09 June 2013

Changed for Good

Galatians 1:11-23

Third Sunday after Pentecost/ 9th June 2013

The sermon title is taken from the musical Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz, otherwise simply known as Wicked; music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz—who also wrote the music and lyrics for Godspell (1971) and Pippin (1972). Wicked is told from the perspective of the witches of the Land of Oz.  The plot begins before the arrival of Dorothy from Kansas and has several references to the 1939 film and the original novels by L. Frank Baum (1856-1919). The musical tells the story of two unlikely friends, Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, and Glinda, the good Witch of the North. It’s the story of their struggle through opposing personalities and viewpoints, rivalry over the same love-interest, reactions to the Wizard’s corrupt government, and, ultimately, Elphaba’s public fall from grace.  The citizens of Oz celebrate the death of the Wicked Witch of the West as Glinda descends in her bubble to confirm the circumstances of the Witch's melting. She recalls that the green-skinned Elphaba, who would grow up to become the witch, was conceived during an affair between the erstwhile Munchkin Governor's wife and a mysterious stranger with a bottle of green elixir. Everyone was repulsed by Elphaba from the moment she was born—because she was green—and so Glinda asks the Ozians to empathize with her side of the story —in the opening song “No One Mourns the Wicked.”  The rest of the musical is a flashback through their lives, the relationship between Glinda and Elphaba.

            And so the sermon title is a line from one of the signature songs in the show that Glinda and Elphaba sing to each other at the end, they face their differences, seek forgiveness, and give thanks for what they learned from each other. Toward the end of the song they both sing: 
            Who can say if I've been
            Changed for the better?
            I do believe I have been
            Changed for the better.
Glinda sings, And because I knew you... and then Elphaba sings, Because I knew you… and then they together sing, Because I knew you…I have been changed for good.[1]

            There’s not a direct correlation between Wicked and Paul’s letter to the Galatians, of course. But what they do share is a transformation through encounter.  What Paul is alluding to in his letter is what happened to him on the Damascus Road, that moment when he was changed, radically changed—for good, when he encountered the gracious power of the Risen Christ.

            Paul makes it quite clear here that there was a before and an after, a former way and a new way, a “once blind but now I see” moment.  Remember, Paul was once called Saul, and with that name he was ruthless, notorious. He confesses here, “I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it” (Gal. 1:13).  He inflicted untold suffering upon followers of Jesus (Acts 8) and probably had a hand in the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7).  Paul was an educated leader of his community with considerable influence and authority. He was an over-achiever who climbed the religious ladder.  He’s very honest here: “I had advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (Gal. 1:14).  He was part of the establishment.  He was the establishment. And he used every means available to make sure the religious establishment remained in place.  He was zealous for the tradition, the rich cultural and religious legacy of Judaism, centuries old, of God’s unique relationship with this special people.  Saul’s job was to preserve that tradition, steward that legacy, hold on to the past, and resist anything or anyone that tried to change it or lessen its influence. 

            But all that changed when he encountered the Risen Christ, the one shamefully, ignobly crucified, the one God raised from the dead, this Son of the Living God whose presence overwhelmed and astonished and blinded Paul and changed his life, irrevocably—for good.  In fact, this revelation, as Paul describes it, was so disturbing and troubling that he had to get away, he needed time to process it, to comes to terms with his experience.  He didn’t go back to Jerusalem, he left for Arabia—to the wilderness—and then in time he returned to Damascus and only then, after three years, was Paul finally ready to return Jerusalem to meet Peter, to tell Peter that God was calling him to proclaim Jesus, the Messiah, to Gentiles.  And that’s what he did with their blessing, after some convincing.  Paul is a symbol of change. For he was now changing the shape of Judaism and their understanding of Jesus’ message and their understanding of God and their understanding of the Holy Spirit—everything was changing and coming undone.  So that it was said of Paul, “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy” (1:23).  Paul writes, “And they glorified God because of me” (Gal. 1:24).

            Before and after. Then and now. Time and again this pattern unfolds throughout scripture.  The Bible is full of people who undergo radical change when God shows up, stories of people whose lives are forever altered when God gets involved.  The New Testament and the story of Paul in particular are all about change—transformation, really. That’s what life in Christ is for Paul. That’s the message he preaches. 

            If we think the Christian life is essentially an ethic, then we’re going to miss this part of Paul’s message. 

            If we think that being Christian only means following a rulebook, then it’s easy to miss what he’s saying. 

            If we think that being Christian means simply behaving in a certain way, then hearing the gospel of transformation will fall on deaf ears. 

