion – during Paul’s lifetime. In the first decades after Christ there were Jews who believed in Jesus, and there were Jews who didn’t. And then there were Gentiles – pagan polytheists – some of whom also came to believe in Jesus, that is, in the Jewish Messiah, in “Christ,” which means “anointed.” For centuries the Jews had anointed (poured oil on) their prophets and kings to commission them, to consecrate them to a particular work. In times of trouble, they trusted God and looked for a savior – a prophet, judge, or warrior-king – someone who would be “the anointed one,” chosen by God and sent to save the people.

By the time of Jesus and St Paul, the need for a savior was very great, and the Jewish people were more than ready to receive from God their anointed King, a holy Priest, the One who could save them: the Christ. He would be the Messiah. According to the Jews who believed in him, Jesus was (is!) the Messiah. The arrival of the great and final Savior sent by God was such a tremendous event that it affected the Gentiles, too. For his part, Paul started out as a unbelieving Jew. He even persecuted the Jewish Christ-believers. But then something happened. He had an encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), and from then on he became a fervent believer. For Paul Jesus was Christ, Messiah, the Lord. Part of Paul’s own commission by God was that he should go and preach precisely to the Gentiles, the non-Jews, that this Messiah was for the salvation of the whole world.

Which brings us to the kind of “interesting times” in which Paul lived. The Jews were so ready for the Messiah that their thinking had grown downright apocalyptic. Today when we hear “apocalypse,” we think doomsday, the end of the world, but the word literally means “revelation” or “uncovering.” There is indeed in apocalyptic thinking a sense of the culmination of time, of the coming to an end or fruition of the current “age,” but there is even more a sense of 1) a mystery or secret finally being revealed, 2) the power of evil finally being defeated, and 3) the very nature of all reality, the entire created cosmos, being changed. This is what apocalyptic means for messianic Jews, and Paul was steeped in apocalyptic thinking. For Paul, Jesus as the very Son of God appearing on earth revealed the mystery of the ages, the long plan of God for the salvation of the entire world. Jesus as the conquering Lord defeated the power of evil, sin, and death that had held sway on earth since the time of Adam – trampling down death by death. Finally, Jesus as the anointed bearer of God’s Spirit provided for the enlivening transformation of the entire creation.

conversion_of_st_paul-400When we read about Paul’s so-called “conversion” in Acts 9, we need to be aware that it was probably less a “conversion” (to what?) than a revelation and a call. Paul had not seen Jesus in person like the other apostles. For God to reveal his Son, the risen Christ, to Paul meant that Paul had to be approached in a special way, as a prophet, in a way similar to the visionary callings of the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, who also had profound experiences (Isa 6, Ezek 1). The blinding light and the opening of Paul’s eyes by Ananias confirms that a revelation occurred and that one formerly blind has now come to see. (Where else in Scripture do you find this motif?) Paul is also “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9.17), and he will “carry the Lord’s name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9.15), much like the prophets of old carried the word of the Lord (“thus says the Lord!”) to all the people.

Paul is nothing less than the ultimate apocalyptic prophet. He has a message, a gospel, for the whole world. He will preach the revelation of the Messiah, the Lord, God’s own Son. He will proclaim the defeat of evil and freedom from the slavery of sin. He will show in himself, even in his own flesh, the coming of the Spirit – “power in weakness” (2 Cor 12.9-10) – who changes everything, even death into life. And, just like his Lord, how he will suffer in the process!

At one point, Paul writes to the Philippians to warn them that now things have changed, and they must watch out for anyone who says believers from the Gentiles have to be circumcised “in the flesh.” (Compare also the letter to the Galatians.) The Jews had always practiced circumcision since the time of Abraham, long before the coming of the Messiah, long even before Moses had given the Law. Now, with the coming of the Messiah and the blessing of the Gentiles (the nations) in Christ, the promises to Abraham – who himself had been willing to sacrifice his own son – have been fulfilled (Gen 22). Circumcision as a sign of a fleshly covenant between God and Abraham, to the multiplication of Abraham’s descendants (Gen 17), is no longer necessary, certainly not for the Gentiles, who share not Moses’ law, but Abraham’s faith. Paul feels all of this keenly, both the glory of the whole mysterious process of God’s salvation and also, especially, what he has now gained in Christ. “Look out!” he says to the Philippians,

“… for those who mutilate the flesh [circumcise]. For we are the true circumcision, who worship God in spirit, and glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh. Though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the Church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.

“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3.2-11)


Here is Paul in his own words describing who he was, what he has become, and what Christ means for him: nothing less than the loss of everything he had known and boasted about from his previous life, nothing less than sharing (joyfully!) in Christ’s suffering and death, and nothing less than the hope of “being found” in Christ and attaining to the power of resurrection from the dead.

If we keep in mind Paul as an apocalyptic prophet, called by God to preach the gospel of the coming of the Messiah, in whom there is fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham after a long process of salvation since the defeat of Adam; if we keep in mind the radical power of the Lord to defeat evil, even death itself, in his great rescue of all creation into the resurrection of the Kingdom; if we keep in mind who Paul is and how he has accepted God’s prophetic call to live out his life in “interesting times,” we’ll be better able to understand his letters.

To return to what St Peter said about his beloved brother Paul, it’s striking that Peter, too, was speaking apocalyptically right up to the words cited above. Paul wasn’t the only one called by the Lord. Peter was, too. And we, too, if we follow the resurrected Christ, are also zealously waiting to “be found” by him.

“According to [God’s] promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the forbearance of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters.” 2 Peter 3.13-16

Volume 4: Number 7 Authors and Contributors

August 10, 2013

Priest James Parnell is a newly ordained priest of the OCA, and a recent graduate of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. He is a Clinical Pastoral Education Resident at Hartford Hospital and a supply priest for the Diocese of New England attached to Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in New Britain, CT. An Iraq War Veteran with over a decade of military service, Fr James also serves as a Chaplain in the New York Army National Guard.

Archpriest John Breck was Professor of New Testament and Ethics at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and Professor of Biblical Interpretation and Ethics at St. Sergius Theological Institute, Paris, France. With his wife, Lyn, he is the director of the St. Silouan Retreat Center, Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina.

Deacon Jason Ketz is an alumni of St Vladimir’s Seminary and a deacon at St Mary’s Cathedral in his hometown of Minneapolis, MN. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Microbiology, and in addition to his work at St Mary’s, is employed  in the Quality department of a leading medical device company in the Minneapolis area.

Dr. Tracy Gustilo finished a master’s degree in theology from St Vladimir’s Seminary in May. She attends Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Overland Park, Kansas. Two of her children are grown up and making their way in the world, and two are in college. Tracy is struck by how radical the Christian message is, especially when she reads St Paul and the early Fathers of the Church.