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.

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