The Conversion of St. Paul
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“When St. Paul wrote to rebuke the Galatians, it was not for grievous moral offenses. He did not accuse them of murder, fornication, blasphemy, or theft. Nor did he reprimand them for slipping back to the ways of the world. Paul’s indictment of the churches of Galatia was quite simply that they had replaced the Gospel with another teaching. . . . They had substituted something else for the Gospel.
The Gospel Paul had preached in Galatia was God’s revelation in His Son and the Holy Spirit. It was not, in the first instance, a declaration of man’s duty, but of God’s bounty in the fullness of time. Paul wrote, “when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!'” This message was the (Gospel), the Good News: the incarnation of God (for the forgiveness of sins). (1) Any message replacing this one, Paul wrote, was “another gospel.”
In the Epistle to the Galatians, the “other gospel” was justification by the works of the Mosaic Law. That is to say, those who preached this other gospel were not teaching something bad but something good. (They were teaching that people should keep the Law, that they should do good works and by those words obtain salvation. They were wrong, but they weren’t advocating sin. They were promoting good works.)
Indeed, the really serious rivals of the Gospel will rarely be bad. It is easy to recognize evil things as enemies of (2) the Gospel— . . . (Evil things), while they are certainly opposed to the Gospel, are less likely to rival or replace the Gospel.
Only good things normally suggest themselves as proper substitutes for the Gospel. It is rare that the Gospel is distorted by evil; it is much more likely to be corrupted by some lesser good. In the case of the Galatians, that lesser good was the Mosaic Law!
Thus, even in Paul’s own day, Christians had already begun to replace the Gospel with some other message “according to man.” That is to say, God’s message was already being superceded by some human project.”
In our age, the Gospel has often been corrupted by a desire for Church growth. In its crassest form there are those who argue that what we should really care about is whether or not our congregation will be here in 50 years. In its more subtle forms this corruption makes growth a measure of our faithfulness or proof of God’s love. It changes Evangelism from preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ, that is, that God is Incarnate for the forgiveness of sins, to convincing people of the benefits of our church or finding ways to meet their needs. At least the Galatians had the class to substitute the Gospel with Moses. Our temptation is to substitute it with the wisdom of Madison Avenue.
St. Paul can’t abide such substitutions. An adult convert of the most dramatic sort, he has a keen sense of before and after, darkness and light, blindness and sight. Once he thought that the Christians were perverting the Law and blaspheming against the God of Abraham and Moses. He was protecting the Temple. The he met the God of Abraham and Moses in the risen flesh of Jesus Christ, the Temple built without hands and rebuilt by His own power. He met the fulfillment of the Law and was left blinded by the experience. He did not gain back his sight until Ananias, a one-time enemy, whom Paul had come to kill, laid his hands on him and delivered the Holy Spirit along with the forgiveness of sins. The Lord did not need Paul to protect Him or make His church grow. He came to serve Paul, to reconcile Paul to Himself, to bestow grace.
That forgiveness often seems foolishness to those who want to find their own way, who are seeking real solutions to hunger, poverty, and mental illness. Can it really be that the Church’s eternal message and wisdom for all humanity can be summed up with no more complicated of a sentence than “Jesus loves you?” What good is it to tell those in need of food that Jesus loves them? Or how will that get people to give enough money to fix our bell tower? Why should we do anything if Jesus has done everything for us?
Bell towers wither and fade. The Missouri-synod has no more right to continue than does the United States. Only the Word of the Lord endures forever. This is what Paul learned on the road to Damascus and in his three day blindness. We must learn it as well. The Lord does not need us to protect Him or make His Church grow. He does not need us to design a more profound or nuanced Gospel than “Jesus loves you.” He has come to serve us. The forgiveness of sins, the life of God in Christ which He bestows through faith, is the only thing needful. People don’t need food and medicine. Those things don’t last or heal what truly ails them. It is hard to practical men such as us but what they need the most is the Gospel, even when it seems to fail to help them in this life or to make a difference. We have to give up and let the Lord do the work, trust Him to bring them home, to fulfill His promises, rather than making our own way. So let’s say it again: the Lord doesn’t need our protection or help. What He gives us in His Kingdom is a privilege not a duty or burden used to judge us.
And this Gospel isn’t just for them, for the hungry and sorrowful, and such. This is for you. Jesus loves you. He has died for you. He has risen from the dead and ascended to His Father’s right. From there He rules all the Universe, yet He comes to you, for you, in the Holy Communion, like light on the road that knocks you to the ground and sets you back on the path, blind to be led by the One who sees. There, in the Holy Communion, the Lord gives Himself to you in His Body and Blood. He forgives your sins. Jesus loves you. He has adopted you as His son in the waters of Holy Baptism. He has filled you with His Holy Spirit so that you cry out with Him to His Father, “Our Father.” Jesus loves you. He holds nothing against you, bears no grudge, is glad to have you. And that is enough. If you don’t need to add to it for others, neither do you need to add to it for yourself or need anything or anyone else. Jesus loves you.
The Gospel of Christ is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes. As you believe, so it is. You are saved. In the Gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” Thus do you live.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.