Sermon for June 9th, 2013
11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12for 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. 14I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17nor 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 for fifteen days; 19but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. 20In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! 21Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, 22and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; 23they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ 24And they glorified God because of me.
I, Paul, an Apostle (Part 2)
A few weeks ago, I summed up some of the things we had learned about the Book of Revelation with a Top Ten List. Today I'd like to start with a top ten list--it's a list of ten things the Bible does NOT say...but the church DOES (at least in the perception of many people today).
10. I have come to bring you a new religion. 9. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have correct theology. 8. If anyone would come after me, let him say bad things about all other religions and their followers. 7. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in Heaven after the earth goes up in flames and destroyed. 6. You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor,’ which means the people who look like you, agree with you, and are pleasant to be around. 5. In my Father’s house there are a limited number of rooms. But no worries, there is plenty of room in Hell. 4. The kingdom of God has come!… Well, not exactly. I mean, not completely. Let’s face it, the really-real kingdom comes after we die. Hang in there. It won’t be long. 3. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you a checklist of things to do and not do in order to remain in God’s favor. 2. For God so loved the world… you know like theoretically… as in, God loves the big ‘W’-world. But when it comes to you specifically, there are quite a few things that would need to change for God to actually and specifically love… or even like… YOU. 1. Then Jesus appeared to his disciples over a period of 40 days and spoke about how to incorporate his life and teaching as a 501(c)3, buy some land, build a building, and sit in a pew once a week for the rest of your life.
Some of these are pretty harsh, but there's a common thread. Most of them have something to do with the mistaken notion that Christianity is all about the "Three B's" -- Believing the right things, Behaving the right way, and Belonging to the right group. Jesus, by the way, broke all three of those rules: He didn't believe the things the religious leaders of his day expected him to believe; he behaved in ways that were improper and unfitting for a messiah, and spent most of his time with misfits, rejects, criminals, the uneducated, and the poor. He certainly belonged to the wrong crowd.
Among the Jews in the time of Jesus, there was a name for those who Believed all the right things, Behaved the right way, and Belonged to the right group: They were called the Pharisees. And Paul began his career as one of them. He says in verse 13-14, "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. 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." In other words, Paul was doing everything right. He was the good kid in Sunday School, with perfect attendance and straight A's. He probably made his parents proud. But there was a problem: Paul and the Pharisees were missing the point.
Way back in the Old Testament, God called Abraham--the Father of the Jewish people--and told him that his descendants would be blessed in order to be a blessing to all the nations. Abraham believed the Lord, says Genesis 15:6, and the Lord counted it to him as righteousness. In other words, Abraham's righteousness in God's eyes didn't come from his behavior, or even from believing all the right doctrines--he simply believed the Lord...and we call that faith. Fast forward to the New Testament, and we hear Jesus saying several times to several people in the gospels, "Your faith has made you whole; Your faith has made you well." This is the very heart of the gospel message, the good news for everyone: It's not about believing the right things, not about behaving the right way, not about belonging to the right group of people: It's about having faith in Jesus.
Got it? Everyone understand the message? It's simple enough, right? Unfortunately, the people of Galatia thought they understood it, too. After Paul had his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus he did a 180-degree-turn-around and became a follower of Jesus Christ. He preached this good news, this gospel message of salvation by faith to the Galatians early in his ministry, and it was well-received by them. Paul moved on to preach in other cities. Time passed. The Galatians were probably very busy organizing their Sunday School classes, their pot-luck fellowship dinners, planning their next stewardship campaign. Life happens, and sometimes in the midst of it we forget our purpose for living.
Worse yet, some Pharisees showed up in Galatia. The Pharisees always show up. They probably weren't called pharisees anymore, but they were people in the Galatian church that wanted to get back to the business of believing the right things, behaving the right way, and belonging to the right group. Faith is inside, so its hard to tell who has it and who doesn't. It's easy to see who's behaving right, who believes (and says) all the right things, and who belongs to your club. It's easy to fall back into those old habits.
Besides, Paul isn't around anymore. And so Paul comes under attack. His detractors in Galatia attack his message, they attack his followers, and ultimately, they even attack his personal credentials as an apostle. We know about these attacks because they are the things Paul addresses in his letter to the Galatians. He's kind of on the defensive for most of the letter--as in verse 20, where he says emphatically, "In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!" Sounds like they were accusing Paul of being a liar, too.
