Date: 5 June 2016
Text: Galatians 1:11-24
Site: Bethany United Church – Halifax, NS
For the early church the Apostle Paul’s life story, his leadership and imprisonment, and most of all his letters to various emerging faith communities, stood as the firm foundation of the Christian movement. While Paul’s attitude to women, slavery and the state sometimes sounded more like the Saul he used to be in most other ways Paul’s transformation was an inspiration for everything the Spirit of God could do, not only in a person’s life but in public life.
The early church held Paul up as an example of how a murderer, someone who persecuted others, could become a beacon of love for the very people he used to imprison. Further, within the movement he helped grow Paul was able to speak theologically about the various gifts persons offered, about discipleship and the cost of that discipleship, and about the deeper kind of self-giving love that sustains people of faith.
But all of greatness of Paul’s life and words, every bit of it, was given to Paul in spite of, not as a reward for, his previous life. In Galatians and in Acts and in all other references Paul makes to his conversion story, it is God who acts, God who chooses, God who takes the initiative and changes Paul, calls Paul, to a new life. And what did Paul do to deserve that moment? Nothing. We in the church call this grace, that God first loves us, that this love is not based on our merit. God’s love is a free gift.
But over time this movement became a Church. Creeds evolved from a simple statement of belief, “Jesus is Lord” to a litany of defensive statements based on what was and what was not orthodoxy. And the love that was thought to be free now came with a price and the Church would name that price. You might be thinking of indulgences here but I am referencing the many ways the church unconsciously or consciously described who is earning God’s love. One easy way to describe this is piety; personal acts of prayer, reading the Bible, attendance at spiritual gatherings.
There can be an assumption that God would speak first to these folks, to us, since we so obviously have earned this connection based on our piety and devotion. But the problem with this line of thinking/feeling is that Paul’s piety came after his call, not before. Preacher and scholar Fred Craddock reminds us, “The radical reversal in Paul’s life occurred through divine intervention.
In this encounter with the risen Christ Paul experiences a prophetic call.” In other words our devotion, our piety, our discipleship, our good works, all of it, comes after we acknowledge our weakness, our need for something bigger, a call to move to a new place. And the outcome of this experience has to be two things; 1) compassion for those who are weak like ourselves and 2) that our blessings are not of our doing but due to grace, a gift.
And here is the really exciting part of this spiritual awareness, we can learn from our weakness, we can reach people who struggle as we do, we can be heard because we speak not from arrogance, certainty, we are not know-it-alls but rather we are broken people who have received a new awakening. In his book The Transforming Moment, author James Loder writes this with Paul's Damascus event in mind: “Everything from our past is used practically every day. And I do mean everything. All the bumps, pain, bruises, potholesand fallen tree limbs discovered and experienced along the way have been put to good use in one way or another. As well as our gifts."
In our text this morning Paul is speaking under oath (verse 20), his credibility and authority are under threat. Paul would spend a lot of his later leadership of the Church either in court or in prison for his faith in Christ. Note that he does not defend himself on the basis of his many accomplishments or status, instead Paul speaks of his failures, his sins, his mistakes and reminds his listeners that only a God of grace would allow someone like him to be the source of testimony to an emerging Church.
Many of you know I attended the bi-annual meeting of the Canadian Council of Churches in Ottawa last month. Part of that gathering is to attend the Annual Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast. While many in the room were focused on our Prime Minister reading from Romans the day after “elbow-gate” For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think… Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty…do not claim to be wiser than you are. I was intrigued by the guest speaker, Jonathan Aitken, a former UK MP and Cabinet Minister. Some of you may know Aitken as the great-nephew of newspaper magnate and wartime minister Max Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook (Lord Beaverbrook).
Aitken was sent to prison after a successful career in business and politics for perjury. Spending seven months in prison Aitken became a Christian for real (he had been Baptized and confirmed in his childhood and youth) and started a Bible study for some of the most violent criminals in the jail. As an author, speaker and advocate for prison reform Aitken has touched many lives and found a peace he had never found in the success-driven life he had lived for more than four decades.
Some of you have seen the sign in front our Hall that is passed everyday by thousands of motorists on their way to and from work. It mentions that Jesus is to be found on the #15 bus. One day on my way to a pastoral visit with one of you I took the #15 in the pouring rain. There were only a handful of riders that day (which may be one of the reasons Halifax Transit plans to discontinue that route). As we stopped on the Purcell’s Cove Road a man spoke to the driver telling him that he lacked the full $2.25 fare. I was about to offer my assistance when the man flew into a rage, a tantrum befitting a 2 year old. One thing about me, I don’t judge people on how they dress, how they smell, how they look, what they say. But I do struggle with people who lose their tempers, I have never lost mine in 52 years. In that moment I sat in judgement and let the man struggle as he pleaded with the driver to let him onboard. I am not proud of this. But then a man who was sitting behind me rose from his seat, a large wooden cross hanging from his neck. The man, in his 30’s I think, put a twoonie in fee box and walked the soaken angry man to his seat. As they sat together I heard the conversation. It went something like this:
Good Samaritan: Don’t worry man, I’ve been there. I had the world by the tail, lost it all to drugs, wound up in jail. I lost everything, my family, my house, my job, my friends, everything.
Soaken rider: Thank you! It just hurts to know what I was, where I was, now look at me.
Good Samaritan: Don’t worry what anyone thinks, the God I serve sees something in us no one else can see.
Soaken rider: You think? I find that hard to believe.
Good Samaritan: Look at me!
After some more of this the Good Samaritan had to leave, his stop had arrived. The Soaken rider was in tears, “what can I do, what can I do to repay you?” The Good Samaritan was clear, “if you want to thank me, thank God for the gift of grace and pass it on to the next person you look down on.”
Back to a humble and contrite Prime Minister who completed his reading at the Prayer Breakfast with these words from Paul, We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
And all God’s people said with humility, Amen!