Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. Romans 11:33–36
The Apostle Paul gets a bad rap these days. I talk with people who read the Bible and tell me they read the Gospels, but not the letters that Paul wrote to first century churches. “I stick to the story of Jesus not the other stuff; Paul is too hard headed, not PC.” Now I love the Gospels too, but the letters tell the story of God just as much. They give us a window into what it looks like to live out the Jesus story after Jesus has ascended to the father and sent us someone much better — the Holy Spirit. And while the letters Paul wrote deal with particular issues that existed in particular churches of his day, they are deeply important today — not merely because of the specifics they convey but because of the heart they reveal. In his letters we see the heart of a man transformed, a heart reshaped from one that could murder in the name of God, to one so grace filled that it would would gladly die so that others might see God as he really is.
While some dismiss Paul’s letters in favor of the Gospel stories of Jesus, others go the other way, only focusing on the letters of Paul, often lifting out non-contextual commandments devoid of the love and grace with which they were originally imbued.
So, I thought I’d boil down what both Paul and Jesus said about what it looks like to follow Jesus in three words: Belong. Believe. Behave – in that order.
Belong: Come to me all who are weary, and I will give you rest. All are welcomed, no prerequisites, just come, you belong here.
Believe: As you belong, come to see God as he truly is, the one who invites you to belong, the one who loves you more than you love yourself, the author and sustainer of life who is for you.
Behave: As you rest and grow in the one to whom you belong, arrange your life according to the character of the one is life.
The order of these three is crucial: belong first, then believe and finally behave. To approach them in another order is catastrophic. Many who reject Paul’s letters settle in on belong and relegate Jesus to a welcoming buddy with whom they can hang out when convenient, but “hey, no strings attached.” Those in the other camp look tend to restrict belonging to those who behave in appropriate ways, becoming obsessed with right behavior even from those who have not experienced the transformation that comes form belonging to Jesus.
As followers of Jesus and students of Paul, we need to be fostering friendships of belonging with people of all walks of life, sharing out lives with them, loving them and demonstrating the hope that we have within us. When an early church got the order messed up and began to segregate themselves based upon behavior Paul clarified, “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.” (1 Corinthians 5:9–10) As a church and as people we are to be inviting and welcoming, creating real belonging and introducing people to the grace of Jesus and a way of life that is better than they ever imagined.
Peace, hope and love