1. Last week we looked at Paul’s confrontation with Peter about being a hypocrite. Today, we would post it on Facebook or Twitter or even written an anonymous editorial in the New York Times but Paul did not have that option. True, he did write about it later and that is why we have the letter to the Galatians. It was his way of posting his dispute with the leadership of the church. Unfortunately, we do not have their response, but we can imagine not everyone would have agreed with Paul. After all, he was something of a controversial figure in the church. In a way, Paul was fighting a war on three fronts.
2. The first front was his insistence that he is an apostle and not just a convert or a disciple of one of the real apostles. “I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” Revelation is different from inspiration or sudden insight. It is not the same as an innovation on the original gospel. No, Paul’s strong argument is that there is only one gospel and it is the one that he preached and had received directly from Jesus. When others disagreed with it they were wrong. “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus.”
Imagine someone coming along years after all the others had signed the Declaration of Independence and adding their name to it and claiming they were to be recognized as one of the signers. What if they had amended a few of the words and then claimed that as the original? That is how many people in the early church responded to Paul. He wanted to belong to an exclusive club of original apostles with all the rights and privileges held by the founders. But, he wanted to change the rules once he got in. He did not want to be compared to others but to be accepted as an equal. But, as soon as he was inside he wanted to rewrite the mission statement and core values. He wanted exclusive rights to the message of the Church.
People on the inside had trouble with this and Paul did not make it easy on them. He insisted on redefining the gospel based on his late to the party experience with Jesus. They see him as a social climber and intruder. He hijacked the movement from the very people who knew Jesus best.
3. The second front of his war is with the Jews who see him as a traitor and an apostate and were determined to eliminate him. We have talked before about the difference between a heretic and an apostate. A heretic is someone with unorthodox beliefs. An apostate is something far worse. Paul was not a heretic. He was an apostate. A traitor and one who had turned his back on and betrayed his countrymen. He had gone over to the enemy and now had come back to recruit more apostates and enemies. That is why they followed him around and organized mobs against him. They were not concerned as much about his beliefs as they were his recruiting others to be traitors to their identity. It was not just their faith that was threatened but their whole identity. That is why they became so good at stirring up riots and turning him into an enemy – not just a heretic.
These men were not simply rabble rousers, hecklers or disrupters. They did not merely shout down Paul or hold up signs in protest. They were exceptionally adept at stirring up and motivating crowds of people who were confused in their own minds and turning them into a mob.
Look at the phrase Luke uses in Acts several times: stirred up. It doesn’t mean whip up with no purpose. The literal meaning is actually to constrain and control. There was a method to the way they exploited madness and ignorance and frustration. They stirred up without losing control. They stirred up but knew how to control what they created. Think of it as the difference between a bullet and a bomb. The bullet is the product of a highly controlled explosion and it is directed at a target with great accuracy. That is what Luke is describing here. Paul’s enemies were experts at creating an explosion and then controlling it for their purposes.
Nothing incites groups of people like fear and paranoia. All it takes is for someone to give them permission to react and then the herd instinct takes over. The mob takes on a life of its own. Carl Jung said, “Masses are always breeding grounds of psychic epidemics.”
4. The third front is with Jewish converts who wanted new believers to meet the requirements of a Jewish identity. It is not enough to be a believer. They must conform to the rules that are the current non-negotiables. The rules that separate the true believers from the pretenders. “You cannot be Christ follower unless you meet our legal and traditional requirements.” Paul was about as popular with them as George Soros at a Ron Paul rally. He wanted to open up the borders and give everyone equal access to everything. “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” Ephesians 2:19-20. How did they see it? He was tearing down and giving away to outsiders the very things that defined them.
5. He fought on these three fronts his entire ministry and none of them ever relented:
a. The insider Jewish disciples who saw him as a threat, a social climber and pretender.
b. The Jews who saw him as a traitor and the enemy who deserved death.
c. The Jewish converts who wanted new believers to change their identity by fulfilling certain requirements. They wanted the best of both worlds. They wanted the benefits of the new without giving up their special status. As you know, Jews had special status in the Roman Empire. They were not required to serve in the military, their synagogues were classified as colleges and not places of worship, and they were not required to have the image of the Emperor on their coins. Having non-Jews as part of the Church would have jeopardized those privileges for everyone.
All of these arguments against Paul were constraining the growth of the Church. Some by force. Some by exclusivity. Some by making growth impossibly difficult. The Church would have died had they won.
