Sermon: Trinity Presbyterian Church, Arlington, VA
Title: “The Word of God” - June 5, 2016
1 Kgs 17: 8-16, (17-24) Elijah and the Widow at Zarephath
Gal 1: 11-24 The Gospel is not man’s Gospel – it came through revelation
It has been said that the conversion of the Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, is itself sufficient proof of the validity of Christianity. This one conversion of a man who was a Roman citizen, but no less a student of the great Jewish Rabbi Gamaliel, a man who was the great and singularly minded persecutor of the early church, who was then transformed into Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ, defender of the faith and father of the ministry to the non-jewish world, this conversion, is itself sufficient proof that Christianity is true historically and religiously. That is, if you want another empirical milestone in the timeline of historical events, which demonstratively represents God’s presence in history, along with the calling of Abraham, the Exodus, the rise of King David, and all the while pointing to the quintessential event in history, the death and resurrection of Jesus, you have the conversion of Saul into Paul. This text, this personal, historical, psychological, and theological section of the Letter to the Galatians, captures for us why, in certain critical ways, this is one sound insight the truth of the matter.
The Jewish Rabbi, Saul of Tarsus, had no interest in a charlatan messiah. Saul was a student of the OT, in its purest and unadulterated form. He was a Jew by birth-right and an inheritor of the faith of his mothers, since his father was Roman and his mother Jewish. “His ‘eighth-day’ badge of honor, his being of the “tribe of Benjamin” and “a Hebrew of Hebrews” places his lineage and family adherence to Israel at the very center of authentic Judaism. Saul’s parents followed the exact details of the Law, hence the circumcision on the 8th day. His heritage united him with the tribe of Benjamin, which held the land in which Jerusalem was situated. Benjamin was the son of Isaac born in the Promised Land. Even Israel’s infamous first king, Saul was of the tribe of Benjamin. When the monarchy in Israel was falling apart, the tribe of Benjamin stayed loyal to the house of David. A more honored family in Israel you will not find.”
“Saul was a passionate man. His life as a Pharisee within Judaism was no secret. By his own admission, he was a champion of the Torah and a defender of the integrity of the Mosaic Covenant. Saul was raised within the tension between the messianic community, or purity of Israel, and the pagan Hellenism of the world around him. Growing up in Tarsus, “no mean city,” (Acts 21:30) provided him with face-to-face contact with the differentiation between the “People of God” and the goyim (gentiles). His own words in Galatians paint the picture of his intense passion for the tradition and faith of the fathers, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people…” (Gal 1:14). Is this not a man truly after God’s own heart? In direction, no, in zeal, maybe, in passion and love for the Lord, yes.”
There is good bit of literature on the life of St Paul, we know much about him and the context in which he lived and wrote, and I encourage you to look into it. So, we could spend a great deal of time unpacking this text in terms of the conversion and profound revelation which came to Paul at that time in his life. It is a rich, inspiring, yet perplexing text. Paul, autobiographically, is making a claim which, if made in our day, would call out the strait jackets and theological pundits and might even trump the current news cycles as “late breaking news….here in the situation room.”
But I call your attention to something that is in the text, yet behind the text, and even lingers after the text because it is before the text. That something is the event of Revelation. This experience of Saul’s and therefore this text, and therefore this message are only possible, because of God’s Revelation. That event, that disturbing, mind bending event, historical, yet more than historical, spiritual, yet more than spiritual, psychological, yet more than psychological, emotional, yet more than emotions, personal, yet far more relational than personal, is what Paul is talking about here. The Message version of the NT, where we typically find in the RSV the words “I received this by revelation,” translates verse 12, “I got it, which is the Gospel, straight from God, I received the Message directly from Jesus Christ.” How is this possible? How valid is this claim of his? Is this a unique happening? On what basis can he say this?
Those of us who stand in the Christian faith do so for one and only one reason, though we may have arrived here by various circumstances. When we confess, “We believe in God the father, almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten son, and in the Holy Spirit…” we are repeating, confession, acknowledging something that was said to us, it is not something we could have said to ourselves. X We are repeating the substance of the Revelation which came to St Paul and we stand as recipients of that same Revelation. Listen again, “Know this—I am most emphatic here, friends—this great Message I delivered to you is not mere human optimism. I didn’t receive it through the traditions, and I wasn’t taught it in some school. I got it straight from God, I received the Message directly from Jesus Christ.” That is how faith operates. When you received Jesus into your life, to become a follower of the Jesus way of life, you actually were being summoned to faith by Jesus himself. Conversion is Revelation in action. It has a substantive character, and is not about perceptions, but reality. Conversion is response to Revelation. Conversion is saying Yes to Jesus, in a more profound way than you have said Yes to anything else in your life.
