I do not think I am in the least inferior to those “super-apostles.” I may indeed be untrained as a speaker, but I do have knowledge.
2 Corinthians 11:5-6 (NIV)
In the pantheon of faith, I find that Paul is revered as much as any other person in the history of Christianity. As I’ve journeyed repeatedly through that Great Story I find it fascinating how people selectively diminish the humanity of the “pillars of the faith” and selectively choose to focus on perceived strengths that might even be overstated through the lens of history and religiosity.
Paul was not universally loved and respected in his own day. While I have no doubt that Paul’s personality and mind were a force to be reckoned with, evidence reveals that the physical package was not in the least bit impressive. Some historical evidence suggests a homely looking man who was bow-legged and had a large nose. After repeated scourging, beatings, and stoning attempts his body probably had been unalterably scarred and he likely moved and carried himself as one permanently injured from suffering those repeated traumas. He famously had poor eye-sight in a day before eyeglasses had been invented, so he was probably ceaselessly squinting. And Paul he freely admits that he wasn’t a great public speaker.
Paul had rivals. He was not universally loved. Other believers, teachers, and apostles belittled him, sought to marginalize him, and tried to lead other believers (like the believers in Corinth) to shy away and even dismiss him. Paul’s authority was questioned because he wasn’t around when Jesus was on earth, publicly doing his ministry. His claim of being an apostle was constantly disputed as people clearly questioned the validity and voracity of his Damascus Road experience while not letting him forget his record as a prosecutor of believers and the head of the conspiracy to execute the beloved Stephen. And, there were other teachers and leaders, like Apollos, who were clearly better looking, more likable, and much better preachers.
As I make my way through Paul’s second surviving letter to the believers in Corinth (there’s at least one other letter referenced and there are probably two or more that didn’t survive antiquity) it reads like a man desperately making a case for himself, for his reputation, and his authority as a teacher and leader of the Jesus Movement.
In my faith journey I’ve observed that this is the real story that modern believers don’t know, or choose not to see. The Great Story is full of very flawed, every day human beings who God used in amazing ways, but they have been dehumanized, canonized, and lionized by religion and history. The result, I’ve observed, is that we both exaggerate our own human flaws so as to believe God would never use us, and we place the “heroes of the faith” like Paul on a pedestal we believe we could never, ever reach.
One of the meta-themes I’ve found in the Great Story is God using very human, very flawed people. Moses disqualified himself as a poor public speaker (God told him to let Aaron do the talking) and had a bad temper. Jacob, later called Israel, was a terribly deceptive liar. David may have been called “a man after God’s own heart” but he was also an adulterer and guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. Solomon may be hallowed for his wisdom, but he also enslaved and conscripted the labor of tens of thousands of people (while annually celebrating Passover and God’s deliverance of his own people from slavery in Egypt) to the point that his son had to reap the political consequences of their violent rebellion.
And then there is Paul, the big nosed, bow-legged, scarred, unlikable and forceful little man who was such a boring, long-winded preacher that a boy once fell asleep during his sermon and fell out of a third-story window to his death. And, I still don’t question his induction to the faith Hall of Fame while quickly and shamefully dismissing my own worthiness or hastily judging the worthiness of other human beings just as flawed as myself.
This morning in the quiet of my hotel room I’m reminded that in all my reading of the Great Story I have not once come across an application for being a follower of Jesus with an accompanying list of requisites for the job. Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and feel the weight of your flawed humanity drowning your soul. I’d like to give you some rest.” This brings to mind another thing I’ve observed, and have found easily forgotten. Being a follower of Jesus is not a position I apply for, it’s simply an invitation I accept (or don’t).