“Paul as Preacher”
NT Wright, former Bishop of Durham, presented a Michael Devlin lecture in 2005, which was published in the Irish Theological Quarterly 72 (2007), entitled “Paul as Preacher: The Gospel Then and Now.” He presents some really good insights on how to think of St. Paul and his early spread of Christianity, especially in light of our own contemporary world. Bishop Wright looks at how Paul confronted the Empire of Rome with Christ’s message that was very countercultural, and then applies it to how we need to look at Christ’s message in our own postmodern and postsecular world. One item though that Bishop Wright seems to be missing is the message itself: in Christ we are saved. He does not seem to emphasize the specific message of salvation as preached by Paul, and he seems somewhat overly focused on this world rather than the next.
I especially enjoyed Bishop Wright’s analogy of the Rugby Union World Cup in trying to explain the environment in which St. Paul preached. Bishop Wright writes how he was in Atlanta, Georgia when he heard that England won the Rugby Union World Cup. He explained how excited he was and how happy he was at the conference. He even started his lecture by happily and enthusiastically announcing “from the roof top” that England won. Then he realized that he was by himself in his excitement as the American audience had no comprehension on the significance of the Rugby Union World Cup and how great it was that England won! Then he thought back to how difficult it was for St. Paul to preach Christ’s message that was so countercultural and hard to comprehend for the people of the Roman Empire of the first century.
St. Paul, a Jew, was trying to explain to a Gentile world, which was part of a great secular empire led by an all-powerful emperor, that their lives should be rooted in a son of a Jewish carpenter who was from a “hick” province and who was crucified on a Cross, a punishment reserved for the lowest of the low in society. Yet, Paul did not water down his message as he was proclaiming an incredible truth about Jesus dying for mankind and being raised from the dead. Paul was not simply trying to win over his audience with ideas that they could relate to. Instead, he was challenging them. Again, I love the analogy that Bishop Wright uses: Paul tells his Greek audience that “idols and temples” are a waste of time” which is like telling punters in a pub in Dublin that “God doesn’t like Guinness.” Paul’s basic preaching was about “something that had changed the way the world was.”
Paul’s preaching belongs in the world but he preaches to change the world. He preaches the death and resurrection of Jesus in the context of the completion of Israel’s waiting for the Messiah. He preaches that his word is not the word of man but is the word of God. Because it is rooted in God, this can be a very powerful and even attractive message to the people. Paul preaches about love and community which would draw people to this message. The people are living in a very structured society in which classes of people are ignored. It is a violent time and society in which there can be little respect for the individual, especially those individuals at the bottom of the social ladder. A message of love and belonging is very attractive. Men who are at the bottom of the social rung and even those who feel the pressure of being at the top can find consolation that they are loved for just being themselves and not for who they are or who they are suppose to be.
Man can now feel part of a community, which emphasizes love and healing. Paul’s message emphasizes love and hope something that many are looking for. Paul preaches how Jesus will rescue his people and the world from corruption and that our weak bodies will be transformed like Christ’s glorious body. Paul’s message is more than about the future as God’s kingdom is here and now fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Christ.
I was hoping though that Bishop Wright would have emphasized more the salvation history message. He tended to focus more on the things of this world rather than specifically state how Christ died for our salvation. He tended to water this point down a bit even though he does warn the reader to not let the contemporary world water down the message.
Bishop Wright does do a nice job of explaining how radical and even subversive Paul’s preaching was. Paul was declaring that Jesus was God and that he was a King, something that would not sit well with the Romans who had or at least demanded such a devotion to the emperor. Paul was challenging the Roman culture and religion by preaching that people needed faith in Christ, the Lord which rules over the Roman emperor and usurps the Roman gods and worship.
Bishop Wright further looks at how Paul’s preaching and his message is so antithetical and counter to the world today. According to Bishop Wright, in the postmodern world there is a “collapse of the shared sense of truth.” There is an “elevation of feeling over argument,” and “spin over substance.” According to Bishop Wright, in a postsecular world, “religion is for wimps and weaklings.” And, the challenge is “how can we announce Jesus as Messiah and Lord within this world” just as Paul did in his world?
Bishop Wright is so correct in that the message cannot be watered down just as Paul did not water down Christ’s message to the 1st century world. Yes, our world is looking more like the early Greco-Roman world as contended by Bishop Wright, but that is even more of a reason why we need to preach Christ’s message. We must preach it and live it in the market place and in our culture. As nicely stated by Bishop Wright, it was the modern world after all that gave us WWI, the Soviet Gulag, and Dachau.
We cannot, as Bishop Wright states, preach a message that Christ only rescues us from this world to take us to a safer place. Yet, we cannot gloss over the message of eternal life and life in Christ by making this world our only priority. This is where Bishop Wright falls short. Yet, it is clear that like St. Paul, we need to show how Christ is pertinent in the world of today and how Christ, not just a community, provides “a peace” and “joy” that the world, even the modern world, cannot give.