Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sitting at the Feet of Jesus, Clothed, and in my Right Mind





Sermon Texts: Galatians 3:23-29;   Luke 8:  26-39



In a recent sermon I described the Spirit of God as dancing out ahead of us to inspire sacred work for justice and compassion, a spiritual activity usually happening on the margins of society. As a former pastor described it, the Holy Spirit is more likely to be found making waves out on forgotten streets of our cities than inside church buildings.  It’s easy for us to see where the Spirit has been—in the Civil Rights movement, for instance—and to recognize where the church has belatedly joined in that work.  It’s harder to anticipate what edge of need the Spirit is moving toward. In that sermon I then challenged you to name a movement that might be next on the Spirit’s agenda. Linda suggested that the mentally ill might be the next marginalized group the Spirit will visit with focused advocacy, care, and might.  May her words prove prophetic. Today the Bible speaks to us about Jesus’ healing ways for minds and spirits. 
Although I certainly affirm psychological and medical support for our mental health, I’m extracting from our Gospel story a prescription for spiritual and mental health modeled loosely on the man from Gerasa whom Jesus exorcized.  What was eventually said about that man is what I would like said about me:  that I, too, “sat at Jesus’ feet, clothed, and in [my] right mind” (Luke 8:35). I don’t mean to make light of serious mental health challenges faced by 1 in 17 Americans. I mean to say that we all find ourselves somewhere along a continuum of mental illness and mental wellness. This story in no way oversimplifies the causes and sufferings of mental illness, but it does offer a simple metaphor to guide me in tending to everyday spiritual challenges.   Like the man from Gerasa, you, too, may wish to be clothed and in your right mind. And to take some time to sit at the feet of Jesus.
          I’ll unpack what that means to me in a moment. Let me first acknowledge the elephant—or the demons—in the room, demons named “Legion.” Just as the Bible names a creative, lively, loving energy as the Spirit of God, so the Bible also names deeply destructive forces in our world as demonic spirits. Of course, 21st century Westerners don’t talk about demons.  Yet we can easily relate to at least one way 1st century Jews and Christians understood demons. The oppressive Roman Empire was “a demonic spirituality . . . they called Satan (the “Dragon” of Revelation 12).”[i] They experienced what St. Paul called “the powers and principalities” in “the actual institutional forms of Roman life:  legions, governors, crucifixions, payment of tribute, Roman sacred emblems and standards.” But their prescientific worldview caused them to “project that harmful spiritual force, in visionary form, as spiritual beings” (Wink 25-26). 
Today some Christians still retain a prescientific worldview and believe demonic beings in the air are responsible for evil. Secularists, of course, deny there’s any spiritual dimension to this world. But others today operate empirically while affirming spirituality. Walter Wink argues we can discern the “inner spirit of things” and think of demons today as “the actual spirituality of systems,” still a very biblical idea. A demonic spirit can capture an entire “network of Powers” that “becomes integrated around idolatrous systems” of violence, exploitation, oppression (27). 
          In other words, groups of people and systems of thought can be conduits for good or evil that is greater than the sum of its parts.  Mob violence exemplifies how a group can fuel a destructiveness with an intensity that could not exist outside the group.  Afterward, the individuals can wonder what “possessed” them to behave in ways they would not have behaved on their own (28). So, too, the power of love is intensified and perpetuated through human networks.  We at Open Table appreciate this phenomenon when we make our major decisions through group discernment founded on the premise that we can learn to tune in to a spirit of wisdom and compassion and tune out a spirit of fear or anger that can otherwise creep into groups and take over.
Systems might seem morally neutral. In our culture we believe strongly in the power of the individual.  But Jesus’s communal culture may have been wiser than ours in recognizing each of us is deeply imbedded in family, political, economic systems, and that “only by confronting the spirituality of an institution can a social system be transformed” (31). God’s redemption of individuals cannot “take place apart from the redemption of our social structures” (35).  Individuals shouldn’t relinquish their own moral responsibility, but in some sense we are enmeshed and complicit in systems, some of which are demonic.  And some mental illness—today and in Jesus’ day—might be a sign of a demonic, systemic force at work in our world.  To give but one example, the prevalence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among troups returning from combat indicts our nation and its military complex as, in some sense, demonic. 
Just so, some biblical scholars speculate that Roman military occupation explains why the ostracized, tomb-dwelling, naked, tormented man in today’s Gospel lesson is not, when we first meet him, in his “right mind.” The name his demons give—“Legion”—reveals the cause of his mental illness.  A “legion” was a Roman battalion of several thousand soldiers used to occupy and subdue colonies for the Empire. It’s theorized that the suffering the ancient Romans visited upon the Jewish people during their military occupation was so pervasive and brutal that it created mass psychoses.  Psychiatrist Frantz Fanon studied the terrible psychological effects of the French occupation of Algeria in the 1950s.  He noticed patterns in mental disorders that had physical symptoms.  For example, many cases of hysterical blindness and lameness became more intense as French repression intensified.  The physical and psychological illnesses Fanon described among that group of oppressed people are consistent with the illnesses Jesus healed in his day.  The wide-spread trauma the Roman occupiers caused surely took its toll on the collective psyche of the Jews in Jesus’ day.  So in today’s Gospel story, the term the demons used for themselves suggests the possessed man may indeed represent what had possessed all of the people—a literal Roman legion, which had taken possession of their land.  This man may also represent what can happen to any of us when we are, in effect, possessed by dehumanizing systems of oppression. 
          “Legion” teaches us to recognize that we can get trapped into systems, seeing only a combative reality constructed by the system. But sharing the mystical “mind of Christ” reveals another reality of connection and compassion. We can learn to question and thus help transform entire systems.  The man from Gerasa named and, in doing so, indicted “the powers that be.”  Revealed as unholy “pigs,” the demonic powers self-destructed.  And the tormented man could think in right ways. 
          Which brings me to this important point: systemic transformation happens in tandem with individual transformation.  We now consider what it means for individuals to sit at the feet of Jesus and be clothed and in our right minds.  A broader interpretation of the name “Legion” suggests the way multiple, conflicting voices can divide a personality and fracture one’s sense of self.  You and I have felt, in milder ways, the tension within us when we hear multiple voices urging us in different directions.  Not audible voices.  But sometimes we feel our allegiances are in conflict.  For instance, parenting responsibilities may, at times, feel in tension with professional responsibilities.  Which voice should we heed? A young Christian dedicated to being an instrument of God’s peace can also be called upon to serve as an instrument of war.  It can be maddening, quite literally, to hear contrary voices as equally compelling and never give priority to one over the others.  To give equal weight to all voices that claim authority in our lives can produce a “fractured, warring soul,” to use a phrase from the last hymn we sang.  The ancient formula of naming Jesus as Lord is a way to describe how an individual achieves a united, integrated self.  To align our lives with the aims of Jesus is a spiritual practice that promotes a healing identity. To “sit at the feet of Jesus” is a way of saying that we become a disciple of his compassionate Way.

