So this morning we finished our last session on this book: “The Call,” by Adam Hamilton in our adult Sunday School class. The book is semi-biographical in nature, detailing the life of the Apostle Paul from his early days as a persecuter of Christians, through his ministry as a key figure in the formation and spread of Christianity, to his ultimate death by execution in Rome.
Before I go any further, I should probably state that I’m not a huge fan of Paul. As I’ve said in previous entries, I’m more of a Peter kind of guy, and I take issue with some of Paul’s teachings regarding women, homosexuals, and slavery. Like it or not, these passages in Paul’s writings do exist, and I am not able to just totally dismiss them as some Christians do. Still, as someone who has a minor in history, I know that Paul and others were people that reflected the time and culture in which they lived and wrote. I don’t think that’s a total excuse, but it does help to see where he was coming from.
I am, however, a huge fan of Adam Hamilton. Part of the reason that I didn’t just poo-poo the idea of this study altogether was that Hamilton had written it. We’ve studied other books of his and I found each to be informative, enlightening, and even entertaining. This one was no different, despite the fact that it was not my favorite subject matter.
And don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I have zero interest in it, but as someone in our church had previously said “I don’t worship at the feet of Paul,” and I totally agree. In some discussions I’ve had about Paul, it seems like some folks do indeed worship at his feet, and that kind of bugs me. Still, his contribution to the faith cannot be discounted. As Hamilton says, outside of Jesus himself, nobody had as much influence on Christianity as Paul did when he set out to take the Gospel beyond the borders of the Holy Land into Asia and Greece, and some even think he may have gone as far as Spain. The important thing to me was that the book stay on the right side of the line between admiring someone and almost worshiping them. Hamilton did a great job of that.
It’s also important to note that we just DON’T KNOW a whole ton about Paul. We basically have Acts and the Epistles plus Church tradition that is largely informed by extra-biblical sources written many years after Paul’s death. For instance, what happened in the years between his initial conversion and the time when he went back to Jerusalem to see Peter? What happened in the years between the time the Apostles sent him away from Jerusalem for his own safety and his first missionary journey? Why doesn’t the book of Acts give any details about or even mention his death? What happened between the time of his initial trial in Rome (62 C.E.) and his execution (held by Church scholars to be in 65 C.E.)?
Hamilton tackles these and many other questions about Paul, and he acknowledges that we don’t have all the answers, and that a lot of what we think we know is inspired more by Church tradition than actual, written history. Yet as he looks at these questions, he backs up his own thoughts on the matters quite well, and as always he writes in a tone and style that is very accessible to pretty much any reader. Let’s face it, unless you’re really into history (like me) you might find a discussion about ancient Rome and the Greek world it encompassed to be a bit dry. However, Hamilton breathes tons of life into it and supplements the readings with many pictures from his own journeys to these historic cities and towns. If you’re going to use the book in a group setting, he also has a companion DVD which is quite excellent. It features Hamilton actually in places like Ephesus and Rome talking about what Paul’s life and witness meant back then and what it still means to us today.
And that’s the crux of what I liked best about the book and the study. It wasn’t just about “Hey look at Paul! Wasn’t he great?” It’s about each of us, our witness, and our call. Hamilton acknowledges that Paul was far from perfect, but that despite that, God called him to a great and important mission. God used Paul and Paul allowed himself to be used by God. Part of what I absolutely DO admire about Paul was his perseverance. He kept at it. He didn’t let anything stand between him and what Christ had called him to do. He wandered on foot all over the Roman world, and along the way he was beaten, stoned, tortured, and imprisoned for his faith, but he kept going. In the end, even when he was in prison at the end of his life, he was still seizing the opportunity and converting his jailers.
It seems like, for me anyway, it’s so easy to want to give up at the first sign of a little difficulty, or to resign and back off the first time somebody poses at least the slightest disagreement. I see in Paul an example of how to be stronger in my faith and my witness, even as I struggle immensely with wondering what God’s call is for me. This book definitely challenged me along those lines, and I think if you try it out, it will challenge you as well.