Meeting God in Paul by Rowan Williams
'How I wish I'd had this when I had to produce two sermons a week. They would have been a lot better'
Meeting God in Paul
by Rowan Williams
Reviewed by Alec Gilmore
I welcome the opportunity to review this book because I have never found Paul easy. Much of what I have read and heard has usually raised more questions than answers, so I begin hoping for enlightenment and am not disappointed.
Beginning with Acts 16: 35-39 I have never before seen such a succinct, helpful and relevant summary of what it meant for Paul to be a Roman citizen, followed by what it meant to be a Jew, then a human being, in a chapter on 'Outsiders and Insiders'. It's a world where 'nobody belongs to a "religion"' because 'there is no such thing as "a religion" in the first Christian century. Sounds very much like the world we are living in which we can now see in a new way through the eyes of Paul, while also enjoying a refreshing look at Pauline theology.
Next comes Paul's 'disturbing idea': the Universal Welcome, as Paul makes mincemeat of the squabbles in the early church communities for their failure to understand and appreciate the new freedom with what it means to be 'a slave' to Christ. It means being committed to the creation of 'a different kind of community' with the key word 'Welcome' and, since God has already welcomed everybody, to spend our resources not putting up fences but breaking down barriers. Such an approach put Paul (and maybe Rowan?) 'in opposition to some of the most powerful and dominant trends of his day'. Sound familiar?
This takes us to 'The New Creation: Paul's Christian Universe' with the image of God, first in Jesus, then in us, and concluding with living in it. At no point does the author confuse us by relating Paul's message to today.
But then, good preacher that he is, he has no need. He has opened up Paul and Paul's world in such a way that at times it is difficult to know whether we are in the first century of the twenty-first.
Good preachers need good listeners — listeners prepared to hear what is said, feel its force and begin to make connections. History suggests Paul didn't have too many. Maybe Rowan doesn't either. Maybe few good preachers do. But the power of the Word is still there, awaiting individuals and communities that can make connections.
How I wish I'd had this when I had to produce two sermons a week. They would have been a lot better. They might also have been a bit more Pauline.
Alec Gilmore is a Baptist minister