Pastor Olsen

From the Desk of Pastor Olsen

July 2014

We observed the third Sunday after Pentecost at Trinity on Sunday, June 29th. Though I did not mention it (and perhaps I was remiss in that regard), the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul falls on the same day. Because the gospels and the Book of Acts are not biographies, it is impossible to construct anything like a historical chronology of the respective lives of these great Apostles. We are told that Peter was a Galilean fishermen. As such, he would have been from humble origins, but by no means the poorest of the poor. Peter was one of the "Twelve" disciples chosen by Jesus to share most intimately in his ministry. In Matthew, Mark and Luke he is portrayed as the spokesperson for the disciples, voicing questions likely on the minds of both his fellow disciples and on our minds as readers of the gospels. All of the gospels confirm that Peter denied knowing Jesus after Jesus was arrested and brought before the high priest. He appears in the Book of Acts serving once again as the spokesperson for the disciples on the day of Pentecost. Some gospel passages suggest that Jesus conferred upon Peter a degree of leadership among the Twelve, but the nature of such primacy, if it even existed, is difficult to ascertain.

Paul, by contrast, never met Jesus during the years of his ministry in Palestine. He appears to have been a diaspora Jew born in Tarsus, a historic city in south-central Turkey. He was fluent in Aramaic, Greek and possibly Hebrew as well. According to the Book of Acts and by his own account, Paul was educated in the Pharisaic tradition. He was, by his own admission, an enemy and a persecutor of the church in its early years. But his life took a dramatic turn when he encountered the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus where he was intending to arrest and prosecute followers of Jesus. Paul received baptism into Christ and became a zealous advocate for the gospel he once tried to destroy. Through Paul's missionary activity the good news of Jesus was carried throughout Greece, Macedonia and Asia Minor to diaspora Jews and to gentiles. According to tradition, both Paul and Peter were put to death by the Roman government.

In many respects, the most remarkable things we know about these two men are their flaws. The New Testament does not airbrush the saints. Peter's cowardice in the courtyard of the high priest is given no moderating spin in the gospels. His failure to grasp the scope of the gospel is evident throughout the New Testament. Even after Jesus' resurrection and the miracle of Pentecost, Peter had difficulty seeing past his own cultural conditioning to recognize genuine faith among those outside Israel. That appears to have been the very issue that brought him into conflict with Paul according to Paul's letter to the Galatians.

Paul was equally flawed, though in different ways. The deep seated anger and narrow mindedness that led him initially to persecute the church did not simply evaporate after baptism. While Paul could be generous, compassionate and understanding of human shortcomings, he could also be ruthless in criticizing his opponents, sarcastic when writing to his congregations and just a tad self-pitying in the face of opposition. His letters bear that out, particularly his second letter to the church in Corinth.

Finally, the testimony of both men is flawed in that they are men. I don't mean to say that they should personally be penalized for their gender or blamed for the fact that the New Testament cannon was not more inclusive. I seriously doubt that either Peter or Paul ever dreamed that there even would be a New Testament, much less that their words would be part of it! The point is, their witness is lacking the richness, harmony and depth it might have had if only their voices had been joined by the likes of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Prisca, Persis, Phoebe, Lydia and countless others whose names are lost to history, but known to our Lord.

Like all literary works, the Bible is a product of its times. The ugly realities of imperial oppression, slavery and patriarchy are all too evident and they have often distorted the preaching and teaching of the church. Still, they have not been able to suppress the Bible's persistent witness to a larger vision breaking through the seams of the text. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with stories of women who, notwithstanding the cultural, religious and political impediments in their way, nevertheless found opportunities to shape the destiny of Israel in redemptive and life giving ways. Some of them are noted in the lengthy genealogy at the beginning of Matthew's gospel (leading me to wonder whether that gospel was not actually composed by a woman who is subtly letting us know, "Hey, we're here too, you know!"). The gospels faithfully preserve the fact that women were the first witnesses to the resurrected Christ (though women were legally disqualified from giving testimony in court under First Century Jewish law). Paul acknowledges women as his fellow apostles. That our church is currently led by a seasoned pastor who happens also to be a woman testifies to the potency of these latent witnesses.

At the end of the day we love and cherish the Bible, not because it is a perfect book or because it was supernaturally inspired, or because it answers all life's pressing questions. We love the Bible because it has proven over two millennia to be a faithful and reliable testament to the redemptive acts of Israel's God, who we confess as the Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Like the imperfect saints who first preached the gospel, the Bible is likewise an earthen vessel bearing precious good news about the God who sent his only begotten Son into the world, not to condemn the world or enslave it, but that the world might have life.

Pastor Olsen