Church Talk: Jesus and Paul

I gave this talk May 21, 2017. It is my (positive) rebuttal to religious arguments that focus (instead) on legalities and rules, obedience and dogma.

As described in the talk, I read through the Gospel of Mark first, focusing on what Jesus did; then again, focusing on what he said (I used the King James translation, red letter edition, online--the web is an amazing thing). I approached the project with a surprising number of uneasy expectations (you'd think a person who taught seminary would remember better) and finished with most of those expectations gratifyingly overturned.

The three consistent messages from Jesus in Mark (and for that matter, across the four gospels) are "I am the Son of God," "The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" (many debates on what exactly this means since Jesus seemed to perceive it not as a future event but as something that was being created with his ministry and later with his Resurrection), and "Try to be good and kind in a way that goes beyond mere lip-service" ("goodness" is both a more generous and--let's be real--ballsy thing than the word sometimes implies).

There's very little about rules for the sake of rules. What's even cooler is how much the Jesus described in Mark--the most action-based of the gospels--practices what He preaches. My own written list of Things Jesus Did is far longer than the items I selected for the talk.

In reference to the talk's context, I've always had a soft-spot for Paul, mostly for being such a complicated guy--besides which, David Suchet would like to play him :)

2nd Corinthians 3:3: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.
2nd Corinthians is a letter or group of letters written by the Apostle Paul to members of the church in Corinth, Greece. He previously wrote a letter of rebuke to the Corinthians for infighting: they were engaging in “debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults” (2 Corinthians 12:20). So things were pretty bad! Paul had also visited Corinth recently, and some members had challenged his authority; in Second Corinthians, he is stating that he doesn’t need letters of recommendation to uphold his authority or to prove himself. The Saints, the members, are his recommendations.

A letter of recommendation is used when someone applies for a position. The person writing the letter will praise the prospective employee’s character, virtues, and abilities.
POSSIBLE ADDITION BASED ON TIME—NOT INCLUDED: I am sometimes asked to write letters of recommendation for students, either for a job or for a scholarship or for an academic program to which they are applying. I use what I know of the students to write my recommendations—I reference how often they attended class; whether they were on time; whether they handed in their work. I use past behavior to suggest how these students will behave in the future. If I needed a letter of recommendation, and I wanted to behave like Paul, I would also refer to my students’ behavior in the classroom. Their behavior would decide whether or not I was a good teacher. This is a scary thought! Yet this is exactly what Paul is doing.
In Second Corinthians, Paul is saying that he doesn’t need outsiders to defend his character. He’ll know that he succeeded in teaching the gospel when he sees members practicing Christ-like behavior. When the Spirit of God is written on their hearts, they will become letters of Christ. A modernized version of this would be that when the Spirit of God is written on their hearts, they will become websites of Christ: that is, what they have in their hearts will show up where people can see.

Paul wants the members to have a loving attitude towards each other, an attitude that comes from the inside—he wants them to naturally wish the best for each other. In essence, he wants them to behave as described in First Corinthians 13.

I will read First Corinthians 13 in the original King James version, which is very beautiful, and then in the King James modernized version:
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoices not in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth:

Love is patient, kind, not jealous, does not brag, is not arrogant, does not behave rudely, does not demand its own way, is not easily angered, keeps no grudges, does not rejoice in wrong but in truth and right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.
Another word for what Paul is describing is a great vocabulary word: magnanimity. Magnanimity is sometimes defined as “generosity of spirit” or “bigness of heart.” It is all encompassing.

In this last General Conference, Elder Robert D. Hales discusses this idea of being Christ-like or magnanimous:
The attributes of the Savior, as we perceive them, are not a script to be followed or list to be checked off. They are interwoven characteristics, added one to another, which develop in us in interactive ways. In other words, we cannot obtain one Christlike characteristic without also obtaining and influencing others. As one characteristic becomes strong, so do many more.
Goodness then is about internal integrity—not just outward behavior. Goodness is a way of being.

This can be difficult, not to say overwhelming! I know I am not always as good and kind as I would like to be. I struggle with how much better I should be. How do we become completely good/kind people in our hearts, not only our actions?

It comes down to a grammar or logic issue—an if-then statement. If one thing is true, then another thing must also be true.

The scriptures are full of if-then statements. If you love God . . . then . . .

Sometimes we get caught up on the “then”—we try to force it to happen. We need to back up to the “if.”

