Been a while since I preached, but tonight at our Evening Service of Holy Communion with Prayer for Healing, I’ve had the chance to get to grips with Paul’s earliest letter, the one he sent to the Galatians.
There is a lot of talk in our news these days about the power of the regulator. Whether it is the press, the energy companies, education, or – dare I say it – the church !, regulation is seen as a means of offering control or enforcing responsibility, or of speaking on behalf of those who regard themselves as damaged, disenfranchised or dismissed, or not, as the case may be.
In our reading from Galatians this evening, St. Paul is speaking into a situation where the regulatory authorities, known as the Judaisers, have muddied the waters of the Galatians’ freedom found by faith in Christ. These Judaisers have come and played on people’s doubts and fears, suggesting that the gentile Galatians can’t possibly be proper Christians unless they are circumcised like the Jews to whom Jesus came first; circumcised like Christ himself would have been. They are trying to apply the regulations of the old Hebrew Law being applied in this new community, new context, new covenant. Why? So that the Judaisers can avoid the pressure they’re getting from other Jews who see them spending rather a lot of time with Gentiles (Gal 6:12). The regulators were suggesting others fudge the issue of their faith in an act of self-preservation.
Regulators achieving nothing but confusion, and fudging the real truth of a situation? Regulator’s making life difficult for others in an effort to get the authorities off their back? Now who’d have thought it!
These regulators, the Judaisers, are making it up. Forming man-made rules for a new situation. Granted, they’re from old, divinely-ordained rules, but they’ve not thought about whether these are still appropriate, relevant to the new situation, and, importantly, in line with the revelation of Jesus Christ.
St. Paul however, is on their case, and on the case of the Galatians too, and woe betide those who catch his attention by deviating from the priority of living by the Spirit (Gal 5:16)!
He knows he’s told them before, but he’s darn well going to tell them again, and given that it’s written down in large, friendly letters (Gal 6:11), to be read, shared, and re-read among the community, they’re not going to be allowed to forget it. ‘It’ being Paul’s autobiography.
Paul was not brought to faith by men. (Or women for that matter if I want to avoid being accused of sexism.) Unlike the Centurion to whom Peter was sent to explain the faith, or the Ethiopian Eunuch whom Philip baptised after a conversation on a chariot, Paul got it direct. He simply, and most spectacularly, encountered the risen Christ. A bit like Peter and Philip, but much more instantaneous and dramatic and without their three years wandering around Judea as Jesus’ disciples.
We know the story, so let’s not spend time on the road to Damascus, because in this account Paul doesn’t either. Neither does he mention the three days he spent blind and starving before he was healed by Ananias and the scales fell from his eyes (Acts 9:17). What he sees as important for the Galatians, and what is important that we consider for ourselves today, is how much he listened to other Christians.
Paul didn’t. He didn’t consult or listen to anyone (Gal 1:16). We’re not told by Luke in Acts, or here in Galatians, of any detailed explanation being given by Ananias of who Jesus Christ was, and what he had done through his death and resurrection for this warrant-wielding, chain-jangling persecutor. There was no baptism prep – Ananias simply baptised him. No Alpha course, no catechises, no ordination training. Saul has encountered Christ, and that is enough. As Paul, a changed man, he simply preaches in Damascus a bit, gets himself into trouble (Acts 9:19-25), escapes and goes away for three years, during which he falls almost completely off the radar.
The raging fanatic of a Jew that was Saul, complicit in the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1), goes away after meeting the risen Christ, listens to and talks with none of the key leaders of the Christian faith, skips off to Arabia, to spend three years doing… doing what exactly? Probably to grapple directly with God over all the different questions he now had about how all the different things he’d grown up learning and knowing as a devout and high-flying Jew were changed by his encounter with Jesus. It’s not like the region around Mount Sinai known as Arabia, hadn’t been used for a similar purpose once or twice before!
And that is his key point in this passage. Jesus Christ was enough. He didn’t need to be persuaded of who Jesus was – he knew all that. We know that this isn’t that long after the resurrection, given his presence at Stephen’s stoning, and Saul’d been persecuting the Christians because he knew exactly who Jesus had said he was, and feared the consequences! Now, he knew first-hand, that far from being a rabble rousing circus act, Jesus really was the Son of God (Gal 1:15-16), there was nothing to question. Neither did he need to have his preaching skills judged by the leaders of the church at this stage; his theological studies and his skills of oration were not in question!
