Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen a few different people post about a recent ‘sermon’ that could be a candidate for worst sermon ever (one theologian did remark such). Thankfully this isn’t about my sermons!
The short homily comes from The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church. It dates from 12 May 2013 and was given in Curaçao, Venezuela.
What’s the specific message?
There is one particular part in which Schori offers thoughts on Acts 16:16-40. This is the passage where Paul casts out a spirit of fortune-telling.
Here’s the transcript of the part of the message springing from the Acts 16 passage:
We live with the continuing tension between holier impulses that encourage us to see the image of God in all human beings and the reality that some of us choose not to see that glimpse of the divine, and instead use other people as means to an end. We’re seeing something similar right now in the changing attitudes and laws about same-sex relationships, as many people come to recognize that different is not the same thing as wrong. For many people, it can be difficult to see God at work in the world around us, particularly if God is doing something unexpected.
There are some remarkable examples of that kind of blindness in the readings we heard this morning, and slavery is wrapped up in a lot of it. Paul is annoyed at the slave girl who keeps pursuing him, telling the world that he and his companions are slaves of God. She is quite right. She’s telling the same truth Paul and others claim for themselves. But Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness. Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. It gets him thrown in prison. That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does – maybe more so! The amazing thing is that during that long night in jail he remembers that he might find God there – so he and his cellmates spend the night praying and singing hymns.
An earthquake opens the doors and sets them free, and now Paul and his friends most definitely discern the presence of God. The jailer doesn’t – he thinks his end is at hand. This time, Paul remembers who he is and that all his neighbors are reflections of God, and he reaches out to his frightened captor. This time Paul acts with compassion rather than annoyance, and as a result the company of Jesus’ friends expands to include a whole new household. It makes me wonder what would have happened to that slave girl if Paul had seen the spirit of God in her.
As theologian, Roger Olson, remarks:
This sermon strays so far from anything recognizable as orthodox Christianity in so many ways that it makes the head spin. And it displays an amateurish and possibly ideologically-driven handling of a biblical text (by a bishop!).
This might be a pointed case of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.
Lord, have mercy upon our souls.
OK, first of all, I’m not saying she’s right. But I think this story brings up an important point that could make for some good discussion.
Was Paul always right?
We tend to venerate Paul to a place of absolute Christian perfection, but is that really appropriate (or true)? He was a man, Men make mistakes. Moses did. Noah did. Gideon did. Samson did. David did. Solomon did. I can’t think of an OT hero who didn’t have his fair share of blunders.
But when it comes to the NT, we seem to consider everyone involved in the spreading of the gospel as the near penultimate of Spirit-filled righteousness. Where do we find these people getting it wrong and/or really screwing up? Do we really think that they always did the right thing and always had the “correct” theological response in EVERY encounter? This seems rather unlikely, if not entirely impossible.
So isn’t it POSSIBLE that maybe Paul DID get this encounter “wrong”? In other words, could he have done a better job with handling this annoying person? I know God ultimately used what happened to bring more people (jailor and his family) into the flock. But God often uses circumstances that our blunders create to still bring Him glory. So, it COULD have been Paul’s fault that they ended up in prison “needlessly” due to his quick-tempered response to this person. Would a more gentle response created a better result? I don’t know. And again I’m not saying that Rev. Shori was correct.
But it has me wondering why we seem to consider NT heroes as nearly infallible in all their dealings. Did they really live up to that standard? Can we?
In this situation in Acts 16, I don’t think Paul got anything ‘wrong’. But the wider, more general question is worth pondering. In one sense, I think Paul was, in someway, in the wrong in Acts 15:36-41 – his strong disagreement with Barnabas. I’m not saying his concerns over John Mark were not valid. I just think there was a ‘better way’ here.
For many evangelicals, to think that Paul ever got anything ‘wrong’ sounds disastrous and scary. The way we let Paul off the hook in a place like Acts 15, if he was wrong, is that we say Paul wasn’t writing anything. This part of the text was simply describing his actions. However, I think Scripture shows us enough times that the writers of the varying portions of Scripture were not ‘perfect’ or ‘inerrant’. They were fallible like you and I. Still, this idea causes problems for many.
What you find is that we can easily fall into the category of ‘wholesale association’, or something of that nature. What I mean is this: It is usually argued: ‘If Paul was wrong at one point, what’s to say he’s trustworthy in all other points?’ We tend to make wholesale conclusions. If A, then it must also lead to B, C, D, E, F, G, H, etc. It’s kind of like the slippery slope fallacy, which isn’t a very valid argument.
I don’t have the time or space to get into a whole discussion about the ‘inerrancy of Scripture’. At some point, I should/will post some thoughts. And it’s not even about whether Paul got all things ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. This is an extreme dichotomy that so easily flows out of a modernist, post-Enlightenment perspective. At times, there are some things that sit in a balanced middle. There is tension in Scripture. We usually try to systematically approach things and make A + B = C when A + B should simply equal A + B. I’ve noted this before in my articles. But we need to hold to both sides of the many tension statements in Scripture, noting a) these statements come from 2 different writers addressing 2 different situations (God changed his mind; God never changes his mind) and b) we must also very much allow for doctrinal development over the life-span of the biblical writers. This point b is very important to remember. As has happened with my own life and writings, I think Paul, later on in life, would look back at some of the things he said/wrote in earlier days and admit that his theological perspective had taken a little different shape over time (or at least progressively developed into a more holistic picture). It’s like when we recognise the aspect of progressive revelation across the whole Scripture canon. There are things in the OT that I really don’t believe were at the heart of God, and I make such a deduction by reading of Christ and the new covenant. We see and know God greatest through his revelation in Jesus Christ. And I now read the OT through the lens of Christ.
Anyways, I think you get my point. So, I think certain terminology sounds scary to some Christians (i.e., Paul got things ‘wrong’ or earlier parts of Scripture are ‘lacking’). But we can recognise that a) there is a progressive, unfolding element across the Scripture, b) that varying writers make somewhat tension-filled/contradictory statements because each of them were writing within their own specific context and for a specific situation, and c) that the varying writers probably had theological developments over their lifespan.
I do get your point and I agree with all of that. I think it’s funny that we can admit that Abraham and Moses got things “wrong” and yet we don’t have any problem wholly believing everything they said or wrote. But to suggest that Paul or another NT character could have had at some time a personality-skewed theology scares people and suggests (as you said) the “slippery slope”. It would be like not wanting to believe anything that Billy Graham wrote because you found out that (shock) he once told a lie to his wife. Someone’s innate fallibility does not invalidate everything they said or wrote. But at the same time nothing that any ONE writer of the scripture says should be taken as ultimate truth. It’s the cacophony of different voices and what they ALL say and agree on that reveals the most about God and His will. But we tend to pick apart (and build whole theologies) on just one or two verses, rather than seeing the overarching picture of God as revealed by the myriad voices we have, both within scripture and without.