Saturday, February 16, 2013

Pleased to Reveal His Son to Me

Galatians 1:1-24
Lent 1
February 17, 2013
William G. Carter

"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 have just introduced you to somebody unusual. Paul is the second most visible person in the New Testament after Jesus. He has written more documents in our Bible than anyone else. All of them are letters, sent to churches, as a way of closing the distance between a congregation he knew and the place where he was. We don’t know where Paul was when he wrote this letter. He was often in prison, often in trouble with the Roman Empire, or often in trouble with his fellow Jews. Or so we are led to believe.

            But Paul started congregations of Jesus followers. That was his work. He traveled to the region of Galatia, probably four cities in what now is central Turkey. And he spoke to people who had no background in the Jewish faith. It must been a stretch. Paul was a Jew, a very educated Jew. He knew the Jewish Bible. When he trained as a Pharisee, he memorized every commandment. He knew every ancient story. He goes to Turkey, where most of the people didn’t know any of it, and he told them about Jesus, whom he calls the Lord, the Christ.

            He begins the letter by signing it, “Paul, an apostle, through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.” And he reminds them of what Jesus has done for all of us: “He 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.” Say hello to the apostle Paul.

            Something has gone wrong in his absence. The churches that he planted with his own hands have been infected by weeds. All his hard work has been compromised by different thinking. The people who were called together by God to worship, to learn, to serve are slipping away. (I wonder if they were Presbyterians. Or maybe they were Catholics. Certainly they were Galatians.) The good news that Paul had spoken, the news of Christ’s liberating death for sin, the news that Christ is the Risen Lord stronger than evil and destruction – that news was not as compelling as it once was. And it is making him angry. Very angry.

            “I am astonished you are deserting God and turning to another gospel, except there is no other gospel!” He says, “If anybody is preaching an alternative gospel, a fake gospel, then they ought to burn with the devil.” That is what he says, because he is angry. When people are angry, they say all kinds of things. Usually they amplify their point as a way of getting the point across.

            This is the letter to the Galatians. It is Paul’s angriest letter. He is going to blow his top a few times as he pens these chapters. “What has happened?” he wants to know. “Who bewitched you?” It seems that after he started the churches and moved on, some new preachers came in, and the first thing they did was to criticize everybody who came before them. It still happens. Doesn’t matter who was there, or what they did before, the person insists on “new and improved.” After Paul, the preacher who followed insisted on a “new and improved Gospel” – not that there is another Gospel, he says.

            “What happened to the love? How did we lose the affection?” Paul says in chapter four, “When I came to you, you would have plucked out your eyes for me!” But not now. Somebody insinuated he was only interested in pleasing the people. “He’s a people-pleaser,” they said when he wasn’t around. “You know all that grace that Paul preaches? It’s just a lot of mush. It’s soft. It has no backbone. He doesn’t lay down the rules and tell you what to do.” It’s amazing the criticism that comes when people are too cowardly to talk to your face, when they kick you in absentia. When they murmur, “Who does Paul think he is?”

            Well, he tells us who he is in the first three words: “Paul, an apostle.” Once his name was Saul, named after the first of Israel’s kings. He strutted around as if he had royal authority, as if he knew he was right and others were wrong. But then, you may remember the story, he met the Risen Christ. In the book of Acts, the story is told by another writer named Luke. Remember it? Paul was a Jew, hunting down those Christ-followers, trying to suffocate the church – until one day, about noon, on the road to Damascus, Jesus Christ appeared to him. The light was so bright that it took away his sight for a while. The Voice was so thunderous that it drove him to his knees. The Son of David said to the Son of Saul, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And Saul said, “Who are you, Lord?” He didn’t know, even though he knew.

            Because he started calling himself “Paul,” which means “Tiny” Christ was great, he was small.

            And he calls himself an apostle. Don’t confuse the word “apostle” with “disciple.” I know they are treated as interchangeable words, but there is a distinction. A disciple is a follower, a student, a life-long learner. “Apostle” comes from “apostolos,” a word in the realm of horticulture. When a plant sends out a “runner,” as in a spider plant, the part that goes out is the “apostolos.” An apostle is one who is sent. “Tiny Paul” encounters Christ. Then he has a growing sense that he is sent, with all his Jewish knowledge, to people who are not Jewish at all. That is his life’s mission. That is the purpose that the Risen Christ has laid upon his shoulders. “I have no choice,” he says elsewhere, “for it is ‘necessity’ that is laid upon me. I have to go to the Gentiles.” (1 Cor. 9:16)

            So this is the apostle Paul. Say hello to Paul. He is an unusual person. And perhaps the most unusual thing about him is that he is a convert. A convert. Once he was like this, but now he is like this. “Maybe you heard about my former life,” he says. “I was a Jew. I was a Super Jew. I was more zealous than all my peers. I cared about my faith. I advanced through all the chairs. I memorized all the holy words. I cared about the traditions of Abraham and Moses. I breathed Jewish air, and I exhaled Torah. I was so committed to God that I wanted to get rid of those Christians who were messing with Jewish tradition. I persecuted the church in the name of God. That was then, this is now . . .”

            I don’t know if you have ever spent much time around a convert. It’s like they divided their life into two parts – before and after. Once they were wild, crazy, hanging off the tailpipe of every motorcycle that roared through town – now they are different. Once they drank and smoked and messed around, there was marijuana in the guitar case, a different lover in every town, but now they are a new creation.

            I tell you the truth. I don’t always do well with those kind of people. They bother me.

