May 21, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Background on reading:
I’m going to be preaching on Paul’s letter to the Galatians for the next three weeks so before I read today’s scripture, I want to give you a little background on Paul and on this letter specifically.
The apostle Paul is considered by many to be the first theologian of the Christian church. Paul was a Roman citizen and a Jew who was trained in the tradition of the Pharisees but he became a Christian after a powerful experience that he describes as a revelation of the resurrected Jesus. The word “apostle” means “one who is sent on another’s behalf,” so, for example, we don’t start referring to Jesus’s disciples as apostles until after Jesus’ resurrection because it is then that they are sent out into the world as ambassadors of Christ. Paul was not one of the 12 disciples but the early church recognized that his experience of the resurrected Christ and the call he received from Christ at that time also gave him the right to claim the name “apostle.” The disciples, then, who were at that time ministering predominantly in Judea (modern day Israel), sent Paul out to Asia Minor — modern day Syria and Turkey — and to Greece — and charged him with bringing the gospel to the Gentiles, the non-Jews. Paul was a very strong personality and maybe the disciples sent him to the far reaches of the world so they wouldn’t have to deal with him but we’ll be charitable and assume that they sent him to the Gentiles because they knew he had a gift and that gift was Paul’s ability to think theologically. He not only preached the gospel but he wrestled with what Christ’s message meant for a real and changing world because the urban Gentile world of Asia Minor where Paul preached was very different from the rural villages of Galilee where Jesus had originally taught. Fortunately for us, we know a lot about Paul’s theological conclusions because he maintained contact with the churches he visited even after he left through letters written back and forth between Paul and the congregations. His letters are in fact the earliest Christian writings we have. Jesus was crucified around 30-33 AD, Paul wrote most of his letters in the 50s, and the first gospel account of Jesus’ life wasn’t written until the 70s.
Most of Paul’s letters were written to the churches of a particular city — Corinth, Philippi, Ephesus, Rome — but when Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians, he intended that the letter be shared among a number of congregations throughout a region called Galatia, what is today north-central Turkey. Many of the inhabitants of Galatia were actually of Celtic descent: the Celtic Gauls had invaded the region in 286 BC and settled there. In fact, the name Galatia is derived from the word, Gallic. In 25 BC, the area was absorbed into the Roman Empire and so the people living in Galatia when Paul first came would have been Celtic Roman Gentiles and pagans, quite a bit different from Jesus’ audience.
To further understand this letter, we also need to remember that Jesus and the first Christians, including Paul, were Jewish and there was a debate in the early church as to how the message of Christ related to the Jewish tradition from which it came. Those who believed that Christ was the fulfillment of Jewish messianic hope — the final chapter in God’s message to Israel — saw Gentile converts as converting to a form of Judaism, and thus said they needed to practice Jewish dietary laws and be circumcised upon their entry into the church. Paul, however, argued that faith in Christ was sufficient and he did not require Gentile converts to adopt Jewish practices, which may be why he was more successful in his ministry than others because certainly requiring circumcision to become a member of a church is not the best marketing strategy.
Nevertheless, after Paul left Galatia, some new teachers, possibly from Jerusalem, arrived in the region and began to contradict Paul’s teaching and when Paul hears this, he writes the letter to the Galatians as a stern corrective. “Stern” is actually a mild word: toward the end of his letter Paul gets himself so worked up about this whole issue that he says that he wishes those who are pushing Gentiles to be circumcised would “castrate themselves!” To say that Paul had strong feelings on this issue is an understatement.
The theme of Paul’s letter to the Galatians could be summarized as, “God’s grace is sufficient.” God’s grace is powerful and God’s grace is sufficient.
In the reading for this morning, Paul lays the foundation for his argument. Galatians 1:6-7, 11-24
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ…
For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that 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.
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. But when 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, 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.
Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and 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.
God’s grace is powerful and God’s grace is sufficient. Later in his letter, Paul will lay out a theological argument to explain his view of God’s grace but he doesn’t begin at the blackboard; he starts with something much more personal — he begins with his own story. Paul begins with the story of who he was before his encounter with God’s grace, and tells how his experience of God’s grace changed him, because he hopes that his own life story can instruct the people of Galatia better than any dissertation or eloquently argued rhetoric.
Jennifer Aaker, a professor of marketing at Stanford, says that people remember information weaved into narratives up to 22 times better than when they are given facts alone. 1 If you can impart your information in the form of a narrative, then, your audience is more likely to understand it, to remember it, and to reflect on how your story informs their own story. If, for example, you have a nephew or grandson who has come to visit and you want to warn him that alligators have been seen in the pond near your house and that he should be cautious before going swimming there, you could give him statistics about alligator sightings over the past decade or show him a map of alligator populations in the area, OR you could say, “Yeah, last year, I watched a poodle chase a tennis ball into that pond, and just as the dog reached the ball, an alligator burst out of the water like a breaching whale and crushed the poodle in its jaws. Oh man, there was so much thrashing and screaming, and blood sprayed everywhere, and then that alligator dragged the poor poodle’s carcass back under the water, and disappeared into the dark depths. I haven’t seen an alligator since but sometimes at night I can hear splashing coming from the pond and the sound of an animal screaming.”
Now, you don’t have to worry — no actual poodles were harmed in the making of this sermon — but stories have such a powerful effect on us that even my imaginary scenario may have disturbed some of you, and certainly if you were to use such a story to warn a child to stay away from the pond, that child would be far more convinced by that story than by a spreadsheet showing the distribution of alligator populations.