In Mosiah 4, for example, King Benjamin states, “If ye have known of [God’s] goodness and have tasted of his love and [felt the joy of God’s forgiveness] . . . then . . .” the following happens:
Ye shall grow in knowledge,
Ye shall not wish to hurt others,
Ye shall be kind to your children and teach them to love,
Ye shall be generous and forgiving.
All these behaviors and attitudes result from loving God. Jesus affirms this truth in Mark 12. When questioned, “Which commandment is the most important?” he answered that the most important, the place to start, is to “love the Lord thy God with all [our] hearts and souls and minds.”

To return to the Corinthians, Paul hoped to help the Corinthian congregation by having them adopt a more generous way of thinking and being. And he wanted them to do this by emulating Christ. Jesus and also King Benjamin tell us that the first step to emulating Christ is to love Heavenly Father.

How do we do that? How do we love Heavenly Father so completely that He and Christ will be inscribed on our hearts? I have three suggestions:

1. Accept God’s love. It seems an obvious thing to do. But we sometimes don’t do it because we “get in our own way” or sabotage ourselves.

A writer of religion, Philip Yancey, discusses the greatness of Apostle Peter by comparing him to Judas Iscariot. Both Judas and Peter betrayed Jesus—Judas did it deliberately for money; Peter did it impetuously out of fear. However, on the cross, Jesus forgave all those who betrayed him. The difference between the men is that Peter did not reject that forgiveness and love. He turned back to Christ.

2. Show gratitude. Like me, you may find comparing yourself to Peter, an Apostle and Head of the Church, a little daunting. A more everyday example of someone that I can relate to is the 10th leper.

Jesus cured 10 lepers. Luke 17 tells us, “And when [Jesus] saw them, he said unto them, ‘Go shew yourselves unto the priests.’ And it came to pass that as they went, they were cleansed. And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God. And fell down on his face at [Jesus’s] feet, giving him thanks . . . And Jesus said unto him, ‘Arise, go thy way; thy faith hath made thee whole’” (14-16).

Jesus didn’t remove the cure from the other 9—the scriptures make it clear that “they were cleansed.” They all received his love. The 10th turned back and accepted that love by thanking God. His gratitude, his faith and love, made him whole—more than simply in the physical sense.

Gratitude is a powerful attribute. In Sunbeams, the class for the 3 to 4-year-olds, we—the students and the teachers—learn to thank God for water, fish, prayer, our bodies, families, and of course, Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. Gratitude is a way to accept God’s love and to “know of his goodness.”

3. As well as acceptance and gratitude, we can love God by learning about Him—the best way to learn about God is to learn about His Son, Jesus Christ.

I recently had a wonderful experience where I went through the Gospel of Mark twice. First, I looked at only Jesus’s behavior—then I went back and read what Jesus said.

I discovered, first, that Jesus did AMAZING things during his ministry:
• He was happy for other people’s happiness—he enjoyed their enjoyment, such as when he attended the Wedding at Cana.
• He willingly spent time with and was interested in everyone from fishermen to intellectuals, children, the poor, the wealthy, the middle class, outsiders, military leaders, even tax collectors!
• I find it personally encouraging that he inspired women. Dorothy Sayers wrote:
“It is no wonder that women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. [Jesus was] a prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, who never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who took them as he found them and was completely unselfconscious.”
• As Sayers mentions, Jesus was entirely self-aware and self-confident. Early in his ministry, he gave up being a “celebrity” when he resisted Satan’s temptations. He wasn’t concerned with how he looked or what others thought of him.
• He was practical as when he fed people who had come to hear him speak (unmentioned in my talk: this extremely astute handling of a potentially unruly mob prevented a riot).
• He was introverted and extroverted. Sometimes, he spent time alone; sometimes, he took his apostles away on “retreats.” He taught people one-on-one and adjusted his teaching to their circumstances. He also enjoyed social activities and was capable of handling large crowds.
• And he performed miracles in many different ways—sometimes at a distance; sometimes up close; sometimes with words; sometimes with actions and words.
We are not perfect like Jesus, so we may not be able to deal with people and situations as variously as he did. I think he approached people and events in so many ways as an example to the different kinds of people that we are. If I need an example of how to be kind or how to deal with others that fits my personality, I can find it in the gospels.

The foundation of all Jesus’s behavior is love. This last General Conference, Elder S. Mark Palmer gave a talk about the rich, young man who asks Jesus what he needs to do to obtain eternal life. Jesus instructs him to follow the commandments. The young man says he has kept them all.

I confess—at this point in the conversation, I would roll my eyes. Really? You’ve kept ALL the commandments?

Jesus didn’t roll his eyes. As Elder Palmer reminds us, “Then Jesus beholding him loved him.” ("To my astonishment, I instead heard six words before that part of the verse [about following Jesus] that I seemed never to have heard or read before.")

Jesus’s love is echoed in the things that he said, specifically in the Sermon on the Mount.

