Saturday 10 June 2023

Paul 5

 We were last with Paul and Barnabas as Paul came to the end of his sermon in that synagogue of Antioch, Pisidia. You will recall mention of their dangerous and arduous journey over the Taurus Mountains and through some of the most dangerous rivers in the world in order to reach that destination, with Paul suffering from what was thought to be malaria, such details speak volumes of their steel and determination and the power of the Holy Spirit driving them ever onwards. Then, that Sabbath day and that invitation from those in charge of the service, in that synagogue, saying ‘Brothers if you have any words of encouragement for the people come and give it.’ You will recall that blunt, jarring message cutting across Jewish expectations, cutting across their expectations of their hoped-for and prophesied messiah, who would be a warrior king from the House of David a messiah who would bring liberation from the yoke of their Roman oppressors.

But, that messiah, according to Paul, had already arrived, the prophesies of his expected arrival had already been fulfilled in the form of a man who had been crucified and executed as a common criminal at the hands of the Sanhedrin and the Roman state. He was Jesus of Nazareth; the Son of God and he had been raised from the dead by God. This was the sign and the proclamation of the New Covenant. Paul said, ‘Brothers, listen! We are here to proclaim that through this man, Jesus, there is forgiveness for your sins. Everyone who believes in him is declared right with God-something the law of Moses could never do.’

Paul was very clear, and he made it very clear to the congregation of that synagogue, that just following the law of Moses, just obeying the commandments wasn’t enough, this was a fundamental point that he made in that synagogue. The failure of that kind of legal adherence was indeed made clear by Jesus through the story of the Rich Young Man as told in the Gospel of Matthew (19:6-26). The young man was devout, he kept all the commandments, but he asked Jesus how he could have eternal life. ‘Give everything you have to the poor and then come and follow me,’ said Jesus. But the young man walked away, he was sad because he was very wealthy. ‘It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,’ said Jesus to his disciples.

‘Then who in the world can be saved?’ they asked. And I think that is a very shrewd question. It’s a very shrewd question because that question, ‘Then who in the world can be saved?’ implies that we all have possessions, habits, thoughts, preoccupations that like the eye of the needle is to the camel, the kingdom of heaven may be to us. That is, we ourselves become our own barrier to the kingdom of heaven. This is the message of the inadequacy of human action in pursuit of our own salvation that Paul was putting across in that Synagogue, the simple point being that it is impossible for us to save ourselves, but as Jesus in reply to his disciples said, ‘Humanly speaking it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.’ This is what Paul meant when he said that with Jesus there is forgiveness for sin and that everyone who believes in him is declared right with God, he said it was ‘Something the law of Moses could never do.’ However, I do think that we need to unravel this question a little more.

Perhaps the real power of Paul’s argument, what we could call the U.S.P. the Unique Selling Point is to be found in the death and resurrection, that God raised Jesus from death and in doing so showed that God’s plans could not be defeated, God’s love for humanity, and his forgiveness for sins are free to those who would reach out for it and follow Jesus. Jesus who said, ‘I am the way the truth and the life.’ ‘Don’t miss out, don’t let the words of the prophets apply to you!’ said Paul. In other words, don’t turn away in disbelief. But what Paul was preaching in that synagogue in Antioch was revolutionary, shocking to Jewish ears. I think we could say at the close of that speech, that he, Paul had done a ‘hatchet job’ on the mores of the Jewish faith.

But here’s the interesting thing, after Paul’s speech, that is the Good News of Jesus, after the service there was no outrage. There were no angry words leading to the formation of an angry mob intent on beating or even stoning Paul and Barnabas to death. We must remember that’s what they tried to do to Jesus after his preaching in the synagogue at Nazareth, and they certainly killed Stephen in Jerusalem after he had spoken before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council. But rather instead, it seems that Paul received something like an accolade. At the very least, Paul’s sermon was met with much enthusiasm because at the close of the service we read, ‘As Paul and Barnabas left the synagogue that day, the people begged them to speak about these things the next week.’ So excited were the crowd that they were invited back the following week! I wonder what we might say if we had been there and able to understand the language? Superlatives, I should imagine, powerful preaching, backed by the authority of scripture. Paul and Barnabas would certainly have been men of power and presence, full of the Holy Spirit and their listeners were enthralled. And that’s no exaggeration, in fact when Paul and Barnabas left the synagogue that day, the people begged them to speak about these things again the next week.

I think that the emphasis is really on that word ‘begged.’ It wasn’t, at the end of the day, ‘Oh nice sermon, thanks for coming’, or ‘That was interesting’ – they might have said that too, but these words of Paul must have hit home, really hit home to many in that synagogue, that day. Those words of Paul must have aroused not just a deep curiosity, but something more than that, perhaps a deep yearning, a longing for a faith, for a meaning going beyond the strictures and the legalities of the mosaic law. Certainly, there would be more questions on seeking the kingdom of God and Paul’s insistence of the impossibility of achieving such perfection only through compliance with these Jewish laws. Those ringing words of Paul, ‘Everyone who believes in him is declared right with God.’