To be “clothed with Christ,” as Paul describes it in today’s lesson from Galatians, is another way of describing a spiritually healthy recognition of our “oneness in Christ.” We are “in our right mind” when we share the mind (the intentions, the concerted purpose, the uniting aims) of Christ. We are truly sane only when gain this altered consciousness, God’s reality, and know deeply that we are all God’s children. We are in our right minds when we dress ourselves in Christ’s ways and think with his mind. Spiritual maturation requires us to shift from dualistic and egoist thinking to a new consciousness of reality’s fundamental connectedness.  In the words we read from Galatians today, we are “clothed in Christ” when we no longer think in terms of “Jew or Greek,” oppressor or oppressed. 
Look at our mission statement, printed on your worship bulletin. The second phrase reflects a theology implicit in every sermon I preach.  Our mission, Christ’s mission, engages us in spiritual AND social transformation, which are mutual and recursive processes.  Jesus’ stories resonate with implications for healing of both society and individual.  Our Gospel story today shows how exorcising demonic spirits in individuals can heal systems and how exorcising demonic spirits in systems can heal individuals. You and I are working on both those levels at the same time: exposing and dismissing demonic spirits within us—the spirits of addiction or shame or fear or despair, for instance—even as we work together to recognize and name demonic systems in place that many people take for granted.  Both depend on a new way, a mystical way of thinking that unites and liberates us from our own ego and from enslaving systems.
Two stories in the news this weekend illustrate sick systems of thought and practice.  I do not want to demonize two public figures who have for the last few days been publicly apologizing, one for racist and the other for homophobic comments and actions, one a TV chef, another the founder of a “cure the gays” “ministry.”  On the surface, the apologies seem to reflect, at best, a shallow understanding of the harm done, and a pervasive ignorance about subtler, intransigent prejudices. But it’s hard to know the complexities of the controversies and the sincerity of celebrities through the “mind of the media.” Instead, I want to name systemic demons. The demonic spirits of racism and heterosexism still have power today, especially in their subtler forms, and the church’s job is twofold: to minister to and with those who’ve been damaged by this destructive spirit—both perpetrators of hatred and victims—and to eradicate those systems so that there is a completely new mindset that unites and liberates. To be about this social and spiritual transformation we need contemplative practices.
          And we need a faith community. The exorcised man from Gerasa wanted to follow Jesus back across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus surprisingly refused this request.  Jesus instead encouraged him to reconnect with his community and bear witness to all God had done for him.  Jesus’s way is always compassionate—but it’s never easy.  After we sit at Jesus’ feet, clothed again in him, in our right minds by knowing his, we are told to “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”  Most people try to escape when the voices in their troubled minds become unbearable—through anesthetizing entertainment, vapid consumerism, recreational drugs, binge eating, irresponsible relationships, sometimes even through suicide.  Jesus’ way is not that of escape.  It’s sitting at Jesus’ feet AND returning to our community, declaring what God has done. 
May this time together be ever a means for us to sit at Jesus’ feet, feel clothed with God’s love, regain our right minds, and walk out declaring what God has done.  
PRAYER
Christ Jesus, I just want to be clothed and in my right mind. Amen


