Sunday, June 13, 2010

Believing What You Heard

Believing What You Heard

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder
June 13, 2010

Galatians 2:15-3:5

Does God supply you with the Spirit
and work miracles among you
by your doing the works of the law,
or by your believing what you heard? NRSV

One phrase from our Galatians passage tends to stay with us because of its directness: “If justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”

Christ died for nothing? It has a terrifying sound to it. In our faith we are devoted to the Christ that Paul names here, so the suggestion that Christ could have died for nothing should be very alarming to us if we are paying attention. Just that word: nothing has an emptiness to it, a sort of hollow, absence about it. Recall Paul’s words in the well-traveled 13th chapter of I Corinthians, when he says, “...if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing ... if I give away all my possessions ... but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Jesus made a declaration about this as well, when, in the gospel of John, he instructed his disciples saying, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”[1]

Nothing. Is there a word that is more helpless, more hopeless? We stand just outside the door in the ICU, the doctor comes to us with a glum expression, putting words to our worst fears, “There is nothing more we can do.” Nothing. Nothing at all. How heavy that empty word can sound. After a frantic search for a lost child at the shopping mall, the security officer shows the palms of his hands to the anxious parents. “Nothing,” he says, shaking his head.

Now, this sort of line of thinking doesn’t get much reflective attention in our modern whiz-bang world, where, with distractions aplenty, we fool ourselves into thinking that our lives are dedicated, 24 hours-a-day, to something. One of my all-time favorite nobody-who-wants-to-become-somebody advertisements was one in which a young mother picked up a baby sitter, who through her blunt adolescent chatter pronounced the young mother old enough not to need to worry about being cool any more. Of course this stops the attractive young mother in her tracks. Madison Avenue’s solution to this challenge of nothingness from the mouth of an innocent? Get a new car! Of course, why didn’t I think of that? Existential angst can be resolved by signing a lease on a new vehicle! One sought-after antidote to the nothingness periods of our lives is the urge to do totally irrelevant shopping! But we know it for what it is without even a very long period of reflection. Soon enough the new car becomes the old bomb, and we are in fresh need of a new way to prove to ourselves that nothingness will not have the day, that we are somebodies, that this world is about something.

So much of the time our lives are dedicated to avoiding the fear that our very existence doesn’t really amount to all that much. One of me or you, more or less, is not going to make or break the world. Much as we want to challenge that hollow, echoing word nothing, we know that we long for some indication that our lives have some purpose beyond purchasing another new car, or getting ourselves involved in another television reality show. Where is the real meat of life? Where can we finally discover that we are not just a few bits of protoplasmic irrelevance, but that we are somebodies of some significance?

Bob Dylan recorded a song many years back which comes to my mind. I always hesitate just a moment when I use the words “Dylan” and “song” in the same sentence, since his car-needs-new-brake-pads voice can sometimes grate on us before he gets to the first chorus. Anyway, his lyrics are the things that have always made his songs go, like “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The song I’m thinking of had this refrain in it: “You got to serve somebody.”

And we all know intuitively, Bob Dylan is absolutely right. Everybody has to serve somebody or something. If it is personal freedom that is our life’s main goal, then we serve that. If it is career, or children, or family, or education, or fame, or being the best golfer or tennis player in the city, then we serve one of those things. None of us gets to go through life without putting something first, even if by accident. So it’s maybe a good thing to take a look now and then to see which things in our lives appear to be in first place, and see if that’s the way we want to leave it. If that young mother went out and bought that new sports car, then we could say she was responding to that advertiser’s suggestion that a way to stay young is to get in a snazzy new set of wheels. But couldn’t that mean she is rendering a good portion of her life’s service to that image of herself? You got to serve somebody.

In our affluent culture, we can all benefit from an occasional reminder that if we want to be somebody in the New Testament sense of the word, we need to prepare to give ourselves away. It is the strange logic of the gospel, which Jesus announced himself, that it is those who want to save and hoard their lives who will lose them to nothingness in the end, while those who are willing to lose their lives for Jesus’ sake in their service to others will know what it is to have life.

If you want to be somebody, serve somebody. And we don’t have to go to faraway places to do this. To be prepared to serve somebody means a willingness to be like Jesus, who washed the feet of those whom the culture around him would have supposed to have been his inferiors.

Anyone can throw themselves into the task of toadying up to the folks who are just like ourselves. Dedicating ourselves to a life of service from which we hope to reap great material reward is not really serving somebody else. It is just a roundabout way of serving ourselves. No, to know the joy and pain of this New Testament kind of service, there must be an aspect of selflessness, where payback is not an option.

One year when our youth group from a former church I served was finishing up building a house for a family in Mexico, I remember one of the teary-eyed owners of the new little home who asked me for my address. He wanted to send a letter of thanks, even mentioned how wonderful it would be if he could visit us and our church some time. I realized, as if for the first time, who it is we had been serving. It was someone who was about to move into a new home built in four days with a concrete floor, two small rooms, altogether about the size of a one-car garage. It struck me that this person might not be very comfortable in our community, might not know what to do in a home with wall-to-wall carpeting and two or three TV’s gracing the living spaces. It was somebody who had only one set of clothes to wear and wore them every day. It robbed me of my pride of service in knowing just how little I knew of this person, and how many worlds apart our two worlds were.

I once read a convicting story about a Baptist preacher named C. Roy Angell. I recall reading that Roy “was a fine man who for many years was pastor of the Central Baptist Church in Miami, Florida.” Roy Angell preached 60 or 70 years ago now, but is remembered for “the sweet spirit he exuded in the pulpit...

“...A strong-tempered minister out in Fort Worth, Texas, named J. Frank Norris, who was what we would call a ‘militant fundamentalist’ and who was always hitting out at somebody about something he didn’t agree with, put Roy Angell on his list and often denounced him. You have known preachers like that – they wouldn’t have anything to say if they had to speak kindly of others. Well, the story was that Roy Angell and J. Frank Norris were in the same city one time to attend a meeting, and Norris was having a rally in the park, trying to stir up people against the other personalities there for the meeting. Angell knew that Norris had been attacking him, but the two had never met; and out of curiosity, he decided to attend the rally.

“As Angell joined the crowd in the park, he heard Norris blasting him ... A cold wind began to blow, and the rain began coming down in buckets. Angell felt so sorry for the pathetic figure up on the platform that he slipped up the steps beside him and laid his own raincoat over Norris’ shoulders. Then he stood there holding his umbrella over Norris’ head as the angry preacher continued to denounce him. Norris was of course completely unaware of who it was that was sheltering him from the elements. I am not sure if Roy Angell ever introduced himself.”[2]

Who was Frank Norris serving? Or Roy Angell? Perhaps at its best, the church is like Roy’s umbrella, with room underneath even for those who find themselves sometimes in violent opposition. I hope to God it is.

Paul asked those Galatians, who had begun to believe they could work their way into the kingdom, whether they thought they received the Holy Spirit by performing the works of the law, or by believing what they had heard about Jesus Christ. “You foolish Galatians!” he wrote to them. “Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?”

The presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our church is the true sign of the new life that Christ brings. Where the Spirit breaks in and brings new life, a lot of ecclesiastical rules and mumbo-jumbo go out the window. There are no second class seats on the train bound for glory, because Christ has saved us all and our tickets are punched already. Once God has come into our lives, yours and mine, looking at rules and regulations takes a back seat to welcoming one another to take up our seats in the kingdom.

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
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[1] John 15:5
[2] “Paul and the Fundamentalists,” by John Killinger Pulpit Digest, July/Aug. ‘96, p. 43 ff.