02 June 2016

Experiencing Grace

Galatians 1:1-12

2nd Sunday after Pentecost

29th May 2016

Paul’s angry.  He’s furious with the church in Galatia.  Paul usually begins his letters with warm greetings and expressions of gratitude.  Not Galatians. He gets straight 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).

What’s he so hot about?  “I am astonished,” Paul writes, “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” (Gal. 1:6-7).  There it is.  Someone is swaying them.  And whoever that person is, Paul says, twice, “let that one be anathema.”  “Let that one be accursed.”  Anathema.  Ouch. 

It takes Paul just two sentences, forty-six words, to go from “Amen” or  “Yes,” in verse 5 to anathema, accursed. Like a double-edged sword, “these two words in Galatians 1:5 and 9 impose themselves at the outset of Paul’s letter,…splitting the world down the middle—good and bad, condemnation and salvation, blessing and curse.  Galatians is the most polarizing and angry letter that Paul wrote.”[1]

Paul writes to assert his authority.  He reminds them that he’s an apostle, meaning someone sent on a mission, sent—and not by them.  He’s been commissioned by the God of Israel, God “our Father,” he says, the God who sent the Son to “set us free from the present evil age,” the God who sends Paul to extend that same message or gospel of freedom to everyone, everyone willing to listen.

Freedom.  That’s how Paul understands the grace of God experienced in Christ.  It’s about liberation, deliverance from every power and principality that binds and hinders and disempowers God’s children.  And that “present evil age” that Paul refers to is the idolatrous, brutal age of an empire, Caesar’s imperial salvation that thinks it has the power to rule the world and grant liberty and freedom. 

Paul intentionally calls the message of Christ, euangelion, which we translate “good news” or “gospel.”  (“Evangelism” and “evangelical” come from the same Greek word.)  Whose good news?  In Paul’s time the word was associated with the accession or birth of an emperor.  Here’s a portion of an imperial birth announcement, from 9 BCE.  It’s from the Priene Calendar Inscription, discovered in Asia Minor.  It reads, “…the birth of the god [meaning Caesar] was the beginning of good tidings [euangelion] to the world through him.”[2]  Good news for empire.  Really bad news for everyone else, especially the people of God.

Paul’s understanding of God’s euangelion was radically different Caesar’s.  Much to his surprise, Paul discovered that God was up to something entirely different in Christ.  Here’s why.  The fact that God raised one left for dead, that God raised from the dead one who was shamefully, ignobly crucified on a Roman cross—a method of death reserved only for enemies of the state—that God chose this Jesus, who in the eyes of Judaism would have been viewed as an abomination for hanging naked on a cross (see Deuteronomy 21:22-23), that God raised someone like him, who was weak before the raw, brutal power of Rome, that God chose to raise someone like Jesus, an act that signals that God brings life from dead places, gives life to one outcast and rejected, that God would act this way through Jesus of Nazareth was an experience that completely overwhelmed and astonished, surprised and stunned Paul.  Stunned Saul, really.  Saul who persecuted the followers of Jesus and made them suffer (Acts 8), this Saul who probably had a hand in the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7)—this Saul, who was a religious leader, scholar, with a huge ego 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.  Ludicrous!  Scandalous!  It made no sense from within the confines of Saul’s worldview—that is, until the Risen Christ encountered him on the Damascus Road.  Paul knew.

Paul.  A new name given to symbolize his new life—not a new religion, but a new life, a new orientation, a new discernment of the God’s grace.  Yes, Pau now knew from personal experience 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 the sinner, makes whole.  Paul thought he knew all about God’s grace and mercy, but all that changed when Christ encountered him along the Damascus Road, threw him into the crisis of his life, leaving his world and ours never again the same. 

That’s why it’s called good news.  What’s revealed about God through Christ is gospel, good news for Paul, for in that experience of grace Christ saved his life, saved him from himself, gave him his life back, offered him freedom.  As Paul says later in Galatians (one of my favorite verses in scripture), “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1). For freedom

Paul became 100% committed to this message, to God’s good news.  He’s on fire by it and for it, he’s willing to suffer for it, and nothing will shake this confidence.  So, if Paul appears cranky and arrogant at times and comes across a little too sure of himself, cut him some slack.  Give him a break.  Paul has been convicted by the grace of God and this is, in part, what a life of conviction looks like.  A transformed person is then thrust into the world “with a velocity not one’s own.”[3]

That’s what the gospel is; that’s what the gospel does.  Paul didn’t create it.  He didn’t dream it up.  He didn’t think or rationalize 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, to stand in the way of what God was doing through Jesus and his followers.  Paul, that is, Saul, would have none of it.  Saul didn’t go looking for Jesus.  He didn’t say to himself one day, “Hey, I’m looking for a career change.  Let’s give this a try.”  He didn’t try to scheme up a rival belief system in order to form a new religion.  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 and later executed by Rome. But this is exactly 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 fearful man. 