[i] Wink, Walter.  The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium. New York: (Augsburg Fortress, 1998.

Monday, June 17, 2013

GUIDED MEDITATION AND DISCUSSION: "She Has Shown Great Love"




GOSPEL READING                     Luke 7:36-50                                                 
Part 1
36One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”

Part 2
40Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” 41“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.”

Part 3
44Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

GUIDED DISCUSSION AND MEDITATION: “She Has Shown Great Love”                                   
There are three parts to this story, one story framing another story, and we’ll meet a total of six characters. So this guided discussion and mediation is divided into three parts.
I.
The dramatic event is established as the first three characters are introduced in the first four verses. (Congregation was divided into 3 parts. Individuals were asked to focus on just one character--the person assigned to their section--as the first four verses are read aloud again.)
Then individuals in each section of the congregation were invited to share what they had learned about their character:
GROUP 1:  The Pharisee
GROUP 2:  The woman
GROUP 3:  Jesus

GROUP 1 (Pharisee) responded:
·       The Pharisee wanted to host Jesus. 
·       We’re not sure of his motives.
·       He doubts Jesus’s authority as a prophet because he apparently didn’t know the woman’s reputation as a sinner.  He seems disdainful of her and doubtful of Jesus’s authority as a true prophet.
·       His criticism of the woman is not spoken aloud.  He says it to himself.  

Follow up question for more reflection:
*How do you picture him reacting?  What expression is on his face.  What is his body language?

GROUP 2 (Woman) responded:
·       The woman was known as a sinner and is being judged by the Pharisee.
·       She was there to see Jesus.
·       She is weeping—but we don’t know why.
·       She is doing something quite dramatic and beyond the bounds of custom in a display of . . . love, sorrow, contrition, petition, desperation, gratitude?

Follow-up question for more reflection:
*What emotion or back story might you have imagined in her expressions and gestures?

