Have you ever thought that the apostle Paul was a bit of a jerk?
This is what I thought the first few time I encountered him when reading the New Testament.
Paul read as rather arrogant to me – I did not much care for it.
To others he has been read as judgmental, heavy handed and as an advocate for a whole manner of practices that make us balk.
Jesus, on the other hand, comes across as humble, welcoming, loving and warm to nearly everyone who approached him.
However, for many the problems run ever deeper than the above dichotomy.
Jesus was concerned with social justice and freedom of the oppressed. Paul seemed content with slavery and keeping women “in their place” amongst other things.
Jesus came for extensive change of the global and social landscape. Paul was concerned with individual salvation.
Jesus welcomed and forgave nearly all of those who came to him. Paul was overtly judgmental and advocated the exclusion of those who failed to reach the standard he expected.
As a result many have viewed Jesus and Paul as almost diametrically opposed to one another.
With all of this in mind, I would like to wholeheartedly recommend a book called Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul? A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Pauline Christianity.
The author is J.R. Daniel Kirk, an assistant professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary’s Northern California campus. His aim is to deal with the problem outlined above. Many have met a Jesus and a Paul who seem downright incongruous and Kirk’s appeal is that they are anything but.
Kirk states that his “is a book of storied theology” which ultimately charts the narrative of the God of Israel as one that is active and consistent within and throughout the lives and journeys of Israel, Jesus and Paul.
Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul? demonstrates throughout that Jesus and Paul are on the same page, “singing from the same hymn sheet”; or better than that, are living out and drawing from the same story within which God has acted decisively to reconcile, once and for all, the created order to himself through Jesus.
Kirk plots this story, and the narrative consistency it contains, through numerous issues that are alive and active in conversations today – in which Jesus and Paul are commonly (but mistakenly) understood to be at odds: 1) the apparent dichotomy of Paul and Jesus regarding judgment, inclusion and welcome in the people of God; 2) where women find themselves placed within God’s story; 3) social justice and liberty; 4) the treatment sex receives from the opinions of Jesus and Paul; and 5) how homosexuality is approached by Christian and the place it can be understood to now contain within the Christian story.
These issues are taken up and discussed, however, following an immensely important and helpful discussion of how Paul inherits and plays out the same vision Jesus crafted in terms of community and discipleship in the ever-approaching Kingdom of God. This continuity is taken up and worked out within the Pauline terms of New Creation and explores how it correlates to Jesus’ Kingdom vision. This in turns provides the context for considering how the community and discipleship Jesus spoke of are manifested in Paul’s new creation motif.
The connections established here are the lens for engaging with the rest of the book and contain an abundance of implications for any future reading of Paul that readers may find themselves endeavouring in.
As Kirk states outright, “new creation is more determinative for our life together than first creation.” Where and how we discover and understand Paul’s emphasis of new creation is the lens for encountering our place in the story of God – we are always to be looking for and anticipating the novelty God is brining about. More than that though, where and how we discover Paul’s emphasis on new creation we are in fact encountering the kingdom vision of Jesus and the new life it has been unleashing throughout the world since the resurrection.
It is this new creation/kingdom story that subverts and contradicts the powers of oppression and death that work themselves out in slavery, inequality, exploitation, judgmentalism and injustice.
To walk the way of Jesus is to participate in [the] world-subverting economy of God.
Kirk also reflects continually that this story is, at all times, a cruciform one, “a story along the way of the cross, a narrative that claims we can find our life only by losing it” – this was first true for Christ and will be true for his community and the world. Going to the cross is not a pious act however. Cruciformity leads us to fully engage the world as we know it.
Cruciformity is not just about putting to death the sinful desires of our heart, it is also about brining to consummation the defeat of the powers that work against all human flourishing and that strive against giving all glory to God.
This is the story of both Jesus and Paul and Daniel Kirk goes a long way in helping us make and bridge the disconnect we have often found placed between both men.
The heart of this book beats with the recognition that the story of Israel and its God has found its fulfilment in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This in turn has opened up the full breadth of the eschatological horizon Israel’s God had been moving toward. Christians, as followers of Jesus, now find themselves, in their lives and communities, called to let their imaginations be captured by the story and called to become living, breathing characters moving within this horizon as we point to the crucified and raised Lord who is coming to consummate the new creation/kingdom in the world he is Lord of.
In anticipation of our story’s conclusion we create communities of peace, equality, justice, humility and service and join wherever we find these values active – there our God is at work.
This is the story Jesus started. This is the story of Paul continued.
It is a story of God’s dominion. It is a story of new creation unleashed in the world.
Jesus and Paul share the same story, and Daniel Kirk leaves us with the challenge that it is to be our story as well.
Ours is no tepid story of a lukewarm God and the redemption that takes hold of us is nothing less than life out of death.
If you have ever had trouble with Jesus and Paul and felt there to be a dissonance between them – buy this book. Additionally, if you want a primer in narrative, or “storied”, theology – buy this book, and allow the story of God’s work in the lives of Jesus and Paul to speak to you as Kirk unpacks the issues as they unfold in scripture and delineates how they call us to find our place as living interpretations of the story.