Scripture - Galatians 1:13 - 2:21 (idea of story and re-storying our lives after that of the gospel)
This morning we’re going to be spending some time with Paul’s story as he tells it in the first couple chapters of Galatians. I’ll summarize it for you but I really encourage you to read it - it’s in your bulletin insert for your reference. The gist of the story is this: Paul - the one who was zealously persecuting the early church on behalf of the Jewish authorities - receives this mission to preach the Gospel message to the Gentiles - non-Jews. He has this experience and instead of talking about it with the early Christian leaders in Jerusalem, he goes off to Arabia for three years before going to Jerusalem to spend some time with James and Peter. He then continues his ministry.
Fourteen years later, he goes back to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus and shares with the other apostles what he’s been preaching. Titus comes along as a kind of proof-of-concept that Gentile converts don’t have to be circumcised to follow Jesus. Paul’s mission to spread the Gospel among the Gentiles was affirmed, Peter’s mission to spread the Gospel among the Jews was affirmed - everything seemed just fine.
Yet then Paul recounts a confrontation he ended up having later with Peter in Antioch, where Peter - a Jew - didn’t participate in all the Jewish customs around food when he was hanging out with the Gentiles...until James - also a Jew - had sent some of his faction to town and then Peter quickly distanced himself from his non-Jewish friends. Paul called him out on it with this killer line, paraphrased from The Message, “If you, a Jew, live like a non-Jew when you’re not being observed by the watchdogs from Jerusalem, what right do you have to require non-Jews to conform to Jewish customs just to make a favorable impression on your old Jerusalem cronies?”
This is the backdrop to where we’ll pick up in verse 15 of chapter 2. We’ll continue with The Message. Paul writes,
Galatians 1:13 - 2:21 (The Message)
15-16 We Jews know that we have no advantage of birth over “non-Jewish sinners.” We know very well that we are not set right with God by rule-keeping but only through personal faith in Jesus Christ. How do we know? We tried it—and we had the best system of rules the world has ever seen! Convinced that no human being can please God by self-improvement, we believed in Jesus as the Messiah so that we might be set right before God by trusting in the Messiah, not by trying to be good.
17-18 Have some of you noticed that we are not yet perfect? (No great surprise, right?) And are you ready to make the accusation that since people like me, who go through Christ in order to get things right with God, aren’t perfectly virtuous, Christ must therefore be an accessory to sin? The accusation is frivolous. If I was “trying to be good,” I would be rebuilding the same old barn that I tore down. I would be acting as a charlatan.
19-21 What actually took place is this: I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn’t work. So I quit being a “law man” so that I could be God’s man. Christ’s life showed me how, and enabled me to do it. I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not “mine,” but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that.
Is it not clear to you that to go back to that old rule-keeping, peer-pleasing religion would be an abandonment of everything personal and free in my relationship with God? I refuse to do that, to repudiate God’s grace. If a living relationship with God could come by rule-keeping, then Christ died unnecessarily.
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
There was a video going around Facebook in a few of my moms groups a few weeks ago - it was a video of a 10 month old baby who was born partially deaf hearing his mother’s voice for the first time thanks to the use of hearing aids. His expressions ranged from delighted smiles and giggles to shock and bewilderment and back again as his mother repeated “hi” and “hello” to him over and over again. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have the whole way you experience the world change in an instant and you realize that there’s more depth and richness than you ever thought possible.
That’s basically what happened in Paul’s conversion story, where he was opened up to this whole new world and had to reinterpret everything he thought was familiar.
One of the things I admire about Paul’s story is that he was able to recognize that it was Jesus speaking to him - when he had that dramatic moment on the road to Damascus. I have to be honest and say that I always wanted that kind of direct clarity and certainty in my conversations with God. God tends to speak to me in a lot more subtle ways - no voices or flashing lights or dreams or visions - mostly it feels like a lot of detective work and putting pieces together...sometimes a dash of what I call holy anxiety where I know I have to do or say something and it comes out of the blue. Sometimes I think that getting the neon signs from God might make things easier. Maybe not.
He shares his story with the Galatians to remind them that the old way doesn’t work - that you can’t rule-follow your way into a living relationship with God. For Paul, if you are interested in pleasing people by how virtuous you are, or in trying to do good in order to make God happy, or in trying to get it right by following all the Jewish laws and traditions -- following Jesus isn’t going to get you there.
His experience of Christ broke down all those old categories for him and it led to a new understanding of his own religious tradition. It led him to a new interpretation of old stories - stories about who God is and what God wants for the world, stories about who is in and who is out, stories about what it means to live in light of God’s kingdom. These are the stories that have shaped his religious faith for generations, stories that were a part of him from childhood - stories that became fresh and new in the light of Christ. It also led him to being part of the new chapter of God’s story. It revealed a whole new way of being in the world that meant he could never go back to life as he knew it before Jesus.
In God Unbound, Elaine Heath recalls a conversation with Wendy Miller, author and spiritual director, about the stories we live. I had the good fortune to study under Wendy Miller during the Gateways to God program at Rolling Ridge a few years ago - and this is truly the heart of her approach for discerning the spirit of God at work. The question Wendy posed was “which story are we living?” She continued with, “we pause from time to time, especially when we need discernment about a decision, and we ask ourselves: Are we living the Gospel story or living the world’s story?”
Are we living the Gospel story or are we living the world’s story? Are we operating under the rules the world tells us are important, are we living out of fear and anxiety, are we drawing boundaries around who is in and who is out, are we driven by our ego or by trying to please others -- or are we living the Jesus story - motivated by compassion and forgiveness, seeking to heal and restore, driven by what would be life giving to others, responding to the freedom and grace offered to us in Jesus?
This approach to discernment relies on our familiarity with the stories of Jesus and allowing those stories to speak to us in the midst of our various life situations. As we consider our lives and meditate on the narrative, we invite Jesus to be present and find ourselves incarnating the love, compassion, grace, and presence of Jesus in our own lives and to those around us. This gives us the opportunity to re-story our lives again and again around Jesus - allowing us to see the ways Christ invites us to be in the world.
The encounters we have with Jesus may not be quite as dramatic as Paul’s, but they are no less transformational if we are open to all that Jesus has for us. In re-centering and re-storying our lives in the narratives we find in the Gospels, it helps us pay attention to what God is up to, to sense the movement and work of the spirit in our lives....in our communities...and in our church. It allows us then to follow his lead and invitation, to trust the wisdom and direction he gives us, and to give ourselves over again and live by the Gospel story.
What would it look like to invite Jesus into the story of our church? What would it look like to consider the struggles we currently face...the fears and anxieties we have about the future...the memories of the past...the hopes and dreams we long for...the grief we carry of people who are no longer with us...the decisions about our identity and relationship with the United Methodist Church...what would it look like to invite Jesus in to all of that and notice what he says or what he does? What would it look like to invite Jesus to live again in this congregation?
Jesus takes our stories, our traditions, our hopes and dreams, our very selves - and transforms them into something new. We live inside the story that God is writing, following Jesus as our guide. We are freed from our old stories, the old narratives that try to sway us from the freedom and grace that are found in Christ. May we continue to fix our eyes on him - that we can live the Gospel story in all things - and share God’s love wherever we are. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son and 6 month old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.