[Author’s note: This devotional is basically an email I sent to my aunt. The story behind this is in this post. As such, it’s somewhat lighter on scholarship and more informal than my normal entries.]
As Paul brings his letter to a close, he points out that his handwriting is really large. It’s just a little personal comment like any of us might put in any letter, but it lets us know that Paul has weaknesses – in this case, his eyesight. Some have even thought this vision problem might be the “thorn in the flesh” Paul talks about.
We read in other ancient writings that Paul was bald, scarred, short, and bow-legged. He even had a unibrow! Paul tells us in 2 Cor. 10:10 that the church loved his writing but thought he was pretty unimpressive in person.
None of this stops Paul from planting churches all over Asia Minor. He assumes that, whatever prejudices anyone might have about the way he looks or his physical challenges, this is no obstacle to the Spirit and the spread of the gospel, nor is it an obstacle to him living out the mission he believes Jesus has for him.
Paul tells us, near the end of his letter, that he believes the Judaizers are hypocrites who are just trying to avoid persecution. They themselves do not obey the Law, but they take pride in how many people they are getting circumcised. It’s hard for me not to think of the scandals that tend to arise in the lives of popular Christian speakers.
But Paul tells us the only thing he wants to be proud of is that the cross of Christ has made him dead to the world and brought him to life in a new one – a life of the Spirit where Jesus lives through him.
And for Paul, this is almost literally true, because he has been physically abused for his message, just as Jesus was. Paul says that this is why nobody should be giving him a hard time about circumcision; only his resemblance to Jesus matters.
As Paul closes this letter, he challenges all of our preconceived ideas of who is worthy of esteem. The only thing that matters is how much someone’s life looks like Jesus. Do they sound like him? Do they act like him? Do they prioritize what he did? Do they suffer like he did?
It doesn’t matter how much theology someone knows. It doesn’t matter how big their church is or how engaging they are. It doesn’t matter how many books they’ve written. It doesn’t matter how rigorous their moral standards are. It doesn’t even matter how many people they’ve shared the gospel with.
The only thing that matters is if they are like Jesus in the world. This is something that can unite a farmer in rural Kansas with a megachurch pastor in New York. For ourselves, for our congregations, for our leaders, for people we look up to, Paul leaves us with that final, vital question:
Do we/they look like Jesus?