19 November 2012

Called to Freedom

Galatians 2:1-10
 Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost/ 18th November 2012

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.  The occasion is piled high with difficulty – and we must rise to the occasion.  As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”  That’s what he said.  That’s what Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) said.  December 1, 1862 in an address to Congress, one month before signing the Emancipation Proclamation.  Remarkable words, remarkable insight, a model of visionary leadership. 

            With the release this weekend of Steven Spielberg’s new movie Lincoln, we are given a new look into the life of our sixteenth president.  I saw the movie yesterday and it was great.  I’ve always been struck by Lincoln’s strength, courage, and deep moral core.  As a religion and history major at Rutgers College, I wrote a thesis on Lincoln’s theology and his quest – a spiritual quest – to save the Union.[1] On Election Day this year I felt drawn to go back to the Lincoln Memorial, my favorite place in Washington, DC, to read again those profound lines in the Second Inaugural, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds.”

            From our vantage point, Lincoln was among our great presidents, perhaps the greatest. During his presidency, however, especially through the storm of the Civil War, he had his critics, even in his own Republican party. What made him a great leader, however, was his determination to be his own person. He knew the right, the moral, the just thing to do.  He was not called to be popular.  Yes, he was politically savvy and wise, but he was also his own man.  And he was odd.  He was odd looking. He marched to the beat of a different drum.  While Lincoln was never a formal member of any church, as president he often worshipped at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, just a few blocks from the White House.  He was good friends with the pastor, the Reverend Phineas Densmore Gurley (1816-1868). Instead of sitting in a pew where his presence might be a distraction during worship, Lincoln listened to the sermon from the pastor’s study with the door cracked open. 

There was a kind of freedom in Lincoln’s own being that freed him to be his own person (and the movie makes this clear); he was free to be odd and different, free to do the unpopular thing, especially freeing the slaves and bringing an end to slavery – which was unpopular even in the North.  A liberation, as Lincoln said in his address at the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, just 52 miles from this sanctuary, yielding “a new birth of freedom.”

            I can imagine that Lincoln would have gotten along well with the apostle Paul.  There might be a little of Paul in Lincoln – for Lincoln knew his Bible, he read Paul’s letters.  Lincoln had large parts of the Bible memorized; it was part of his being. (As a boy he regularly recited the Sunday sermon by memory later in the week for his friends.)   They were both lawyers, although Paul’s early life does not parallel Lincoln’s early life, when Paul was known as Saul, before the Damascus Road experience, before Paul had a change of heart. Paul, too, was not popular; he was looked at with suspicion by both the Jewish authorities and the early followers of Jesus.  Paul was driven – not by pride, ego, or ambition, but as he himself said, he was driven by the Spirit of God.  At the beginning of the letter he makes it plain, “Paul an apostle – sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father” (Galatians 1: 1), and later he added, “I want you to know…that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origins; 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” (1:11-12).

            That “revelation” was a turning point in Paul’s life.  It was “a new birth of freedom” for him. Despite his former life when he was actively persecuting the followers of Jesus, he was now a Jesus follower.  Not just a follower, but also an apostle, that is, someone sent by God to serve the revelation of God found in Jesus Christ.  Because of the grace that Paul experienced – Saul, now Paul – Paul knew that everything in his life had changed.  This past week I heard Bono (of U2 fame) speak at Georgetown University.  He talked about the need for “a conversion heart.”  When a conversion of heart occurs, you cannot un-know what you’ve come to know, you cannot un-see what you’ve come to see.  This was true for Paul.  There was no going back

            Paul was given a new understanding of God – a God rich in mercy and grace to the likes of him, a God not easily “managed,” who takes delight in doing the unexpected.  God did that which was unthinkable, unimaginable for a Jew.  God was at work in someone like Jesus, who, according to the Law must be considered “cursed.”  As Deuteronomy states, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” (Deuteronomy 21:23).  The cross is like such a tree.  The fact that God would raise, would justify such a man and then to embrace the fact that such a man was God’s son – all of this was blasphemous for Saul.  But for Paul, it was also true. As Paul discovered, God isn’t too worried about blasphemy. God is doing something new.  And so Paul was given, then, a new self-understanding, how he viewed himself had to change.  And how Paul understood his role in the wider Roman world was also in need of change.[2]  In relation to these – God, self, world – Paul was given a new birth of freedom through a revelation that changed his life.  This was so earth shattering and mind-blowing for him that he went away to Arabia (Jordan) for more than fourteen years.  It’s not surprising that Galatians is known as the epistle of freedom.  Paul writes in Galatians 5, “For freedom, Christ has set us free, do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1).

            What is that yoke of slavery?  The burden, the enslavement of empty religiosity.  For Paul, that meant all the trappings of the Jewish Law.  Some said that one has to become Jewish before following Jesus.  Being Jewish entails following the dietary laws, kosher laws, for some, circumcision, the sign of covenant.  Paul, raised in the tradition, says, no.  A Gentile does not have to follow Jewish practices in order to follow Jesus.  This is the tension, the conflict, the war waging in the church in Galatia and throughout the Jewish world. 