Had Paul given in to these or lost the battle on any of those three fronts the Church would not have been able to cross cultures and spread. It would have been a place for becoming a better person without the radical change and the work of the Holy Spirit. It would have been a place where people could retain their national identity that was stronger than their belief in grace and identity in Christ. It would have been a reform movement within Judaism but that is all. Ironically, that is exactly what Martin Luther set out to do in the Catholic Church. That is why we call it the Reformation. It was never intended to become separate from the Church but the Church rejected his efforts at reform and put him out.
6. None of these accommodations would have satisfied Paul’s deepest question about how to be right with God. They would have been more than adequate as a means of self-improvement or self-esteem in this life but would not answer his question about how to be at peace with God and not be forever anxious about whether or not he had done enough. That was the answer he received on the road to Damascus. There was nothing he could do to be at peace with God and there was nothing but condemnation to be found in all his efforts to find that.
I sometimes wonder if we have the same urgent question or if we are simply looking for happiness or something to soothe our anxieties or even a belief and added requirement we can weaponize to use against others. Is our deepest question about peace with God the same as Paul’s or have we found peace in other ways? Do we genuinely believe there is no condemnation or are we still working to be loved by God? Are we still adding things to the gospel that are requirements to satisfy our definitions of faith and true belief?
Paul was dangerous then and he is now. He is as complicated today as he was then. But, he is the one who saved the Church from itself.
I have been reading about insiders, outsiders and those who live at the edge of the inside. I am paraphrasing David Brooks and Richard Rohr. “They are within the organization, but they’re not affected by group think. They work at the boundaries. A person at the edge of the inside can see what is good about a group and what is good about rival groups. They are involved in constant change while the true insiders are so deep inside they often get confused by trivia and locked into the status quo. Insiders and outsiders are threatened by those on the other side of the barrier. But a person on the edge of the inside neither idolizes the Us or demonizes the Them. But, there are downsides to being at the edge of the inside. You never lose yourself in full commitment. You may be respected and befriended, but you are not loved as completely as the people at the core, the band of brothers. You enjoy neither the purity of the outsider nor that of the true believer. When people are afraid or defensive, they have no tolerance for the person at the edge of the inside. They want purity, rigid loyalty and lock step unity. But now more than ever we need people (and I would say like Paul) who have the courage to live on the edge of the inside, who love their parties and organizations so much they can critique them as a brother, operate on them from the inside as a friend and dauntlessly insist they live up to their truest selves.”
Some people cannot stand the strain and over time they give in to ideological gravity and the centripetal force of the center. Some go in the other direction. They are untethered by the centrifugal forces of the moment and become radical outsiders – not dissidents but bomb throwers.
Paul’s genius was this. He changed the definition and location of the center of the faith. His gospel became the new center. I think Billy Graham did the same in our time. When he started the center of the faith was an angry and separated Fundamentalism. He did not go outside the faith in reaction to that as some did. He did not fall back into the center. Instead, he moved the center and redefined it. That is rare and historic. It is something to consider today. What has become our center? Is it still Paul’s gospel or is it a merger of Christ with other principles and identities? Is it Christ and social justice? Is it Christ and economics? Is it Christ and nationalism? Is it Christ and patriotism? Is it Christ and cheap grace?
Perhaps we are in a time similar to that of Paul and the Galatians. Perhaps we share the same foolishness in that we are losing our freedom by binding ourselves once again to the old ways. The center is always the most comfortable place to be and the place to please the most people. But, like Paul says here, “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
Sam Shoemaker, an Episcopal priest in Pittsburgh, wrote “I Stand at the Door” many years ago.
I stand by the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out.
The door is the most important door in the world –
It is the door through which men walk when they find God.
There is no use my going way inside and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where the door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind men,
With outstretched, groping hands,
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it.
So I stand by the door.
I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not yet even found the door.
Or the people who want to run away again from God.
You can go in too deeply and stay in too long
And forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him and know He is there,
But not so far from men as not to hear them,
And remember they are there too.
Where? Outside the door –
Thousands of them. Millions of them.
But – more important for me –
One of them, two of them, ten of them.
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.
So I shall stand by the door and wait
For those who seek it.
‘I had rather be a door-keeper
So I stand by the door.
That is as good a description of Paul as any I know. He stood just inside enough to open the door without going so far in he abandoned his uncomfortable, dangerous and ultimately fatal post.