Paul had a concrete missionary strategy of building living communities able to produce a visible and believable message. Yet for centuries we’ve interpreted his message as if he is speaking about individuals being privately “saved.” This has made Paul seem more like a mere moralist than the mystic he is. Mystics tend to see things in wholes rather than getting preoccupied with the parts.
Paul believes that corporate evil can only be overcome or confronted with corporate good. He uses primitive yet powerful words for the negative side of corporations, institutions, and nations: he calls them “thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers” (Colossians 1:16). These are not “bad angels” as much as collective attitudes that are almost impossible to break. Because they are so widely shared as mass consciousness—the way we’re programmed to think—they no longer look like evil and are hard to resist. Murder is bad, but war is good; greedy people are bad, but capitalism is going to save the world; ambition and pride are supposedly major sins, but not in the good ol’ USA. Do you see the problem?
I’ve never heard a single sermon my entire life on the tenth commandment—“Thou shalt not covet . . . anything that is thy neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17)—because coveting goods is the only game in town now. It’s called capitalism and consumerism! In Paul’s thinking, those big cultural blind spots can only be overcome by a group of people living and affirming and supporting one another in an alternative lifestyle. Smaller groups like the Quakers, Amish, Mennonites, and some Catholic religious orders were able to create actual alternative cultures.
For Paul, community is the living organism that communicates the Gospel message. Paul, like Jesus, wants to change culture here, not just send people away to a far-off heaven later! If Christ’s cosmic message doesn’t take form in a concrete group of people, then, as far as Paul is concerned, it is an unbelievable message. An autonomous Christian is as impossible as an independent arm or leg. Arms and legs exist only as parts. No single one of us is the whole Christ, and “the eye cannot say to the hand, I do not need you” (I Corinthians 12:21). Believers exist as parts of the whole, the Body of Christ. Their very existence is an objective, shared state that Paul calls love or living “in Christ.” When Paul says, “without love I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2), he implies that he is inside of another Being who is Love.
Paul sees what we will eventually call the “communion of saints” (by the fifth and sixth centuries) as an organism that is very alive, real, and operative in this world. I like to call it an “energy field” created by all those who share in the various parts of Christ. “Salvation” is thus something we can participate in right here and now. When Paul addresses his letters to “the saints,” he is clearly not speaking of our later idea of canonized saints, but of those who make up his living communities and who are participating in this shared life of love in this world.
Paul does not make heroes of individuals, but it is precisely as members of the Body that they “shine like stars” as “perfect children of God among a deceitful and underhanded brood” (Philippians 2:15). Paul sees his small communities as an adequate “leaven” by which God will eventually change the whole debauched Roman Empire (Paul got the word “yeast” or “leaven” from Jesus, see Matthew 13:33). Talk about patience and confidence!