Stories invite us to live in the world of another person’s experience and so Paul chooses to begin his argument about the power of God’s grace not with a dissertation — that will come later — but first with a story, his story. He tells about his faithfulness to the Jewish law and his zealous commitment to the purity of that tradition. He says that he was so determined to drive out any teaching that he thought might taint the synagogue that he persecuted Christians and his name became known among congregations far and wide as an enemy of the church. Like the warnings about alligators in our imaginary pond, young Christians shivered in fear at the sound of Paul’s name.
“And yet,” Paul says in amazement, “God revealed his son to me and charged me — me, the persecutor of Christians — to preach Christ to the world.”
Paul’s conversion is a remarkable story, so much so that some Christians today use his story as a template for what all Christians should expect when they come to faith. We talk about Damascus road experiences and “seeing the light” as if every Christian has be able to put their finger on the very moment that Jesus spoke to them and called them from their old sinful way of being into a new life of faith. Some Christians do have this kind of life changing experience, but not all of us do — I didn’t. I grew up in the church and my baptism at age 13 was a confirmation of what I had come to believe slowly and gradually in the years of my growing up. And that’s okay because to read this story as a template for how human beings should come to God is to read it exactly backwards to what Paul intended. Paul didn’t tell this story because he expected everyone to have an experience exactly like his. Nor did he tell this story to instruct us on the importance of repentance and personal change. Paul didn’t tell this story to show us what we can manage to do if we open our minds to new ideas and possibilities. He didn’t tell this story to list the 10 steps to a changed life. All of those things are human things but this is not a story about human beings and the nature of our faith; Paul tells this story to tell us about God, and the nature of God’s grace. Over and over again, Paul insists that no human hand was involved in this story of his conversion because Paul wants us to know that the subject of Paul’s story is not Paul at all; the subject of his story is God. God has every right to punish Paul for his persecution of the church, Paul says, but God decides instead to forgive him and set him on a new path, to use the man who was once despised among the people to bring the news of God’s compassion to the people. God’s grace is powerful and God’s grace is sufficient, Paul declares, because it turns out that when you come to realize the fullness of God’s grace, when you understand that God’s loving kindness toward you will not fail no matter what you do, when you accept that God can use even you with all of your failures and mistakes and weird personality flaws, when you realize deep in your broken wounded heart that there will always be a place for you in God’s immense and patient heart, and that God can still use you for good even in your brokenness, you will be made whole. All you need is God’s grace to get you to where you should be. God’s grace is powerful and God’s grace is sufficient.
Last week, the comedian Will Farrell gave the commencement speech at his alma mater, the University of Southern California, and he told a story from his college days that illustrated this transformative power of grace.
“This campus was a theater or testing lab [for me],” he said. “I was always trying to make my friends laugh whenever I could find a moment…. If I knew friends were attending class close by, [I’d] crash a lecture while in character. My good buddy Emil… told me one day that I should crash his Thematic Options literature class … so I cobbled together a janitor’s outfit complete with work gloves, safety goggles, a dangling lit cigarette, and a bucket full of cleaning supplies. And then I proceeded to walk into the class, interrupting the lecture, informing the professor that I’d just been sent from Physical Plant to clean up a student’s vomit…
“What Emil neglected to tell me,” Farrell said, “was that the professor of his class was Ronald Gottesman, a professor who co-edited the Norton Anthology of American literature. Needless to say a big-time guy. A month after visiting my friend’s class as a janitor, I was walking through the campus when someone grabbed me by the shoulder and it was Ron Gottesman. I thought for sure he was going to tell me to never do that again. Instead, what he told me was that he loved my barging in on his class and that he thought it was one of the funniest things he’d ever seen and would I please do it again? So on invitation from Professor Gottesman I would barge in on his lecture class from time to time as the guy from Physical Plant coming by to check on things, and the professor would joyfully play along…
“Moments like these,” Ferrell said, “encouraged me to think maybe I was funny to whole groups of people who didn’t know me, and this wonderful professor had no idea how his encouragement of me — to come and interrupt his class no less — was enough to give myself permission to be silly and weird.” 2
Grace is powerful, grace is transformative, and God’s grace is sufficient to lead us to wholeness and life. On a day when Paul was busily planning his zealous persecution of the church, God came to him and said, “You know Paul, you have been making life miserable for my people. You are dogged in your convictions, bullheaded in your opinions, persistent and fervent in your beliefs so much so that my people run and hide when they see you coming. And you know what, I kind of like that in you! You’ve been using your gifts for the wrong ends, but I think I can use you for good if you will let me.”
While we in our human endeavors try to change ourselves and others to conform to our human ideal of perfection, God’s grace accepts who we are with all of our flaws and considers how best to put those weird human traits to good use. God didn’t judge Paul or condemn him, or even ask him to repent. Instead, God embraced Paul, loved him just as he was, and simply pointed him in a new direction. That simplicity of God’s grace was hard for those around Paul to accept and it’s still hard for us to accept today. We think that our salvation, or more often, the salvation of others, should require human effort to be accomplished and so we come up with a whole new set of directives and expectations for people to fulfill before we will call them Christian. Paul knew, however, from his own story that God doesn’t require a new personality from us; God’s grace transforms us by taking who we are and directing us toward a new purpose. We, in all of our brokenness, with all of our flaws, can still find new life as God uses us for good. God’s grace is powerful, God’s grace is transformative, and God’s grace is sufficient for the task.
Paul’s story was God’s story and he told his story so that the people might understand the nature of God’s grace through him. He invites the Galatians to consider their own lives — their own stories — and ask if their lives are consistent with the story of God’s grace. Our faith is not really about us, Paul says; it is about God and the nature of God’s loving kindness to the world. In all we do and preach, as people of faith, the stories of our lives should be stories of grace and when people look at our lives, they should be convinced that God’s grace is indeed powerful, God’s grace is transformative, and God’s grace is sufficient.