June 5, 2016
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.
Thanks to the wonderful teachers at our church’s preschool my 3 year old now knows how to say a big word “metamorphosis”, which he is very proud of (and I think he kind of understands what it means).
My kids are fascinated by butterflies, and so now I am too (I also have a growing appreciation for dinosaurs and Legos). My 5 year old can tell you in exacting detail the life cycle of the butterfly – and metamorphosis is a remarkable transformation.
Baby ducks have wings and baby bats have wings, but not baby butterflies, because there is no such thing as a baby butterfly. Eminent biologist Bernd Heinrich, who has written a book on what death looks like in the animal world says that the adult forms of butterflies are actually new organisms.
Literally the caterpillar holes itself up in its little coffin, there is a “deathlike intermission” in which the caterpillar shrinks and sheds its skin and its organs dissolve and most of its cells die, and then butterfly springs to life from the soup of cells that remains (actually from a few imaginal cells which turn on a completely new set of DNA). It is a kind of death and resurrection story.
The apostle Paul may be one of the most well-known transformation stories in Christian faith. We know that he became quite famous as a violent religious fanatic. He tells us that he was zealous at protecting the Jewish faith.
From his perspective these early Christ followers were schismatic, they were the radicals, the ones who left who are disrupting the Roman peace, who are dragging other people with them. In theologian NT Wright’s words, Paul saw them as “renegade Jews of the worst sort”.
So he makes it is his mission to stamp out this new movement and he is given the greenlight to do so. The first time we hear of him in the New Testament is a brief but chilling mention of Saul of Tarsus (before he was renamed Paul) watching the brutal execution of Stephen, who is considered the first martyr in the Christian faith.
It is as Paul is on his way to root out Christianity in Damascus, that God finds him, and the revelation of Jesus is so profound that he is blinded. We learn a lot of this from Acts, and also from Galatians, in what we read this morning, where Paul is brutally honest about his past.
Father Richard Rohr writes, “If there is one characteristic of holy people, I would say it’s honesty. They just don’t pretend anymore. They are not into pretense and performance and trying to present that they are something other than what they really are. They’ve met the enemy, and the enemy is themselves. They know that they are not that good; that “only God is good” (Mark 10:18).
Paul is brutally honest and he has to be at this point, because the authority of his teaching has been called into question.
We talked last week about these new churches somewhere in the Roman province of Galatia whom Paul had taught and nurtured and then he left on another leg of his mission journey, and Jewish Christian missionaries came in and told the new Gentile Christians that they needed to be more Jewish to belong and to be saved.
And so it wasn’t that the Galatians were back-sliding into their old beliefs, but rather they were being swept away by a new set of preachers with better credentials than Paul, and able to name drop who they knew in Jerusalem.
And Paul fires off this impassioned letter saying, in essence, “Don’t listen to them. The gospel I told you about has not changed – I gave you exactly what I got from God and I can prove it (and we can hear him explaining this in the letter): I didn’t receive it from another person, I wasn’t taught it by anybody, and it came straight from a revelation of Jesus.”
And Paul also uses his life as the proof of the gospel: “You know — everyone knows — the horrible things I did to wipe Christianity off the face of the earth. It is only by God’s grace and the revelation of Jesus, that I am what I am today.”
The gospel is a story of death and resurrection: Saul of Tarsus, the religious terrorist, is completely gone, and the now transformed Paul, in his letters, summarizes the whole of scripture: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14). Don’t ever weary in taking every opportunity to “do good to all people,” (6:9–10). And, “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love,” for without concrete deeds of love, we’re “nothing” (Galatians 5:6; 1 Cor. 13).
And then Paul tells us that after he had this life-altering experience, he went off to Arabia for three years (and at some point in there he went to Damascus), before going to see the heads of the church in Jerusalem. There has been a lot of curiosity about these three mysterious years and what Paul was doing, and where he even went in the vast area of Arabia?
Some scholars think it was a time of solitary reflection and preparation for his mission to reach people outside the Jewish faith. Some think he was out preaching and teaching. NT Wright suggests Paul saw himself as a violent and zealous prophet like Elijah and he went out to the place where discouraged and lost prophets had gone in the past, to meet with God.
