Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 5, 2016
Galatians 1:11-24 Commentary
It’s not easy to preach on a text that in some ways resembles a person’s resume. Most of the verses in this Year C Lectionary reading are taken up with a brief autobiographical sketch of what happened to Paul and where he traveled in the period after Jesus confronted him on the Damascus Road. Let’s be honest enough to admit that there is not a lot of inspiring material in all that. What’s more, we might be a bit uncomfortable with some of Paul’s recollections in that they seem oddly self-important, almost self-congratulatory. About the only passage that rivals this is material from the very end of 2 Corinthians where Paul is so desperate to vindicate himself and his credentials in the face of the “super apostle” detractors who were ruining his reputation in Corinth that Paul gets downright boastful about what all he has experienced and suffered for the Gospel cause.
As noted in the previous sermon commentary from the first dozen verses of Galatians 1, Paul has already fairly lunged at the Galatian Christians for their inexplicable slide into rank heresy by accepting the false teaching that to be TRULY saved, Jesus’ sacrifice alone was not quite good enough. Something like obedience and various ceremonial practices had to be tacked onto Christ’s cross if any given believer was going to cross the salvation Finish Line. In upcoming verses and chapters Paul is going to have a lot more to say about what’s wrong with that line of thought.
But first Paul makes a slight detour so as to bolster the legitimacy of what he had preached by establishing clear as day from WHERE Paul had gotten his ideas about this whole salvation by grace alone scheme he had preached in Galatia. Basically his line of argument goes like this:
First, he used to believe something close to the opposite of salvation by grace. He was a “work your own way to heaven” Pharisee type who just knew from the top of his head to the soles of his feet that God grades on the curve and salvation is all about racking up merit points with the Almighty.
Second, to crack through his thick theological skull on such matters, no less than Jesus himself revealed the truth to Saul (soon to be Paul) and there was absolutely no doubting Who it was doing the revealing of all this to him.
Third, when you have it straight from the horse’s mouth, there is no need to check it out with anybody else or get anybody else’s permission to start preaching this Gospel. Thus, Paul felt no need whatsoever to go get an embossed “Gospel Preaching License” from even the high and mighty Apostles themselves. He just went straight to work in preaching the truth God himself had delivered to him.
Finally, after three years (!!) he got around to meeting up with Peter and one other apostle named James but you get the feeling it was more a courtesy than an attempt to seek their stamp of approval. (Indeed, at this point Paul leaves out the fact that it was Paul who ended up having to straighten out PETER on certain subjects!!) Paul then went on to preach among some churches who had prior to that time known only his fearsome former reputation as a Jesus hater. But once they realized Jesus himself had turned Paul around, there was doxology all around on account of Paul’s testimony.
Again, it feels odd to see Paul so overtly turning the spotlight onto himself. Something about this level of, well, almost bragging feels off-putting, out of place. But Paul is not doing this for his own sake. He’s doing it to save the Galatians themselves from the false gospel—which Paul has already made indelibly clear is NO GOSPEL at all!—that was having an influence in that church. It was Paul’s way of saying NOT “Look at me” but instead “You know what? FORGET about me and focus on the One who gave me the Gospel I preached to you in the first place!” If there was no other way to shore up the source of Paul’s message than tell his own story, so be it. But it is the God and the Christ of God at the real center of that story that matter.
The conversion of Saul of Tarsus into Paul the Apostle most assuredly counts as one of the Bible’s greatest stories. Whether or not it is history’s most amazing conversion story could be debated but probably not for long. Let’s just say that to have a BETTER conversion story, you have to feature not just the turning around of a formerly really hostile person but that person also needs to go on and become responsible for bringing the Gospel to every non-Jewish person in the world and for composing 48% of the New Testament. Well . . . if you set the bar that high, probably no subsequent conversion story will ever quite clear it!
Still, what exactly is there to preach on here? Probably there are multiple possibilities but in an age when so many people question the authority of any given source of information—in a postmodern time when validating any truth through experience is often thought to be more important than whatever that truth may be or where it came from in the first place—perhaps it is a good thing to be reminded of where we Christians believe the Gospel of Christ Jesus came from.
It came from God.
And even as Paul did not feel the need to check this out with the Apostles or any other human authority figure, so those who are convicted by the Holy Spirit of Jesus that Scripture is God-breathed should not feel like the Bible’s authority is threatened today or needs validation of various kinds or has to pass muster of the academy or the guild or higher critics or the Jesus Seminar or Richard Dawkins. We can no more prove this than Paul could. Like Paul we can only bear witness, share our testimony, tell our story.
Any given person will believe that testimony or not. It was finally up to the Galatians too. But, of course, by sketching out his own story, Paul is not so subtly challenging the false teachers in Galatia to tell their stories. “Where did you get your ideas?” Paul is implicitly asking them. “Let’s see if you can tell a story as good as mine about what no less than the Christ of God himself told me.”
Christians have long believed that the Bible is nothing less than an astonishing gift of a gracious God who so very much wants to be known by us. The Bible has gotten plenty knocked around in history and certainly in recent times too when even some in the church have dissected it and chopped it up and thrown out the inconvenient parts. We fancy that we ourselves are better arbiters of what to accept or not accept than the God who the Church has long believed is the actual Author of the book.
Paul knew that such attitudes would never do. If the Source of our preaching is not firmly established as being beyond doubt, then one message is as good as the next and even the false teachers in Galatia had as fine a shot at hitting the Truth mark as Paul had. But if Paul is right, if the Church has been right, if the Holy Spirit has been blowing through those pages of Scripture all along, then we have an unspeakable source not just of truth but of comfort, of joy, of profound hope in a world where the news headlines on any given day seem calculated to knock the wind of all hope clean out of us.
Yes, at first glance these autobiographical musings by Paul don’t seem to have a lot of homiletical heft to them. But at second glance . . . something in these very verses come pretty close to being the whole ball game!
“He wasn’t much to look at. ‘Bald-headed, bowlegged, strongly built, a man small in size, with meeting eyebrows, with a rather large nose.’ Years after his death, that’s the way the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla describes Paul, and Paul himself quotes somebody who had actually seen him: ‘His letters are strong but his bodily presence is weak’ (2 Cor. 10:10) . . . Nobody’s sure whether he ever got to Spain the way he’s planned or not, but either before he went or soon after he got back, he had his final run-in with the authorities, and the story is that they took him to a spot three miles out of Rome and right there on the road, where he’d spent most of his life including what was in a way the beginning of his life, they lopped off his head. At the end of its less than flattering description of his personal appearance, the Acts of Paul and Thecla says that ‘at times he looked like a man, and at times he had the face of an angel.’ If there is a God in heaven, as even in his blackest moments Paul never doubted there was, then bald-headed and bowlegged as he was, with those eyebrows that met and that over-sized nose, it was with angel eyes that he exchanged a last long glance with his executioners.” (From Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who. Harper & Row, 1979, pp. 128-133.)
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!