No, what we sense here is important, is that he went to spend time with God. The scales had fallen from his eyes, he no longer needed to be confined by the chains of the old covenant in which he was well-versed, but instead he needed to explore for himself the freedom he talks about later in Galatians, the freedom of faith in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5). He had something that he would later write about to the Corinthians, ‘the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’ (2Cor 4:6).
So when Paul is writing to the Galatians saying “don’t listen to the regulators”, he’s saying it because he had no intention of letting the Galatians be hood-winked by the very laws that he himself had broken free of. The Galatians connection with God needed to come direct, without interference. The regulations of circumcision weren’t appropriate or applicable to these Gentile converts to the Christian faith.
The same goes for us to. Jesus Christ is enough. Faith in Christ gives freedom to live life as God would have us do, directly responsible to him – testing the appropriateness of our actions and callings in the light of the Gospel of Christ, yes, but not testing or regulating the Gospel itself, received by faith. If Christ is recognisable in the Gospel we preach, then God, not man, is praised. The glory goes to God (Gal 1:24). If we put regulations round that Gospel, try and contain it within a set of tick-box criteria that say it’s only authentic if we live it out a certain way, worship in a certain fashion, say certain prayers, wear or otherwise a certain set of clothes, then we’re regulating the Gospel we’ve received.
Yes, we’ve all received a Gospel. The Gospel of Jesus that is not of human origin. It’s a gospel that we have to grapple with daily, whether we encounter it as something shockingly fresh on our road through life, meet it in the healing hands of another believer, or the preaching and witness of a sick man as was the case for the Galatians (Gal 4:12-14). How we receive the Gospel, and the encounters we have with the Holy Spirit as we continually respond to it, is likely to impact heavily on our calling, our Gospel life.
Paul encountered God’s grace in a very direct way, so that’s how he delivers the message of that grace – his letter’s are hardly examples of tact and diplomacy! It might not come over very gently, but what Paul desired was that the focus of the Galatians be brought back to Christ, that they be healed of the distractions that the Judaisers are causing. As far as we’re aware, Paul didn’t notify the Jewish authorities that he’d had a change of faith, though I’m sure in due course it became rather noticeable! He didn’t go and check out what he should say and do with other Christian leaders so that they could guide and regulate him. When he returned from Arabia to share the Gospel of Christ, he did so through preaching and debate that was appropriate to Gentile communities spiritually hungry to find truth among the plethora of known and unknown god’s in the Greek and Roman world.
As I’ve been studying recently how and why we celebrate Holy Communion, I’ve revisited the story of Sara Miles, the foody and atheist journalist, who wandered into a particular church one day on a whim and ‘ate Jesus’ as she terms it, in bread and wine. Her encounter with Jesus was that direct, involved no initial explanation of the Gospel, no permission to share in the Eucharistic meal, no baptism. Her call about which she writes in ‘Take This Bread’, turns out to revolve round feeding people who are desperately hungry physically and spiritually; feeding them with sacks of basic food-stuffs off the altar table, and breaking bread in a radically inclusive and sacramental community, all so that others can encounter Jesus without little things like man-made regulations getting in the way.
It’s a tough call deciding to what extent we need to live with and by the regulations we encounter. Few would deny the need for child-protection legislation and the regulations that attend it, but what about in other aspects of our lives? At a corporate level, there are plenty of regulations in the Anglican Church, but is there a sense in which some of them can hinder us from proclaiming the Gospel in some places or at some times? Or are people praising God because of what they see St. Peter’s Church doing in extending the Kingdom of God? We have a Diocesan Bishop who is calling us to be pioneering in the way we connect with our communities, who is encouraging parishes to think “outside the box” as they join in with what God wants to do. Is the gaze of this church firmly fixed on Jesus Christ, or is there perhaps a box which says ‘St. Peter’s only does things this way’ that needs chucking in the skip, so that there’s no danger of fudging and confusing the opportunities that are presented by the Holy Spirit!?
As we consider the Gospel we have received – our own encounters with Jesus, which we will renew this evening in bread and wine and prayer – how is that going to be shared? Will we allow it to be regulated by the way we, or others, think it ‘should’ be done, or will we respond with the freedom of knowing the Holy Spirit will guide us? How much will we keep our Gospel linked to the encounters with Christ that we’ve had as individuals, and how to bridge the gap between that Gospel and the needs of the spiritually hungry? Are we really living like Jesus Christ is enough?