All posts by Jon Swanson

About Jon Swanson

Social media chaplain. Author of "Lent For Non-Lent People" and "A Great Work: A Conversation With Nehemiah For People (Who Want To Be) Doing Great Works." Writer of 300wordsaday.com. I help people understand. Understand some of the Bible. Understand what Lent can be about. Understand what it means to follow.

Legalists.

I handed Paul the mug I recently received from some friends.

He read it. “’Lord keep your arms around my shoulder and your hand over my mouth.’ Are you suggesting I need to shut up?” Paul said. “Is it about my approach to Peter?”

I’d been thinking while I was working on our French press. I realized that the core question wasn’t really about tension between Peter and Paul.

IMG_1352“I’m still curious about that,” I said. “But I have a different question. I was thinking about the way you were concerned about Titus. And thinking about why you confronted Peter. In both cases, it was about people pointing to rules in the Jewish law. So why are legalists so often the ones who get to decide what it means to be spiritually healthy? For people who believe in God, to have your spirit rightly connect to God?”

“You know that last sentence is a hard one for me,” Paul said. “Because you seem to suggest that if we believe in God there is one truth, and if we don’t there is another. I saw God when I saw Jesus. At the beginning of this letter I was very clear that I received a calling directly from God to explain how to have a connection with God, through Jesus.”

“I knew that you would say that,” I said. “But we both know that you find ways to start conversations where readers are rather than where they will end up.”

He nodded.

“And I know that when you were writing this letter, and throughout your life, you were at an intersection of ways of looking at the relationship between humans and divinity. The particular divide here is about what counts to be a follower of Jesus, in contrast to what it means to follow God in the Jewish tradition. In other letters, you are making that contrast between what other religions say and what Jesus said to you.”

Paul nodded. “It was an incredibly spiritual time. State religions, local religions, tribal religions. Not that everyone actually lived out what they said they believed. But you could get in trouble for saying the right thing.”

“Which takes me back to my question,” I said.  “Why do legalists get to decide what the right thing is?”

“That’s easy,” Paul said. “Because they think the rules make everything right.”

 

Peter.

IMG_1352On my morning run, I listened to Bob Goff talking about our love for each other. “How are you loving the people you disagree with the most?” he said. Which got me ready for my next conversation with Paul.

“Can we talk about Peter for a bit?” I said. “You mention him a lot in this letter to the church in Galatia, and it feels like there was a bit of tension between the two of you.”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“You first mention him as the only apostle you met with on a trip to Jerusalem,” I said. “Then you talk about people who ‘seemed to be influential’ and who ‘seemed to be pillars’ of the church. That feels a little sarcastic to our ears.”

He shook his head. “I’m not sure I was trying to be sarcastic. I was trying to be very precise. Their approval wasn’t what I was looking for. Their agreement with the message I was preaching to the Gentiles was important. So the words I pick emphasize that they were viewed as important but that my calling from God was more important.”

“But do you understand how that confidence feels arrogant?” I asked. I spend a lot of time helping people soften their communication edges.

Paul wasn’t going to cooperate.

“Accurate can sound arrogant to the person who is being challenged,” he said. “But I was fighting for souls against people who were attempting to undermine my authority. The agitators in Galatia were painting me as a person rebelling against the church in Jerusalem. I needed to make a case that my teaching AND the teaching of the church were under the authority of God. And they weren’t to be measured against each other. We were each accountable to God.”

“But you weren’t exactly supportive of Peter when he came to Antioch. ‘I opposed him to his face,’ is what you said.”

Paul sighed.

I could tell that it was going to take a bit for him to explain. So I went to make a fresh pot of coffee.

+++

If you’ve never watched Bob Goff, this message is a great introduction.

Unpacking the story.

IMG_1352The next time I started talking with Paul, it was a quiet Sunday afternoon. The temperature and humidity had dropped, and so had my edginess. I was ready to be more conversational with Paul.

He was sitting in the rocker, watching the finches eating seeds from the flowers outside my window.

“So, may we start talking about the fourteen-year gap again?” I said.  “I’ll try to know better than to make assumptions about how you worked based on my own view of the world.”

Paul laughed. “But you know that’s not possible, right?”

I nodded. I really do know that I’m making assumptions about Paul all the time. We all do. We bring our own personality, our own biases, our own sense of what we would feel like in what Paul faced.

