Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. DeeAnne Lowman, Associate Pastor

 

 

 

The Human Source

Sunday, June 10, 2007

 

 

Galatians 1: 11-24

 

 

As a pastor, books are a big part of life.  I adore books about spiritual disciplines, spiritual teachers, church systems and structures; autobiographies about God breaking through into someone’s life and their story from loneliness to God-fullness.  Sometimes Chris asks me if I ever read anything just for fun and not for “work.” 

 

A friend recently gave me a book that bridges the apparent gap between these two.  It’s called Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.  The premise is hilarious:  Levi (called Biff) is brought back from death in modern day by an angel named Raziel to help fill in the gaps regarding the life of Jesus not covered in the other Gospels.  He reveals to us a quest that he and Jesus have embarked upon. They encounter a youth-filled discovery of what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah.

 

While writing this gospel, we see that Raziel gets hooked on the Soaps, and Biff finds a copy of the Bible in their hotel room.  I have burst into both laughter and tears reading this book on the Metro.  We meet a young version of Mary Magdalene (nicknamed “Maggie”), Biff is secretly in love with Jesus’ mother Mary, and we find out most of the details the earlier life of a young boy called to be the Savior of the whole world.  Some of their travels and antics are loosely based on some facts, and others are not.  But as I have been reading this account of the life of Jesus, I have found myself wishing it were true.  Or at least that something like this existed.

 

I’ve always wondered how Jesus grew into the man that he became.  What food did he like, what did he learn, did he travel much?  This book answers many more questions than I would ever think of (like why Jesus may have been so able to avoid temptations of the flesh – the reasons may shock you!).  The best part about this book is that Biff is unafraid to recount all of Jesus; the good, yes, the bad, and even some ugly.  But it’s not the book I would give someone to read who has not yet been told the gospel story.  It may not only confuse them, it might even turn them off.  Biff is brutally honest, and holds nothing back.  But perhaps I’m wrong.  Maybe a frank discussion of the life of Jesus is just what some folks really need, even us.

 

Paul was more than willing to share the Jesus story that he knew. The Galatians turned away from the gospel that he brought them earlier, and he was rather set on edge about that.  These people represented a new settlement of Celtic peoples who had migrated to Asia Minor or today’s Turkey.  This was one of the places Paul actually had been and personally shared the story with these people.  Other places, like Judea, got the story 2nd or 3rd or even 4th hand from people who met Paul and heard it from him.  But Galatia was a place Paul took the message of peace of love and acceptance directly to the inhabitants.  So maybe we can understand a little why Paul was ticked that they were listening to others who were either correcting Paul’s words, or just downright contradicting them altogether. 

 

The main message that Paul took everywhere he went was one of inclusion.  Gentiles did not have to become Jews before they could become Christians.  No circumcision required.  No food laws required.  Just acceptance of the life and ministry and power and resurrection of Jesus, and you were in. So we can forgive Paul’s defensiveness when he reminded the folks there that the story he shared wasn’t his story – the gospel was not of Paul’s creation or any other human.  This is a story that he got directly from Jesus himself.  Some of the folks might have doubted that, since Jesus and Paul never really met during Jesus’ time on earth.  How is it that he got it right from Jesus again?  Oh yeah, the Damascus road story.  Not that old shoe again.  Yes, Paul said.  Remember I used to hate Christians, and then Jesus appeared to me and I couldn’t see for a while and other people had to take care of me. Oh, that old shoe?

