Thursday, June 2, 2016
Couldn't Make It Up
Last week, I wrote about how excited I am that the lectionary is making its way through Galatians. Unfortunately, however, after this Sunday I won't be preaching for three weeks, and, by then, we'll be almost through with it. So this Sunday is basically my one chance to embrace Paul's no-holds-barred treatise on grace over law. This week's reading (Galatians 1:11-24) isn't the clearest exposition of that theme, but it still packs a punch.
Paul writes, "I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ." That seems easy enough. Paul wasn't a disciple of any of the disciples. He got the message of the gospel straight from Jesus. We know about the revelation on the Damascus Road. But, when I read the rest of this week's lesson and then went ahead and read all of Galatians 1 & 2, I discovered that this theme is far more important than an introduction to his argument or a passing rebuttal of some criticism he had received in Galatia. This theme--the gospel comes straight from Jesus Christ--is central to the whole book.
Paul repeats this point over and over: "I did not confer with any human being" and "I went away at once into Arabia" and "I did not see any other apostle except James." Why is this so important? Why does Paul go to such great lengths to remove any doubt that the gospel he received came from another human being? As the rest of Galatians unfolds, I think we find three reasons.
First, Paul is claiming apostolic authority. He is not a disciple of disciples. He got his commission directly from the Lord. As he would later explain in 1 Corinthians 15:8, "as one untimely born," Paul was the last apostle to whom Jesus revealed himself directly. Thus, his words, instructions, and teachings carry the same weight as those of Peter, James, or any of the other apostles.
Second, Paul seems to be addressing a false gospel that had begun to circulate in the churches of Galatia. As we heard last Sunday in 1:6, Paul write, "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel." This claim of a straight-from-Jesus gospel gives him a claim to the one true, undiluted, undistorted gospel. He can, therefore, reject out of hand any contrary message as not authentic.
Third, and most importantly, the gospel as Paul has received it is something that no one could make up. The complete and total reversal that Paul experienced when this gospel was revealed to him by Jesus is something that could not have been manufactured by human effort. Paul writes, "You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it." Although he makes this argument more fully in Philippians 3, we see it already here in one of Paul's earliest letters. The only way Paul can explain this conversion from church-destroyer to church-builder is a gospel that comes straight from Jesus himself. No one else, Paul stresses, could have convinced him to abandon his life in Judaism and embrace the message of grace. In human terms, that message--that gospel--just doesn't make sense.
No one invents a theology upon which effort doesn't matter. That's a recipe for hedonism. Imagine creating a religion in which your behavior doesn't matter--in which your justification is guaranteed not by anything you do but by something someone has already done on your behalf. How do you get anyone to show up? How do you get anyone to give? How do you get anyone to care long enough? It just doesn't make sense. But, of course, it does. As we'll see in the rest of Galatians, this gospel of grace has the power to set us free. It is, in fact, the only thing that can set us free. Paul didn't find it; it found Paul, and now Paul is desperate to share this life-changing, straight-from-God gospel with others. (And so am I.)