But Paul was human. And he reveals some emotion, some passion in his writing. So we can make some suggestions. And God, through Paul, is desiring us to understand Him. So we can think about the communication choice that were made to tell that story. Which often emerges through conversation.

“Are you done talking to yourself?” Paul said.

“I’ve got some questions that come to mind as I read through what we’ve known as Chapter 2 for the last few centuries. First, in most of the conversations I have, we use the word ‘later’ to refer to hours or days. You jump fourteen years. What were you doing for fourteen years?”

“Earlier you talked about Luke’s account of parts of my life. Just because I’m not telling you everything in the argument I’m making doesn’t mean that you can ignore what Luke says about going back to my family in Tarsus and then going to Antioch. Be willing to work to put the pieces together. That’s why you have the different accounts.”

“But they don’t line up,” I said.  “Even the experts struggle with building your biography.”

“Just because you don’t know everything doesn’t mean you know nothing,” Paul said.  “And perhaps, the something you have is all that God intended for you to know about me.”

The confidence in calling.

IMG_1352Thanks for the reminder about perspective yesterday,” I said.  “Obedience includes both making and surrendering plans. Making my list and accepting the value of not accomplishing it immediately.”

Paul lifted his coffee cup in acknowledgment.

“But then, you were well experienced in living in the long-term. Fourteen years of uncertainty is a really long time.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” Paul said.

“You talked about going to Jerusalem and being uncertain about the work you had been doing for fourteen years.”

“You’ve read the letter I wrote?” Paul said. “Because there was no uncertainty about my work. I was doing exactly what God had assigned me. And there was no uncertainty about my trip. I was going exactly where God had invited me.”

“But you wrote that you walked through the work you had done and the way you had taught the Gospel to the gentiles, ‘in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain.’”

Paul laughed. “I wasn’t worried that I was doing something wrong. I didn’t want some foolishness about adding another layer of regulations to undermine everything I had done. All my work had included explaining that people born outside the Jewish faith didn’t have to become Jews to follow Jesus. The people in Galatia, as in other places, had been overjoyed that they had freedom in what Jesus had done.”

“So you weren’t scared that Peter and James and the rest of the leaders would scold you?”

“Scold me?” Paul said. “Scold a person directly commissioned by Jesus just as much as they were? Scold a person who had been sent here and there by the Holy Spirit? Scold a person who had been rescued from blindness specifically to call people to sight?”

Paul suddenly realized that he was standing. And that the dog was cowering under my desk. And that he was still holding a coffee cup.

He set it carefully on my desk. He laughed. A little.

“Remind me sometime to tell you about the time that I scolded Peter.”

“I think it can wait until next week,” I said carefully.

When your focus is different that what you are looking at.

I knew I had to face my recurring frustration.

So instead, I turned to Paul. 

“You’re the widely read author of multiple inspirational essays, published as ebooks and print books,” I said. “How did you settle down to write?” 

IMG_1352Paul smiled. “Getting locked up in prison is often a way to eliminate distractions. Particularly when you get past the frustrations and learn to be content.”

I just shook my head.

“I’m serious,” I said. “Remember last week when I was thinking about these conversations and laid out a plan? I was going to make a list of questions for you every day. And I was going to read through the letter every day. And I was going to write a dozen conversations.”

“And then you had a couple long days and you lost the thread,” Paul said. “What happened? What took you away from your plan?”

“I was helping Nancy and some friends with a wedding. And then I was working. And then I was at another conference with some friends.”

“What makes you think that there was a problem, that you were distracted? Because it seems to me that you were doing exactly what was important to do.”

“But my writing? My plans?”

 

“May I remind you about my focus? You’ve talked about it beforeIt is Christ. Knowing Christ.”

“You say ‘is’, not was,” I said. 

“Because that’s still my one thing,” he said.

Before I could respond, he went on. “But if my one thing, if your one thing, is knowing Christ, that is going to show up in a lot of ways. It will be evident in these conversations, but it will be evident in helping accomplish a meal at a wedding. That’s doing work that Jesus did. And it will be telling someone what I wrote about peace that makes no sense. And it will be offering words of affirmation and prayer to another friend in the middle of trial.

“All of those may not be on your to-do list, but they were clearly on God’s to-do list for you. That was how my life worked.”