In my mind I cast him as cantankerous interpreter of Jesus, and like many people, I cast my fears, phobias, fanaticism and faith against his epistles.
Paul, it has been said, can be compared to the ocean. One can wade in and get their feet wet in his story, or one can dive in and swim out over their heads, immersed in his theology.
Dr. Michael Gorman, a United Methodist who serves as dean of the Ecumenical Institute of Theology in Baltimore, dove in. Recently I had the pleasure of hearing him lecture.
Gorman is an internationally known Pauline scholar who has written extensively on Paul and helps to shape the church’s view on biblical exegesis. He spoke, delivering the Dunning lecture at the Ecumenical Institute. His theme was “Justification and Justice: Paul, the Mission of the Church, and the Salvation of the World.”
It was a heady lecture that called upon a working knowledge of biblical Greek and a rich understanding of the concepts and nature of justification. It also delighted the imagination with the potential of what Christian and the church might be.
For those just wading in, Gorman explained that a good Jew could be described as “one who cares about what God cares about.”
God, Gorman said, cares about justice. In fact, he ventured, divine justice could be defined as “love in the public sphere.” It restores, rather than seeking retribution. Yet in a traditional reading of Paul, there is scant mention of justice.
In our modern mindset, Paul gets cast in individualistic terms – writing to people about how they might be in right relationship with their Creator through justification.
But to focus on individual salvation is to misread the epistles, Gorman said. The means of justification is not to accept and have faith in Christ; rather, the means of justification is to have the faith of Christ and be co-crucified and co-resurrected with him.
An essential element of justification becomes “participation in God’s writing of the world.”
In today’s society, it’s easy to read Paul as an individual. We can hear his voice speaking one-on-one directly to us. In fact, it’s even easy to do church this way. We gather as individuals together in the same space to have private experiences of God.
But that’s not what the church is intended to be and that’s not how Paul wrote. He was addressing communities. He was writing to y’all, to ustedes, the second person plural, Gorman pointed out. Reading it as such, intensifies its impact.
There is a doctrine that claims that what God declares, God does.
Repeatedly throughout the Bible, God declares justice for the oppressed. God will create justice. But God depends upon the church and its people to make that justice manifest.
We are God’s plan. Pure and simple – we’re it. Together we are called to become the justice of God.
Church, Gorman said, is not intended to be simply vertical, a pipeline that connects us upward to God. It is also horizontal, intent to reach those by our sides and beyond. To live as church, requires us to care about what God cares about.
For Gorman, justice in Paul and for us is covenantal, communal, counter-cultural, costly and cruciform.
Cruciform is a word Gorman uses a lot. Cruciform justice is christologically-shaped justice. Cruciform United Methodists are a people shaped by the story of Jesus.
To embody justice requires a kind of bold recklessness and generosity. It also requires humility. But God offers the world shalom, and we, through the cross, are to deliver it.