June 9, 2013

When God Was Pleased to Reveal His Son to Me

Passage: 1 Kings 18:8-24, Psalm 146, Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17
Service Type:

But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son to me,* so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.


In 1862 Victor Hugo published his novel Les Miserables; even if you haven’t read the novel you may know the story having seen the stage play or the movie based on the novel.  It is a wonderful story that explores the themes of law and grace; I love the story and I really do enjoy the stage play having attended performances on three occasions and am anticipating a fourth later this year.

Now if I sound like a fan of Les Miserables let me tell you about Sally Frith from Gloucestershire, England.  Her love of Les Miserables made it into the BBC News in December 2012 at the time of the release of the movie.  It was reported that in 25 years, Ms. Frith has notched up 957 visits to see the famous musical on stage and has possibly spent more than £50,000 ($79,000) in doing so. “I think it is one of the greatest musicals ever written,” she said. “I love the story, love the songs and everything about it, and I’ve got to know quite a few cast members over the years.”   Ms. Frith was very excited to be going the see the movie.

Sally Frith must know every word of every line spoken and sung, every move of each character as they make their way on and off the stage, the nuances of how this or that actor portrayed his or her character.  I wonder how well we Christians know our story.  Do we know the words and lines of that great drama of God’s redemption of humanity; our story isn’t merely a stage play but the great triumph of God over death and all its errand boys.  Can we talk of the characters of that story—Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Peter, John, Thomas, Paul—do we know when they moved on and off the stage?

1. On April 29th (2013) I attended the annual Wesley Ministry Conference held at Tyndale University College and Seminary.  My interest in John Wesley arises from my study of Wesley’s understanding of preaching; Wesley is the founder of Methodism and the largest denomination in Canada with Methodist heritage is the United Church of Canada.  Central United traces its own history to a Methodist Society formed in Unionville in 1840.  The United Church has, what I would call, an uneasy relationship with its roots in Methodism and Wesley’s convictions.  (I know of only one other United Church minister at that conference).

The theme of the conference was “Rediscovering Transformational Discipleship” and the key-note speaker was Dr. Leonard Sweet; Dr. Sweet is the Professor of Evangelism at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey and Visiting Professor at George Fox University in Portland, Oregon.  His passion is to help the church to communicate the gospel in a post-modern age; to show potential ways to build a bridge to popular culture.  In his opening address he talked about what he saw as a marked difference between our day and Wesley’s day in 18th Century England.  Sweet likened it to baseball games.  In Wesley’s day every game was a home game, given that England was predominately Christian.  In our era every game is an away game; not very many are cheering for the church to win.

Dr. Sweet is a member of the United Methodist church in the United States.  In many respects this denomination shares many of the stresses and strains facing our United Church.  One of the things he noted was that Protestant churches, generally speaking, are not passing the faith to the next generation; he said that a question we need to face is if there is a future for protestant churches.  He shared two related stories about the Amish and the Jewish people.

The Amish have a retention rate among their young people of ninety-five percent.  Sweet noted that in the home of every Amish child he or she is introduced to three books.  The Bible, a book about their Anabaptist ancestors, and a book of songs about these ancestors in both the Bible and the book titled Martyr’s Mirrors that are the centre of twice daily family prayer times.  Every child is raised to find their identity in these stories.  A little aside about Anabaptists; Anabaptist is a word that means re-baptize.  Anabaptists were a part of the protestant reformation that insisted on adult baptism and because they regarded infant baptism as invalid these people were then baptized as adults.  Many of these people were from the Roman Catholic Church or Lutheran Church and had been baptized as infants.  Hence the established churches named them re-baptizers or anabaptists.  Menno Simmons was a famous Anabaptist (Mennonites).

The world’s population is around 7 billion people.  There are approximately 13 million Jews; this means that the Jewish people comprise about 0.2% of the world’s population.  Sweet noted that, statistically speaking the number of Jewish people who are Nobel Prize winners, accomplished leaders in the arts, in business, in entrepreneurship, in innovation and invention has a much higher representation than the population statistics might indicate.  Sweet said that those who study these things claim it arises from a strong sense of identity.  The highest holy day in Jewish life takes place in the home.  The whole family gathers around the table and the elder tells their story about Exodus and then questions are asked of this story.  Every Jewish child grows up knowing that this story—their story—can withstand any question.