            Yes, there’s an ethic that comes with following Christ.  There is the rule of love that is the only law that really matters, “the only thing that counts,” said Paul, “is faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6).  Yes, there are certain behaviors that reflect that love.  And Paul expected that ethic, that measure, that way of love to be embodied in the church.  But Paul could expect such an ethic because he knew that when people are in Christ, when they are rooted and grounded in his love (Eph. 3:17), when their lives are flowing out from the ongoing, transforming life of the Spirit, they are changed and are being changed, which means that the world around them is changing too.  Paul assumes change; transformation comes with the territory when we’re walking the way of Christ.

            In the June Messenger I made reference to the contemporary essayist and poet Christian Wiman. He’s a remarkable writer, sharp, thoughtful, humane, with a generous spirit.  He’s the former editor of Poetry magazine, a venerable, century-old periodical celebrating verse.  Wiman was raised a Christian in Texas, moved away from it, and recently reconnected with the depths of his faith around the time he was diagnosed with a rare terminal cancer.  The faith is not an intellectual abstraction for him.  It’s really real. In fact, he insists, “You cannot devote your life to an abstraction.  Indeed, life shatters all your abstractions in one way or another, including words such as ‘faith’ or ‘belief’.”[2]  Wiman’s latest book, entitled My Bright Abyss:  Meditation of a Modern Believer, a memoir, released in April, is bound to become a classic text of Christian spirituality.  It’s not for the tame of heart or mind.  But that’s his point:  faith isn’t tame or timid.  It should be alive and intense on fire.  In the first section of the memoir he talks about faith and change, how they go together. They have to.  Wiman believes that “faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith and life—which means that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change.  It follows,” he writes, “that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived or have denied the reality of your life.”[3] When God encounters us we are changed and never left the same.

             This is not to say that all change is God, because it’s not.  We have to discern and we need prayer in order to discern. Prayer is needed so that God can work deeper than our egos.  Our egos dislike change with a vengeance. We’ll hold on to things the way they are, we’ll dig in our heals and fight and resist changing our minds or our opinions or our beliefs or habits or addictions or behaviors, even when we know they’re harmful or destructive or not giving life or have served their purpose, when they no longer serve us well.  God is less concerned with the conventions of our egos than with the depths of our lives coming fully alive in him. God wants us to come alive.

            And sometimes our resistance to change is actually obstinate opposition toward the very things that God intends to make for life.  Look at Paul’s life.  Or, Saul, actually—that was his story.

            On Tuesday, I leave for India where I’ll be teaching a weeklong seminar on the Swiss psychiatrist Carl G. Jung (1875-1961) at the St. Andrew Centre in Conoor.  Jung has been part of my life since college, but especially so over the last couple of years.  As I shared last week, I believe that Jung has something to say to the contemporary Church, he has something to say about the Christian life.  Jung devoted the last twenty years of his life to the future of Christianity.  Writing in the 1940s, he knew that the structure of the faith had to change, meaning the Church.  He knew that people worried, even then, about the declining influence of the Church in society and people wanted to know what to do about it.  But Jung also knew there were forces, both conscious and unconscious, that worked against trying to do anything about the decline, which simply tried to maintain the faith and protect it from any change.  Jung said, “The advocates of Christianity squander their energies in the mere preservation of what has come down to them, with no thought of building on to their house and making it roomier.  Stagnation in these matters is threatened in the long run with a lethal end.”[4]

            He was critical of those who actually destroy what they’re trying to preserve, the so-called tradition.  They’re not allowing the tradition to grow.  “Jung sees tradition as a living thing, whereas what…some call ‘tradition’ is mostly ‘convention,’ a non-living, stultifying dogma.”[5]  Tradition, if it’s really tradition, is living and, because it’s living, changes over time.  Traditionalism is something else, it’s an idol, a false god, that’s stagnant and leads to death.  Jung was hopeful that there was still a future for Christianity.  “I am…convinced,” he said, “that it is not Christianity, but our conception and interpretation of it, that has become antiquated in the face of the present world situation.  The Christian symbol is a living thing that carries in itself the seeds of further development.  It can go on developing; it depends only on us, whether we can make up our minds to meditate again, and more thoroughly, on the Christian premises.”[6]

            Jung makes it sound like it’s all about us, that’s up to us.  The good news is that it’s not.  The Christian life is rooted in what the Spirit is doing in us and through us.  What is required from us is cooperation. We are called to submit, surrender, yield. We are asked to yield to what the Spirit is already doing.  When this happens, by God’s grace, our egos are moved away from dead center (as was true for Paul), to make space for who we are deeper than our egos (for we are more than our egos); then space is made for our souls. Souls that yield to God’s revelation, souls that dream, souls that take risks, souls that grow in the Spirit, souls that are open to the ongoing transformation of the people of God. Souls that will then give others cause to glorify God because of us.  Amen.