Again, and I think it’s worth thinking about this a little more, to consider those words of Paul, who said that ‘through this man, Jesus, there is forgiveness for your sins.’ Who wouldn’t be intrigued? We are all intrigued because although these words might capture our imagination, there seems to be a bit of the jigsaw missing, so to speak. I’m reminded of that story about that great pop group of the 1960s, the Beatles, a story of their very early days and the story is that one of this group took the trouble to take a bus journey across town to visit someone who could show him what a B7th guitar chord looked like. Now a B7th guitar chord is an essential chord if you want to play rock or blues, the B7th chord is an essential part of any guitarist’s armoury.

In the same way, if we want to know more about Jesus and the kingdom of heaven, we too need that piece of the jigsaw, we really need to know what, our essential part of the jigsaw should look like, to know and see what Paul is driving at, what it is he is preaching and how it all works, how it all comes together. That big question. What is it that separates us from God?  That’s really the question. In the simplest of terms, the answer is, the sin of pride, the sin of pride that’s why it’s deemed to be the deadliest of all the sins, it can be summed like this, ‘Pride is excessive belief in one's own abilities, that interferes with the individual's recognition of the grace of God.’ In pride we can use our reason and create a God in our own image: ourselves. That was certainly what Adam and Eve did just before the fall, they imagined that they need not listen to God, that they need pay him no heed, because through eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that Eve had become convinced that they could become like God themselves, that God the true God, the living God could then be forsaken and made redundant since he could be replaced by human reason and human knowledge. The truth of the matter is that this is not possible, since the quest for the meaning of life itself cannot be found outside of God’s love, cannot be found outside the mystery of God himself. I think also, that many Christians commit a serious error when they believe or say that God’s love is unconditional and that we may be loved and forgiven by him no matter what we may do. But it’s obvious isn't it, that yes, our God is the God of love, but that he is also a God of consequences? Surely, we can see that, when we read in that first book of the Bible when we read about the punishment, what the consequences of disobedience were for Adam and Eve, when they were banished from the garden of Eden? When we read of God’s disapproving words to Adam’s son, Cain, even before he murdered his own brother. God said, ‘You will be accepted if you do what is right; But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at your door, eager to control you.’

What is the problem? Why can’t we, all of us, meet those standards, why can’t we, in God’s words, do what is right?  I said yes, God is a God of consequences but he also loves us with a perfect love there is no contradiction in that.  So, what is really the problem?  Well, the problem is that we fail to realise who God is.  All our problems are spiritual problems when it comes down to it.  We fail to recognise who God is, we then reject him, deny him, forsake him and then ultimately, we try to replace him.  Then we try to save ourselves by doing good deeds, but again this only leads to spiritual pride and arrogance since we feel that we may be able to transform ourselves, that we may become the author of our own perfection and then comes that false pride that we can do all this on our own. 

But, Paul in his letter to the Ephesians wrote:

“God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.  Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.  For we are God’s masterpiece.  He then created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.’ (Ephesians 2).

So here in this letter to the Ephesians, Paul, as it were, nails it.  But perhaps in his sermon his speech in the synagogue he was unable to be quite so explicit, possibly because of the constraints of time.  There was much to talk about and that’s why they begged him to speak about these things again next week.  It might be a very obvious thing to say, but our spiritual lives depend entirely on God’s will as in everything else, all depends on God’s will and on God’s grace.  Not to put too fine a point on it, God controls everything but perhaps the most mind blowing, the most inspiring thing, is that God is perfect love, and that we are loved with that perfect love, and the tragedy is we don’t know it, and even when we do know it, we cannot entirely grasp the infinitude of this love.  We simply cannot grasp such magnitude; we can only accept it.


In the first letter of John, he writes: ‘Dear Friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God.  For anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God.  But anyone who does not love does not know God for God is Love.’ 

Again, I refer to that thirteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.  As Paul and Barnabas left the synagogue that day, the people begged them to speak about these things again the next week.  And again, I bring your attention to that word ‘Begged’ (meaning pleading, imploring, beseeching).  To beg is to be in desperate need, to really desire that which is the longing in your heart.  How can we understand the feelings of people like that who begged so earnestly?  Except perhaps to read how Peter’s spirit-led preaching at Pentecost in Jerusalem pierced the hearts of those who listened, pierced the hearts of those who listened so much so that they cried out ‘Brothers, what shall we do?”  Such is the power of this revelation, pure anguish brought about by the realisation of this overarching omnipotence of God’s love made manifest in the life of Christ, his life, his death on the cross and his resurrection.  Religion is not an affair of the head, it’s an affair of the heart Why would I say that?  Why would anyone say that? It’s an affair of the heart?  My answer, quite simply, is because in that one act of sacrifice is revealed the height and depth of God’s love, paying the cost of our sin, our estrangement from him.  To be touched by this incredible vision is not only to have the heart pierced but to have the heart broken, as in the psalms that acceptable sacrifice a broken spirit and a broken and repentant heart. 

Only from there can we be born anew, only from there can we say, as Paul said, that through this man Jesus, there is forgiveness for your sins.


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