June 9, 2013
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15 But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; 19 but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. 20 In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, 22 and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; 23 they only heard it said, “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me.
Here’s a question to start us off: have any of you ever been doubted? Someone questioned your honesty, or your authority, or your knowledge? Someone thought you were too young to know anything, or maybe it was because of your gender you were written off. In essence, you were judged in a moment and found wanting. It’s utterly aggravating, isn’t it?
Personally, I get deeply hurt when I am accused of doing something I didn’t do, but far worse than that, is being accused of being something I’m not.
I’m sure many of you have had odd jobs over the years – I worked as a seamstress in the costume shop of the drama department at my college. Don’t be overly wowed – it didn’t last very long and I wasn’t very good at it. And here is why.
My boss would give me a task – she would show me what needed to be done and I would stand beside her looking at the work. And then, she would look at my face as I was looking it over and say something to effect of, “Look at your face – you look like you don’t want to do any of this – I can’t work with someone who makes a face like that – you need to change your attitude.”
I had always prided myself on being “if I don’t know I’ll figure it out” kind of person – a problem solver with a fairly positive attitude – so I was baffled and hurt and I didn’t stick around to try to prove her wrong.
So this is the situation that Paul finds himself in over and over again – his authority is questioned, his motives, his teaching, the truth of his message. His passion, his heart, his honesty are all in doubt.
So he writes to defend himself – to explain how he arrived at faith, and who he was and was not influenced by. This is more important than you might think.
Paul was a good Jew who became a good Christian and because of his understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ, he had chosen not require other converts to follow Jewish customs, and very specifically, not to be circumcised.
But you also had the first followers of Jesus who were Jewish who were continuing the practices of their Jewish faith and wanted non-Jewish Christians to do the same. So there was tension about this in the early church.
One way was more free and gracious – God’s grace is more important than what any person can do, including circumcision.
One way was more precise in its expectations of behavior that pleased God – newcomers needed to be grafted onto the tree that already existed with the practices that already existed.
So in the first decades of the life of the church answering these questions became crucial for holding the whole movement together.
At the heart of all this was the question of these new people, these outsiders, coming into the faith – did they have to take on Jewish practices or should they continue as they had done before?
But deeper still than that, the heart of that question is this: what does it take to be ok with God?
This is what faith is all about.
We have this sense that there is a God and that we live in a world with a designer’s touch, and that there is greater meaning to our lives and to this world, and that somehow we are separated from God. If we weren’t we would know it. Right? We would know if we weren’t separated from God.
And we have in the Bible the story of how we arrived at this place – that we were given everything, including freedom, including trust with God – and we broke faith with God – we were the ones who lied, we were the ones who were untrustworthy.
So we are left with the question – how do we crawl back into God’s arms? What will make us acceptable? How do we get back through the doors of God’s house? How do we know that we are part of the family again? These are all questions of justification.
We talked a few weeks back about that word “justification.” It’s a churchy word for what happens when God takes away our sin and declares us to be righteous, clean, made right. And for a long, long time the answer was to be a perfect human being – do everything right – eat the right things – dress the right way – obey all the rules.
Paul came to the Galatians and preached to them a gospel of grace and freedom. And he left them as a healthy fledgling church. And then missionaries came from Jerusalem telling them they had to be circumcised – it wasn’t as simple as accepting God’s grace and believing that was enough.
And the church in Galatia was in crisis – they were hearing two entirely different gospels (those are the words Paul uses in the opening of this letter) and it all hinged on circumcision but there was a bigger issue at stake: whether or not you had to do something to earn God’s love.
The letter Paul writes isn’t a general letter – you can imagine that Paul could visualize the faces of the people he was writing to just as modern day preachers will probably tell you that sometimes they write a sermon with a very specific person in mind. I would really urge you to read the whole letter for yourself. You get a real sense of Paul’s personality from the letter.
First Paul has to defend himself. He has to make the case for why they should believe him and his message.
And he has to walk a very fine line here.
He has to prove that he is a true follower of Jesus even though he never met him (and the leaders of the church in Jerusalem had). He had to prove that his message was God-breathed. And he uses his conversion to support this. He tells them that he used to violently persecute the church and that he was really good at it. But then God transformed him and he immediately went out and preached to the Gentiles, to the outsiders as he felt called to do. So he is saying here, in essence, “here is what happened to me, and you may not believe me but judge my conversion and the truth of my message by what I have done.”
That line was also used by Charles Colson. I did some reading up on Chuck this week because he had a Pauline-type turnaround in his life. Colson committed crimes during the Nixon administration as part of the Watergate scandal and was imprisoned for them. Colson was described as “Nixon’s hard man, the ‘evil genius’ of an evil administration.” As Colson was facing arrest he was given a copy of Mere Christianity and that was his Paul-like conversion moment. He was doubted – many thought that his conversion was a ploy to get a reduced prison sentence. And he said in essence what Paul is saying here in this letter – judge me by what I have done. He went on to found Prison Fellowship which is the nation’s largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families.
So Paul is trying to emphasize that the message he is preaching is from God, but he also doesn’t want to sound like a lone ranger with no ties to the church in Jerusalem and the people there who actually knew Jesus. So he reminds the Galatians that after a couple years he did go meet Peter in Jerusalem but it wasn’t a long visit, so he wasn’t overly influenced by them (his message is still God’s message) and he didn’t meet very many of them, just Peter and James.
And that is where our passage for the day ends – with Paul saying, in summary, “this gospel I am preaching is from God – I didn’t make it up – and I didn’t get it from Jerusalem. But I am also not a stranger in Jerusalem.”
But he does see his message as radically different.
The missionaries from Jerusalem are telling the Galatians, how do you know you are righteous? How do you know God accepts you, adopts you? You would know if you were doing the right things – if you followed the law, if you were circumcised.
Paul is preaching a gospel of freedom – he writes, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free.” It is God’s Spirit, not the law, that allows us to live as God wants us to live. That makes all the difference in the world.
Paul says, “It is for freedom that Christ set us free. Stand firm then and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
Paul tells them it doesn’t matter who you are, you belong to God by grace through faith.
He writes, “You are all sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Jesus.”
These are some of the most freeing words in all of scripture and now we can hear these words differently because we know what Paul is fighting against.
This is an important message for every one of us who asks in our hearts, how do I know that I right with God, that I am adopted, accepted?
This is an important message for everyone who answers that question by doing more, trying to be more perfect, trying to earn God’s love. Paul is yelling at us (it really feels like that when you read it) “Be free – you were set free by Christ – why do you want to be a slave again?”
He says it doesn’t matter – circumcision, uncircumcision – it doesn’t matter – all that matters is a new creation- that’s how Paul sums it all up. All that matters is a life that is new. All that matters is a life that is new.