The visiting preacher entered the dark room, allowing his eyes to adjust, as close walls and crowded seats made it hard for him to breathe, much less move. He scanned the tightly-packed crowd, not believing that he could possibly communicate with people of such diverse backgrounds. Their differences were apparent even at a glance. There was a pious religious woman in the front row, praying silently and quoting memorized passages of Scripture to herself. Her husband sat next to her, scowling over his long beard at their neatly-dressed children, who sat fidgeting on the floor before them. There was a portly and expensively-clad businessman behind her, who had rushed in from the marketplace; his slaves stood with their heads bowed in the back of the room. The businessman was sitting awkwardly on the edge of the bench, leaning, it seemed, as far as he could away from the woman who sat down next to him; her bright, flashy clothing, although faded from years of wear, made it clear that she had at some time, if not presently, been a prostitute. A man behind her was wearing nondescript clothing, but bore the telltale scars of self-mutilation from his time as a priest in a mystery cult.
Paul cleared his throat and began, “Grace be to you all and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Actually, we do not really know much about how the apostle Paul led a church service.
Actually, we do not really know much about how the apostle Paul led a church service. When did he take the offering? Did he use sermon notes? Was there instrumental music? What we do have are versions of his sermons that Luke, the gospel writer, recorded in the Acts of the Apostles (13:16-47 and 17:22-31, for example). We also have Paul’s letters to a number of churches scattered throughout the Roman Empire, written roughly between A.D. 50 and 65 Although they are letters—formatted in the style of any ancient writer, with the sender and recipient listed right up front—these letters certainly preach. We have a total of 13 letters attributed to Paul, and the scene I have imagined above is based on information that he provides in these letters: he was itinerant and he preached in places where the gospel was unknown. The congregations formed under his ministry would have been frightfully diverse, including some Jews and many, many Gentiles.
Although Paul’s letters had different audiences in different destinations—among them, Thessalonica, Galatia, Corinth, Colossae, Ephesus, Philippi, and Rome—he greeted these gatherings of Christians with variations on the same words: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Phil. 1:2; Eph. 1:2; Col. 1:2; 1 Thes.1:1; 2 Thes. 1:2). In fact, these words become such a repeated refrain that Bible scholars are liable to merely attribute them to Paul’s style and move on to the “meat” of the letter. Paul repeated this greeting again and again, which means that, rather than being a superfluous formality, the grace and peace he expressed to churches were ways of life central to his apostolic mission and came, ultimately, from God.
Neither charis (grace) noreirēnē (peace) were words that Christians coined; these Greek words were common secular terms in Paul’s day. Charis means “gift” or “favor.” In the Roman system of honor and shame, gifts were never free; every favor or compliment required repayment. Wealthy benefactors expected acclaim for their generous gifts, and the recipients of these gifts knew that reciprocation was expected. Loyalty to a benefactor was displayed by public praise and performing requested favors and tasks. Breaking the reciprocal flow of honorable giving in the Roman world was a sure way to end the flow of gifts.
Paul used this term, charis, quite differently. Sometimes, he meant something simple like “gift” or “favor” (e.g., 2 Cor. 8:4); however, most of the time it may be translated “grace.” English speakers translate it this way because of Paul’s own redefinition of the term: “the free gift in favor” (Rom. 5:15). Unlike the usual view of gifts, this grace could not be earned or compensated for by works (11:6), but was (and is) available in relationship with Christ (5:2). In fact, the degree of grace lavished upon us only further enforces the degree to which the gift cannot be repaid.
Likewise, eirēnē, or “peace,” was predominantly understood as the absence of war. Rome often celebrated the peace it had brought (the Pax Romana) throughout the empire. This so-called “peace,” however, was really a suspension of fighting achieved only after war2. The Romans either conquered or so frightened the rest of the known world that most other peoples submitted to their rule. The resulting “peace” was likely welcome to those in power, but for their subjects, this “peace” could be oppressive and terrifying.
