Sunday, May 29, 2016

Don't Panic

 Galatians 1:1-12 (CEB)
1 From Paul, an apostle who is not sent from human authority or commissioned through human agency, but sent through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead; 2 and from all the brothers and sisters with me.

To the churches in Galatia.

3 Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 He gave himself for our sins, so he could deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. 5 To God be the glory forever and always! Amen.

6 I’m amazed that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ to follow another gospel. 7 It’s not really another gospel, but certain people are confusing you and they want to change the gospel of Christ. 8 However, even if we ourselves or a heavenly angel should ever preach anything different from what we preached to you, they should be under a curse. 9 I’m repeating what we’ve said before: if anyone preaches something different from what you received, they should be under a curse!

10 Am I trying to win over human beings or God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I wouldn’t be Christ’s slave. 11 Brothers and sisters, I want you to know that the gospel I preached isn’t human in origin. 12 I didn’t receive it or learn it from a human. It came through a revelation from Jesus Christ.


Have you ever met someone who can be depended upon to agree with the last person they spoke with?  Is that not totally crazy making?  That sort of thing happened to Paul all the time.  He’d go establish a church, hang around for a while to get it going well, make sure they understood who Jesus was and then he’d wander off to the next mission field.   And then someone else would show up, some preacher who didn’t preach the Good News the way Paul understood it, and the congregation would be, all like, “Ooohhh.  So that’s what it means.”  Someone would write to Paul with this fresh insight they’d received and he’d fire back a letter saying, “No!  I can’t believe you are already turning to some other person’s ideas, instead of sticking with the pure Gospel I preached, that I got from Jesus himself!”

To be entirely fair to the people, it’s not like they had anything in writing.  Even the Hebrew Bible as we know it today wasn’t fully defined and agreed upon until 3 or 4 hundred years later - at about the same time as the New Testament, in fact.   And no one was writing down the gospels for distribution yet.  They had to depend on what they heard, and if they didn’t fully understand it when they first heard it, and if they didn’t get a chance to get all the explanations they might need, then when they had questions they had write a letter with all their questions, then wait for a letter to get to where ever he was and back again.  It could take months!   And, since a great many of the people he was preaching to were not Jews to begin with, they had to somehow get a full understanding of the history of the Jewish people and the words of the prophets if they were going to completely understand the context in which Jesus lived and did his ministry, the context that Paul was preaching from.   Paul, you see, was educated in the Law and the history of the people of Israel and the words of Prophets with what I suppose might be the equivalent of a seminary degree, and for those of us with seminary degrees sometimes it’s hard to remember that not everyone we are preaching to understands even the words we are using.     I mean, yes, we are aware that the more specialized terms that we toss around so lightly in seminary are not exactly terms one might encounter in general conversation.  I mean, probably very few of you sit over coffee talking about the hermeneutic of a particular pericope in the deuterocanonical writings  from the a post-millennial apocalyptic viewpoint.  In fact, it’s not  uncommon for a preacher’s first sermon outside of preaching class to include a list of words she promises never again to use in a sermon.   But still, we have been steeped in a  heady broth of historical and cultural studies alongside our biblical studies so that we might more fully understand and appreciate the context in which the words we are preaching from were written.  You all mostly don’t have that advantage, and sometimes we forget that.  Paul might not have forgotten that, exactly, but it may have sometimes escaped him that what he spent a lifetime learning isn’t going to necessarily take root perfectly in new students in a year or so.  So when they grasped at teachings that helped them better understand what Paul had preached, teachings that came from within their own cultural and historical context, they would get excited, and not realize that sometimes this new understanding was the opposite of what Paul originally meant.    

So here they are, having welcomed with open arms this new preacher who helped them understand Jesus, and Paul is pitching fits!   He points out to them, not once, but several times, that the Word he is preaching comes not from having heard other people proclaim the Good News, but from the lips of Jesus himself. And he goes on to tell them that he no longer cares about pleasing people, but only in serving Christ.  He says, those other people are trying to change the Good News!  

Now, we don’t know exactly who the others Paul talks about were or what they were preaching, but we do know that right from the beginning different factions within the body of believers held different understandings of what the Good News actually was.  All of them - all the disciples and apostles, the newest Christians as well as those who had walked away from their fishing boats to follow Jesus,  were in totally new territory and doing new things can be really scary.  

