I have always been a fan of “origins” stories, and recently there has been a glut of superhero origin stories (here, here, and here). Whether or not the movies are good, we are fascinated by the origins of our favorite characters (also by apocalyptic storylines, but that’s for another post). There is something in understanding beginnings which helps immensely in coping with the present, origins sort of infuse the present with meaning and significance, and also help orient us toward the future. My last post mused on the significance of “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” for the apostle Paul, here I’d like to explore this further by looking at the origins of Paul’s theology of participation as well as begin to trace it into the troublesome present marked by suffering.
Paul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, to my eyes, is the acorn of Paul’s theology. Jesus’ rebuke of Paul is instructive “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Jesus’ use of the personal pronoun marks the concrete shift in Paul’s understanding of himself, God, and the Scriptures which he knew so well. What Jesus was saying was that his persecutions and trials were ongoing, and that Saul was an instrument of these ongoing persecutions. Or in other words, Jesus afflictions did not “end” at the cross and Saul was sharing in the continued persecution of Christ.
Only here Saul was not, in any visible way, persecuting Jesus.
How could Saul’s intent to arrest and transport “followers of the Way” be understood as persecuting the person of Jesus of Nazareth? In what ways was Jesus present in and with those who followed his Way? What is the meaning of suffering, trials, tribulations, persecutions of Christians in light of Jesus’ personal union with his followers? How should Scripture be read (and written) in light of Jesus’ union with his people? How can the sufferings of Christ be seen to historically extend from the cross, both backwards and forwards, and how are these sufferings recognized and shared in by his followers?
This encounter would continue to shape Paul both in his vocation and in his theology as he had to come to terms with what Jesus said to him on that road. Paul would work out his theology of participation (er… participationist theology) in concrete situations among the churches and pastors to which he would write. These occasional letters are anchored in Paul’s Damascus vision, but have developed into a full grown oak of theological maturity. Paul, as we will come to see, continually is orienting the recipients of his letters toward this participationist theme, allowing it to lend them strength, correct their thinking, and provide a constructive pastoral and congregational way forward.
Lord willing, more to come on this…