GROUP 3 (Jesus) responded:
·       Jesus’s only action was to respond to the Pharisee’s invitation to dinner.
·       He apparently permits this lavish, extreme show of devotion, unfazed.

Follow-up question for more reflection:
*Does he just keep eating, continue conversing, as this woman walked in off the street and performs this uncustomary act?

As I now read aloud that passage again, listen with your eye. Maybe you can see more details you hadn’t noticed before:

36One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”

II.
Within the story of the woman called a sinner, Jesus tells a brief story.  It suggests several things.  Simon has invited the renowned, itinerant rabbi to his home to hear more about his teachings—perhaps to “test” him or perhaps to learn from him. This section gives us a glimpse of the kind of conversation the woman’s actions interrupted.  Some scholars classify this part of the pericope as a “symposium” story, a recognized literary genre in that period which featured a table conversation at a banquet. (Bovon 1989, 386; Steel 1984, 379-94, qtd in Tannehill, 134).

In this symposium story we hear a dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisee.  We’ll now learn the name of the Pharisee and hear him address Jesus directly.  The woman, who has been the actor in the story, now disappears from the focus of our attention.  And we meet three new characters: a creditor and two debtors.  As usual, Jesus doesn’t debate theology. He tells a story.  Listen to Jesus: 

40Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

Remember Simon the Pharisee did not speak aloud his disapproval of the woman, though Simon must have been visibly displeased with her.  The Pharisee was hoping Jesus would speak to the woman and ask her to leave.  Instead, Jesus wanted to speak to him.  “Simon, I have something to say to you.” 

“Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.”

Ah.  At least Simon was willing for the teacher to speak to him. And Jesus does:

41“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.”

Again, Simon the Pharisee did not speak aloud his criticism or doubts about Jesus’s authority, but we know he thought that if Jesus were a true prophet, as some were claiming, he’d have known the woman was a notorious sinner.  Interesting that Simon never considered the possibility that Jesus (and everyone else) knew her reputation but Jesus didn’t care.  If you recall the Pharisee’s doubt about Jesus as prophet, wise proclaimer of truth, then you also see the author’s use of irony here.  Jesus is able to “read” Simon (maybe not his mind but his attitude) because the story Jesus chooses to tell responds directly to Simon’s unspoken accusation against the woman.  In telling this story, Jesus is telling Simon, “I see what is in your heart, too, Simon.”  The readers understand that Jesus is a prophet—one who knows Simon’s unuttered concern and who probably understands this woman better than Simon. 

The parable ends as Simon answers correctly so that Jesus can then affirm Simon’s ability to see the truth.  I almost hear Jesus thinking, “You have judged rightly, Simon—in the parable of the creditors—even if you have wrongly judged her and me. Yes.  Now you see, Simon.”

So upon what action is the teacher focus? 

 “Who loves?” rather than “Who sins?” is the pertinent question to Jesus.

Jesus has recast the woman from sinner to lover.  Luke is not concerned about telling us what her sin was, by the way. We never know, though many over the centuries assumed it was a sexual sin. 

The story within the story does tell us this.  The woman’s motivation for anointing Jesus’s feet and carrying on so extravagantly is the love of someone forgiven of debts.  The woman came to express the love of someone Jesus had previously forgiven.  For the narrator of Luke to rename her sins in this story would be to violate the principle that her debts have been wiped out. True forgiveness doesn’t mean you can forget a past wrong done to you, but it does mean we relate to that person without maintaining a ledge of past infractions and holding that past infraction against them and making them continue to pay for it. Sometimes we need to remember what someone is capable of doing—to protect ourselves and others.  But we can guard against future harm even while offering grace and letting go of accusations our heart makes against past “sins” against us.  The "sinner" no longer “owes” us for a past debt.

III.
In the story’s conclusion Jesus astonished the Pharisee by exalting this woman who has been kissing his feet.  Simon had wanted her chastised and banished. Jesus extols her magnanimity while exposing Simon’s own deficits of customary hospitality.  What a contrast:

44Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

And so we come to the end of the story of “The Woman Who Showed Great Love.”