 

In this same passage we learn that Paul went away to Arabia.  What was Arabia?  What did he do there, and why did he include this piece of travel in his discussion with the Galatians?  Some scholars believe that Arabia represented a place to figure things out, like the wilderness was for Jesus and the mountain was for Moses.  Sometimes we take on new challenges, or there is news we need to process.  People of faith throughout the ages have retreated after major life events, spiritual awakenings, or crises of faith.  So Arabia was where Paul went both before and after he was in and around Damascus.  He went there to figure out his new call, his new life, his new focus.[i] 

 

We all need an Arabia.  We all need from time to time to draw away from others and figure things out.  But Paul, it appears, used this time to recover from being an extreme religious Zealot.  Maybe he needed to spend the time with God and Jesus working out his own salvation.  After all, Paul was on his way to kill or at least capture “those Christians” when he had his conversion experience.  This was the man who held a cloak for a man stoning Stephen.  That’s a 360-degree turn about, one that I bet required time alone to think what his next move would be.  After all he hadn’t been persecuting alone.  He had been a leader; a commander of other religiously driven people who deeply believed their position about religious law and Jewish traditions was essential for the salvation of the faith and its adherents.  Paul would need to work out his next move.  How would he reemerge into society?  Where would he go next, and how in the world would he convince anyone of his newfound passion for Christ?  He would need to really live into this new life, fully and completely - always modeling what he believed to be central to the gospel. 

 

Now Paul wasn’t perfect in his living out of this inclusion thing.  There are those among us today who may think that Paul needed to spend A LOT more time in Arabia fine-tuning his living and speech.  After all, I won’t be here preaching if we continued to think that women should stay silent in church. But his message to the Galatians and others was clear – no restrictions to who can be a Christian.

 

Since the death of Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, I have been harboring fantasies about Jerry’s arrival in heaven.  I found out that I’m not alone.  A variety of theological and political magazines have been depicting the scene of my fantasy.  Christian Century illustrates Rev. Falwell arriving to find noted Teletubby, Tinky-Winky, who Falwell accused of being a gay icon – waiting for him at the Pearly Gates.  “Uh oh,” says Falwell.  Another publication offers a picture of St. Peter at the Gates of Heaven; arms wide open to embrace Rev. Falwell upon his arrival.  The caption reads something like, “We accept everyone here.  Welcome to Heaven.”  Falwell exclaims, “Heaven! This is Hell!” 

 

One of these two cartoons has the trademark big smile on Tinky-Winky’s round Teletubby face.  My hope is that, while people struggle to find their way through the Law to compassion, those of us who wait with hope for such conversions will not change who we are.  Paul’s concern for the Galatians was that, even as they struggled to live out the gospel Paul shared with them – which Paul is clear came from no human source; they became something they never were – zealots for their cause. This gospel that Paul received through a divine encounter was being obscured by a much too human encounter. Paul was driven by a concern for the perpetuation of an authentic gospel.

 

A concern for sharing of an authentic gospel is an interesting dilemma for our time.  The last few years I have been trying to uncover or discover what 21st century evangelism might look like.  I have sensed that it is different than what the church has charged its participants to do for the last century and perhaps longer.  Most of us are turned off by what we typically think of as evangelism.  (The evangelist I remember from my childhood was “Ernest Ainsley and his Hour of Power Singers”.)  I was relieved to come across Dr. William Abraham and his book, The Logic of Evangelism. In it he argues that the definitions of evangelism that have dominated the American church in the last 150 years or so have been neither faithful to the biblical scriptures nor effective in achieving their goals.  In a paper he presented on the subject way back in 1994, Dr. Abraham reiterated his definition:

 

[Evangelism] is that set of intentional activities which is governed by the goal of initiating people into the kingdom of God for the first time...

 

More comprehensively we might say that the ministry of evangelism will include effective evangelistic preaching, the active gossiping of the gospel in appropriate ways by all Christians everywhere, and the intentional grounding of new converts in the basics of the Christian faith. This in fact comes close to what evangelism looked like in the early church. [ii]

 

Evangelism may best be represented by the works of the early church.  Abraham ties evangelism to three important concepts. First, Dr. Abraham re-connects evangelism with the kingdom of God.  This means that, through sharing the gospel we can help people see a connection between the message of Jesus and the world in which we live now.  “On earth as it is in heaven,” becomes hope for our lives together now, not just in the last days.  The reign of God brings with it the doing of justice, the loving of kindness, and walking with humility with God. This is God’s promise for our life together here and now, but what is our role in making that happen?  There are some places where that question has begun to be answered:  simply introduce people to the reign of God.

