Among the modern complaints issued against Paul by many who have fallen in love with Jesus is that Paul set about organizing a religion that Jesus never foresaw nor intended. Jesus, they argue, was content to teach his merry band of disciples his own ways of seeing the world and interacting with it. Moreover, Jesus was likely happy to have these same disciples spread his message following his departure. But surely Jesus never envisioned the kind of organized institutions that Paul rampantly established throughout the Mediterranean world in the mid-first century.
Jesus was, like, the hippy spiritualist, but Paul was, like, the Man, man.
The Christian community is JR Daniel Kirk’s focus in the third chapter of his Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? While Kirk argues from the gospels to Paul to support the notion that the communal people of God was central to both Jesus and Paul, I think most believers who are skeptical on this front already recognize a community in Paul’s letters –the church–that they don’t necessarily see in Jesus’ story.
Yet community is absolutely at the core of the Gospel message. Never mind, for the moment, that in Jesus’ mind the second greatest commandment, like, OF ALL TIME was to love others as yourself (Mk 12:31). Instead, let’s focus on just what Jesus was doing with those twelve disciples.
Show up in the inner city playgrounds in America, and round up five athletic boys. Or, if you prefer, appear in a field in West Texas with eleven strapping young men. What have you just done? Depending on your locale and the number of lads in your circle, you have either just created a basketball or football team. And everyone around you knows it.
So when Jesus starts whipping up twelve young Jews to follow him around for a few years, everyone in Palestine knows exactly what he has just created. They were not, unfortunately, a new sports team, but a new nation of Israel (which was probably better in the cosmic salvation-history scheme of things).
From the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus was creating a new community, a new people of God, through whom God’s promises to bless the entire earth would be implemented. To be sure, Jesus had a unique role to platy, which the disciples could not do. But in the wake of his resurrection and ascension, it was up to this intentionally created band to act as their Master had been acting the three years previous.
So perhaps Paul wasn’t completely off his rocker in establishing these outlying church communities throughout the Roman Empire, after all. Perhaps he was simply replicating (albeit among Gentiles) what he knew Jesus had done at the very beginning. He was establishing a people, who collectively could embody the Spirit of their Lord, the Christ, and the God whom that Christ represented.