Love is something we show and do more than what we feel.
       
Pause to consider a way you might show/do love this very day.

Silence.
       
As people of faith, what is the connection between faith and forgiveness?

Sometimes we don’t live as if we have been forgiven.  We don’t really believe that about ourselves. If we have moved on from a past mistake or injury we’ve done—have truly made amends and have truly learned from that experience and have done all in our power to reconcile with another—we can put that behind us and live into our identity as lovers, not sinners.  In faith, see yourself as a lover, not a sinner.

PRAYER
Lord Jesus Christ, Lover of All, help us see ourselves as you see us. 
PRAYER STATIONS
Prayer Station 1: Forgiving
Today and every day you have the chance to forgive and be forgiven. If your intention is to accept forgiveness for a particular action or attitude, come forward to signal your commitment to make amends, if possible, and to “move forward” with a renewed spirit of grace for yourself and others.  The pastor will place a fragrant ointment on your hand to symbolize sweet forgiveness and will speak a blessing. There is grace enough to forgive all.
Or if your intention is to forgive another for a past hurt, come forward to signal your commitment to extend grace to that person.  Forgiving sometimes takes a long time, but this can be a step toward releasing the hold a spirit of unforgivenness has on you.  Forgiving does not mean you condone an action or that you can forget it.  It means you will no longer be controlled by it. The pastor will place fragrant ointment on your hand to symbolize sweet forgiveness and will speak a blessing.

Prayer Station 2: Gifts for giving
We are made FOR GIVING.  We don’t buy God off. We give out of love and joy, not to settle debts.  Forgiven people are generous because they understand the priceless gift of grace and want to be gracious. Go and add some of your fragrant ointment to that offering plate! Your offering helps us all be part of God’s reconciling work in the world.

Prayer Station 3: Receiving the bread and cup  
A traditional  liturgy for the Eucharist includes these words of Jesus: “This is the blood of the new covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”  Silently reread words to the meditation hymn printed on page 1.  Then move forward to the altar.  The pastor will serve the first person, that person will serve the next, and each person will receive and then offer the bread and cup to the next person, a picture of giving and receiving forgiveness.  The pastor will receive last.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

"Through God's Grace": Jesus, Paul, and Will

Sermon Text: Galatians 1: 11-24
 11For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. 18Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; 19but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. 20In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! 21Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, 22and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; 23they only heard it said, “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24And they glorified God because of me.



Well, my friends, today we are eavesdropping on an argument between the first factions within Christianity.  I don’t know if overhearing their disagreement will discourage or console you.  You might find the early infighting St. Paul documented—and probably contributed to—a reason to despair. After all, how can folks like us ever find common ground if the saints of old were quarrelsome?   However, you might see in these historic squabbles evidence that it’s human and sometimes even helpful to disagree, that expressing differences can be clarifying and generative, that there comes a time to take a principled stand, and that every theological trajectory needs to make course corrections over time.  Paul’s course correction moves us toward grace.

First some context. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Galatia demonstrates that, from the start, there were competing versions of Christianity. Paul wrote this particular letter to one of the churches he’d founded but which had fallen away from his teachings after Paul had moved on.  Although Paul had insisted his new converts in Galatia did NOT have to adhere to the Mosaic Law, Jewish Christians later visiting the Galatians insisted that Jesus followers must be circumcised.  

They must have felt what we at Open Table would feel if a persuasive visiting preacher insisted that gay Christians had to become/behave as straight men and women to be real Christians.  The Galatians must have experienced the confusion and turmoil we might undergo if someone convinced us that women could not be pastors or church leaders. Or that real Christians had to believe every word of the Bible is literally true. I suspect the visiting preacher would have to pour some potion into our communion wine to get very many folks here to accept a narrower Gospel, but we can imagine the havoc this alternate teaching would cause.

Paul is writing this letter to reiterate a freer Gospel upon which his church was founded. And he’s ticked. He’s angry that other Christians had undermined the work he’d done to welcome those skittish Gentiles and insist upon a Gospel of Grace, not a Religion of Requirements.