            We had a few converts in our Bible study group in our college. Mostly we were church kids, youth group alumni. We met to learn about the Bible, pray about midterms, maybe to find a safe date. Then a couple of converts joined the group – wild-eyed, fervent, disruptive. One stopped by my dorm room to visit. He saw a stack of jazz recordings and was horrified. “I used to listen to jazz before I gave my life to Jesus,” he said. “But then I burned all those records and sent them back to hell.” I said, “Why didn’t you give them to me?” He’s a convert. I’m not comfortable around converts.

            On New Year’s Eve 2001, my saxophonist called with a gig. “I have $200 for you if you play with the Sammy Kaye Orchestra. It is in Saratoga Springs, New York. I will drive, and they have hotel rooms for us. After 9-11, they want to do a nostalgia show, lots of swing music from World War 2.” That sounded good to me. I agreed. Even though it was Saratoga Springs on December 31, about 30 degrees below zero on a windy night.

            The gig was fine. The music lifted everybody’s spirits. As the musicians say, “The bread was green.” And then I discovered that I had a roommate for the hotel. His name was Joe. He was a trombonist who traveled the world, mostly to play music on cruise ships. He had a duffle bag with a pair of underwear, a pair of socks, a toothbrush and a razor. Then I discovered: he was a convert. Once he had been a falling-down drunk, had ex-wives and kids all over the place but didn’t know where they were, he was living in a liquid haze. But one day, God shook him awake. God said, “Shape up!” And somehow Joe landed as the lead trombonist and music director for Benny Hinn, the faith-healer TV evangelist who wore white shoes.

            Apparently the bandleader of the Sammy Kaye Orchestra thought the Presbyterian preacher ought to have Benny Hinn’s lead trombonist as a roommate. Everybody in the band was snickering about it. He was a good musician, but none of them could stand to share a hotel room with him. Indeed, he kept me awake until 4:30 in the morning, quoting Bible verses, witnessing about his faith, talking about the miracles he saw every day. Finally I said, “Joe, would you shut up? It’s 4:30.” He said, “But don’t you want to hear about Jesus?”

            He’s a convert. Ever know a convert?

            Paul the Apostle – he was a convert. People make fun of converts. They shake their heads and wag their tongues. I heard about a t-shirt in California. It read, “A Born-Again Turkey is Still a Turkey.”

            Say what you want: Paul’s life had changed. He turned 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Same zeal that he had as a Pharisee, but now his zeal is speaking of Christ. Same level energy – Paul was tireless, usually on the go, often working himself until he dropped – but his energy was one-hundred-ten percent devoted to spreading the Gospel, wherever he was, with whomever he was with. “You have heard about my previous life in Judaism,” he says. “But now they say about me, ‘He is proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy,’ and they glorified God because of me.” If nothing else, the text reminds us that God can change a person. God can turn somebody in the right direction. God can come to any person with such an abundance of holy love, that the person is transformed. They leave behind “the present evil age” and live completely for Jesus.

            All of that is shared with us in this text. But here is the thing that I’ve leading up to tell you. Ready? When God changes a human life, it isn’t always done with thunder and lightning. There can be a dramatic transformation, but others around us might not even see when it happens.

            You know that story from the book of Acts: Saul is hurling threats, persecuting the church, until Christ comes in power and glory, and knocks him off his horse. That’s how Luke recounts the story in the book of Acts. Three times the story is told by Luke. It’s big, it’s noisy, it’s brash and bold.

            But here in Galatians, we have Paul’s own story of what happened to him. He says nothing about the road to Damascus. Never mentions quite what he saw. Instead, this is what he says: “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.” (1:15-16). No altar call, no pushy demand, no repeated verses of “Just As I Am, Without One Plea” to beckon you forward as the buses are waiting. Oh no.

“God … was pleased to reveal his Son to me.” That’s all he says. That’s all he ever says. In all of Paul’s own writings, this is all we get in his own words about his own conversion. Quietly he said, “It was a revelation.” Like the pulling back of a curtain, and you see who has been standing there the whole time, but your eyes could not see it until that moment. And that is enough to launch you on the trajectory of transformation.

            Others have said the same. Conversion does not have to be a big moment. It just needs to be the right moment. Like C.S. Lewis, the great Christian writer. He shrugged off belief for years. Then one day in 1929, he got on a bus. When he got on the bus, he didn’t believe. When he got off the bus, he did believe.[1] No flash of light. No booming voice. But it changed his life completely.

            Or in our own time, I think of Anne Lamott, one of the most outrageous proponents of the Christian faith. Know what she says? “I was high on drugs, wasting my life, and one night I had the nagging sense that Jesus was the annoying kitten who was meowing at the door. Finally I cursed and said, “OK, you can come in.”[2] And he never left.

            Or John Calvin, the great Christian reformer, spiritual father of the Presbyterians, back before there even were any Presbyterians. He was the brains of the Reformation, an incredible thinker. Do you know how he describes his turn toward the Christian faith? What was the great occasion of his conversion? “It happened,” he said, “in the moment when I became teachable.”[3] That’s it. Teachable, transformed. Where are the drums, the flashing lights, the sound of cymbals smashing? Not necessary. “I became teachable” – and life began anew.

            So today I introduce you to the Apostle Paul. Sometimes cranky, often forceful, sometimes troubled and annoyed – but always living completely for Jesus Christ by God’s amazing grace. It began when God was pleased to reveal his Son.

            It’s all I could ever ask God to do for you.

(c) William Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy
[2] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, p. 50
[3] John Calvin, Preface, Commentary on the Book of Psalms

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