[1] Stephen Schwartz, Wicked (2003).
[2] Christian Wiman, Ambition and Survival:  Becoming a Poet (Copper Canyon Press, 2007), 165.
[3] Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss:  Meditation of a Modern Believer (New York:  Garrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013), 7.
[4] C. G. Jung, Aion (1959), cited in David Tacey, The Darkening Spirit: Jung, Spirituality, Religion (London: Routledge, 2013), 154.
[5] Tacey, 154.
[6] C. G. Jung, “The Undiscovered Self,” cited in Tacey, 155.

02 June 2013

When Grace Comes Upon Us

Galatians 1: 1-12

2nd Sunday after Pentecost/ 2nd June 2013/ Sacrament of Holy Communion

Paul’s not happy with the church in Galatia, for a variety of reasons. He’s troubled. The church seems to be turning to a different gospel that is definitely not “good news.” You can tell by the opening of the letter. Paul generally sends warm greetings and expressions of gratitude at the beginning of his letters. Not for the Galatians. He gets right to the point.  You can hear it in the opening sentence, “Paul an apostle – sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead” (Gal. 1:1).  Then, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (Gal. 1:3).

            It’s clear here that Paul is asserting his authority. He reminds them that he’s an apostle, meaning someone sent on a mission, someone sent—and not by them.  He has a commission, but it’s not a human commission or from human authorities.  He’s been sent, commissioned by the God of grace who sent the Son to offer freedom, it’s the freedom of the Son that Paul now serves, a freedom that Paul now extends to everyone willing to listen.

            That’s the gospel for Paul, deliverance from sin and all that binds us.  That’s the gospel for Paul, that God raised up one left for dead, that God raised from the dead one who was shamefully, ignobly crucified, that God chose the abomination who hung on the cross and raised him up as a sign of justification and salvation, that God brings life from the dead, out from one outcast and rejected, that God would act this way through Jesus, was a message, a sermon, a word, an experience that overwhelmed and astonished and surprised Paul.  This Paul, former Saul, who persecuted the followers of Jesus, who made them suffer (Acts 8), this Saul who probably had a hand in the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7) – this Saul could not have imagined God acting through Jesus on a Roman cross, justifying Jesus’ life and raising him up; Saul could not have imagined God acting in this way. It didn’t make sense. 

            Paul, knew.  Paul knew that God is the God of new beginnings.  Paul knew that God brings life out of godforsaken places and people. Paul knew that God justifies whom God will justify.  He thought he knew all about God’s grace, but he didn’t; he didn’t until the moment when Christ encountered him, that experience when Saul became Paul and his world was never the same again. That’s the gospel, that’s the good news for Paul, that’s what it does—and he’s 100% committed to it, he’s on fire for it, he’s suffered for it, and nothing will shake this confidence.  So, if Paul appears a little arrogant or maybe too sure of himself, you have to excuse him. Give him a break.  This is what happens in a life that encounters the grace of God, this is the kind of conviction that sends him out into the world.

            That’s the gospel for Paul.  He didn’t create it.  He didn’t dream it up.  He didn’t think his way into believing these things about God.  Belief wasn’t much help to him, actually.  Belief got him in trouble.  Belief can do that.  His beliefs got in the way; his beliefs caused him to be obstructionist, standing in the way of what God was doing in Jesus.  Paul, that is, Saul, would have none of it.  Saul/Paul didn’t go looking for Jesus.  He didn’t scheme up a rival belief system to form a new religion.  He wasn’t a philosopher. He didn’t want to be at odds with the Jewish authorities.  And he didn’t want to take on the paganism of the Roman Empire and get himself arrested. He didn’t say to himself, “Let’s give this a try.” But that’s what happened. All because of the grace that came upon him, the movement of Christ toward him in love, the generosity of God that moved toward this sinner. 

         The gospel came upon him.  Grace came toward him.  It always comes upon us.  It always moves toward us.  We don’t go scheming ways to find it.  We don’t work toward it.  Our ways are not God’s ways, which is why grace often comes to us as shock and surprise, it’s scandalous, maybe even offensive, because it’s not what we expect, it’s not what we anticipate.  It rarely is. “The gospel,” as Eugene Peterson says, “is the unexpected, fresh, surprising good news that God is not angry or indifferent or impersonal, but that God loves us and has provided the means for our salvation. That love and that salvation are at the center of absolutely everything, and from that center all of life is lived.”[1]

         It’s from that center that Paul now lives, not from the periphery.  He doesn’t care about the religious authorities or even political authorities of his day.  His life is flowing from that center.  And he’s able to do this all by grace. 

