Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Sermon - 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

"But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught [it], but by the revelation of Jesus Christ. For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: And profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers. But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called [me] by his grace, To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother. Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not. Afterwards I came into the regions of Syria and Cilicia; And was unknown by face unto the churches of Judaea which were in Christ: But they had heard only, That he which persecuted us in times past now preacheth the faith which once he destroyed. And they glorified God in me." - Galatians 1:11-24

I would like to talk to you today about the Epistle we've just heard. Scholars today contend that St. Paul's letter to the Galatians is one of his earliest letters. It was probably composed in the 50s, about 20 years after our Lord’s resurrection. In this letter, Paul addresses a foreign teaching that has infiltrated the churches in Galatia. Galatia was a region in what in ancient times was called Asia, present day Turkey. It is in the Northwest region of that country near the Black Sea. Paul had been a missionary to the Christians in this region and had proclaimed that both Jews and Gentiles are saved by God's free, unmerited grace. This central message of the Gospel is truly liberating, knowing that we are loved and forgiven in the free grace of our Lord Jesus. It has drawn countless sinners to their knees. It provoked John Newton to compose 'Amazing Grace.' It caused St. Paul to say that he counted all things before Christ was revealed to him as loss. Another aspect of the Gospel, however, is that we find difficulty in receiving it. We want to help ourselves; we want to pull ourselves up by our boot straps; we want to believe and say with conviction that God helps those who help themselves. Our flesh chafes against the idea that, as one of the traditional collects says, ‘we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.’ It was the philosopher Immanuel Kant who was thought to have delivered the death blow to the traditional understanding of Christ's atonement. He contended that it is demeaning to humanity to say that they cannot help themselves. And yet, isn't our helplessness self-evident in our lives? when we try to overcome the addiction or save the marriage or resist a besetting temptation on our own strength, we always fail, and despite our best efforts, we end up feeling worse about ourselves: we feel guilty for our failure and guilty for abandoning our resolve so quickly and so easily. But when we throw up our hands and say we have no ability to fix the situation, then the door is opened to God's grace and restoration.
Now the foreign teachers who had come to the Galatian churches in Paul's absence were of Jewish background, as Paul of course also was, but contrary to Paul's message of free grace and unconditional mercy, they said to the Gentile converts, "Jesus was a Jew, if you want to be a follower of Jesus the Christ, a Jew, then you need to be circumcised and live according to the Law of Moses." Perhaps they also indicted Paul for not having been appointed an Apostle in the manner that the other twelve had. "Can he really be an Apostle if he never spent time with Jesus while he was on earth?" It is fascinating to think about human nature in this situation. Even though the Galatian converts had heard the message of free grace and had accepted it joyfully, the idea that they could be accepted by God through circumcision and the works of the law was tremendously attractive to them; it confirmed their false instinct that God only helps those who help themselves. In fact the human heart finds an irresistible temptation in the idea that self-help might work after all.
In the passage read from the Epistle, Paul defends his apostleship and the means by which he received the message of the Gospel. It was not taught him by one the Apostles or by one of the disciples of the Apostles. Jesus Christ was revealed 'in him,' verse sixteen. Now this phrase 'in him' is a bit unusual. We would expect him to say ‘to’ him. As in Jesus was revealed to him. It might make sense to say that Jesus Christ was revealed in Paul by his preaching to others. But I think what he describes here is a life-transforming event, a revelation not only to his eyes--the blinding light on the road to Damascus--or to his ears--the voice of Jesus asking, why do you persecute me?--but Jesus was revealed in his heart; not only was Paul’s physical state altered with temporary blindness by that encounter of our Lord on the road to Damascus but his inward person was radically altered.
In the end, we too must affirm that the Gospel, the message of free grace for all those who put their trust in our Lord Jesus, is not man-given. It is not something devised by man to make us feel better about ourselves. Christianity's object is not about having an improved self-esteem but about knowing and receiving the costly love of God, a love that was poured out on the Cross with our Lord's precious blood. This message of God coming down to help us subverts all our best intentions to help ourselves, and in this way it bears the mark of its divine origin. The pride of man's heart could never have devised such a thing as the Gospel. Just look at all of the religions of the world. They all have some beauty and truth in them, but in the final estimation, they all--including a distorted Christianity like that preached to the Galatians--amount to man's ascent up to God rather than God's descent to man in the man Christ Jesus.
Central to the Christian life is learning how to live as those who are freely forgiven and loved. The churches love to talk about this message of free grace, and then, once that has been received, to pile on all these ordinances of do's and don’t’s. They make the proverb go like this: God helps those who, after they have been helped by him, help themselves. The truth is we are all like the dead man in the Gospel. We are dead in our sins and trespasses, but have risen to new life. A new life that is profoundly different than the old life with its rules and laws. In this new life we are not bound by the works of the law but are given a righteousness through our faith in Christ. Elsewhere St. Paul describes the old life and the grace we are given for the new with these vivid words from the Epistle to Titus: "For we ourselves. . . were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, [and] hating one another. But after the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy, he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour" (Titus 3:3-6). May we learn faithfully, live truly and believe steadfastly this truth of God's free grace and love and may this 'abundance' which has been shed on us in Christ be all our sustenance, our very life, this day.

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