 

The Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community is a new church that meets on the South Side of Pittsburgh, near the Hot Metal Bridge. They “seek to bridge the gap between people and Jesus Christ by helping them experiencing the Kingdom of God.”  That’s their vision; that’s what they do.  There’s a bible study that meets in the basement of a Tattoo Parlor, and worship is held in a Goodwill building.  This faith community is taking the simple gospel that Paul knew for himself to be at the heart of Jesus’ life and ministry.  All are welcome.  All are included.  Tattoos, studded collars, leather pants, and multi-colored hair, and not – all are welcome at Hot Metal Bridge.  There are some rules, community covenants that they have to live by, but these rules don’t keep people out.  Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community is a creative, innovative, exciting evangelistic experiment that is working to help God change lives.

 

The second idea that I like from Dr. Abraham is the notion of “active gossiping of the gospel in appropriate ways.”  I’ve discovered that he word gossip has at least two different meanings that help inform this notion.  The first is the common one – when someone runs from house to house telling news to others about others.  The other means a support, a friend, even a sponsor for someone who is getting baptized.  So active gossiping of the gospel includes both companioning and telling.  Paul continued to companion the Galatians and the others with whom he shared the gospel.  This is the piece that may be missing in our own limited understanding of evangelism – the companioning part.  It appears to be important to do that before anything else.  The model of evangelism that Abraham claims is not working now is telling then companioning.  We need to determine how we can companion those who haven’t been told yet, or who have been told and don’t want to be a part of what may not represent an authentic gospel story. 

 

The third is that of helping those new to the story to feel grounded in their own faith experience.  Hot Metal Bridge holds what they call a Bible Fight Club every week.  Diverse people get together and follow a few simple rules for etiquette while they are wrestling with Scripture.  Participants can say anything, but they are not to attack one another. Everyone participates – no one can remain silent the entire time.  No opting out because you disagree.  In the end, they say one thing that someone else said that night that made them think.  They leave as companions, not combatants. That is at the heart of companioning and supporting and helping to feel rooted and grounded in their faith.

 

There is an authentic way for every faith community to offer these three things.  I believe that Foundry continues to be engaged in a process that will help us together determine what God is calling us to do and be.  We have a sense of both who we are, and who our neighbors are.  Are they Bible Fight Clubs in our future, or at least some way for us to listen to those around us so that we might be a part of the continuing revelation of the reign of God here in Dupont Circle and the Greater DC Metro area?  We need to pray about how we can be the conduits that God can use here – so that others might have at least a firsthand experience with God that can begin to transform their lives for the ongoing transformation of the world. 

 

Like Paul, we need to admit that we may have heard the story from others but that human telling only introduces, it doesn’t transform.  Even Paul was a bit susceptible to taking a little credit for the conversion of people.  A Divine Source – a direct and intimate relationship with God – begins or continues us all on a road toward greater understanding of ourselves, the world around us, and God’s call and claim in our lives.

 

So maybe I was wrong about folks reading The Gospel According to Biff.  Who knows what might bring people to a more complete and energizing understanding and experience of the Jesus story.  In this gospel, Biff and Jesus urgently seek out what God wants them to do.  We should be on such a quest, now and always. 

 

 

 

                 

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1 Dr. Mark E. Yurs, Lectionary Homiletics “The Journey into Arabiahttp://www.goodpreacher.com/samplesread.php?file=121

 

[ii] William J. Abraham, The Theology of Evangelism: The Heart of the Matter , 1994. This paper was given to the Society of Christian Philosophers in April of 1994.

http://www.evangelism.gfmuiuc.org/abraham_on_evangelism.pdf