Rather than the result of the hard-fought battle, eirēnē in Paul’s writing signifies what happens when a stronger person lays down arms. Although God is the most powerful party in the human-divine interaction, it is God who took the costly initiative in Christ’s life and atoning death to enact a peace with rebellious humans (Rom 5:1, 6-8). It is not through defeat or annihilation of God’s human enemies that God chose to achieve peace, but through adoption into the family and the breaking down of barriers to unity (Eph. 2:14). We bear the family resemblance to our Father when we live in peace (2 Cor. 13:11).
How can the traits of this divinely-oriented family become a way of life?
How can the traits of this divinely-oriented family become a way of life? More specifically, how was this new vocabulary, which includes “grace” and “peace” among many other repurposed terms, learned by the Gentiles who had just met the God of Israel?
Surprisingly, we find that to the wildly-diverse constituency of his churches, most of whom were raised in the rituals of Roman or other indigenous religions and who would have been completely new to monotheism, Paul invoked a common heritage, a family, a unified body to whom they all belonged. Paul cited the Scriptures of Israel, our Old Testament, again and again, as grounds for his theology for Jew and Gentile alike3. Concepts of covenantal righteousness would have been entirely new to the majority of Paul’s audience. Yet, Paul did not water down the words of his Scriptural heritage to a lowest common denominator. Rather, he weaved the sacred texts together with the story of Christ throughout his letters to those Gentile congregations around the Roman Empire.
In one of Paul’s harshest critiques of the Corinthian church regarding a sexual matter, he used Passover imagery. He employed this integral episode in Israel’s history and the Jews’ yearly celebration of God’s provision to correct the behavior of Gentile Christians in Christ: “Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old yeast in order that you may be a new batch, unleavened just as you are. For Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with unleavened sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:6b-8). In 1 Corinthians 10:1-5, Paul referenced the people of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness and called them “our ancestors,” clearly including the Gentile Corinthians into the Israelite family, thus making the Bible’s stories their stories as well.
The scandal of the cross, which Paul says would have been equally outrageous to Jews as well as Gentiles.
Jewish Christians, so it seems, needed to hear these stories afresh as well. In light of Christ, there was a new way of looking at these familiar texts. The scandal of the cross, which Paul says would have been equally outrageous to Jews as well as Gentiles (see 1 Cor. 1:23), is explained as being the very wisdom of God (v. 24). Paul illustrates this with two Old Testament quotes: Isaiah 29:14 (“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise”) and Psalm 33:10 (“I will nullify the intelligence of the intelligent”). The sacrificial way of grace and peace that we see most intimately in Jesus Christ is not an easy fit in any human culture.
How was Paul able to use the Old Testament to speak meaningfully to Gentiles, who would not have been exposed to the Scriptures until their conversion? How could Jews and Gentiles read Bible verses together and become unified, rather than divided by knowledge, opinion, and practice?
Like Paul's fledgling churches, the Church of the Nazarene is diverse.
The answer may come in the teaching and practices of worship he established with his mission churches. The extent to which Paul references Israel’s sacred writ indicates that he would have expected his churches to “get it.” But this was probably not just “Paul’s thing.” For instance, Paul made clear that he did not found the churches he addressed in Rome. To Roman churches that seem to be mostly Gentiles and possibly some Jews, nonetheless, the Apostle to the Gentiles utilized ancient scriptures to express the gospel. Again and again, we find the books of the New Testament drawing on metaphors and stories drawn from the Old Testament. Jesus’ Passion stories are rife with allusions to the Psalms. Early Christians, it seems, looked to the Scriptures they had, our Old Testament, to find answers to what they witnessed God doing in Christ. Through the inspiration of Scripture, our apostolic witness points to an essential continuity between Israel’s God and the man Jesus and the communities gathered in his name.
This central focus on Scripture continued after Paul. When Justin Martyr, who was a Gentile-Christian apologist in the first half of the second century A.D., described what practices comprised Christian Sunday services, he listed prayer, communion, and an offering, all following this activity: “[T]he memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.”4 What it meant to be included in the church, it seems, was more than gathering with believers, but being gathered into the history of God and God’s people, as expressed in Scripture. Even as Christians collected their own canon of sacred, inspired texts, our New Testament, they declared it a heresy to get rid of the Old. Together, our two testaments testify to who God is and what God has been about in our world. Through the Spirit, this Book continues to speak, despite its antiquity, its foreignness, its idiosyncrasies, its variety of materials, its particularity, and its unwavering call for holiness. And the Bible’s story can continue to mold average people into God’s own people, people characterized by the grace and peace, if we have the ears to hear.