Why does Paul feel this way? Why is he so passionate about this? Because he knows from personal experience that God’s love and grace always liberate, they always free us. It’s the grace and love of God that matter most, therefore we need to be wary and even “war” against anything that asserts that we have to do something or be someone in order for God to love and accept us.  Religious rituals and practices are not wrong, but in themselves, they’re not the means of grace.  As you can imagine, therefore, the authorities in Jerusalem were not happy with Paul.  Paul was undermining the tradition and the institution that preserves these traditions.  And so Paul stayed away from Jerusalem for at least ten years.  As a new follower of Jesus, Paul left everything.  He went to Arabia (Jordan) – to make sense of his new calling, to live with other Jesus followers.  He’s on his own, for the most part, probably part of a Christian faith community.  Like Lincoln, he’s odd, aloof, doing his own thing, following the rhythm of a different drum.  Paul runs from conflict, hiding from the conflict tearing the church apart:  the Jewish-Gentile question.

            Paul easily could have stayed away from Jerusalem.  He could have demonized the Jewish authorities. He could have dug in his heels and refused to have anything to do with them, living isolated, cut off, alienated. That would have been a natural response, a human response.  We can think of plenty of parallels in our age, both within and without the church, of similar conflicts tearing apart community, with name-calling, demonizing, us vs. them attitudes.  He could have dissociated himself from Jerusalem – and maybe, at some level he wanted to do that. 

But that’s not the way of Jesus Christ.  That’s not the way of the God and Father of Jesus Christ.  That’s not the way of a Christ-follower.    “Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabus…. I went up in response to a revelation” (Gal. 2:1). Another revelation, an insight, a tug of the Spirit, a word from the Lord that would not allow him to remain cut off, but sent him into the lion’s den, as it were; a word from the God that sent him to “them,” to the other, to the people who were excluding him and making it difficult for him to live.

Can you imagine what that conversation was like?  Can you image what that was like, having to justify his very existence before a group of people who believed he was wrong? But he went and told his story – he gave testimony, he witnessed to God’s grace in his life.  And when they heard his story and saw the evidence of grace in his life, “when James and Cephas [Peter] and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabus and me the right hand of fellowship…” (Gal. 2:9).

The right hand of fellowship.  Reunion.  Connection.  Communion.  Peace. Reconciliation. That’s the way of Jesus Christ.  That’s the way of the God and Father of Jesus Christ.  That’s the way of a Christ-follower.  That’s what Paul had come to know.  That’s what the Spirit called him toward.  That’s what Christ is always calling his sisters and brothers toward.  Reconciliation.  Paul knew from his own personal experience that God’s good news is ultimately about reconciliation, healing alienation, restoring relationship. Paul knew in his bones, in his body, in his guts that there was a time when he was alienated from God’s way, but now he is welcomed home nevertheless.  He knew that by grace that Christ was alive in him and therefore he was ultimately free – free to live in a new relationship with God, with himself, and with the world.  He was then free to go the people he was alienated from to experience reunion, the relationship restored.  This is what grace can do. This is what grace always does.  It’s not what we expect; the outcome is more than one could ever hope for, always yielding something new.  Paul says elsewhere, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:  everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthians 4: 18-19).

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present….we must think anew and act anew.”  The old ways, the expected ways, the usual ways are inadequate to the present, new ways are required, new ways are given by grace in order to allow us to do a new thing in the world.

When Lincoln stepped out of the Capitol building to give his Second Inaugural Address in 1865, the crowd, indeed, the world were expecting a speech that would humiliate and shame the Confederacy.  The city was packed with visitors.  There were not enough hotel rooms available.  People were sleeping in hotel hallways on cots.  One reason why space was so limited was because every other available space was used for wounded and recovering soldiers.  There were hospitals everywhere.  The number of amputees in the city shocked visitors.  The people were angry and mad. Every family was touched by grief and loss. Approximately 700,000 people died the war – an enormous percentage of the population in the 1860s. Compared to our current population today, it would be equivalent to approximately 5 million casualties.[3]

Lincoln never says Confederacy, traitor, nor rebel in the speech.  He doesn't feed off of their hate and anger and need for judgment and retribution.  Instead, in a speech lasting just eight minutes, he ends with these words:  “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”  Remarkable, really.  Where does such wisdom and grace come from? The crowd and the press didn't know what to “do” with such a speech.  It’s not what they expected.  But it’s what was needed for reconciliation.  Grace is never what we expect. It always surprises us. In just over a month Lincoln would be dead, on Good Friday. Yet, he had the freedom to say and do what was needed to be said and done. 

That’s why I think Lincoln and Paul would get along.  It’s why I hear a lot of Paul in Lincoln. The freedom exercised by Paul and Lincoln and countless others is always available to you and me.  For God’s grace and love always yield liberation.  Liberation for us – a new birth of freedom – and liberation for others.  Anything less is no gospel.  Anything less, Paul would say, is “anathema” (Gal. 1:8-9).  Anything less than liberation is not gospel.

Image: The only image of Abraham Lincoln giving the Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865.  Photograph by Alexander Gardner.
[1] Kenneth E. Kovacs, “Lincoln’s Quest for Union: The Use of Covenantal Thought as a New Paradigm for an Historical and Political Understanding of the Relationship Between Religion and Culture in America, 1801-1865,” Rutgers College, B.A./ Henry Rutgers Scholar Thesis, May, 1986.
[2] Here, I am indebted to Brigitte Kahl’s extraordinary commentary, Galatians Re-Imagined:  Reading With the Eyes of the Vanquished (Minneapolis, MN:  Fortress Press, 2010), 277. “God’s apocalyptic revelation (apokalypsai, 1:16) drops him into a devastating threefold self-alienation that entirely distorts his image of himself, of God, and of the other…” (277).
[3] See Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech:  The Second Inaugural (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 2002), 21-29.