Proper 5, June 6, 2010
I Kings 17:8-24, Gal 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17
The Rev Deborah Magdalene, OSH
I want you to imagine for a minute that you are one of the very first converts to Christianity. You live in the center of present day Turkey, in an area that the Roman Empire calls Galatia. Before your conversion you worshipped the many gods of your Greek culture. These gods demanded much of you, while dominating with capricious and unpredictable power. Although you offer these Gods sacrifices and prayers, and sing their praises consistently, you never really know where you stand with these gods.
Much to your surprise, you are unexpectedly converted to “The Way” of Jesus by the words of a zealous and outspoken young man who teaches you about the miraculous thing God is doing in the world through the resurrected Christ. This bald and muscular man is known as Paul from Tarsus, an area not far from Galatia, and he comes with an entourage of believers who are all anxious to talk with you about their faith and how they came to believe in the Messiah.
Paul teaches you that it is God’s benevolence working through Christ that allows every Christian to enter into an intimate and life-giving relationship with God. This relationship is anything but capricious and unpredictable. The familial relationship with God through Christ is sustaining, life-giving and creative.
It is through Paul’s teaching that you learn the context of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in the faraway lands of Israel.
You learn that:
• The God of Jesus is the tenaciously faithful God of the Jews, who freed them from captivity and led them to the Promised Land;
• the same lovingly faithful God who sent Jewish prophets to guide and correct his misguided people;
• the same bountiful God who poured himself into a human form in order to bring his people back home to their Creator.
• The God that Paul teaches you about is a God of such abundant Grace that it is only through the lens of this Grace that you can understand the Gospel of Christ.
Paul teaches you everything he knows and then packs up and leaves with his entourage, leaving you to carry on as one of many struggling new churches in the area. It is not long before your fragile hold on the faith is challenged. During these early years of Christianity there are as many different versions of the gospel as there are storytellers, magicians, and soothsayers.
Word reaches Paul that his fledgling churches in Galatia are being viscously attacked. But Paul is on a ship headed to another country and cannot leave his mission to come and set things straight. He decides to send a letter. This letter must resonate with knowledge of Christ as well as his passionate belief that the Gospel he told you is the truth.
Paul must give you the tools to fight off the arguments and attacks which teach of a lesser god than the one he experienced in his own conversion. He must send a letter that will so inflame the hearts of his listeners with the truth of Christ that the faith will flourish and grow for generations.
If he only knew what would happen to Christianity because of this letter.
When you and your new friends receive this compact and passionate scroll from Paul, in his own handwriting, you receive rare jewel. This letter, meant to be passed around to all the churches in the huge area of Galatia is destined to become one of the most famous of Paul’s letters. In this letter he describes his own conversion by the unexpected, unimaginable and completely overwhelming Grace of God.
This letter convinces Martin Luther that is through God’s grace, not our works, that we are called to relationship with Christ. Luther, like many of us, tried to please God through his actions. He spent years of his life in arduous and painful work for God. But nothing ever felt like it was enough.
Luther was a prolific writer and an overly scrupulous monk, but nothing he did was ever enough to give him the assurance that he was loved by God. He became more miserable, working himself into a frenzy, as he desperately sought approval from God.
It is in this state of exhausted despair that Luther discovers the hidden jewel of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Paul makes an impassioned and uncompromising defense of the radical grace of God. He boldly defends Christ’s unique Gospel of free and unearned grace against every other confusing argument they might hear. To understand and experience the true Gospel, says Paul, is to enter into the very heart of what God did in Christ.
What we hear from Galatians today is from the beginning of the letter, after a brief introduction in which Paul writes, “There are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!”
After this passionate beginning Paul goes on to describe the miracle of God’s grace through Jesus – in terms that both proclaim the Gospel and strengthen the new Church. He does this by showing the power of God’s grace working in and through Jesus.
Paul once persecuted the Christians with as much passion as Luther pursued God’s assurance. What threw Paul off his horse and changed his entire world was nothing less than a direct experience of the risen Christ. Christ came to him not to convert him, but to remind him of his calling. This is the same reason that Christ comes to each of us.
Paul had been set apart before he was born to receive the grace of God through the resurrected Christ in a surprise encounter on the way to Damascus. The original Greek text reads, I was set apart while still in my mother’s belly.
Paul goes on to say that the only reason he was given an extraordinary experience of the risen Christ was to reveal the hidden truth in the Gospel to the Gentiles. When he says that, “they glorified God because of me,” he is referring to the original disciples in Jerusalem who heard of Paul’s missionary excursions on behalf of Christ. They knew Paul as an unrelenting persecutor, and yet he appeared to possess the same gospel they were preaching. The disciples glorified God because of the miracle of Paul’s work for Christ.
It was the work he was born to do.
Martin Luther was able to discover a long-hidden truth of the Gospel through Paul’s words to the Galatians 1500 years after they were written. God’s grace comes to us unearned, and with surprising consequences in spite of everything we do – not because of what we do.
Paul was not trying to hide this news. It is the news that Jesus taught and demonstrated with his life and death. It is just so opposed to everything we are taught about the world that it makes no sense to us unless we have a firsthand experience of such unearned grace.
In the Gospel reading for today we have one of many examples of this grace. Jesus touches a dead man, who sits up on his funeral bier and speaks. Jesus does this, not to draw attention to himself, but because God’s will flowed through him in an abundance of grace for the lost people of God.
God wants to heal and reclaim his people through a love that binds us together and sets us free. Each of Jesus’ miracles is an act of pure, generous and highly personal grace.
The people of Nain were seized with fear. Dead men don’t rise and speak unless God is trying to tell you something powerful. They knew to pay attention. And they were moved by the mother’s cries of joy. God restored her son to her because that was her son’s calling, from the time he was set apart in her womb. He was destined to be called to new life by Jesus, who showered on him the Grace of a God who wants to found.
Luther discovered that the assurance he had sought all his life had been there all along. We are each called by God to fulfill a destiny that is uniquely ours. We can only find our calling by paying attention to where the moments of grace in our lives point us.
The little letter to the Galatians is easy to overlook. But the grace it describes is the same grace that Jesus lived – an intimate connection with a majestic God who is constantly creating and recreating each of us to be more of who we are designed to be: an integral member of the Kingdom of God.