Sunday, June 9, 2013

Sermon Text: Galatians 1: 11-24

 11For 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. 13You 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. 18Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him 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.

Well, my friends, today we are eavesdropping on an argument between the first factions within Christianity.  I don’t know if overhearing their disagreement will discourage or console you.  You might find the early infighting St. Paul documented—and probably contributed to—a reason to despair. After all, how can folks like us ever find common ground if the saints of old were quarrelsome?  However, you might see in these historic squabbles evidence that it’s human and sometimes even helpful to disagree, that expressing differences can be clarifying and generative, that there comes a time to take a principled stand, and that every theological trajectory needs to make course corrections over time.  Paul’s course correction moves us toward grace.

First some context. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Galatia demonstrates that, from the start, there were competing versions of Christianity. Paul wrote this particular letter to one of the churches he’d founded but which had fallen away from his teachings after Paul had moved on.  Although Paul had insisted his new converts in Galatia did not have to adhere to the Mosaic Law, Jewish Christians later visiting the Galatians insisted that Jesus followers must be circumcised.

They must have felt what we at Open Table would feel if a persuasive visiting preacher insisted that gay Christians had to become/behave as straight men and women to be real Christians.  The Galatians must have experienced the confusion and turmoil we might undergo if someone convinced us that women could not be pastors or church leaders. Or that real Christians had to believe every word of the Bible is literally true. I suspect the visiting preacher would have to pour some potion into our communion wine to get very many folks here to accept a narrower Gospel, but we can imagine the havoc this alternate teaching would cause.

Paul is writing this letter to reiterate a freer Gospel upon which his church was founded. And he’s ticked. He’s angry that other Christians had undermined the work he’d done to welcome those skittish Gentiles and insist upon a Gospel of Grace, not a Religion of Requirements.

Paul, himself a circumcised but also very Helenized Jew, had established churches far beyond Jerusalem—in Galatia, for example, in what is modern-day Turkey. As a missionary to the non-Jews in pagan cultures, he understood the core of the Gospel differently than Peter and the other original disciples still based in Jerusalem.  Paul—like many whose theology changes after getting to know people of other cultures—came to believe the Gentiles should not have to follow Jewish practices of circumcision and dietary law, for instance, to experience the loving God he’d encountered so powerfully in Christ Jesus.

But Jerusalem-based Christians like Peter and James feared that such a Christ-centered religion was taking Jews away from the Torah and might leave them without their moral anchor. Despite Paul’s boasts that he was the most Jewish of the Jews, his detractors worried that Paul was taking people away from the core of Judaism with his focus solely “on Christ’s inclusion and the love of God”.[i]

Anyone placing bets back then would have put their money on Peter and the more conservative Jerusalem Christians winning this contest between competing Christianities. Peteret. al. seemed to have more credibility since they were the original apostles.  They had walked the shores of Galilee with Jesus.  How could Paul claim authority to teach about Jesus if Paul had never met Jesus?  Indeed, Paul had cruelly persecuted the first Christians before his conversion. He had been the enemy! How trustworthy could his interpretation of the Gospel be?

Paul had an impossible case to make in this first fight for Christian orthodoxy.  Brazenly, Paul took a liability and made it seem like an asset.  When accused of not having met Jesus or been thoroughly instructed by the “real” apostles, he insisted he had experienced the Christ in a superior encounter of the mystical kind:

11For 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.”

And since those stories about Paul persecuting Christians were still circulating, he tackled that bad press directly, again transforming scandal into testimony:

13You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.”

Not good credentials for a church leader. But Paul added:

“God was pleased to reveal God’s Son to me,” which changed him forever.  Like South Carolina’s forgiving fans of Congressman Mark Sanford, the early Christians loved a good scandal, particularly when followed by public repentance.

To further bolster his case, Paul insisted he was not de-emphasizing the laws of Judaism because they were too difficult for him to follow. He bragged,

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.”

So it’s not as if Paul couldn’t cut it in traditional Judaism.Instead, he felt chosen for a powerful experience with the forgiving Christ.  From then on he, a saved sinner, preached the “infinite love of God, which he believed had been revealed in the life of Jesus,” a love he could experience only by grace.  Paul’s previous experience of trying to earn God’s approval through religious observance was “just another form of human slavery” (Spong, chapter 33).

What we see in Paul’s letter to the Galatians is a fervent fight for “the heart of what he believed was the Christ experience” (Spong, chapter 33). Paul is defending the gospel of grace with a passion that verges into arrogance, defensiveness, and disdain for differing opinions.

But if he loses points with us for losing his temper, he gains our appreciation with that compelling story, told in more detail twice in the book of Acts, about his Damascus road conversion.

A good story can trump religious rules and it’s hard to beat Paul’s testimony that he was convicted of his misguided religiosity after hearing the voice of Jesus and being blinded by the Light of Christ. Personal experience can beat stolid tradition. Lived faith bests received beliefs. Love over law.