What I would like to help you see this morning, is what is sometimes called the three-fold character of Revelation, that is, the nature of how the Word of God works in our lives, in the church, and in the world. We will use the Galatians text as the basis of this exploration since the Word of God is In the text because it is behind the text, and it is even after the text, since it was before the text.
First of all, the Word of God creates events. God’s Word is God Speaking. And the little word “is” is critical. God’s Word is active, it moves, it transforms, it opens up, it divides, and it renews. The Word of God is never static. When God speaks there is always a response. Jesus on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem told the Pharisees, if you silence the adoration of the crowds, the rocks on the road would shout the adoration I am due. God’s Word comes from places we are not aware of and in a tone and timbre we are unprepared for. But it comes to create a response. So God Spoke to Saul of Tarsus. The very last thing Saul expected to hear was a Word from Jesus. But God slams into Saul and turns him into a disciple. Now what does Saul, see, hear, experience in this Revelation? The text in the Book of Acts says, Jesus and Saul had a conversation. What would you expect from the Word of God, silence, a hum, the sound of the wind, No, Words! The Bible is full of people who talk to God! Words to Words. God speak and there is communication, response, reciprocation, discovery, learning, with Words. Yes, there are feelings, emotions, etc. But the biblical stories are about God Speaking and people acting in response. That is what the Word of God does. God strikes up a conversation and invites us to participate. So, In the text Paul is telling us what went on behind the text. That is, God’s Word came to him, turning his intentions around, and opening his eyes and heart to a radically new understanding of the way of life through Jesus. The Word of God is the Logos, the Word, which was with God, and is God.
Secondly, the Word of God is Proclaimed. God speaks, the Word is heard and is spoken again. This time, not directly by God, but by, Paul, Timothy, Peter, Ignatius, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Jon Hus, Huldrich Zwingli, John Knox, Billy Sunday, Peter Marshall, Pastor Judith, you and me. Down through the ages, the Word of God is proclaimed every time a Christian shares the message of Jesus. When the death and resurrection of Jesus are shared, when the nature of forgiveness and grace and the way of faith in Christ are presented, God’s Word is heard again. God is heard Speaking. Now here lies the mystery of the Word of God as Revelation. Even though we do not think the Word of God is being spoken literally, or directly, by us, the power of God to be heard through rocks, comes through us. We, as the proclaimers of the Word of God are the ones who are actually in-directly speaking. It is really God who is directly speaking in proclamation. The mystery of Christ in us, is that through us, in us, and even in spite of us, Godself is speaking directly to the heart, mind and soul of another person. As we give ourselves to the service of speaking about events that have happened to us and the people of the bible, as Paul is sharing his event on the Damascus road, the Word of God is proclaimed. What comes After in your sharing your faith is possible because God’s Word lies before the event of your faith. Jesus tells the disciples to not worry about what they are to say, since through His Spirit he will give them words to speak. That is, Jesus using our stutters, our mispronunciations, our missed quotation, our overly complex sentence structures, even our confused theology, to make himself known. That is the key. Jesus makes himself known through us, since he is the Word about whom we speak, and since it is his word, he indwells our speaking with his very presence. Proclaim boldly since Jesus wants to people to know him.
And thirdly, in the order of how it all happened, God Spoke, His messengers Proclaimed what they heard, and what has been Proclaimed has become for us the Scriptures. In the same way that our Proclamation is God speaking, so Scripture is God’s Word. Now, to be clear, you cannot reverse that. My preaching, Judith’s preaching, albeit Proclamation, does not become Scripture, though some ministers might lead you to believe otherwise. That the Church has acknowledged the Bible as God’s Word is possible as a witness to us by the Holy Spirit. But in that people of faith wrote down and shared the stories, the narratives, the events of God’s interaction with His people, and in that those stories are used by God to Speak of Gods self, in that they are of service to the event in which people are called and respond in faith, in that sense the Bible is the Word of God. And in that sentence “is” is quite literally so. Read it and God is speaking, without equivocation. And that is God’s doing not ours. What is In the text was behind the text and our speaking after the text is possible because of what was before the text.
God Speak the Word, Saul is converted. Jesus started a conversation with Saul. Paul responds by Proclaiming the Word and people come to know Jesus. Jesus through us starts a conversation with others. Anyone can read the Word and come to know whom to know is life eternal. Jesus speaks out of the Scriptures since all Scripture speaks of him. All are possible because God is Speaking, the revelation of Jesus creates hearing in those who are coming to faith.
As we now turn to the lords table, where we celebrate and are nourished upon the very Word of God as given to us in the body and blood of our lord, I wonder and am excited to see how you and me, and our entire faith community, will respond to the greatest gift we could ever know, God with us...
So, when we share in the Lord’s table, we Proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes again… Amen.