The Sermon on the Mount seems radical. Am I truly supposed to not complain when someone “shall smite [me] on the right cheek”? I have to admit, I would complain!

It helps to realize that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is deliberately pushing the commandments, such as forgiving one’s neighbor, to the furthest degree—NOT in order to make the commandments more legalistic but to make the point that kindness and goodness should match what is in our hearts. We should actually wish to get along with our neighbors, not simply hope they stay off our lawns. We should actually try to forgive our enemies, not make token statements about how nice it is to love everybody.

The scriptures assert that we can come to love God through accepting His love, showing gratitude, and learning more about His Son, Jesus Christ. We then become better people because we wish to be better people. In the book The Road Less Traveled, Scott Peck writes, “When we love something, it is of value to us, and when something is of value to us, we spend time with it, time enjoying it and time taking care of it. Observe a [gardener] with a beloved rose garden, and the time spent pruning and mulching and fertilizing and studying it.”

I get a kick out of Peck’s analogy. I am not a gardener myself, but my parents are. They moved a year ago to a new, smaller home. Already their new home has a big garden. As the weather warms, they spend more and more time outside, digging up stumps, expanding the flower beds, and watering the shrubs. Their yard is flourishing and looks quite unlike everyone else’s in their cul-de-sac. It is obvious who the real gardeners in the neighborhood are. An if/then statement for my parents would be: If you really love gardening, you shall have beautiful and healthy plants to look at all day long.

When we spend time loving God and Jesus Christ, who witnesses to us of God’s love, we begin to fulfill Paul’s instruction to write Christ into our hearts. We also begin to fulfill the first part of the if/then statement from Mosiah: If we know of God’s love...we shall improve...

A wonderful example of a big-hearted person who became better out of love is Zacchaeus. He heard about Jesus and was quite excited to see him. Unfortunately, there was a large crowd and Zacchaeus wasn’t very tall—I can relate!—so he climbed up into a tree. When Jesus “came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said unto him, ‘Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for today I must abide at thy house.’ And [Zacchaeus] made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully.” After they ate, Zacchaeus stood up without prompting and announced, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken anything from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold” (Luke 19:5-6, 8).

This is one of the passages where Jesus refers to finding those who are lost. So an outcome of loving God is not only becoming a better person but being found (I am here).

In Second Corinthians, Paul adds another outcome of loving God: we shall have “such trust . . . through Christ to God-ward” that we will be “troubled yet not distressed” (2 Corinthians 3:4, 4:8). I love the practicality of that last line! Paul doesn’t say, “Your life will be perfect.” He says, “You will be troubled yet not distressed.”

Paul wanted the Saints in Corinth to not be distressed. He wanted them to get along. He wanted them to stop arguing about status and to stop challenging each other. He wanted them to behave like Christ, not only for the sake of each other but for their individual sakes—so they could each feel more peace. That peace starts with loving God.

Remember the 10th leper. The moment he was healed, he thought not of all the places he could go or even of all the people he could hang out with. I’m sure he thought of those positive things later! But immediately, right away, he thought of glorifying God and thanking Jesus Christ.
NOT INCLUDED IN THE TALK DUE TO TIME (AND BECAUSE IT IS KIND OF A TALK IN ITS OWN RIGHT): Loving God doesn’t mean defending God--He frankly doesn’t need us to defend Him--or forcing people to believe in Him. It means being open to His perspective. Interestingly, in Alcoholics Anonymous, Step 2 is "to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity." For the non-denominational participants, the Power can be anything from God to a mountain to space. Believing in a Power is about getting a fresh look at our little selves. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love” (12-13).
In April’s General Conference, President Uchtdorf restated these ideas in his own energetic way:
So, how does God motivate His children to follow Him in our day?

He sent His Son!

God sent His Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to show us the right way.

God motivates through persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned. God is on our side. He loves us, and when we stumble, He wants us to rise up, try again, and become stronger.

He is our mentor.

He is our great and cherished hope.

He desires to stimulate us with faith.

He trusts us to learn from our missteps and make correct choices.

As we fill our hearts with the love of Christ, we will awaken with a renewed spiritual freshness and we will walk joyfully, confidently, awake, and alive in the light and glory of our beloved Savior, Jesus Christ.
When I thank God for my blessings and remember the bigger picture of behaving with magnanimity, I become a more balanced person. I become more like the 10th leper who slowed down and looked around and remembered God’s love. I sometimes even have the patience of Christ although that happens less than it should. I have to keep reminding myself, and I falter a lot but reminding myself always pays off in the long run.

As Paul says, God, who made the light shine out of darkness, “shines in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 3:6).

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