Paul: Week 2
Vulnerability—Even in God!
Thursday, March 17, 2016
Paul’s encounter with the Eternal Christ on the Damascus Road must have sparked his new and revolutionary consciousness. He recognized that he had been chosen by God even “while breathing murderous threats” (Acts 9:1), and that the God who chose him was a crucified God and not an “Omnipotent” or an “Almighty” God. In fact, Paul only uses the word “Almighty” for God once (2 Corinthians 6:18), and then he is quoting the Hebrew Scriptures. This is quite significant considering his tradition and training. Paul’s image of God was instead someone crucified outside the city walls in the way a slave might be killed, and not of a God appearing on heavenly clouds. Christ was not the strong, powerful, military Messiah that the Jews had been waiting for throughout their history. He was in fact quite the opposite. This was Jesus’ great revelation, surprise, and a scandal that we have still not comprehended. God is not what we thought God could or should be!
Paul, like few others, read his own tradition honestly and recognized that YHWH consistently chose the weak to confound the strong (1 Corinthians 1:17-31). He saw this in Israel itself, the barren wives of the patriarchs, the boy David forgotten in the fields, the rejected prophets, and finally Jesus on the cross. This becomes Paul’s revolutionary understanding of wisdom that is still offensive and even disgusting to much of the world and even the church. Only vulnerability allows all change, growth, and transformation to happen—even in God. Who would have imagined this?
Paul’s view of himself, of God, and of reality itself was completely turned on its head. He had to re-image how divine power worked and how humans changed. All he knew for sure at the beginning was that it was not what anyone expected. Paul went off to “Arabia” for some time to test his ideas against what he thought he was taught, to slowly allow the full metamorphosis of his soul. (Is this not the necessary path for all of us?) Only later does Paul have the courage to confront Peter and James in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:16-21), and then a full fourteen years later he tells Peter “to his face” that Peter is wrong (2:11) for imposing non-essentials on people that only give them an incorrect understanding of their correctness or righteousness. (Apparently Peter, the first Pope, was himself fallible, and he too had to learn how to be wrong to grow up!)
It takes all of us a long time to move from power to weakness, from glib certitude to vulnerability, from meritocracy to the ocean of grace. Strangely enough, this is especially true for people raised in religion. In Paul’s letters, he consistently idealizes not power but powerlessness, not strength but weakness, not success but the cross. It’s as if he’s saying, “I glory when I fail and suffer because now I get to be like Jesus—the naked loser—who turned any notion of God on its head.” Now the losers can win, which is just about everybody.
The revelation of the death and resurrection of Jesus forever redefines what success and winning mean, and it is not what any of us wanted or expected. On the cross, God is revealed as vulnerability itself (the Latin word vulnus means wound). The path to holiness is so different than any of us would have wished or imagined; and yet after the fact, we will all recognize that it was our littleness and wrongness that kept the door to union and love permanently wedged open every day of our life. In fact, there is no way to close it.
Gateway to Silence:
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. —1 Corinthians 13:7
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Great Themes of Paul: Life as Participation (Franciscan Media: 2002), disc 3 (CD).