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06.09.13 Paul’s Gospel, Direction Galatians 1.11-24 Sermon Summary

by on June 10, 2013

Maybe there’s something we can learn from Paul’s experience of salvation that will help us find a meaningful life today.

Summary Points

  • Paul’s personal experience of salvation
  • Paul in relation to tradition
  • The nature of salvation according to Paul
  • Our faith and  Christ’s faith
  • A meaningful life that lasts
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

Recall from last week that for Paul, the gospel of salvation meant the freedom of all creation from the powers of sin and death. This freedom applies to each of us, in some general ways but also in some personally unique ways. For Paul, he experienced freedom from being overly concerned with the opinions of others.

It appears that earlier in his life, the opinions of others mattered a great deal to Paul. In our passage this morning, for example, Paul asserts that he, “advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (Gal 1:14). In Acts 22:3, Paul is defending himself against accusations that he is leading the Jewish Christians astray by saying, “I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today.” From this introduction, Paul goes on to share his share conversion story.

Preoccupation with the opinions of others is something we see quite readily, especially in children. My early elementary age child can tell you which activities are “boys’” activities and which are “girls.’” Boys like certain colors; girls prefer others. Later, in middle and high school, we see kids clustering in groups according to musical tastes, whether they’re athletes, and around academic interests.

In my privileged position of listening to men and women much older than myself, I am challenged to wonder whether this obsession with others’ opinions is something we ever outgrow. For while I talk about the conformity trends of grade schoolers and college students, my 70-80 year old friends suggest my generation does the same thing. Which leads me to the question: Is there any way to tap into something more meaningful, lasting, eternal?

We might think, on the basis of this passage in Galatians, that after his conversion, Paul’s pendulum swung too far in the other direction. It may seem that he no longer cared about the opinions of anyone, that he was a lone ranger, a stand-alone prophet and renegade leader. After all, he makes it a point several times to say he sought the approval of no one in Jerusalem—not Peter, not James, no one.

But that would exaggerate his point beyond its meaning. We know that Paul respected the tradition as he received it. For example, in 1 Cor. 11:23-25 Paul reminds the church that, “I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you,” namely, the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper. Later, in 1 Cor. 15:3-7 he writes, “What I received I passed on to you as of first importance: Christ died, was buried, was raised, and now appears.” So Paul recognized his dependence on the tradition, and even was pleased to pass it on.

So what is Paul’s point? Paul’s gospel is one of freedom, of liberation: the entire cosmos has been set free. The key insight for Paul is that one is liberated from outside—we cannot free ourselves. We are “set free,” a passive way of speaking. It has to be done to us. This is the point Paul is making by saying his gospel is “not of human origin, but received and revealed,” or to use the theological term, the gospel is “grace.

Paul’s personal experience of this included his once being enslaved to pleasing others, but now being concerned to please God. He once took his direction from “the world.” He now is free to follow God.

Consider his testimony in Philippians 3. The context is similar, he is contesting the necessity of circumcision for new Gentile Christians. His argument again appeals to his impressive public religion of former days: “If anyone has reason to boast, I have more . . . a Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil 3.5). But following his conversion, he recognizes that righteousness is a matter of faith. Most translations talk about righteousness by faith “in” Christ, but another translation (and one preferred by an increasing number of theologians) is faith “of” Christ. In other words, Christ’s faith—his dependence upon and obedience to God—is the path of righteousness, and those who would be righteous must follow that same path. This is how Paul understood it: he wants to know the “power of Christ’s resurrection, sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, to attain to the resurrection” Phil 3.10-11.

There is a purpose to God’s freedom, and we will explore this more in three weeks. But here, in Galatians 1, Paul recognizes that God has set him free, “so that I might proclaim among the Gentiles” (Gal 1:16). In Galatians 2, he adds that the Jerusalem church asked him to “remember the poor” (Gal 2:10), which he agreed was part of his freedom. Today’s other lectionary passages emphasize God’s faithfulness to the orphan and widow and strangers. This is the purpose of salvation, of God’s freeing the world, of God’s freeing us.

For Paul, then, following God means creating community. He proclaimed the liberating word to people who had not heard it before (see Ephesians for an extended treatment of this theology). It also means re-creating community. Paul received traditions and repeated them in light of the freedom of the gospel.

In both cases, Paul was free to do this because he rejected his earlier preoccupation with the opinions of others and instead pursued what God was calling him to be. So Paul called all men and women, Gentiles and Jews, to live according to the freedom that we and the world have in Christ. No matter how old we are, this is always in season, this is what lasts, because what impresses others changes throughout our lives, but God is always impressed with our faithfulness.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • Think about your younger self. In what ways were you preoccupied with the opinions of others? How has that concern shaped your life? What are some negative consequences? What are some negative ones?
  • How much are you living according to the opinions of others today? You might not even be conscious of it without questioning it. How much of what you do, what you buy, how you think, is influenced by what others do, buy, and think?
  • How does the gospel of freedom apply to your life right now? For Paul, he needed liberation from pleasing others. What do you need liberation from? (See last week’s message for more guidance on this question.)
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