God’s insistent call

Epiphany 3

Paul’s Conversion – Galatians 1:11-24

Marian Free

In the name of God whose insistent call draws us out of ourselves and into God’s service. Amen.

Throughout history there have been numerous accounts of people coming to faith, or coming to what they believe is a deeper and truer understanding of their faith. Many such accounts are dramatic and powerful of the sort that turn a person’s life around and lead them to serve God in ways that are risky and demanding, or that have a profound effect on the world around them and on the church in particular.

One such person was Augustine of Hippo whose spiritual quest had so far failed to satisfy him when his heart was touched by God. His own account goes like this: “As I was weeping in the bitter agony of my heart, suddenly I heard a voice from the nearby house chanting and repeating over and over again. “Pick it up and read, pick it up and read.” I began to think intently whether there might be some sort of children’s game in which such a chant is used. But I could not remember having heard of one. I checked the flood of tears and stood up. I interpreted it solely as a divine command to open the book and read the first chapter I might find. So I hurried back to the place where I had put down the book of the apostle when I got up. I seized it, opened it and in silence read the first passage on which my eyes lit. “Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts.” (Rom 13:13-14) I neither wished nor needed to read further. At once, with the last words of the sentence, it was as if a light relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All shadows of doubt were dispelled” (Chadwick, St Augustines Confessions, 152).

Much later in Germany, Martin Luther, a monk of the Augustinian Order had been going through “hell” obsessed with his own sinfulness and the impossibility of remembering all his sins in order to confess them. He tried all kinds of self-abasement to atone for his perceived sinfulness – sleeping in the snow, lying almost naked in the belfry tower at night – nothing seemed to work.

Part of his struggle was: “ to understand Paul’s expression, ‘the justice of God’ because I took it to mean that God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk I had no confidence that my merit would assuage God. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Night and day I pondered this until I grasped that the justice of God is that the righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into Paradise. The whole of scripture took on a new meaning and whereas before the phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in great love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven ….” (Bainton, R. Here I Stand – The Classic Biography of Martin Luther. Sutherland, NSW: Albatross Books, 1978, 65.)

An encounter with God not only gives relief from anxiety or opens a gate to heaven, it gives new insights, a different perspective of God and the world. An encounter with God can draw people out of their comfort zone and compel them to respond to a call on their lives that they would not have thought possible and of which they would not have believed themselves capable. The Bible is full of such figures. Abraham and Sarah who responded to a God whom they did not know and set off to a place they had never heard of. Moses who protested that he could not speak, liberated God’s people from slavery and led them to the promised land. Isaiah and Jeremiah who likewise did not believe that they were capable of the task God was asking them to fulfill challenged Kings to change their ways. Jonah who ran away, before he did what God required. Mary and Joseph who said “yes” and enabled Jesus to enter the world. Then there was the rag-tag bunch of unlikely people who left all they had to follow Jesus. People from all walks of life drawn out of their comfort zone to serve a God or a Christ whom they did or did not know who might take them who know where.

Among this great crowd of people we find Paul – that passionate, self-assured servant of God whose life radically changed direction after a “revelation of Jesus Christ”. Unlike Augustine and Luther Paul was not troubled by a search for faith or a fear that he could not please God. By all accounts Paul was a proud and confident Jew, absolutely convinced of his righteousness, his place in the world and before God. He was so sure of himself and his beliefs that he set out to persecute the misguided Jews who believed that Jesus was the Christ. He says of himself: “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil 3:4-6). Nothing, so far as Paul could tell, was lacking in his life or faith – his credentials were impeccable, his behaviour exemplary and his actions a clear demonstration of his commitment to the faith of his fathers.

Then all this changed: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ” (Phil 3:7). Those things of which he was so proud now count for nothing, the beliefs that led him to persecute Jesus-followers have been overturned. Now he proclaims the faith that “he once tried to destroy.” What happened? The truth is that we do not really know. Paul provides no more details than those in today’s reading from Galatians. He says only that he received a “revelation of Jesus Christ”, that “God called him through his grace and was pleased  to reveal his Son to him, so that he might proclaim him among the Gentiles,.”

We may not know what form the revelation took but we can see that the results are astounding – the one who persecuted believers is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy. More than that, he is so convinced that there is no other way to understand God’s action in Christ that he will brook no other interpretation or accept any other view. “As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!” (Gal 1:9). Paul preaches as though his life depends on it, and in fact, he does believe that his eternal salvation is intimately bound to that of the communities who have come to faith through him.

Paul’s encounter with God sharpens and refines the faith that he has held from birth. His new, God-revealed perspective allows him to see that God always intended that Gentiles can be included in the Abrahamic faith, that believers be led by the Spirit (not determined by the law) and that God’s grace is not something to be earned, but something that is freely given. Empowered by his experience of God, driven by the conviction that he was called to share what he hd received and enabled by his passion and his great intellect, Paul became a potent force for change in the world. Some twenty years before the Gospels were written, Paul was making sense of Jesus’ life death and resurrection and finding ways in which emerging communities, made of of people who had come from different faiths and different social groupings could worship together.

Paul’s impact on the church is demonstrated by his place in the New Testament – one-fourth of which consists of letters written by or attributed to Paul. Half of the Book of Acts deals with the life and ministry of Paul which means that he accounts for one-third of the New Testament. Paul’s letters are the earliest written documents of the church and provide us with valuable information about the struggles to build community and to come to some consensus as to what faith in Jesus meant for Jew and Gentile alike.

God has ways of getting ours attention, often when we least expect it.  Whether it is a thunder-clap or a whisper, a blinding light or a moment of insight, a call to change the world or a call to change ourselves, a demand to protest against injustice or an insistence to maintain our integrity, empowerment to do something heroic for others or strength to face a personal battle. God’s insistent call will not be denied. We can run, but we cannot hide. God will find us and take us where we do not want or did to expect to go. But whatever it is, whatever God asks of us, we can be sure that God will equip us, support and sustain us and that God will never abandon us until our task is done.

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