Over the last few months the world has said farewell to some famous figures, hasn’t it? Since the turn of the year we’ve had to say goodbye to some of our most famous celebrities. Terry Wogan, David Bowie, Paul Daniels and Ronnie Corbett all entertained us for many years before their recent deaths. And just this week, we lost the comedian Victoria Wood and the pop star Prince.
If there’s any ‘silver lining’ to the sad passing of these famous figures, its that it gives us an opportunity to be reminded of their talents and achievements: Their greatest moments are replayed on TV; articles on their careers their appear in our newspapers, magazines and on the internet; and no doubt new biographies of their lives will soon appear in our bookshops.
A fortnight ago I went to a seminar by a New Testament scholar called Tom Schreiner. The reason I went to hear him speak is that I already own one of his books – here it is! It is a biography of the apostle Paul, the great Christian missionary, preacher and church planter. Paul also wrote thirteen books of the Bible - about half of the New Testament letters. Paul was a man with an extraordinary career.
But the problem with Tom’s Schreiner’s book on Paul it’s size! Its over 500 pages long, and written in very small print. Its only slightly thinner than the Yellow Pages and about as long as War and Peace. If you want a pithy summary of Paul’s life, you’d better look elsewhere!
And there is no better place to look than Paul’s letter to the Galatians – the book we’re looking at St Michael’s this month. Because in our passage today Paul gives us a short summary of his life – a brief autobiography containing just the ‘edited highlights’ of his career.
And its an autobiography that is well-worth reading today. Not just because it is short, but because it’s spiritually significant. It’s God-given dynamite to designed to encourage Christians and build up the Church. In particular, Paul tells us three things:
- First, the Gospel is from God - so we should trust it;
- Second, the Gospel changes lives – so tell the world;
- And thirdly, the Gospel unites us - so commit to the church!
Don’t worry if you can’t remember those three things, because we’re going to look at each in turn.
- The Gospel is from God – so trust it!
If you were with us last week, you will be familiar with the Gospel message – the Christian message preached by Paul. It’s a message that appears back in verse 3 and 4 of Galatians. Let me remind us what it says: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father”.
In other words the Christian gospel is all about a rescue mission:
- A rescue Jesus completed when he died on the Cross for our sin.
- A rescue from God’s just judgement and into his forgiven family forever.
- A rescue we can receive by simply asking Jesus to be our Saviour.
But there’s a problem isn’t there? Because this Christian Gospel isn’t the only option we’re presented with is it? In Paul’s day the choice was between Christianity, Judaism and Paganism. And in our modern world there is even more choice over which philosophy, creed or faith to follow. People may choose to become Christians, but there is also the option of becoming a Hindu or an atheist - or a Muslim, a Mormon or a Materialist – the list goes on and on.
But which one is right? It’s a popular myth that all faiths are alike, but a moments’ examination of them tells us that can’t be true. They make competing claims that can’t be reconciled. For instance, is there one God, or many or none?! Should we expect reincarnation, resurrection or oblivion beyond the grave? And are we saved by Christ, or by the Koran - or by something else entirely? How are we to choose!
Thankfully, Paul reassures us in verse 11 today that Christian claims are the ones we can believe. The Christian Gospel, says Paul, is from God – so we can trust it entirely. He writes that “the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.”
Speaking into our state of spiritual confusion, Paul gives us great clarity. Christianity is true because it has been revealed by God. Its not a philosophy Paul personally dreamt up, nor is it a religious tradition that was handed down to him by others. The Christian Gospel is revelation, not speculation - its God-given truth not a man-made myth.
Nowadays we all have passwords and PIN numbers, don’t we? We have them for our bank accounts, our computers, our mobile phones etc etc. Imagine you wanted to empty my bank account or hack my computer - the only sure fire way you could do so would be if I told you my PINs and passwords. Speculation and guesswork would only get you so far - any success would be down to luck, not knowledge. It’s the same with faith – there is no substitute for first hand information. The type of first-hand information Paul received from the Lord Jesus when he famously appeared to him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9).
In verses 16 to 20 today, Paul remains at great pains to stress that his Gospel is not of human origin. He tells us that it was three years before he consulted any church leaders about his Gospel message – the Lord’s direct words to him were quite sufficient. And in verse 20 Paul assures us “before God that what I am writing is no lie”. Paul’s Gospel really is from God - so let’s trust it!
- The Gospel changes lives – so tell the world!
Darrell Tunningley is a former drug dealer, drug addict and armed robber. He was an angry, violent young man who served five years in prison for his crimes. But one day everything changed. After hearing about Jesus at an Alpha Course, Darrell put his faith in him – he asked Jesus to forgive him for his past and be his Lord in the future. Darrell’s life literally changed overnight. He says that when he woke up in his prison cell the following morning he felt a different man. He was no longer full of anger and hate, he knew God’s Spirit had begun to get to work in his life, and his character had begun to change. In fact he’s now a church leader and a popular preacher.
People love to hear a dramatic story, don’t they? A story like Darrell’s. And in our passage today, Paul describes the dramatic transformation that took place in his life when he came to Christ. Listen again to verses 13 and 14: “For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”
Before his encounter with Christ, Paul was a religious zealot and a violent killer. His pre-Christian character was not too different to the Islamic State militants we see on TV today. Paul was a man who was so fervent in his beliefs that he violently persecuted those who disagreed with him. Before his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul had thrown Christians into prison and even approved of their execution.