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, alien hitchhiker Ford Prefect sort of kidnaps Englishman Arthur Dent, taking him on a wild adventure through a five book trilogy.   It’s a good thing that Arthur was kidnapped, actually, as the Earth was destroyed to make way for a Galactic Superhighway, but the poor man was suddenly and without any warning totally immersed in something so new and different that he had no context for understanding it.  Although I would think that anyone who understands the rules of cricket can probably figure out just about anything, still, when dropped into something so completely outside all of his prior experience and education, his first reaction was to panic.  Naturally.  Luckily for Arthur Dent, he had access to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a constantly updating ebook, to help him navigate this new reality.  On the cover of the book, in large letters, are the words, “Don’t Panic.”    When he first saw the book he said, “I like the cover.  Don’t Panic.  It’s the first helpful or intelligible thing anybody’s said to me all day.”  

It was kind of like that for all the new believers.  They have been told the story of a man who died a horrible death, a death reserved for the worst kind of criminals, who was not simply a man but the Son of a God many of them had never heard of before.  They were told stories about wonders this Jesus performed; healings and feedings and raising people from the dead. They were told that he taught his followers to love each other and to love everyone else as well, and that what they needed to do was repent of all their old ways and become totally new people by being baptized in the name of God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit, and then, that they needed to devote themselves to serving Christ by serving their neighbors.  They were told that Jesus had risen into heaven, and that soon and very soon he would return, bringing about the end of the evil world, and embracing all those who had embraced him.  As long as Paul was there to guide them through, they were ok.  But then he left, and they are left with lots of questions.

Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, the Elders of the church were trying to figure out many things.  Do Gentiles need to be circumcised in order to be baptized?  Do Christians who were Gentiles need to follow all the Law, or is it enough that they just follow those two commandments that Jesus left for them - “Love God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength, and love your neighbor as you love yourself”?  What exactly does it mean that Jesus is the Son of God?  As evangelists listened to this one and that one, they would hear different understandings of the Good News, and they would preach what they had heard.  And people in Roman provinces like Galatia, an area that is what we know as northern Turkey, would hear all of these different interpretations and understandings of the Good News, and they would sort of panic a little. They’re doing this new thing, and then someone comes and tells them new things about the new thing.  They are confused, naturally.  They really could have used a handy book that said “Don’t Panic” on the front cover, and had constantly updating answers to all of their questions.  

Unfortunately, they didn’t.  Nor do we.  I was with a group of preachers the other week, talking about whether or not we use the pulpit.  Some of us are more comfortable carrying on this conversation between us and God from the floor where everyone else is.  Some prefer a pulpit.  One of the preachers said that when he is speaking God’s word he stands in the pulpit, but when he’s just giving his opinion, he will move a little away from it.  I was impressed.  I’d love to know which words are the ones God wants me to say and which are simply my opinion.  I just have to pray for guidance and hope for the best.  

Paul, however, knew for sure what God had said to him.  He was the one struck down on the road to Damascus and blinded for his willful blindness.  He was the one to whom Jesus said, “Why are you persecuting me?  Get up and go into the city, where you will be told what to do.”  And after that, after his blindness was healed, he preached the Good News. He understood with great certainty what Jesus wanted him to say. He was never confused, never panicked.  There would come a time, later, when he and the other apostles began to think perhaps Jesus wasn’t going to return quite as soon as they had hoped.  But just now, in this letter to the churches in Galatia, he was quite certain of what the Good News is, and what the people needed to understand.   Because he had received it as a revelation directly from Jesus.

We are somewhat less fortunate.  We have to rely on this book, which doesn’t have a Don’t Panic button on the front cover.  And we have to try to understand it first as a book written thousands of years ago with direct relevance to the people of that time, but also, as a book filled with wisdom equally applicable to our own time.  We have to read, and study, and pray, so that our understanding of what is written here is not simply a surface understanding, not simply a repetition of whatever the last person we heard talk about it said, but a deeper understanding of the intention each writer had in putting stylus to clay, or pen to scroll.

The story we receive from the Bible is one, full, coherent story. It is the story of God’s relationship with God’s creation and especially with humanity, from the beginning of time.  It is the story of what God’s desires for us; to be reconciled with God and with each other, and to treat one another with compassion and mercy.  It is the story that gives us instructions on how we are to love God and each other, how we are to reach out to those who need us, how we are to put aside the ways the world would have us follow and instead, do as Jesus the Christ actually did.  And, because the words “Do not be afraid” appear in these pages 365 times, I think that it does in fact tell us, “Don’t Panic.”  

Don’t Panic - Do Not Be Afraid - for the Lord our God is with us, now and forever. Do Not Be Afraid - Don’t Panic - for what we need to understand will be given to us, to each of us, so that when we meet another and that other needs to know this story, we will have the words to tell them, of Jesus and his love.

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