Probably the most damaging attack was that last one--the attack on his credentials. Remember I told you that Paul begins most of his letters by identifying himself as "an apostle, sent to the gentiles?" His detractors are saying, in essence, "Paul isn't really even an Apostle. There are only 12 apostles--they were the ones who were with Jesus, the ones Jesus sent out into the world. Paul wasn't one of them. His commission came indirectly, from other apostles, from men. Not directly from Jesus himself. Paul is at best a 2nd-hand Apostle."
This is why Paul fires back, in verse 11-12: "the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 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." And then after his conversion experience, "I did not confer with any human being, 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." He does admit that he met Peter and James, once: "Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother." In fact, as proof that his authority doesn't come from the people in Judea, he says "I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me." The subtext there is, "how come you're not glorifying God because of me anymore?"
Paul, of course, has no trouble defending his credentials. The risen Christ that appeared to him on the road to Damascus is the same risen Christ that appeared to the twelve disciples and commissioned them--really commissioned everyone--to go into all the world and preach the gospel, something Paul has taken to heart. The gospel Paul preaches is faithful to the one preached by Jesus -- It's not about behaving, believing or belonging -- it's about Faith, Hope, and Love (that passage, incidentally, is from one of Paul's letters).
But before I close, we could learn a thing or two about how Paul is able to "keep the faith" even when he is under attack. Because the reality is that we're not so different from the Galatians. Our faith comes under attack on a regular basis--sometimes from other people, but more often within, from our own doubts and fears. So here are three things from Galatians to remember, three things to hold onto when your own faith is under attack:
1. The first is from verse 15-16: "God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles." When your faith is under attack, first remember, and remind yourself, that God set you apart before you were born and called you through his grace for a purpose. Paul's purpose was to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles. God can reveal to you (and perhaps already has) what your purpose and calling is in this world, but know that you have one and you always have, even before you were born. Nothing, no attack, can take that purpose, that special unique calling away from you. And God will help you fulfill it, too.
2. The second thing is just a little hint--a guess I have--about something we see in verse 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." Right after Paul's conversion, he doesn't jump right into the action. He goes to Arabia, and we never quite learn what he did there or how long he stayed. But I do know one thing about Arabia. It's pretty much a big desert. A wilderness. And so I'm not surprised he went there. Before Jesus began his ministry, he went 40 days and 40 nights into the wilderness. Before the Israelites entered the promised land, they wandered for 40 years in the desert, where they were forged into God's people. So the second thing is this: In order for our faith to withstand attack, we need those wilderness experiences. For some people that means getting away from the insanity and business of life to hear God's voice in the quiet places. But for others (and Jesus was one of these) the Wilderness is a time of intense struggle, a time to wrestle with the demons that drive us. I don't know which one Paul's experience in Arabia was...but I imagine it was a source of strength to him when he needed it. So make time for your own wilderness experience.
3. Third, and I think this is the most important one: When your faith is under attack, do what Paul does throughout this passage--share your story. Remind yourself and others where you've come from, where you're going, and what God has done in you and through you. I have spent many hours this past week with a dear member of our congregation, Cissy Collagen, whose struggle against cancer is drawing to a close. Cissy has delighted in telling me her family stories...and her family secrets, much to the dismay of her sister, Eileen--who keeps on saying, "I can't believe you told the pastor that story! We have to look him in the eye on Sunday!" Yesterday, Cissy's children, and her nieces and nephews were gathered around her, and they started telling me family secrets, too (I won't spill the beans, but they're GREAT stories, and hilarious, too!). But something happened yesterday as the secrets gave way to funny stories...and the funny stories gave way to heartfelt stories and precious memories...and in the midst of those stories, one story began to emerge, and it was the story of a strong, vibrant woman, who, throughout her life--even in these last months when she was weak and frail--has helped those around her to stand on their own feet, and come to terms with their own faith.
I think Cissy's story will be remembered for a long time. But every one of you has a story, too. So when your faith comes under attack, tell your story to the world...and especially to yourself. When Paul's story finally made it to Jerusalem, those who had never heard of him before said, "The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy." And they glorified God because of him. Like Paul's, and like Cissy Collagen's, your story will proclaim the faith to those who may never open a Bible or set foot in a church. Your story will proclaim the faith to those who have negative perceptions about what the church and Christianity are all about. Your story may even proclaim the faith to a few pharisees, too. But most of all, when the world hears your story, I hope it will end with this ending: "And they glorified God because of you."