I like this last explanation because I think you would need to find somewhere holy to run when you discover that the thing you were most passionate about, the thing you believed in the most, is completely wrong. You need time and space for transformation, for death and new life.
Andrew Prior, a pastor in the Uniting Church of Australia, writes “To have become the very thing we despise is a miserable experience. To realize what we have despised was correct all the time—we were the ones who were wrong, and to begin to recognize the damage we have caused, is devastating. After the shame and confusion—perhaps a full blown personal crisis—we will be more determined than ever to hold close the truth God has uncovered for us.”
Christian faith is about transformation. Because God is alive, Jesus is alive, and the Holy Spirit is alive and moving and changing us, and God is re-creative, bringing dead things back to life. (So don’t be the dead caterpillar soup).
The Word of God is a living, God-breathed, inspired Word – which is why we can read the Bible at one point in our lives and have it challenge us, and then read the exact same passage at another point in our lives, and be challenged in an entirely new way.
Faith is all about experiencing God moving and changing us and changing the world.
In baptism, we die and rise to new life in Christ. Those of you who come from traditions where baptism involves full immersion know this experience, of closing your eyes and being laid into a dark and soundless place, and then being brought back up to the light and living world, to symbolize death and new life.
Father Richard Rohr writes that “there are basically two paths of spiritual transformation: prayer and suffering.” And perhaps we might add a third path, the Paul path, when God comes and finds you, and upends all your most dearly held beliefs. And there may be other ways that we could think of, because God’s imagination is not limited and his way of reaching us is personal because he knows us so well.
There are branches of Christianity that hold that everyone should have big, bright, startling moments when everything changes. But that hasn’t been my path in life, and perhaps it hasn’t been yours. For some of us we have been nurtured in this faith since we were born. And for some of us, faith and perhaps church have at least bobbed up and down in our lives.
We are not religious terrorists like Paul and we are not on the way to Damascus. And so what does transformation look like for us?
Rohr suggests that suffering for many people is the fast track to transformation. He writes, “Give me your failure, God says. I will make life out of it. Give me your broken, disfigured, rejected, betrayed body, like the body you see hanging on the cross, and I will make life out of it. It’s the divine pattern of transformation.”
And then there is the path of prayer. Rohr writes, “The path of prayer is taken by those rare people who consciously and slowly let go of their ego, their righteousness, their specialness, their sense of being important. In the journey of prayer, as you sink into the mystery of God’s perfect love, you realize that you’re nothing in the presence of God’s goodness and greatness, and that God is working through you in spite of you.”
There is a slow path of transformation where we slowly chip away at our resistance to God or our resistence to forgiveness of ourselves or others, or to chip away at our hardheartedness, or our self-centeredness, or our beliefs that get in the way of truly loving another person.
Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk and social activist, is attributed by the internet (and apparently there is a lively debate about this) as saying, “If the you of 5 years ago doesn’t call you a heretic, then you are not growing spiritually.” Whether Merton said it or not, it is a food for thought: If the you of 5 years ago doesn’t call you a heretic, then you are not growing spiritually.
And maybe we find that statement kind of extreme – maybe we wouldn’t call ourselves heretics, but perhaps at least we would call ourselves changed, different, wiser.
It is helpful think about ourselves spiritually as in a process of death and resurrection, in a process of transformation. And we need to pause here and acknowledge that change is frightening because transformation takes us to new territory where we haven’t been before and the unknown can be scary no matter how we are being transformed – whether you are transforming through suffering, prayer, a new relationship, a crisis.
Maybe we won’t call ourselves heretics now compared to ourselves 5 years ago, but we need to ask ourselves, am I different now? Have I grown and changed? Am I being transformed? Maybe the answer is no, maybe we’ve spiritually sat down, or gotten stuck, or maybe we’ve come to think that faith is all about keeping an iron grip on exactly what we believe and never letting go?
So then what do we need to do now?
What do we need from our church, in our lives, from the people around us, from ourselves?
What do we need to continue our transformation?
We are not alone in this – this is what the church is for. We are in this together – this is the purpose of our Christian education, this is the purpose of serving together, this is the purpose of getting to know each other and praying together, and learning each other’s stories – because stories and relationships change us.
This is the work of our lives – this is the race we are running – the goal is becoming more and more like Christ, and what a worthy goal. Amen.