Sweet asked us if we thought there was something to be learned from these people.  We send our children out into the world to find their identity; create their own story.  And in our world there are all kinds of story tellers inviting us and our young people to embrace other stories as theirs. I think we need to learn the story that is ours—the story of Jesus Christ.  In a way this is what has Paul concerned; the Galatians are telling another story—not the one who is Jesus Christ.

2. French author and philosopher Albert Camus wrote: “Truth, like light, blinds.  Falsehood, on the contrary, is a beautiful twilight that enhances every object.”  “Truth, like light, blinds”; so my question for Camus is, how do you know that truth blinds?  In order to make the claim that “truth blinds” does it not imply that you have some innate ability to know truth when you see it (or are blinded by it).  To ask this question another way, how did Camus come to have this knowledge that truth, like light, blinds; that truth has some blinding quality?  It makes the assumption of many philosophers; truth is humanly discoverable.  It assumes a particular story about humanity—that ultimate categories of truth and falsehood lays within our grasp.

Most of us learned that one plus one equals two.  You might call this a mathematical truth; a truth that is the foundation of our economic well-being, for example.  And so humans assume that because truths in the field of mathematics are discoverable that truth about God and the nature of our existence are also discoverable.

The gospel tells a very different story.  It isn’t light that blinds, rather it is sin that blinds.  It this sentence from the Apostle Paul—when God was pleased to reveal his son to me—you have a very different story being told.  In the electronic screen of your imagination increase the font size of the word “reveal”.  It is the same word Paul uses a few sentences earlier when he writes of the gospel he preached: “I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ”.  This gospel story stands over against most of the stories of this world—religious, philosophical, or otherwise. It is the story that God makes incursion into our lives precisely because, left to ourselves, we cannot discover who God is.

The story of the gospel is that God is making himself know.  Paul as a devout Jew already knew this; God had made incursion into the world calling a nation of people to be his own—Israel.  Israel was to be God’s covenant partner so the world might come to know this God who makes such incursion; they were to walk in company with God so it could be known.  They insisted on ethnic boundaries.  They did not do so well.  But on the road to Damascus Paul met Jesus Christ—Israel’s greater Son the perfect covenant partner.  Ethnic boundaries were over; through Jesus Christ anyone in the world could experience God’s incursion into their lives. He was a witness to this and that is why he insists that there really is no other gospel.

The story of Jesus Christ is a story that says that truth is a person.  It is not in a proposition as if truth exists independent of God and I can take this standard and show you that Christianity is true and other things false.  We bear witness to Jesus Christ in his truth.  Furthermore, the truth that is Jesus Christ does not leave a person blinded.  Biblically speaking, when God makes incursion into people’s lives they know who it is that has spoken and what has been said.

The book of Galatians is one of the earliest books written about Jesus.  It was written before the gospels were written.  You will notice that Paul’s primary focus is not on Jesus as a great teacher; Paul does not cite very many of our Lord’s sayings.  He is primarily focused on the person Jesus Christ.  What Paul knew was that much of what our Lord taught was consistent with scriptures both Paul and Jesus grew up knowing.  Paul is much more interested in who Jesus is—a focus consistent with the story that is Jesus Christ.  The focus on Jesus as primarily a good teacher arises from another story; a story that says humans can discover for themselves the goodness in Jesus’ teaching.  This is not the gospel’s story.

The actors Brad Pitt and Hugh Jackman both grew up in Christian homes and both men have since distanced themselves from their faith. Here's how Brad Pitt described his spiritual journey:

I found [my Christian upbringing] very stifling. I always had a lot of questions about the world, even in kindergarten. A big question to me was fairness. If I'd grown up in some other religion, would I get the same shot at heaven as a Christian has? Hugh Jackman grew up in "a deeply religious family."  In a 2013 interview Jackman said, "I was involved with so many things in the church. It was my social group. It was where I met girls. It was sort of my life out of school. Then around 16 or 17, I started questioning. 'How come all these nonbelievers are going to hell?'"

