Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Finding ourselves in God's story- Galatians 1: 11-24


    Paul was part of the very beginning of a movement that was called “The Way”, which would become “Christianity”. It was primarily a Jewish movement, but that would shift dramatically and quickly because of missionaries like St. Paul. Paul had been travelling and telling people about Jesus. He would come to a town, and first he would find out if there were any Jewish people there and speak to them, and later he would speak to anyone else who would listen. Paul ended up establishing numerous churches especially in what we now call Turkey and Greece. He would stay for a time, but then he would move on. He would sometimes write letters or send a friend to help them, but Paul was always on the move. He planted churches then moved on. One of the dangers of always being on the move is that Paul wasn’t always close by to help them when difficulties arose. They couldn’t call. They couldn’t email. They probably weren’t always aware of where he was. He was all over the Northern and Eastern Mediterranean. Some scholars believe that he even made it to Spain.
Paul wrote his letter to the church in Galatia because of a crisis. Galatia was a province in the Roman Empire. It’s in what we know now as Turkey. They ran into trouble because some people came through town talking to them about Jesus… and they didn’t completely agree with Paul on everything. Paul seems to have been part of the establishment of the Galatian church, but he had moved on and these new people were presenting them with some difficult questions. Basically the question is this, “How Jewish do you have to be to follow Jesus?”  Of course, Jesus was Jewish. Jesus was circumcised, as were all Jews, as part of the family of Abraham. Jesus ate Kosher food according to Jewish dietary law. Jesus celebrated Jewish festivals. Jesus read the Torah and kept the laws. So it makes sense that there should be a Jewish-ness about following Jesus. Jewish people who followed Jesus didn’t change much. They kept going to synagogue and they kept circumcising their baby boys. That wasn’t the question. The question was really for non-Jews- or gentiles. They came from a variety of different Pagan religions and a variety of cultures. How Jewish did they have to become in order to follow Jesus?

These other Christians who arrived in Galatia seemed to have a connection to Jerusalem. To them the Galatian church wasn’t Jewish enough. Jesus was about the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. God gave Abraham the sign of circumcision. It makes sense that Christians should be circumcised. Maybe they don’t have to follow everything, but they should follow some of the basics, shouldn’t they? Paul had told the Galatians that circumcision wasn’t necessary for them. These visitors were telling the Galatians that Paul sold them an incomplete Gospel. He gave them an easy pill to swallow, but it was incomplete. He was preaching to them words they wanted to hear, rather than words they needed to hear. They thought he was too soft. How do you belong to this group that is following Jesus? How do you know when you’re in, and when you’re out? This is why Paul is writing his letter. For the next few weeks we’ll be dealing with some of these questions. 
Paul’s initial response is to tell his story. He wants them to know how ironic their accusation is- that he’s presenting the Galatian church with an easy and non-demanding road to following Jesus. In Paul’s earlier years he was an extremely dedicated Jewish Pharisee. He had a rare brilliant mind and was trained by a famous teacher- Gamliel.
He had a passion in him. He wanted to purify his people. He wanted them to follow the Law to the letter and he wanted to remove all heresy from his people. He believed that Jesus and his followers were spreading lies and so he set out to stop them. He wanted to destroy this movement before it caused any more damage. He was there when St. Stephen was stoned to death. He went from city to city punishing and imprisoning those who followed Jesus as their Messiah. On one occasion Paul received letters from the High Priest in Jerusalem addressed to certain synagogues that allowed him to track down and imprison anyone who was a Jesus follower.

While he was on his way to make his arrests, out of nowhere, a light shone and blinded Paul. He heard Jesus speak to him. The resurrected Jesus was revealed to Paul. He was blind for three days, just as his heart had been blind. A disciple of Jesus laid hands on him and Paul received his sight back. He was baptized and had to re-think how to live in the world. He carried letters from the high priest that now gave him permission to arrest himself. He came to understand that he had been given a mission. Paul was to spread this news to the Gentiles- the non-Jewish people across the known world.
He is adamant that it was Jesus Christ himself who revealed this gospel to him. It didn’t come from any human being- he heard this Gospel from God. After this experience he went to “Arabia”. He went to spend some time in the wilderness to pray and meditate on what he had been shown. Some have even said he went to Mt. Sinai, where God revealed himself and gave the Law to Paul’s people. He did eventually meet with the church in Jerusalem, but they didn’t add anything to the Gospel that was revealed to him. This is important. He is saying that when he met the other Apostles- particularly Peter and James- they didn’t add anything to what he said about the message of Jesus. So where did he receive this from? Surely he knew bits and pieces of the Christian message, but it wasn’t enough to stop him from attacking them, and putting them in prison, and encouraging stoning of Christians- let alone convert him and make him one of their leaders. He says he received this message from Jesus himself. It was the resurrected Jesus that sent him.        
Paul was under constant threat now. We read in Acts 9 that some had hatched a plot to kill him, but he escaped. He once had to escape by being lowered out of an opening in the city wall in a basket because people were looking for him at the city gates. As Paul continued his mission he was thrown into prisons, he was flogged numerous times, he was beaten with rods and pelted with stones. He was shipwrecked and even spent nights in the open water. Since starting his mission he was in constant danger (2 Cor 11).
Those who strolled into Galatia were accusing Paul of teaching a soft Christianity that didn’t demand enough from people. Paul tells his story. Does this sound like someone who believes that the Gospel isn’t demanding? After hearing Paul’s story does it sound like he is going to preach an easy Gospel? Is this someone who wants to water-down the message of Jesus? Paul puts himself in this danger to tell the people of the world that God loves them. No doubt he would have endured long and dangerous journeys just to have people laugh at him when he got to his destination. This was Paul’s imitation of Christ. He suffered to tell the world about God’s love. Paul suffered to let the Gentiles know that God loved them just as much as God loved Israel.   
Paul saw himself in God’s story. He saw what God was doing in the world and he saw himself as a part of it. It’s important for all of us to see ourselves in God’s story. It took Paul time to respond to God’s call and to envision his part in the story. It will be the same for us. We also listen, and wrestle, and respond to God’s call. Most of us won’t have a Damascus road experience, but we all find ourselves in God’s story. Our start in that story might be dramatic like St. Paul’s, but more often than not we burn like embers- slow and long. We might not have a dramatic conversion experience, but our lives will be filled with little conversions. We might not repent of throwing Christians in jail, but we will repent of gossip, or we will learn forgiveness, because of our love for Jesus. We wrestle with making choices and understanding God’s will in the midst of difficulties, like illness or death. We find ourselves challenged to see ourselves differently, or our life situation changes and we are called to see God in the midst of it calling us to new opportunities. And those little triumphs and struggles and even our failures are moments when we find ourselves in God’s story.  Hopefully, when others look at our lives they see glimpses of God’s story. That doesn’t mean that we live perfect lives, but it means that even in our imperfect lives there is this golden thread that runs through it all. 

Paul’s story is his beginning point when reminding the Galatians and the visitors about the message of Jesus. Our lives will also be a starting point whether we like it or not. People will look at us and make decision about following Jesus based on what they see in our lives and in our stories.  It doesn’t mean we have to be perfect, but it does mean that we are continually reaching out as a people who need help and who know where their help comes from. It means we know who we want to imitate and we work to take little steps to control our anger, or our judgmental, or our arrogance, and plant seeds of kindness, humility, and peace. If we are really perceptive we will notice that all of this is God’s reaching out to us and God’s drawing us to himself.    

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