It’s tempting to make much of the differences of Ss Peter and Paul and it’s almost become the accepted wisdom to contrast the impetuous, flawed, human, big-hearted Peter with the less attractive preachy, high-ground-snatching, censorious and deeply prejudiced Paul. Like all caricatures, there may be a grain of truth in this, but I suspect it’s only a very small grain and not one that’s likely to sprout into something that truly nourishes or delights. So I intend today to mount a sort of charm offensive on behalf of our parish’s patron, not at the expense of Peter, but only to remind ourselves of the spiritual genius of that equally flawed and human, and equally compassionate (bear with me) apostle Paul.
Now there are two good reasons to do this today. The first I’ve already mentioned, and that is that we are named after St Paul and I think that compels us to find in him, and to ask through his intercession some rich insights into this faith of ours that will stand us in good stead for this time of challenge and opportunity. The second is that our dear Father in Christ, Paul Burrows, who also shares his name, celebrates today the 40th anniversary of his ordination as a priest and this is a chance for us to cherish in him those charisms that reflect much of the same insights and gifts that we see in St Paul.
But first, I want to take a brief side-step and address some of the issues that often make people suspicious of St Paul. We just need to find a way of setting these aside in a reasonable way for now, so that we can get to the heart of his spiritual genius. The first thing I would want to say is that, as people with discernment, we have the necessary gifts and skills to know how to separate what is essential from what is conditional. In many cases, we can see from a mile off those issues that properly belong in a culturally conditioned context and need to be reinterpreted in the light of our own very different context, from those issues that express something timeless. Most notable in these culturally conditioned contexts might be St Paul’s apparent attitude to women in the church and to slavery. On both, I would simply say that St Paul adequately provides us with the seeds of a necessary reinterpretation of his own writings when he tells us that in Christ, there is neither male and female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. On the first, I would also point out the ease with which he gives precedence in the verse that follows today’s epistle to the teacher Prisca, whose husband Aquila is mentioned after her. [I urge postcard-writers from holding back on pointing out that the pastoral epistles are deutero-Pauline. I know that, but they speak from his tradition in some way and it suits my rhetorical purposes, so please give me the benefit of the doubt!] On more than one occasion, St Paul honours the women who led the church in many places in those early decades. Nonetheless, his writings which point in a contrary direction must be read in the context of a patriarchal society. Like the rest of us, he is conditioned by his times. On slavery, I would simply invite you to read Philemon with a supposition that St Paul writes with the arm of his correspondent twisted metaphorically a long way up his back. I truly believe that this is a letter designed to undermine the suppositions of a slave-master relationship and not uphold them.
The debate goes on about these matters, but please let’s not let them cloud our appreciation of the depths of St Paul’s teaching. I want to mention just two less appreciated aspects of his apostolic insight that are worth bringing to the fore today. The first is that St Paul is the father of Christian mysticism. It is he who gives us the sense of our identity as being hidden with God in Christ, he who speaks of being taken in spirit to the heavens, he who presents a compelling picture of the whole cosmos as awaiting its fulfilment in Christ. His is a universal vision, a vision that breaks down the dividing barriers of human invention, barriers of race and religion, of sex and education. And it is St Paul who points us to a wisdom that appears to be folly if we look superficially. The wisdom he presents to us is a wisdom born in humility and in love, a wisdom that sees beyond the surface to the heart. It is the wisdom of the cross, the wisdom of self-abandonment in love. It is the loving wisdom that is expressed in 2 Timothy as ‘being poured out as a libation’. This is sacrifice, not a maudlin wallowing in pain but a joyful act of self-abandonment in thanksgiving for the sheer delight of the life that is given to us.
The second flows from the first, and it is the life of loving compassion that characterises the Christian. This love is rhapsodised in that famous chapter of 1 Cor 13 – patient, kind, forgetful of wrong – but is also, and less famously, expressed in St Paul’s hard work of ensuring that those who are poor are not forgotten or left to fend for themselves. His long and difficult journeys to secure a collection for the poor in Jerusalem was both an act of practical compassion and a reminder to the church that we all belong together. There is only one body, and it is the Body of Christ.
These two charisms, mystical, loving wisdom, and untiring compassion, might well serve as a kind of manifesto for this church that bears the name of St Paul. What else does this world of ours – and the world on our doorstep – need but a deep sense of our connection to the Holy One and a whole lot of compassion? And at the risk of embarrassing him, I would also want to celebrate today these gifts in Fr Paul. Over 40 years of priesthood, he has remained close to these mysteries of Christ: the mystery of contemplative union with our loving creator in Christ, especially as expressed in the Carmelite mystics; and the mystery of self-giving compassion, love for God’s people, both those who gather at the altar and those who gather in the alleyways and soup kitchens. St Paul reminds us that God calls us to a joyful life of self-abandonment in Christ which, in the words of Thomas Merton, requires only that we ‘cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.’ Fr Paul, dance on!