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On the Invasion of Gift (a sermon)

June 6, 2010

Galatians 1:10-24

When someone announces that they have received a revelation and what they are about to tell you trumps what anyone else says… we begin to get suspicious. We know, or at least we are pretty sure, that no one gets a revelation from God and, even if they did they should keep it to themselves.

That’s why we are a secular society. Our society is built in response to the wars of religion… In response to so much bloodshed in the name of religious truth, we insist strongly on a public space where no one’s claim to revelation has control. We have seen enough blood spilt on behalf of so-called revelations.

Paul, it seems has not been listening to the rules of the modern world. … Paul lays claim to revelation.

In the modern world we take it for granted that, in this secular space, free of the authority of revelations, all people are equal (in some sense). But in the ancient world it wasn’t the slightest bit obvious. What was obvious was that all people were different. And Jews, more than anyone, maintained their difference with great determination. After all the God of Israel had called them out of Egypt to be different. In effect this meant a great barrier in Paul’s time between the Jews and Gentiles – represented by the sign of circumcision.

Into this context Paul writes his letter to the Galatians. They are his early converts, his dear friends… converts who are still struggling with the great barrier between Jews and Gentiles. Paul had preached in Galatia – (Turkey, probably in the northern parts among the Celts) forming churches among Gentiles. Some teachers have come among them and are insisting that Gentiles must be circumcised to be followers of Jesus the Messiah. They taught that Paul was a crowd pleasing radical whose fashionable new ideas were really out of touch with the tradition established by the God of Israel. Jesus, in effect, should be put back where he belonged within the tradition of the law, and gentile Christians should be circumcised like all other Jews.

Paul is distraught, angry… At the beginning of his letter he writes with bewilderment. ‘I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the gift of Christ and are turning to a different gospel’.

Paul knows that this barrier must be broken down… not because he has a vague intuition that “all people are equal” (although that is an outcome of his claims). Paul is insistent, because he has a revelation.

Verse 12 is our key verse

“For I did not receive it from another human being… it [the Gospel he is proclaiming] came to me by God’s apocalyptic revelation’

The Greek word apocalypse is often just translated ‘revelation’ as when a curtain is pulled back and something is revealed that was there all along just hidden. But it’s really a pretty poor translation. Apocalypse for Paul is something much more than that. An apocalypse is a world-shattering interruption. The idea of apocalypse as Paul uses it is of an invasion into the world from beyond, by God. A cosmos (that’s Paul’s word) in bondage is invaded by God’s gift…

Paul’s view of the world is not the Greek one of enlightened human beings otherwise fine apart from not seeing very clearly how things are… so needing a curtain to be opened so information can come to them every so often.

Paul sees a world in bondage to powers of destruction. Paul sees forces greater than us all, within us all, forces of evil grasping us, binding us in patterns and habits and cultures of destruction.

We don’t need insights we need an invasion. And that is what Paul preaches in his gospel. God has apocalypsed him (and us) with the gift of Christ. Indeed the whole cosmos has been invaded and a new creation established.

Paul has no argument to support this claim. As he says in verse 11, he cannot appeal to what people normally have in mind when they speak of ‘good news’, he says. It’s not traditional wisdom, because the tradition has been invaded. Paul’s persuasion in this part of his letter amounts to telling his story. We have it in more detail in Acts, how Paul, while traveling on a religious mission to kill some more Christians… is stopped in his tracks by a voice from heaven. And the voice announces ‘I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting’. And then blinded by the light he finds some Christian’s and just as he has been embraced by the light from Christ, so now he is embraced by the Christians who knew him only as their persecutor. If God gives this ‘gift of Christ’ to Paul the ‘persecutor of Christ’ then the case is sealed. If Christ gives himself to his enemies, then God’s gift is indiscriminate and so deeply uncivilized and so profoundly egalitarian. It is the gift of invasive forgiveness.

So if apocalypse is one key word in the passage from Galatians. The other is Gift. What’s interesting about this revelation-as-gift (invasive gift) … is that it has already begun to turn the world upside-down. You see culturally, in the ancient indo-european world gift-giving was an important cultural art which kept society in order. Gifts must always be given to those worthy of the gift. The good citizen was the discriminating giver. God’s gift, in Paul’s experience was characterized precisely by its indiscriminacy with respect to the recipient. The God who gave himself to Paul his persecutor, was the same Jesus who gave himself to Caiaphas and Pilate and the crowd – the same God who refused to respond with violence.

At the center of Paul, and therefore of the Christian revolution we have what I want to call the ‘invasion of the gift’ (of the indiscriminate gift).

How does all this relate to our secular world, founded in fear of religious violence? Far from tempting Paul to violence, to justifying persecution in the name of his revelation, this revelation-as-gift (this invasion of the gift) has precisely the opposite effect on Paul. He is converted from a persecutor to a follower of the cross. This claim to revelation, has at its inner core, a claim that non-violence itself flows from God.

What Paul is struggling for in writing to his Galatian brothers and sisters is a community founded on the invasion of the Gift of Christ. In this community all those status symbols which tend to divide and create rivalries are defused and rendered insignificant, by the invasion of the gift.

Those who get their sense significance from their Jewishness and their observance of the Torah… those who get their significance from the participation in the great empire of Roman power, cannot take control of the community. Those who get their significance from their national identity, those who get their sense of significance from their sporting prowess, or from their education, those who get their significance from their practical no-nonsense straight-talking approach to life, those who get their sense of significance from their acts of charity, those who get their significance from their age and experience, those get their significance from their youthful energy and fashion sense… can leave all that at the door.

For here God is doing a new thing. The invasion of the gift has the power to break down all these barriers… to liberate us all to follow the crucified Galilean peasant to freedom.

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