Paul, himself a circumcised but also very Helenized Jew, had established churches far beyond Jerusalem—in Galatia, for example, in what is modern-day Turkey. As a missionary to the non-Jews in pagan cultures, he understood the core of the Gospel differently than Peter and the other original disciples still based in Jerusalem.  Paul—like many whose theology changes after getting to know people of other cultures—came to believe the Gentiles should not have to follow Jewish practices of circumcision and dietary law, for instance, to experience the loving God he’d encountered so powerfully in Christ Jesus.  

 But Jerusalem-based Christians like Peter and James feared that such a Christ-centered religion was taking Jews away from the Torah and might leave them without their moral anchor. Despite Paul’s boasts that he was the most Jewish of the Jews, his detractors worried that Paul was taking people away from the core of Judaism with his focus solely “on Christ’s inclusion and the love of God”.[i]

Anyone placing bets back then would have put their money on Peter and the more conservative Jerusalem Christians winning this contest between competing Christianities. Peter et. al. seemed to have more credibility since they were the original apostles.  They had walked the shores of Galilee with Jesus.  How could Paul claim authority to teach about Jesus if Paul had never met Jesus?  Indeed, Paul had cruelly persecuted the first Christians before his conversion. He had been the enemy! How trustworthy could his interpretation of the Gospel be?

Paul had an impossible case to make in this first fight for Christian orthodoxy.  Brazenly, Paul took a liability and made it seem like an asset.  When accused of not having met Jesus or been thoroughly instructed by the “real” apostles, he insisted he had experienced the Christ in a superior encounter of the mystical kind:  

11For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”  

And since those stories about Paul persecuting Christians were still circulating, he tackled that bad press directly, again transforming scandal into testimony:

13You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.”
Not good credentials for a church leader. But Paul added:

“God was pleased to reveal God’s Son to me,” which changed him forever.  Like South Carolina’s forgiving fans of Congressman Mark Sanford, the early Christians loved a good scandal, particularly when followed by public repentance. 

To further bolster his case, Paul insisted he was not de-emphasizing the laws of Judaism because they were too difficult for him to follow. He bragged, 

14I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.”  

So it’s not as if Paul couldn’t cut it in traditional Judaism. Instead, he felt chosen for a powerful experience with the forgiving Christ.  From then on he, a saved sinner, preached the “infinite love of God, which he believed had been revealed in the life of Jesus,” a love he could experience only by grace.  Paul’s previous experience of trying to earn God’s approval through religious observance was “just another form of human slavery” (Spong, chapter 33).

What we see in Paul’s letter to the Galatians is a fervent fight for “the heart of what he believed was the Christ experience” (Spong, chapter 33). Paul is defending the gospel of grace with a passion that verges into arrogance, defensiveness, and disdain for differing opinions. 
 
But if he loses points with us for losing his temper, he gains our appreciation with that compelling story, told in more detail twice in the book of Acts, about his Damascus road conversion.   

A good story can trump religious rules and it’s hard to beat Paul’s testimony that he was convicted of his misguided religiosity after hearing the voice of Jesus and being blinded by the Light of Christ. Personal experience can beat stolid tradition. Lived faith bests received beliefs. Love over law.

Since we are the heirs of Paul’s story, it’s hard for us to hear this letter to the Galatians objectively.  Our tradition names the first theologian of Christianity as the hero of this contest.  By holding Paul too highly, we might miss his angry tone and forget that Paul nearly lost this battle which would have left Christianity a sect within Judaism.  Way has led on to way, but by going all the way back to the mid-1st century, we see these different emphases within Judaism did not represent two distinct religions.  Not yet.

Which makes me consider our role in choosing our battles, in deciding when to make a big deal out of differences in beliefs.

Was Paul right to draw this line in the sand in Galatia?  Are you sometimes justified to raise your voice, and blood pressure, to make points of disagreement? When should you make very clear that you disagree with sisters and brothers—and how?
 
