Sunday, June 5, 2016

not man's gospel

May my words be in the Name of Almighty God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

We have two examples of God's power over life and death in our readings today. In the first, in our Old Testament reading, the son of the widow of Zarephath is restored to life after the prophet Elijah prays to God and his prayers are heard and his request is granted; in the second, Jesus restores the son of the widow of Nain to life with a touch and the words 'Young man I say to you, arise.' Two widows, two sons who are brought back to life, but with telling differences – in the first it is God answering the prayers of the prophet, in the second Jesus raises the man from the dead by his own authority. And this does not – or at least should not – surprise us, for Jesus is God incarnate. And the power over life and death that we see God display in Zarephath is the same power we see Jesus display in Nain.

This is why we hear St Paul say in our epistle today 'I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man's gospel.' For Christ is God and it is from Christ he has received the Gospel. St Paul in his letter to the Galatians, as you will of course recall from last Sunday's readings, is fighting against the heresies that have arisen in that region. People, while still claiming to be followers of Christ, are trying to pervert the Gospel, and preaching a false-gospel other than that brought to them by the Apostle Paul, seemingly because they care more about winning the favour of men than pleasing God. And St Paul will not countenance this – it is not for man to change the Gospel in any way; for the Gospel is not man's but God's. And because it is God's, and God has given man free will, man is free to accept it in its entirety or reject it in its entirety. But he is not free to change it, either by adding to it as some in Galatia were attempting to do by trying to force those who wished to become Christians into first converting to Judaism – which included, for men, circumcision – or taking from it, as many did then and still do today, by trying to soften the teachings, particularly the hard ones such as those that relate to sexual morality.

Now, there is, I think, only one thing to do if you take with absolute seriousness the idea that the Gospel is not something that was invented by men, and was instead something revealed by God to men in order that they should know how they might live in such a way that pleases him – and that is to devote your life totally to living in the way that the Gospel demands. We know that this is how St Paul lived. Consider his life prior to his experience on the road to Damascus – he was a man of authority, a man of power, a man of influence in the society in which he lived. We do not know if he had been a wealthy man – but he had the time to study to be a Pharisee, and to sit at the feet of the best teachers that Jerusalem had to offer. And he had been born not only a Jew, but a Roman citizen also – this at a time when to be a citizen from outside the Eternal City was something that a person would most likely pay a fair amount to gain. So we can presume he came from a family that was at least comfortably off. But he gave all that up to follow the Gospel. More, he traded a life of comfort and respectability for one that would take him from city to city in the Empire, paying his own way by working at a manual trade, and suffering beatings, stonings, shipwreck, arrest, imprisonment, and much more until he at last died a martyr's death for the faith. That was St Paul's response to the truth of the Gospel. And ours must be like it.

Ah, but you may say, that Paul was a great saint – and we are but ordinary men and women, poor sinners, and not the stuff of which saints are made. But to that I must make the reply, what of it? Before Paul was a great saint he was a great sinner – far worse than any here, or at least I hope so! Did he not persecute God's Church, hunting the faithful, trying to prevent the spread of the Gospel? Did he not stand watching with approval as St Stephen was stoned to death, at the very least complicit in his murder even if he did not cast a stone himself? Was he not on his way to Damascus to arrest more Christians, to bring them back bound to Jerusalem, to suffer who knows what at the hands of those there who hated them and the name of the one they followed, when the power of the Gospel message came upon him?

But that revelation from God was his opportunity to change. And remember, even with so direct a call from God, Paul still had his free-will – he could have said no and refused to follow. Did not a great many of the Jews also see the great acts of power of our Lord but still refuse to follow? So St Paul had a choice. But with God's grace he chose wisely; he understood the truth of the Gospel, and despite all that he knew it would cost him to follow it, nonetheless he did.

Why? Because he knew that it is better to please God than men; that it is better to give up all that the world has to offer for the sake of a place in heaven. Because in the light of the Gospel Truth he saw that if he were to do otherwise then he was effectively as dead as the sons of the widows of Zarephath and Nain; but by following Christ he was restored to life as they were – a life of following Christ in this life and being with him forever in the next. We are are called to such new life – and I pray that all here will choose it. Amen. 

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