Sunday, June 6, 2010
Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost (June 6, 2010)
“Former Life...New Life” (Galatians 1:11-24)
What were you in a “former life”? Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not talking about reincarnation. People do not die and then come back in another life form, whether animal or human, depending upon how much “karma” you managed to accumulate based on the type of life you lived. That's what Hinduism teaches. If you did a large measure of good things in this life, after you die you will be reincarnated as a person with higher social standing than you had in this life. If you did a large measure of bad things, you will come back as someone with lower status. If you were exceptionally bad, you may come back as something vile, like a cockroach, for example. What I find interesting about people who believe in reincarnation is that they always seem to have been someone famous, or at least associated with someone famous, in a “former life.” Seldom will you hear that they were a slug or a dung beetle. But they will be quick to tell you that they were a famous world leader, such as Napoleon or Catherine the Great. I am always tempted to reply, “What did you do to end up like this?”
No, this is not what I mean when I ask “What were you in a 'former life'?” People often ask that question of people who have made one or more career changes. I jokingly say that I was an art teacher in a “former life,” since that's what I was before I headed off to seminary. So what were you in a “former” life? I suppose we would hear quite a variety of answers among us here.
Perhaps some of you would also remember what your life was like before you became a Christian. You remember how you lived without giving God a second thought. Yet, there was always this nagging feeling that there was more to life than just accumulating material goods. Then, there came a point where you were confronted by God's Law. Your sin was exposed in all its damnable ugliness. That prepared your heart to hear the Gospel message that Christ Jesus had paid the price for your sins with his shed blood at the cross. You heard that you were forgiven and that all who trust in Christ receive that forgiveness personally and have the promise of everlasting life. Through that message, the Holy Spirit created faith in your heart, and you found yourself believing that life-giving message.
On the other hand, those of you here who were baptized as infants and raised in the Church can't remember having a “former life” in the sense we are discussing. But the sin that you were born with still separated you from God until you were brought to the font and filled with forgiveness, faith, and a forever-kind-of-life that God's creative Word bestowed upon you.
Whatever our own personal story is...at whatever point we were called to faith in Christ...our sinful nature that still clings to us tempts us to return to our “former life.” It tempts us to remain in and revel in our sin. It tempts us to think that the things we do against God's will are no big deal. It tempts us to denigrate our baptism. It tempts us to take the sacrifice of Jesus for granted and think, “It's okay if I do this, because God will forgive me anyway.” It tempts us to throw away all that the Holy Spirit has accomplished in our lives and walk away from Jesus altogether.
In one sense, that last temptation mentioned was occurring in the church in Galatia and prompted St. Paul to write the letter from which today's Epistle reading is taken. Just before today's reading, he writes, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” (Gal. 1:6-7) As we learn from the rest of the letter, there were some in the church in Galatia who were teaching that trusting in the saving death and resurrection of Jesus was not enough. These people have come to be known as “Judaizers” because they taught that if you were a Gentile, you first had to live like a Jew before you could be considered a Christian. That included first and foremost being circumcised according to the Old Covenant which God had given. It also included keeping the other ceremonial laws which God gave to the people through Moses, such as the dietary rules and regulations and observing the Old Testament festivals.
But Paul calls this “a different gospel.” I think Paul is using the word "gospel" sort of tongue-in-cheek here, since this "different gospel" is really no “gospel” at all, when you remember that “gospel” means “good news.” Here's what Paul says about these people who were preaching this “different gospel”: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Gal. 1:8) In other words, let them be eternally damned to hell. Pretty strong language. But false teaching needs to be attacked with strong language, because it could potentially lead people to hell.
So Paul picks up in today's text and declares that his gospel is not something that he just made up. He writes, “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man's gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” The Risen Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus and subsequently revealed the truth of the Christian faith personally to the Apostle.
And then Paul talks about his “former life.” Paul had “a past,” too, just like each one of us, personal histories that we may not be very proud of. Before coming to faith in Christ, Paul says he “was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.” Not only that, but he “persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.” Paul's “former life” was a life full of death. Death for those whom he sought to execute for believing in Jesus. Death for himself because he mistakenly believed that his legalistic traditions and self-righteous religion had put him in God's good graces. But this had only put him in the same boat as those whom he had called “accursed” earlier in his letter … deserving of eternal death because of his rejection of Jesus as the Savior of the World.
But God has a way of raising people from death to life. He did it for the widow of Zarephath when Elijah raised her son to life. Her son had died and she said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!” (1 Kings 17:18) She was well aware of her “former life” … her own past sin and guilt. She figured that her sin was responsible for her son's death and that Elijah was there to remind her of that fact. Instead, Elijah raises her son to life, and in so doing, raises the widow to a life of faith once again, as she repentantly declares, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” (1 Kings 17:24)
That word of the Lord in Elijah's mouth was the word of Jesus, the Son of God. Jesus raised many to life during his earthly ministry, including the son of the widow of Nain in today's Gospel. The word of Jesus has the power to give life to dead bodies. That proves that it has the power to give life to dead hearts. The word of Jesus has the power to give life in the water and word of Baptism. It has the power to deliver to us his body and blood in Holy Communion. It has the power to absolve us when, through your pastor, Jesus announces, “I forgive you all your sins”...ALL your sins...the sins of your former life, the sins of your current life, the sins of our future life.
God raised Paul to life according to his eternal purposes. Paul says, “he set me apart before I was born … called me by his grace … was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles.” Paul makes it clear that it was not his own will or decision that caused him to come to faith in Christ. It was due to God's election of him by grace. Paul had done nothing to deserve what God did for him. It was all by God's grace – his undeserved favor – through his Son whom he revealed to Paul. And Paul recognized that God's eternal purpose was that so that Paul might preach God's saving grace in Christ to the Gentiles.
In Holy Baptism, God raised you to life according to his eternal purposes. You were set apart before you were born. You were called by God's grace. He was pleased to reveal his Son to you. For what purpose? You don't have to go searching too far to find out what the meaning of your life is. Look at your life right now. Look where God has placed you. He has called you to serve right where you are, with whatever gifts, skills, and talents he has cultivated in you and which you have discovered in yourself. You don't have to think that unless you go on extensive missionary journeys like St. Paul then you are not really serving God. He has called you to testify to his saving grace in Christ to whomever he places in your life whenever the opportunity arises. You may never be as well-known as St. Paul. You may not think you have the eloquence or intelligence of the great Apostle to the Gentiles. But God will still use you as you serve your family, your friends, and your neighbors with the love of Jesus.
A good starting point might be to ask someone if they want to hear about your “former life.” That ought to pique their interest. But make sure you go on to emphasize the new life you have in Christ Jesus … the new life of forgiveness, peace, and joy that they, too, can have through faith in him.