05.29.2016 Preaching Text: “…the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:11-12)
As I’ve said before, my path to ordination was a tortured one. In my mid-20’s I’d experienced what can only be described as a spiritual awakening. Subsequent to this came a number of significant changes in my life.
Knowing God for the first time to be more than just a “big idea” or the name from which comes certain moral and/or philosophical systems, I sought to acquire a new and deeper understanding of God, a God who was an actual, existential reality, and not merely a nice-sounding intellectual concept.
Inwardly all kinds of changes were taking place, ones not always readily obvious to others. It was only after I finally accepted my first call to a church that some even bothered to notice.
The things of the Spirit, in other words, are often hidden. Just ask Paul.
In Galatians, he begins his letter by defending his apostleship. It was, after all, a bold claim. Being a member of Jesus’ inner circle during his earthly ministry had been an ironclad requirement for apostleship. Clearly Paul had no standing in this regard.
He claimed nonetheless that it was the risen Christ himself, on the “road to Damascus,” who had appointed him to this lofty office. Something inside Paul had changed forever, something born of the Holy Spirit.
But this was not all. Paul in general was a hard-sell for the early church. For one, the very reason he was heading to Damascus was to persecute the fledgling church there!
Paul had been a fierce and loyal Pharisee. His zeal for the faith was on display when, according to tradition, he gave the orders to stone Stephen to death, the very first Christian martyr.
Even after his conversion to Christianity, Paul was, shall we say, an acquired taste. He was highly intelligent but didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was gruff, single-minded, and headstrong. He was not the warm and fuzzy type.
As such, he was distrusted by many in the early church, in spite of his rapid rise in the ranks. Added to this distrust was his uncompromising belief that he had been called to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, the eternal enemy of the Jews. He was breaking all the rules.
Worse still, his brand of Christianity rejected Jewish law in favor of the relatively novel idea of justification through unmerited grace.
Paul saw no reason for the newly converted Gentile to first become a Jew in order to then become a Christian. In fact, he thought Jewish Law actually imprisoned the Spirit. Keeping the Law only fostered a slavish dependence on rule-keeping, rather than cultivating that which comes from being one with the Spirit.
So when Paul talks about those pursuing a “different gospel” in today’s reading, he means the “Judaizers,” that element within the early church who insisted on strict observance of Mosaic Law.
To be clear, Paul was not advocating antinomianism, which argues that there are no rules. Rather, he believed that being changed inwardly by the Holy Spirit brings about an even higher ethic of service and self-sacrifice.
The impetus toward good works, in other words, would come from within rather than being coerced from without. The works would be done out of selfless love and not to gain acceptance or approval. The works would proceed from an overflowing heart, and not the selfish desire to perform or achieve.
Of course, as we’ve said before, reducing Christianity to ethics is an ongoing temptation for the church. And it can be the source of much confusion.
Some 30 years ago, my father, newly retired, decided to write a book. He even came up with a clever title: My God Can Lick Your God. His basic premise was that so much religious conflict could be eliminated if everybody would just realize that all religions are saying pretty much the same thing.
And what was that same thing? Ethics. He went on to detail how all the major religions tend to aspire to the same notions of right and wrong.
While it is undeniably true that Christianity, both in its biblical and ecclesiastical form, does champion morality, morality doesn’t fully explain the faith.
In a sense, morality is but a prerequisite to a higher form of spiritual wakefulness. After all, living a disordered, immoral life does indeed diminish, if not eliminate, any chance of attaining spiritual enlightenment.
Morality thus serves as a springboard to a deeper and closer spiritual communion with God (and others). At worst, morality satisfies only our need to appear outwardly faithful. But it is our inner spiritual nature that Christ seeks to alter and transform, with the ultimate goal of a deeper spiritual union with the Divine.
The Eastern Orthodox tradition addresses this aspiration with its apophatic theology, a theology, that is, of negation.
The idea is that while God can indeed be experienced through contemplation of the intricacies and wonders of Creation, the fullest knowledge of God can be obtained only by experiencing that which cannot be observed.
While ethics and morality aid us in contemplating the divine in all things, apophatic “knowledge” is obtained only by an awareness of what God is not (negation). Here God is described by what He is not, rather than any presumption of knowing who He is.
As Tim Ware puts it, we do not know God “solely through the medium of what he has made but in direct and unmediated union,” that inner awareness of eternal Truth which lies beyond all human words and thoughts.
In this higher state of consciousness, the worshipper allows for the holiness of God to be experienced. We become mere vessels for God’s transformative Spirit. God becomes known inwardly, often in ways outwardly unobservable.
Scripture is replete with accounts of such transcendent moments, moments when the faithful experience an unearthly connection to the Spirit, and the God from whom this same Spirit comes. They experience a mystical union with the Divine, after which all of life is forever altered.
By all accounts Paul experienced such moments, moments that guided him in ways that all but mystified those around him. And it is that same Spirit who seeks us today. Amen.