Grace came toward himGrace moves toward us.  It always comes upon us.  We don’t go scheming up 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, even offensive to our sensitivities and moralities and ideologies, because it’s not what we expect.  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.”[4]

Paul now lives from that center.  His faith is not “on the side,” but at the center of his life. Grounded in Christ, he doesn’t care about the religious authorities or even political authorities of his day.  His life is flowing from that center, from that grace.

This grace was “revealed” to him, he writes (Gal 1:12).  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 other New Testament writers, “apocalypse” did not mean the end of the world, although, sadly, that’s what the word has come to mean today.  (I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this word misused.  I would be rich.)  One could say, “It’s just a word,” words change their meaning.  But when it comes to the world of the Bible, the meaning of words matter. We’re not allowed to take contemporary meanings of a word and then project them back upon the text and assume they mean the same thing.  When this happens we end up with some really bad, destructive, even toxic readings of Scripture.  A misuse of a word also, more significantly, hinders us from hearing and seeing what is actually going on in the text. And the word apocalypsis is a really good example of this. 

It was an apocalypse, Paul tells us, that showed him something new, meaning a revelation, an opening up, an unveiling, a disclosure.  The one who opened up the truth for Paul, 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.

But why then isn’t this grace at the center of the church?  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 furious and frustrated, he’s disappointed, and he’s grieving for them.  His anger is really an expression of love.  For he wants them to know what he had come to know, the power of God’s grace that liberates and redeems.

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, how do get your children to get it?  How can one lose it?  These are huge theological questions. 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 our children well in church school, practice the rituals, go to church every week our entire lives—but it’s not enough.  Who can pull, who has the authority and power to 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?

Personally, I think the church today would be well served by something the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) said about Paul.  Jung wrote these words in a letter back in the 1930s, and they’re just as relevant today.  Perhaps only now are we ready to really him them.  “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.”[5]  Jung isn’t exactly correct here regarding Paul’s so-called “conversion.”  Paul remained a Jew throughout his life.  However, Jung’s point about honoring what happened to Paul is still very important.  Without an emphasis upon Paul’s experience, it’s easy to misread Paul!

Paul is basically holding out for us the primacy of immediate experience.  Remember, the only reason Paul is writing to the Galatians and preaching to the Gentiles and getting into all kinds of trouble, enduring suffering and shipwreck, 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—felt and embodied—of a power so strong and graceful that it redirected his life.  This radically transforming insight, this knowledge of God through Christ then demanded something of him.  How could he just hear the good news and then do nothing about it?  It demanded a response; it demanded his life, his passions—not just some of him, but all of him.  Paul didn’t have the gospel, the gospel had him, had him in its grip, and he was, therefore, compelled to yield to it, yield to God’s demand, yield to God’s claim on his life.

It’s important that we not turn Paul into an ideal type, a super apostle by which we judge our level of faithfulness.  He was far from perfect.  He was an ordinary sinner like you and me through whom God did extraordinary things.  This is why I value Paul, for the story of his life and witness demonstrates what is available to each of us through Christ—an experience of grace.  You might not get blinded by light driving down Frederick Road (it could happen), but that doesn’t mean the experience will be any less shattering and transforming for you and your world. 

We can’t force the revelation.  I can’t give you a religious experience.  The church can’t manufacture one for you.  I wish we could.  What I can do and feel called to do, what we as a church can do and are called to do, is point the way, give witness, hold out the possibility that it’s possible, and encourage people to remain open to what is yet to be revealed. 

Whenever grace strikes us or comes upon us and moves us and shakes us and loves us and assures us and then, because God loves us, demands something of us, something worthy of God’s love and grace, our lives and the life of the world are never the same. How can they be?  That’s the good news!  This is what sends us out into the world with new life.  You might even find yourself feeling evangelical—in the original sense of the word—someone who knows God’s good news, someone who has experienced God’s grace, someone who knows that God has been gracious to you, someone who is now called—sent—to be gracious too.  Thanks be to God.

[1] Brigitte Kahl, Galatians Re-Imagined: Reading With the Eyes of the Vanquished (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 247.
[2] The full Priene Calendar Inscription may be found here.
[3] This is how James E. Loder (1931-2001) often described such a life transformed. See The Transforming Moment (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1989).  See also Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter and Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011).
[4] Eugene Peterson, Traveling Light: Modern Meditations on St. Paul’s Letter of Freedom (Colorado Springs:  Helmers & Howard, 1988), 38.
[5] Letter to Anonymous in C. G. Jung Letters, Volume II, selected and edited by Gerhard Adler in collaboration with Aniela Jaffé (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), 183.

Image:  Bruce Denny's bronze sculpture "Conversion of St. Paul," Soho Square, London.