Like Paul’s fledgling churches, the Church of the Nazarene is diverse, even within North America. Indeed, we pastors have diverse backgrounds, education, positions, and styles. We are a motley bunch. While we embrace the Bible as authoritative for our lives and our practice as a community of faith, opinions can vary as to how this is to be expressed and understood. Where do we draw the lines? How are we to understand inerrancy? Are the Scriptures infallible only as they pertain to salvation? Is it better to read the King James Version or The Message? What is the truth we find within stories of creation, the fall, the exile, and Jesus’ passion and resurrection? What are our favorite books to guide our ethical decisions, Leviticus, the Gospels, Romans? All these opinions about Scripture are worth discussing, but not in a manner that strays far from the way of grace and peace.
What if Scripture could unite us, if not in viewpoint, then in practice?
What if Scripture could unite us, if not in viewpoint, then in practice? Can we not all agree that Scripture is powerful and effective, sharper than any double-edged sword? Can we agree that our people need to hear from the Bible more often and in greater quantities? If we cannot agree about the infallibility of Scripture, surely we can agree that we are all fallible. Can we agree that God has some words to speak to us yet today, through the Bible? Can we agree that God’s history with God’s people Israel and the Church is vitally our story as well? Do we follow trends and read the latest “good books,” but neglect the Good Book itself?
So this is my challenge, my plea, and my inquiry to us all: Do we have enough faith that the Holy Spirit can still continue to breathe through these texts that we would risk letting them speak to us and to our churches on grander scale? Instead of believing, abstractly, that the Bible is true or authoritative, would we be willing to put the Bible in the position of authority, as a major—or the major—contributor to our worship services?
God can use all of Scripture to further knit together God's diverse family.
Do we have faith that God can use all of Scripture to further knit together God’s diverse family, so that we can read together from Genesis, Amos, Mark, 1 Thessalonians, or Revelation and be pointed toward the God to whom all Scripture testifies? Can we grow in unity in this modern, changing world, by together submitting to listen to our ancient sacred texts? Can we, as pastors, admit that there are things in Scripture that we find hard, even troubling, and debate with one another—as did the rabbis of old—not out of animosity or pride, but flowing from a heartfelt quest for truth?
I submit that the Bible, the Old and New Testaments that we know, has lasted throughout Christianity’s varied history without our contemporary defense or clever, anecdotal illustrations. Its greatest threat is not being studied or scrutinized, but being ignored or apologized for by scholars, pastors, and laity alike. I wager that by giving pride of place on a Sunday morning or Sunday night, in personal devotions or group Bible study time to these foundational books by simply reading aloud, often and at length, from the diverse voices of Scripture will bring comfort, surprise, and challenge—maybe even shock—to the congregation who will truly listen. In the consistent reading of Scripture, the pastor herself or himself may also end a Sunday feeling nourished and enlivened, rather than depleted. Do we trust that God still speaks through this word? I wish you grace and peace as you and I dare to listen.
KARA J. LYONS-PARDUE is a Ph.D. Candidate in New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary and a District Licensed Minister in the Church of the Nazarene
2. One poignant example of the irony of “peace” resulting from brutality comes to us in the Jewish historian Josephus’ account of the Jewish War with Rome. After the Jews were defeated, thousands slaughtered, and the temple destroyed, the General Titus (son of Emperor Vespasian) marched into Rome with a triumphal procession to celebrate the hard-fought victory. Vespasian built, as part of the festivities, a “Temple of Peace,” which he furnished with the spoils of war, including gold taken from the newly-obliterated Jerusalem temple (Josephus, Jewish War, 7.158-162).
3. For a wonderful scholarly treatment of Paul’s use of Scripture, see Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989).
4. Justin Martyr, First Apology, 67 (Roberts-Donaldson English Trans.; available http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/justin.html).