The death of Will Campbell this past week guides my own response today.  If you have not heard of Will or read his books, I encourage you to read Friday’s tributes to him in the Mobile Press-Register or New York Times or The Tennessean.[ii]  He was one who comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.  A former Southern Baptist preacher born in Liberty, Mississippi, in 1924, Will became convicted of his racism and converted to a Gospel of inclusion and love while a young man.  When his very first congregation accused him of preaching only two messages--against racial segregation and McCarthism--he left pastoring to be the chaplain at the University of Mississippi--until his integrationist efforts cost him that job.  At that point he became a “free agent for God” whose Gospel was Paul’s: inclusion, love, and grace.  He marched with civil rights warriors but also ministered to members of the KKK (the "Kluxers" as Will called them) whom he came to see as fearful victims of classism, poverty, and ignorance. What Will did better than anyone I’ve known personally was to stand against injustice while having compassion for both the victim and the (often racist) oppressor.

His shocking summary of the Christian Gospel:  “We’re all bastards but God loves us any way.”  

I met Will first through his books and then in person when he accepted my invitation to speak to my students to whom I’d assigned his book Brother to a Dragonfly.  I was thrilled and terrified the first time he addressed my class because I knew Will did not suffer fools gladly, enjoyed his bad boy persona, and was entirely unpredictable and outrageous.
 
The first time Will visited my English class, one of my students, a religion major and aspiring preacher, seemed agitated.  During the Q and A, he chided the good Reverend for including 4-letter words in his book and repeatedly “using the Lord’s name in vain.” 

I half expected Will to snap back that he used those words “to shock preacher boys like you.”  Instead—and I should explain this took place during Desert Storm, our first war in Iraq—Will redefined what it means to “take the Lord’s name in vain.”  He explained, “’Taking God’s name in vain’ is when we pray to God to make our bombs land on other people. That’s using God’s name for a vain and awful purpose.”  

The young blonde preacher boy in the back of that college classroom showed no sign of understanding what Will meant.

Days later I received a letter from Will.  The note asked me to share an enclosed letter addressed to the young blonde preacher boy.  “He seemed so bright and earnest,” Will wrote me. “I hate to lose him to the right-wing meat grinder.” Over several gentle pages, Will spoke to that young preacher boy about his own commitment to Christian pacifism and matters more important than religious scrupulosity.  

I’d like to know if/how my former student received the news of Will Campbell’s passing.  Perhaps the blonde preacher boy is now a balding pastor who preached this morning against “the gay agenda.” Or perhaps he has had his own conversion to a Gospel of peace, of love, of grace.

While traveling the road to Damascus to hunt down early Christ followers, Paul heard an accusatory voice from heaven asking, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 

Will Campbell often spoke an accusatory word to the religiously superior or na├»ve with a similar question: “Why are you deciding who is and who isn’t covered by God’s grace?”  But after stunning the complacent, Will offered care and support, even for the KKKer, even for the pious preacher boy.

What I recognized in Will was a measured choice to err on the side of defending the underdog all the while noticing that the oppressor is afraid and wounded, too. 

Paul and Will’s authority derived from their own conversion from early prejudice and exclusion. Paul had first felt his Judaism threatened by a band of alternative Jews living a simple religion of love, but he became captured by the faith he’d once tried to exterminate.   

More amazingly, the ones he had persecuted started seeing God’s glory in him.  He became the Christ encounter for the next generation of Christians.  And neither Paul nor Jesus nor Will Campbell aimed to oppose their religion—just to expand it.

Let us stand for inclusion, love, and grace.  But let’s remember the big issues are as complicated as the people these issues affect. Take a stand--without polarizing the issues or disrespecting those who see things differently. If you can still regard your opponent with compassion, take a stand. Speak your truth emphatically. But above all, receive and give God’s grace.

God bless Will Campbell.


[i] John Shelby Spong, Re-claiming the Bible for a Nonreligious World. New York: HarperOne, 2011.
www. 55/Civil-Rights-leader-preacher-Will-Campbell-dead-88