Since we are the heirs of Paul’s story, it’s hard for us to hear this letter to the Galatians objectively.  Our tradition names the first theologian of Christianity as the hero of this contest.  By holding Paul too highly, we might miss his angry tone and forget that Paul nearly lost this battle which would have left Christianity a sect within Judaism.  Way has led on to way, but by going all the way back to the mid-1stcentury, we see these different emphases within Judaism did not represent two distinct religions.  Not yet.

Which makes me consider our role in choosing our battles, in deciding when to make a big deal out of differences in beliefs.

Was Paul right to draw this line in the sand in Galatia?  Are you sometimes justified to raise your voice, and blood pressure, to make points of disagreement? When should you make very clear that you disagree with sisters and brothers—and how?

The death of Will Campbell this past week guides my own response today.  If you have not heard of Will or read his books, I encourage you to read Friday’s tributes to him in the Mobile Press-Register or New York Times or The Tennessean.[ii]  He was one who comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.  A former Southern Baptist preacher born in Liberty, Mississippi, in 1924, Will became convicted of his racism and converted to a Gospel of inclusion and love while a young man.  When his very first congregation accused him of preaching only two messages—against racial segregation and McCarthism—he left pastoring to be the chaplain at the University of Mississippi—until his integrationist efforts cost him that job.  At that point he became a “free agent for God” whose Gospel was Paul’s: inclusion, love, and grace.  He marched with civil rights warriors but also ministered to members of the KKK (the “Kluxers” as Will called them) whom he came to see as fearful victims of classism, poverty, and ignorance. What Will did better than anyone I’ve known personally was to stand against injustice while having compassion for both the victim and the (often racist) oppressor.

His shocking summary of the Christian Gospel: “We’re all bastards but God loves us any way.”

I met Will first through his books and then in person when he accepted my invitation to speak to my students to whom I’d assigned his book Brother to a Dragonfly.  I was thrilled and terrified the first time he addressed my class because I knew Will did not suffer fools gladly, enjoyed his bad boy persona, and was entirely unpredictable and outrageous.

The first time Will visited my English class, one of my students, a religion major and aspiring preacher, seemed agitated. During the Q and A, he chided the good Reverend for including 4-letter words in his book and repeatedly “using the Lord’s name in vain.”

I half expected Will to snap back that he used those words “to shock preacher boys like you.”  Instead—and I should explain this took place during Desert Storm, our first war in Iraq—Will redefined what it means to “take the Lord’s name in vain.”  He replied,“‘Taking God’s name in vain’ is when we pray to God to make our bombs land on other people. That’s using God’s name for a vain and awful purpose.”

The young blonde preacher boy in the back of that college classroom showed no sign of understanding what Will meant.

Days later I received a letter from Will.  The note asked me to share an enclosed letter addressed to the young blonde preacher boy. “He seemed so bright and earnest,” Will wrote me. “I hate to lose him to the right-wing meat grinder.” Over several gentle pages, Will spoke to that young preacher boy about his own commitment to Christian pacifism and matters more important than religious scrupulosity.

I’d like to know if/how my former student received the news of Will Campbell’s passing.  Perhaps the blonde preacher boy is now a balding pastor who preached this morning against “the gay agenda.” Or perhaps he has had his own conversion to a Gospel of peace, of love, of grace.

While traveling the road to Damascus to hunt down early Christ followers, Paul heard an accusatory voice from heaven asking, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

Will Campbell often spoke an accusatory word to the religiously superior or naïve with a similar question: “Why are you deciding who is and who isn’t covered by God’s grace?”  But after stunning the complacent, Will offered care and support, even for the KKKer, even for the pious preacher boy.

What I recognized in Will was a measured choice to err on the side of defending the underdog all the while noticing that the oppressor is afraid and wounded, too.

Paul and Will’s authority derived from their own conversion from early prejudice and exclusion. Paul had first felt his Judaism threatened by a band of alternative Jews living a simple religion of love, but he became captured by the faith he’d once tried to exterminate.

More amazingly, the ones he had persecuted started seeing God’s glory in him.  He became the Christ encounter for the next generation of Christians.  And neither Paul nor Jesus nor Will Campbell aimed to oppose their religion—just to expand it.

Let us stand for inclusion, love, and grace.  But let’s remember the big issues are as complicated as the people these issues affect. Take a stand—without polarizing the issues or disrespecting those who see things differently. If you can still regard your opponent with compassion, take a stand. Speak your truth emphatically. But above all, receive and give God’s grace.

God bless Will Campbell.


[i] John Shelby Spong, Re-claiming the Bible for a Nonreligious World. New York: HarperOne, 2011.


www. 55/Civil-Rights-leader-preacher-Will-Campbell-dead-88

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