What both of these actors questioned is the question that many have; a question about what appears to many as exclusion.  It arises out a particular story about humanity; a story that views religion as humanity’s groping after God; a story that says that humans have the capacity to search and know God—why, then, would one religion be better than another. The gospel tells a different story.  The gospel story is that humans are cut off from God; God was not willing to leave us there and has graciously come to us that we might come to know him.

God is not uncertain about God’s own identity.  This is, I believe, one of the reasons why Paul insists on the gospel of Jesus Christ; on Jesus Christ in his truth.  It is a particular Jesus; the crucified Jesus risen from the dead.  We are called to bear witness to this incursion of God in Jesus Christ into the world and into our lives.  Is God making incursion into the lives of people not connected to Christianity?  The answer of the gospel is yes.  We are to bear witness to the nature of this incursion that is Jesus Christ.  Our claim is that in Jesus Christ you can know the meaning of God’s incursion for sure.  We aren’t saying that we Christians have made some superior discovery as if our religious sleuthing capability were exceptional.  The gospel rejects such triumphalism; we bear witness to the reality that we needed God’s incursion into our lives.  We bear witness that God has come to us, meaning to humanity, and there is no barrier to this relationship with Jesus Christ. (Galatians is Paul arguing against those who would erect barrier).

3. Now a world about Paul’s insisting on being an Apostle.  In Luke’s gospel we are told that these first followers of Jesus chose a disciple to replace Judas and the requirement was for someone who had known Jesus during his days of ministry.  One who knew and heard Jesus personally.  WE are also told the early church devoted themselves to the “Apostles’ teaching”.  Paul’s detractors were saying that Paul did not meet Jesus in this direct way; Paul says otherwise.

The point I make with you here is that the Apostles are included in this Jesus story; the particular apostles are part of our story.  While Jesus can make himself known by any means he chooses, he always does so in the Apostles’ teaching; hearing and heeding Jesus always takes the form of hearing and heeding the Apostles.  This is why we read and study scripture; it is the witness of prophet and apostle written.  Jesus chose particular people to be apostles and they are ours because they are His.  The particulars of life matter; Jesus shows this by choosing particular people as his apostles.  Thus the story that is Jesus Christ says that your particular life matters.

3. Conclusion

In November of 2008 one of the greatest masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance was restored to its original splendor and returned to its home at the world renowned gallery in Florence. The Madonna del Cardellino was painted by Raphael in 1505 for the wedding of his friend, a wealthy Florence merchant. It portrays Jesus Christ's mother, Mary, with two children who are playing with a bird.  The children symbolized John the Baptist and his young cousin Jesus. The gold finch bird that feeds among thorns is interpreted as representing Christ's future suffering.

But something happened to this painting.  It was painted in 1505. Forty years after it was created, there was an earthquake in the house in which this painting was kept, and the painting was shattered into 17 different pieces. The wood was all smashed up into bits. So another artist took long iron nails and tried to patch the pieces together. And then he tried to paint over it to conceal the breaks and make it look whole again. But over the years, there were so many layers of paint added and so much dust and grime over this painting that the original colors, the original art, was completely obscured.

The contemporary restoration project fixed the shattered areas and removed layers of paint and dirt to get the colors back. It was a team effort. It took fifty people ten years of working on this painting, and the result is stunning. The cracks are gone. Centuries of brown film and grime are gone. The dulling veneers and patches have been stripped away, and the finished product glows with all of the deep colors: the reds, and blues, and golds of the original work of art. Given how badly it was damaged, the restoration of Raphael's painting is arguably even more amazing than the painting itself. The original was splendid, but the miracle of restoration compounds the beauty.

The gospel story tells the story of a far greater masterpiece of restoration, the one that the Lord wants to do in your life and in mine and in all creation.   Tragically, the beautiful design of God’s creation has been marred by sin; and layers of grime and dirt have collected.  Humanity has made effort to paint over the damage, but it didn't work, and the patches, the veneers applied just made things worse, and the cracks are showing.  The restoration project in God is doing in Christ—of which the risen Jesus is the first fruit—has in view a splendor beyond returning things to the way they were; it has in view a renewal whose glory the human cannot even imagine.  We Christians need to learn and tell our story.