Sunday, June 6, 2010

An Apostolic Identity Crisis

An Apostolic Identity Crisis

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder, Pastor

June 6, 2010

Galatians 1:1-24

And they glorified God because of me. NRSV

In 1983 I had the privilege of attending a portion of the meeting of the General Assemblies of the United Presbyterian Church, USA, and the Presbyterian Church U.S. in Atlanta. It was the last time our now-united denomination would meet as two churches that had been separated since the Civil War. While I was at that assembly I heard speeches about our impending unity, grand salutations were sent back and forth across hallways from one assembly to the other. After that historic vote was taken, we would not be calling to each other across hallways any more, we would be meeting face to face. Warts and all.

Now, twenty-seven years later, all this may sound pretty far removed from our everyday experience as Presbyterians in Vancouver. But we might try to remember one of the things that always begs resolution in the Presbyterian Church (USA), or in any church body. It is the answer to the question, “Who’s in charge here?”

If anything has caused a rise in the blood pressure of Presbyterians ever since there were Presbyterians, it has had to do with questions of authority. So, who gets to be in charge? Well, the small answer, unsatisfying as it may be, is simply, “It depends.” It all depends on context. Our denominational church constitution, the venerable Book of Order, is our agreed-upon authority on these things, declaring who gets to be in charge in what circumstances. For matters of local ministry and mission, it is the Session of the church, the elected elders meeting together. For regional concerns among churches in a common geographical area, it is the Presbytery, pastors and representative elders from the churches meeting together. And so on.

The same question can be asked on a larger scale. Many around the world ask who speaks for the United States. Is it the president? Is it the Congress? Individual members of Congress on fact-finding missions overseas? Do the people of the United States speak for themselves? Often, people who are angry with the United States will say something such as, “We have no quarrel with the people of the United States, just the government.” Can one make such a distinction? Our constitution declares that it is the people who are sovereign, not their government. Who has ultimate authority in our country? Who should?

The question of authority also can be asked on a small scale: who is in charge of this friendship? This service club? This park by the river? This stretch of freeway?

Consider the position of the Apostle Paul, founding father of churches all over the Gentile world northwest of Palestine. We might assume an apostle was a figure of unquestioned authority, but Paul used the story of his own identity crisis to instruct the Galatians about the proper quest for authority in the lives of their churches. He said, in effect, that he knew all too well who he was and where he was going before he became an apostle: “I was ahead of most fellow Jews of my age in my practice of the Jewish religion,” he said, “and was much more devoted to the traditions of our ancestors.”

The search for personal identity is one of the great preoccupations of our age. Variations on the phrase, “I need to find myself” have become a veritable mantra of modern life. I used to have a sign on my church office door which read, “I have gone out to find myself: if I should come in before I return, please keep me here until I get back.” All too often we have acted as though such things as personal identity were sitting like berries on a bush somewhere, waiting to be plucked, or a golden nugget in a river bed, ready to be grasped. We forget that who we are is mostly either what we have made of ourselves or have been made by others... or by Another.

In Paul’s time it was assumed that people knew who they were. Our great search for personal identity was unknown. So, when everything that Paul had spent his life becoming was called into question one day on a trip to Damascus, he was anything but prepared for it.

Paul knew from his youth what he was cut out to be. He studied hard to follow the path of and to become a good Pharisee, a Rabbi. He was righteous. He obeyed all the laws. He persecuted those who were unclean and blasphemous as he had been taught to do. The picture of Paul before his call from Jesus is anything but a portrait of a tortured soul thirsting for direction in life. On the contrary, Paul knew all too well the direction he intended to take. And he took that direction with a vengeance, laying the budding new Christian communities to waste in order to preserve the identity he had struggled so hard to achieve. But all that certainty and well-formed identity evaporated away one day when Jesus spoke to Paul from the sky, an experience Paul refers to in Galatians this way: “God ... was pleased to reveal his Son to me...” an experience of the power of God which, according to Luke, went this way:

Now as Saul (Paul) was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” ... Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.[1]

Paul received a special vision by which he claimed to be an apostle. We have become rightfully wary of those who claim to have had a special vision and thereby a right to tell us what to do. Yet for Paul this was not merely a private revelation. In his revelation of Christ he received no new information which no one else possessed, mysterious, unearthly truths unavailable to other mortals. No, what Paul came to know others had already learned. Paul’s revelation may have been painful, dramatic, but it was human and understandable to him. He could not be part of Christ before. Now he could. It was that vision that gave Paul the authority to go into the world of the Gentiles, to establish churches, and to admonish and correct those who deviated from the Gospel.