Like many people then and now, Paul was a man who was convinced that strict religious ritual, great moral exertion and respect for tradition were the way to please God. But they aren’t. A life lived this way may look outwardly very impressive, very ‘religious’ but it doesn’t please God and it doesn’t do us any good inside. All it produces is pride or insecurity:
- It produces pride if you think you are doing well, if you really do think you are earning your way to heaven.
- But it leads to insecurity, angst and guilt if you are not so sure. Insecurity if you are honest enough to admit your moral failings, doubts and sins. Religion breeds insecurity when you realize you can never save yourself.
Thankfully the Christian Gospel is about a relationship with Jesus, not religious ritual. Thankfully it is about Jesus’ perfect sacrifice on the Cross, not our own imperfect efforts to please God. So when God graciously “revealed his Son” to Paul on the road to Damascus, it released him from every symptom of his religious zeal. The Gospel of grace changed his life.
And this great news wasn’t just for Paul, of course - because Jesus had called him to preach the Gospel to people around the globe, not just Jews. It was a mission that took him first to Syria and Cilicia and eventually all around the Mediterranean. No wonder Paul’s former victims rejoiced when they heard the news - they praised God when they heard that “the man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy!”
And it’s a mission we must all continue today, as we tell our family, friends and colleagues about the Gospel. Just like Paul, they need to discover the forgiveness and fresh start in life offered by Christ. And even if your story isn’t as spectacular as Paul’s tell them the difference Jesus has made to your life, let them hear how Christ has changed your character and transformed your life.
- The Gospel unites us with other Christians – so commit to our church!
As Paul discovered personally, the Christian Gospel changes lives – its good news that should be shared. But he made one other discovery about the Gospel as well - a discovery he shares with us at the start of Galatians chapter 2. He had discovered that the Gospel unites us with other Christians, so we should commit to the church.
This afternoon I will be travelling to Wembley stadium with my son James. Together with thousands of other supporters, we’ll be cheering on Crystal Palace as they play Watford in the FA Cup semi-final. For those ninety minutes at Wembley, James and I will be united with our fellow Palace fans. Our common commitment to Crystal Palace will unite us with people we probably wouldn’t otherwise associate with - with people from very different backgrounds to ourselves. But our unity won’t last very long. Its not terribly deep. It will survive as long as the match lasts, but it could be long gone by the time we all jostle for space on the train home - especially if we’ve lost!
Christian unity, in contrast, is much deeper and far longer-lasting. It’s a unity that Paul experienced fourteen years after his conversion, when he travelled to Jerusalem to meet Peter, James, John and the other apostles. Paul was joined on his journey by Barnabas and Titus. Now Titus was a Gentile who had heard Paul preach and believed his Gospel. Titus had put his faith in Jesus, and as far as Paul was concerned, was noe a true Christian - 100% one of God’s people.
But Paul feared that the Jerusalem apostles might not agree. He was worried that they would tell Titus to be circumcised, that just believing in Jesus wasn’t enough.
Thankfully, Paul need not have worried. Because as he tells us in verse 6, the Jerusalem apostles “added nothing to my message.” In other words, the church in Jerusalem was preaching the same Gospel as Paul. It too said salvation was by faith in Christ alone – it didn’t matter whether you were circumcised or uncircumcised, male or female, rich or poor, black or white. To use a footballing metaphor, Paul, Peter, John and James all recognized that they were playing on the same side - they were preaching the same Gospel.
We’re a pretty diverse bunch here at St Michael’s. And our diversity shows that the Christian Gospel can unite people from all walks of life. In the world’s eyes we may have little in common - but God is making us one family, united by faith in Jesus.
As we read on in Galatians, we see that Paul and Peter’s unity in the Gospel expressed itself in three ways.
- Firstly, friendship. Verse 9 tells us that “James, Peter and John…extended the right hand of fellowship” to Paul. They welcomed him as a brother, offering him their friendship and hospitality. We should do the same to our brothers and sisters here at St Michael’s. When was the last time you had someone here round for Sunday lunch, or simply stayed on for coffee to chat to someone new?
- Secondly, church unity should include mission partnership. Paul and the other apostles decided to work together to ensure the Gospel went far and wide. As Paul writes in verse 9: “they agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews”. Surely we should follow their example? We should be all be inviting non-Christians along to our church events, and working together to give them a warm welcome when they come. And please pray for one another during the working week, asking that God will help each of us share the Gospel wherever we live and work.
- And finally, church unity should lead to mutual support. The Christians of Jerusalem were poor, whereas many of Paul’s Gentile converts were wealthy. Verse 10 tells us that Paul, Titus and Barnabas were “eager” to provide practical support to those less fortunate than themselves. Today we should be equally eager to help our fellow Christians suffering from ill-health, low income, or loneliness. Let’s show love to fellow members of God’s family.
As I end this morning, I hope we have all seen why Paul wrote his apostolic autobiography. Its an autobiography that reassures us the Gospel is from God, so we can trust it. Its an autobiography that reminds us the Gospel changes lives. And its an autobiography that encourages us to commit to our church. A church united by the Gospel of grace.