Third Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 10), Year C, June 9, 2013
1 Kings 17:17-24, Psalm 30, Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today is the second of our six-week study of Galatians. Last week, we heard why Paul was so mad at the Galatians: they had started putting their own actions, their own ability to follow the traditions of the faithful, above trusting in God’s Grace. They were turning away from the true Gospel—the Good News that God has saved us—and turning to a false gospel. This false gospel focused instead on their own ability to do the right thing. The false gospel was all about works righteousness: if you do the right thing, you will earn God’s love.
This false gospel sounds very logical, very believable. There’s just one problem with it: that’s not God’s message. That’s not the Good News that Jesus was sent to bring. That false gospel is not the Word of God that turned Paul’s life upside down and inside out, and it’s not the Word of God that is still active in our midst today.
Paul grew up in a very faithful family. He’d spent a lot of time studying the Bible, the Scriptures. He knew all the things God had asked of his people in the past. Paul knew all the right things to do to be a faithful follower of God. He knew all the right prayers, he knew how difficult passages of Scripture should be interpreted. Paul could probably quote the Bible backwards and forwards. In every way that humans could measure, he was as perfect a follower of God as anyone could possibly be.
The problem was, he was so sure that his interpretation of the Bible was right that it never occurred to him that God might not agree with him. It never occurred to him, as a young man, that God might do something different, something new. And Paul focused so much on doing all the right things and proving himself righteous, that it never occurred to him that God might not think that Paul’s actions were enough to get him in God’s good books.
And so, when Paul heard about people who claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the Anointed One of God sent to save God’s people, he was offended. Jesus had spent time among sinners! With people who didn’t follow the rules and do everything as good as Paul did, who couldn’t quote Scripture chapter and verse! Now, any self-righteous person will tell you that obviously God can’t love sinners. Sinners are people who do things God doesn’t like, so obviously God should spend more time and attention on the righteous people! It sounds logical, right? So, if Jesus spent time with sinners, Jesus must not really be from God. I bet you there are Christians who would think that same thing if Jesus were to come back today. And, as if that weren’t enough proof that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, Jesus had died. Obviously, Paul thought, God would never let his chosen king die. Particularly not in such a horrible, horrible manner as crucifixion. It just wasn’t possible. And because Paul was so sure about all that, so sure he knew what God wanted and how God’s Word was to be interpreted, he persecuted the followers of Jesus. Because God forbid they lead anyone astray!
But as it turned out, Paul didn’t know what God wanted. He was wrong. God loves sinners just as much as he loves everyone else—in fact, we’re all sinners. Everyone, even people who think they’re as righteous as Paul thought he was. God loves us anyway! And God could and did send a Messiah who loved sinners so much he was willing to die for them. And God could and did work through that death, bringing life to all the world! You see, what God wanted wasn’t self-righteous fanaticism. God didn’t want people who knew all the right things to do and so never depended on God. God didn’t want people who could quote the Scriptures and then use that knowledge to confirm what they already believed. God wanted people who would listen—truly listen—and be open to the redeeming love of God. God wanted people to trust that he could and would save them. And God wanted people to be open to the transforming, life-changing love that God has for all the world.
God revealed all that to Paul. God showed Paul how wrong he had been, by revealing himself to Paul through Jesus. God loved Paul even though Paul was dead wrong. God loved Paul even though Paul had paid more attention to his own understanding than to what God was doing around him. Now, Paul was a pretty stubborn guy, who was so certain he knew best that he went around attacking the followers of Christ, but God was able to get through to him even so. Paul didn’t come to know Jesus through Paul’s own merit. Paul didn’t come to Jesus because he found him and decided to follow him. No, when Paul heard about Jesus he wanted to stop all of Jesus’ followers! Paul didn’t listen to Jesus’ moral teachings and decide he had it right; Paul didn’t hear about the miracles and decide that Jesus must be powerful and able to help him. Nothing Paul did brought him to God—and, in fact, the things that he thought God wanted him to do took him further away from God!
Paul came to know Jesus because Jesus came to him and sought him out. Paul came to know Jesus because of the grace and love of God, which came to him even though he had done nothing to deserve it, nothing to earn it. And through that grace and love, through the way God revealed God’s self to Paul through the Son, Jesus Christ, Paul realized that he had been totally wrong. Paul had been working directly against God! And yet, God loved him anyway.
That changed Paul’s whole life. Before coming to know Christ, Paul could never have imagined what God would have in store for him. Paul had had his life planned out, but God had other plans for him. And those plans were to spread the story of God’s grace and love—the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ—to all people. The Good News is that God loves you no matter what. The Good News is that we are tied to the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus our Lord, and the sin and brokenness of the world don’t get the final say. We don’t have to worry about being good enough for God; we don’t have to worry about getting all the traditions right. We don’t have to worry about being perfect. We don’t have to be afraid of failing. All we have to do is trust in the grace and mercy of God, the God who created us, who saves us from sin and death, the God who is always working in us and around us. All we have to do is let God’s love work in us and through us.
That is Good News, the best news the world has ever had. That’s the message that God gave Paul to tell the whole world, and it’s the message that God gives us to tell the whole world. That message sent Paul out through the Roman Empire, telling people about Jesus Christ. Instead of staying close to home, Paul found himself traveling far and near, talking with people he would never have dreamed of talking to, people who looked differently and dressed differently and spoke a different language and ate different foods.
The message of salvation—the Good News that God had revealed to Paul through Christ Jesus—was a message that resonated with everyone. It spoke to them. And it wasn’t Paul’s own gifts for preaching and teaching that did it, either. The message God gave Paul was greater than he was, greater than I am or you are, greater than anyone who’s ever told it. That message is something you can’t reason out logically, or prove in a court of law. It doesn’t depend on anyone’s skill at preaching, and it doesn’t depend on an encyclopedic knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. Sometimes I hear people say, “I can’t come to Bible study! I don’t know enough.” Or, “I can’t share my faith with anyone, I don’t know enough. Christianity is too big and complex for me to share with my neighbor.”
The Reverend Doctor Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th Century, wrote a thirteen-volume work about theology. It’s pretty intimidating to think about. But when someone asked him what the core of the Christian faith was, it didn’t take him long to reply: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” You know that message, and I know it. The children in our pews today know it, too. It’s not hard. Jesus loves me. That is the core of the message that God revealed to Paul, which changed Paul’s life. It’s the core of the message Paul told the Galatians and all those to whom he brought the Gospel. And it’s the core of the message that God has given to us, the message we are called to share with the world. That message—that Gospel—is the power of God coming to be with us. That Gospel is the true glory of God. But like all love, to have any worth it must be shared. So, like Paul, we are called to share God’s love and grace with the world. To trust that God’s love will guide us, even if it leads us to places and people we would never have imagined. May we feel the power of God’s love revealed to us through Jesus Christ, and may we share that love with the world.