         This knowledge was “revealed” to him, he writes.  It didn’t come from a human source.  It wasn’t taught to him by the wise.  It wasn’t received by tradition passed down from one generation to another.  It was direct knowledge.  The Greek word for revelation is apocalypsis (from which we get the word apocalypse). For Paul and the New Testament, apocalypse does not (!) mean the end of the world.  I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this word misused.  I would be a rich man.  An apocalypsis means, literally, an opening up, an unveiling, a disclosure.  And the one who opened up the truth for him, who unveiled God’s way in Jesus, who disclosed the power of God’s love, was God.  By God, from God, through God, for God–and therefore, for us.

         And that’s why Paul cannot fathom why the Galatians are turning from the message, turning to a “different gospel,” which is not gospel at all, but further slavery. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ,” he writes (Gal. 1:6).  He’s more than astonished, he’s furious and frustrated, he’s disappointed, and he’s grieving for them.  He wants the best for them: to know—really know the power of God’s grace that liberates and redeems. That’s what he wants for them.
         But, why don’t they get it? How does anybody get it? How did you get it?

         How do you get someone to get it?  That’s a huge theological question. The New Testament, indeed the entire Bible, is full of apocalypsis, these revelations of God.  This is the way toward truth and knowledge.  Paul’s struggle here is just as relevant today.  Can grace be taught?  Can we really teach for faith?  Is it possible to teach someone to be a follower of Jesus?  We can pass down the tradition, teach church school, practice the rituals, go to church every week for all our lives—but it’s not enough. For can we really pull the veil aside and allow someone to encounter the presence of God?  Can we disclose what grace is, what God’s love is like to someone who hasn’t experienced these things first-hand? Paul said he wasn’t authorized by anyone: no Session, no presbytery, no General Assembly, no seminary.  We need these; don’t get me wrong – especially good seminaries.  But these can’t become a substitute for a direct experience of God in Christ through the power of the Spirit.

         I’ll be heading to India in about a week to teach a seminar on the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). I have considerable interest in Jung these days.  He has a lot to say to the church today, things we really need to hear, things he wrote back in the 1930s, but perhaps only now are we ready to hear them.  Listen to what he had to say about the apostle Paul:  “St. Paul…was not converted to Christianity by intellectual or philosophical endeavor or by belief, but by the force of his immediate experience.  His belief was based upon it but our modern theology turns the thing round and holds that we first ought to believe, and then we would have an inner experience, but this reversal forces people into a wrong rationalism and excludes even the possibility of a religious experience.”[2] Jung’s right.  Without this understanding, this perspective, we misread Paul!

         What Paul is basically holding out for us is the primacy of experience.  The only reason Paul is writing to the Galatians and preaching to the Gentiles and getting into all kinds of trouble is because of that primary experience he had on the Damascus Road that struck him blind and overwhelmed him, that shattered his reality, that shook the foundations of his faith and worldview, and forced him to reframe how he viewed himself in the eyes of God. An experience, a power so strong and graceful, that it redirected his life.  He received a message, a Word, a knowledge of God through Christ that demanded something of him.  He could not just hear it and do nothing.  It demanded a response; it demanded his life and his commitment, his passions, all of him—not just some of him, but all of him.  He didn’t have the gospel, the gospel had him, in its grip, and therefore was compelled to yield to it, to yield to God’s demand, God’s claim on his life.

         Paul is not the religious ideal.  He’s not the perfect Jesus follower.  He’s not the exception.  Instead, he demonstrates in his life and witness what is available to all of us through Christ.  An experience of grace.  And when that grace strikes us or comes upon us or moves us, shakes us, or assures us our lives and the life of the world are never the same. They can’t be. We can’t go back to former ways.  We live into the revelation and all that it means.

         We can’t force the revelation.  I can’t give you an experience.  The church can’t craft one for you.  I wish we could.  What I can do and feel called to do, what we can do and are called to do, is point the way, give witness, an encourage people to remain open to what is yet to be revealed.  We do what Jesus himself did, we preach, we serve, and then we eat.  We invite people to join us, and we go ourselves to the table, to meet him here, to experience the Real Presence of the Lord—here.  To this table, the Lord’s Table.  Communion is more than remembering what took place long ago.  It is communion with God and with one another. This can be the place of apocalypsis, of revelation. Grace is communion. Communion is grace.

[1] Eugene Peterson, Traveling Light:  Modern Meditations on St. Paul’s Letter of Freedom (Colorado Springs:  Helmers & Howard, 1988), 38.
[2] Letter to Anonymous in C. G. Jung Letters, Volume II, selected and edited by Gerhard Adler in collaboration with Aniela Jaffé (Bollingen Series; Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1953), 183, cited in Claire Dunne, Carl Jung:  Wounded Healer of the Soul (London: Watkins Publishing, 2012), 180-181.