Generally when someone, looking around in the church, asks “Who is in charge here?” the answer comes back, “the pastor,” or “the Session,” or “tradition,” or “scripture.” But Paul points beyond these to an even more original authority: nothing has more authority than the one Gospel, the one standard against which all else must be measured, even scripture, the traditions of the church, and the apostles themselves. Everything must be measured against the norm of the Gospel.

So what is the Gospel if it is none of these? Paul points out three striking features:

First, it is Christ’s Gospel. Not mine, not yours, not the Presbyterians’ nor the Baptists’ nor the capitalists’ nor the socialists’; it is not the Pastor’s nor the Elders’, but Christ’s. The Gospel came from Christ and is about Christ, and there is no need to hyphenate it with contemporary, catchy adjectives – Biblical-Christianity, Contemporary-Christianity, Pre- Post- or Prelapsarian-Dispensationalist-Christianity – to make it relevant. It will assume its own relevance if we will set it free in our world.

Secondly, the fundamental nature of this Gospel of Christ is grace. This is where the Galatians, like many of us, wander into trouble. They had found the unaccustomed freedom that grace brings to be just a little frightening. They were offered the security of Jewish law and practice to demonstrate physically that their salvation had been purchased. It wasn’t necessary. Not only was it not necessary, but to submit to external proofs of salvation defeats one of the purposes of the Gospel... it is in fact what Paul called another gospel, certainly not the Gospel of Christ. Paul declared that those who are willing to abandon free grace for the security of fixed laws and dogma desert not mere doctrine but Christ himself.

The authority of the Gospel means much more and much less than our typical notions of authority, which are likely to focus on someone else’s ability to tell us what we may and may not do. The authority of the Gospel of grace means increase, augmentation, freedom, not limitation and regimentation. Paul said elsewhere in this letter, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”[2] Where we do not see such freedom, we do not see the authority of the Gospel at work.

The third striking feature of the Gospel is addressed to those who are leaders of God’s people. Such persons must be more aware than anyone of the human tendency to confuse the message with the messenger. It is a reminder to anyone who speaks a word of witness to another. Paul raised this question loudly enough for us to overhear: “Am I now seeking the favor of men or of God?” It is a good question to raise anytime. And it is a striking question to raise when the issue is authority, for to ask whether we are striving to please other people or to please God exposes immediately our pretense – which can be painful – and at the same time sets us on the path of true freedom once again, the path of God’s purpose.

Paul went three years as a new believer before meeting with any of the apostles in Jerusalem. Yet he knew the Gospel and its demands for him. Paul’s authority was made manifest not in giving new life to the dead. He was even more helpful to us through his capacity to give new life to the living... a “resurrection to new life in Christ.”

Paul’s authority – and we would pray it is the source for the authority in our own church – was not accomplished through hard work or the force of a competitive personality, which Paul clearly possessed. It came through his unmerited yet grace-filled call from God to be about his work; it was totally unexpected, unearned, undeserved, and yet Paul received it and lived it and became the most powerful of all the apostles. The decision about what to be in life is not ultimately our own. Life’s calling is not our own to be fretted over. It is God’s. If we are open to his leading, he will certainly take us where we need to be, as individuals and as a church.

Paul closed this vigorous defense of his apostleship by telling his readers that those who had once feared him – the Christians of Judea – upon learning that he had joined them in the faith, began to praise God. He said, “And they glorified God because of me.” It is an epitaph worthy of Paul. Indeed, that it could be said that “they glorified God because of me,” would be a life’s goal worthy of any believer.

There are those around us who could glorify God even because of us. May we make ourselves available to them so that it may be so.

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Acts 9:3-8a, alt. NRSV

[2] Galatians 5:1 NRSV