Sermon 6/6/10, Galatians 1:11-24
This week, we change course for a bit and begin a month of focusing on Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The church in the region of Galatia wasn’t really a single congregation, but a community of worshippers, people to whom Paul had brought the gospel message of Jesus during some of his earlier missionary work. We don’t know exactly what Paul’s been hearing, but we know that the reason he writes this letter to these churches is because he’s been hearing things about the churches that cause him great concern. Paul’s tone is frantic, as if he heard rumors about Galatia and immediately sat down to write and address the troubles. The epistle doesn’t open with the usual long line of greetings from Paul, but gets to the point after the briefest of openings. He says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.” Paul’s upset because the people have apparently been leaning away from what he taught them to listen to someone else who is teaching them that the gospel is something different from what Paul presented. Paul actually curses anyone, including himself, who tries to ‘sell’ a gospel that is different from what Paul first shared with them.
In the verse right before today’s passage begin, Paul writes, “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Nonetheless, what follows in our passage today is Paul explaining why he has the authority to do and teach what he has. First, Paul says, he didn’t get this gospel handed down to him by other humans – it isn’t a human source, he wasn’t taught what he preached. But he received it through a revelation from Jesus Christ himself, on the road to Damascus. Paul brings this up because, as perhaps you can imagine, the disciples who actually walked with Jesus and were called by him and sent out by him and spent three years with him – well, it took them a long time to take Paul seriously. Here was someone who was known as a persecutor of followers of The Way, Jesus-followers, who had never even met Jesus, and now he’s trying to proclaim the good news of Jesus? Paul is reminding the congregations of Galatia that though he may not have been one of the twelve, he still learned about Jesus from Jesus. It was three years later, Paul says, before he really spent time with the other apostles – he went to visit Cephas – who we know as Simon Peter – and James the brother of Jesus. Again, he’s saying that he isn’t just preaching what other people told him – his gospel message comes straight from the source.
Finally, Paul closes our text for today with what I would consider typical Paul: He mentioned that people knew in Judea that he used to persecute Christians and knew that now he proclaimed that very same faith, and Paul concludes, “they glorified God because of me.” I’ve mentioned to you before that Paul always strikes me as a little full of himself in his writings – and this is a great example of what I mean. I can’t picture myself ever saying, “yeah, they were praising God because of me.” But Paul doesn’t have any qualms talking about himself if it helps to prove his point: his ministry, preaching the gospel of Jesus from Jesus, has been effective, and the Galatians need to return to following Jesus as they’ve been taught.
As much as Paul sometimes irks me, I kept mulling over this passage this week and trying to make sense of it, his tone, his confidence, and kept trying to figure out what it meant for us. I’ll admit I find it to be a challenging text. Paul’s arguments and strategy for persuasion seem counter-intuitive to me. He has contact with Peter and James the brother of Jesus and the rest of the twelve, and this would seem to give him more clout and standing, firm up his reputation, make the Galatians more receptive to his message. But instead, he makes it a point, again and again, to insist that the message he has doesn’t come from them – just from God, from Jesus. That’s all good and well – but why not have some extra accreditation? I think of it like giving references – Paul says the Galatians can’t have any references to check. It would be like me showing up here at the pastor without being willing to show you that I’d been to seminary, or been ordained, or been approved by my peers and supervisors for ministry.
On the other hand, I wonder this: Although I might need some credentials to be the pastor of this congregation, do we, as Christians, really need any credentials to tell our story of God at work in our lives? And finally, I think I understand what Paul is all about. He’s the only one who can tell his story of Jesus at work in his life, and he can’t really tell anyone else’s story as well as he can tell his own. And so it is for us. We just sometimes forget that, and, like the Galatians, tend to put all the preaching of the gospel into the hands of people who have the credentials, like me, instead of in the hands of the people who can tell their own story – which is all of us.
Consider this: The role of the pastor has change pretty drastically over the years. Last week, during the hymn sing, you heard about camp meetings, one way frontier Christians could gather together for worship, preaching, and praising even though congregations and pastors were few and far between. In Methodism and other traditions, preachers were “circuit riders” – they would travel from congregation to congregation to preach and to administer the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion. But that meant that the day to day life of ministry in congregations was left up to the people. They couldn’t just wait for the next time the preacher would come around to get things done. If they wanted others to know about Jesus, they had to tell the story themselves, do the visiting, do the mission, do the ministry themselves. Paul calls that, as we still do today, the priesthood of all believers. We all have a story to share that is our story to share.
So maybe when Paul says, “And they glorified God because of me,” we should all strive for his confidence. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to say that you impacted someone else so much that they came to praise God because of you? Now, I’m thankful to not be a circuit rider – and I’m blessed to have as my career this pastoral ministry which allows me to visit, and be in mission, and preacher, and teach, and immerse myself in the life of the church and get paid for it on top of it all. But I’ll tell you what: most people don’t come in these doors for the first time because of me, and what they might have heard about me. They come because of you and what you have said to them and shown them about God at work in your life and in this congregation. And while I hope I might have something to do with it if someone decides to stay here, become a more permanent part of our community, again, it doesn’t matter if I preach dazzling sermons if folks are not welcomed and greeted and talked to by you – if they don’t hear anything from you. That’s because you are the best resource you have for sharing the good news about God’s love – because the best, most convincing, most moving examples of God’s love you’ll have to share are the stories of how God’s love has changed you.
So maybe it’s ok – for once – to take a little of Paul’s confidence for ourselves. Be a little full of it – full of God, that is, and brimming-over with stories of how God is changing you. You don’t have to write an epistle. You don’t have to preach a sermon. But find a way to tell your story – and watch how God is glorified because of you.