June 16, 2013

Set Apart—For Joining Together


Text: Galatians 1:15–16: “But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being...”

There is something wonderfully paradoxical about the apostle Paul. Indeed there are many things about him that would fit that description. He is a Pharisee who becomes a follower of Christ; a persecutor who becomes a promoter. He is a tremendously combative personality preaching a gospel of love. He a man seemingly filled with contradictions, who even so manages to have an impact on the world—probably far greater than he could possibly have imagined.

I savor the paradoxes that make up the Christian faith. I don’t find them troubling; I find them reassuring. For one thing they let me know that my distaste for fundamentalism isn’t just a matter of preference. The Christian faith may be simple, but it is not simple-minded. The paradoxes that our faith is filled with—the first will be last, the last will be first, the ones who are rejected will turn out to be as necessary as cornerstones, the one who would lead must be one who serves—all these and more are enough to be a strong reminder that if your faith exactly agrees with all of your preferences, you may believe something but it’s not the Christian gospel.

There’s a particular paradox about the life of Saint Paul that stands out in high contrast this morning, and it is one worth reflecting on for all of us who are ministers of this gospel, all of us who carry this message into the world in whatever way we can.

One side of that paradox has to do with Paul’s claim to be an apostle. It’s not a strong claim. He’s not like the disciples; he never met Jesus, never saw Jesus, never heard Jesus—at least not during the lifetime of Jesus. He is a johnny-come-lately, a man who lives and works under a pretty consistent shadow of suspicion.

Paul has a reputation problem, and he knows it. In many of his letters, and especially here in the letter to the Galatians, he seems to be squarely on the defensive. Paul is living in a time when the other major figures of the Christian community are men who are his age, or perhaps a little older, who lived with Jesus. They had the strongest of all possible claims to be apostles of the new Gospel; they had walked the roads with Jesus.

But Paul only had a story to tell about his own conversion. He had quite a reputation for himself as a loud, relentless bully; now he was claiming to be an apostle of equal rank with the rest. He made that claim on the strength of an experience that only he had, and that no one else could testify to; an direct, profound experience of the living Christ speaking directly to him. I suppose the people who heard Paul make that claim had about as much suspicion about it as you would if I told you God had spoken directly to me. 

So very often in his letters to the churches he helped organize, Paul is reminding them of his claim to status as an apostle. He’s reminding them, if I can say it this way, of his authority; he’s reminding them of why they should have deference to what he has to say. He has no institutional authority; he doesn’t have what in organizational culture we would call formal authority. He has no title, no office, no business card, no bishop’s mitre. He only has the conviction of his experience, the power of his message, and the example of his life.

What he’s doing with that authority is making a claim about being different. Paul claims to have been set apart from everyone else, and for a purpose. He makes a claim to be different, for the purpose of bringing people to faith in Christ. Said in different words, Paul claims to have a vocation to serve Christ in a particular way—as an apostle, one of the people called to speak on behalf of Christ himself in moving the message of the gospel into the future.

Let me just stop right here and say, this is something like the claim you make when you come forward to your own community to say you think you are called to be ordained. It is a profoundly high claim to make. And I have observed over my years of wrestling with this vocation that many of my colleagues seem to want to be called because above all else they want to be set apart as different—or at least they want to be seen to be different.

That’s a little like the claim Paul is making here. He helped the Galatians establish their church; he left and continued his travels; he hears of them falling away from what he taught them; and he writes back to them a short, sharp letter expressing in no uncertain terms how disappointed he is, and furthermore why his is the voice they should be listening to.

They should be listening to him because he has been set apart with the authority of an apostle. He makes a claim to a kind of position, a kind of privilege here.

That’s one side of the paradox. Here’s the other: Paul is going to use the authority he claims as an apostle to articulate a gospel vision that says everyone is included in the kingdom of heaven, no matter what. Paul’s gospel, Paul’s message, is that Christ has come for the purpose of joining everyone together in a single community of faith, joining everyone in a single, global community ruled by love.

That message was nothing short of subversive in its day—something you’ve heard me say before. The distinctions between Jew and gentile, between citizen of the Republic and slave, between men and women, rich and poor, clean and unclean—all of those distinctions people had invented as ways of separating themselves into groups of ins and outs, all of it Paul was declaring as irrelevant. The Christian hope was radically accepting, available to everyone and urgent in its importance.

So here is the tension, the paradox in this story: Paul preaches a gospel of open access, of radical acceptance, of salvation offered freely to everyone. Said in different words, he holds up a vision of radical equality; in Paul’s view, we are all equal before God, equal in our need for God, equal in our hope for salvation.

But he does so on the basis of a claim that says he is different, set apart, special. All Christians are equal, but some Christians are more equal than others.

To me that is the paradox in Paul’s teachings, here and elsewhere in his writing. It would be a matter for academic speculation were it not the case that we in the church flirt with that conflict, too—maybe more often than we’d care to admit.

We say we offer a hope, offer a message, that is equal-opportunity hospitality. Anyone is welcome at this table, anyone is welcome in this church, the Christian hope is a hope for anyone longing for a reconciled relationship with God.

And yet—and yet—we want to be special. We want to be special. We want to have a kind of distinction.

This is especially true, I suppose, with us—with Episcopalians. Not so much because we once were the church of the WASPocracy, but even more deeply because we emerged from an established church—the core of the establishment itself. It’s somehow in our DNA to be special, or to at least to have a reflex in that direction.

Paul’s paradox is our paradox. We are set apart. We have been trained over the past few decades to be ashamed of making any such claim; but whether we like it or not, we are set apart. Across the global spectrum of income, of education, of security, of health, we live way, way over at the right edge. We are chosen. We often don’t feel lucky, but by living in this place at this time in this part of the world, we have pretty much won the lottery.

And yet—and yet—we really are called to proclaim a gospel that beats down the walls that divide people, even the walls that keep us safe in our set-apartness.

Even here, in our own community, we have to live out that paradox. We must always be about the business not just of maintaining ourselves in the church, but of bringing others to find what we have found here. That is ultimately the passion that resolves Paul’s paradox. He makes his claim to be set apart in order to bring everyone, or as many people as possible, into the community of faith. He does it out of a keen awareness of how much has been done for him, and out of a reflex of thankfulness for a gift of such value that he cannot simply keep it for himself.

Maybe the lesson here is that only when we have come to a deep understanding of how much God has acted on our behalf in Jesus are we able to persuade others to come into the community. People who are half-convinced are never that good at selling anything. Paul had his moment of being utterly convinced, of seeing in a blinding flash not just how much God loved him but how much he needed, desperately needed, that love. We need nothing less.

If Paul’s paradox is our paradox, his call is our call, too. We are called to rely on our authority as children of God to call others into the community we share, just as Paul did. Yes, we know all of the objections. Many of us have them from time to time, too. Even so we have this treasure to share, this message to proclaim. For that we do not need permission; we just need courage. Amen.