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Dangerous Zeal

Sermon - 6/06/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Galatians 1:11-24

Continuing our study of Paul's letter to the Galatians that we started last week, we read verses 11 through 24, from chapter 1:
For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.

18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; 19but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. 20In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! 21Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, 22and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; 23they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ 24And they glorified God because of me.


Paul's letter to the Galatians provides more autobiographical information and insight into his character than any other source that we have. And in this text, we get a good glimpse of Paul's zealous nature. He describes himself as far more zealous than his peers for the tradition of his faith. And that led him to violently persecute the followers of Jesus that he sees in violation to that tradition.

And of course, please keep in mind, that all of the followers of Jesus are Jewish. So this is an intra-Jewish affair, not a Jewish versus Christian affair. He makes a similar claims (less detailed in first Corinthians and in Philippians), and in Acts Paul is portrayed as being complicit in this stoning of Stephen and active in the persecution of other Jewish Christians.

And so from these texts we get an image of a man on a righteous cause to purify the faith from a dangerous infection. But then something happens. Paul himself is infected by the one he so violently opposes. And the change that results is profound in one way but not in another.

Paul keeps his zeal, that doesn't change. He keeps his identity as a Jew, that doesn't change either. And instead of rejecting Jesus, he now accepts him as the Christ, the Messiah, sent by God to save the world. But that isn't the only change in Paul. And maybe not even the biggest change that occurs.

But before I get to that, I want to take note of two recent events. Karl Barth, the great theologian of last century, said that we should always read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. In other words, to stay in dialogue with the world around us, and to read one in light of the other. And the story that is heavy on my mind this morning, that troubles me, worries me, has been in the news of most of this week, was that disastrous takeover of the ships headed for Gaza by the Israeli forces, resulting in irreparable harm to the image of Israel and to the tragic deaths of nine activists.

And it strikes me, after reading the many stories (not just in the news but also on the Internet), considering all sides, participated in a teleconference call with the American Jewish committee, have been reading articles from pro-Palestinians and the like, is that there's plenty of blame to go all around.

Hamas, that continues to call for the destruction of Israel in its charter, is partly to blame. Israel, that continues to maintain a blockade that is overly harsh and I think unjustifiable, is partially to blame. The activists, who unwisely attacked those Israeli soldiers when they boarded the ship, share that blame. The Israeli forces themselves, who never should have been in that position to have to resort to deadly force against a humanitarian mission, certainly share the blame. Turkey, using those activists as pawns in a very dangerous political game, share the blame. Iran, using the suffering of the people of Gaza for its own anti-Semitic agenda, shares the blame. And lastly, the United States, way too timid in confronting Israel over its confiscation of Palestinian land and its overreliance on military force to enforce its will upon the occupied territories, certainly share some blame.

So there's simply no end to the blunders and the failures of all the parties involved. And amidst all of this high drama on the seas and on the world stage, I am strangely encouraged by yesterday's events. If you read your paper this morning, there was another ship, this time an Irish ship, the Rachel Corrie, named for the American student killed by an Israeli bulldozer a number of years ago, on its way to Gaza on a similar humanitarian mission, that was also taken over by Israeli forces, but this time peacefully with no loss of life. The protesters made their point without anyone getting killed, and the humanitarian aid eventually evidently will make its way into Gaza.

Now, what the heck does any of this have to do with this story all Paul. Well, hang on, I said I had two events. So let me mention the second one, which occurred not on the world stage but at a middle school classroom here in Eugene. Reported not on the news, but reported to me by some who were there. And I mentioned this last week, that I was part of this interfaith panel at Spencer Butte Middle School. I only got to participate in the second session, Wally Berman (one of our elders) represented us in the first session. He and the others there reported to me that the students asked some really tough questions, especially about some Bible stories. What do you do with those stories where God appears to condone and even order the killing of innocent people, sometimes women and children? And those are tough stories. I was glad I wasn't there :).

For instance, the story that we read this morning, were you paying attention? What do we do in this story with Elijah, challenging the prophets of Baal, in this contest, and you remember that contest and the fire that descends and consumes the offering. And afterwards, what does Elijah do? He orders the execution of those 400 prophets in cold blood. And then you get to the end of the story, and God continues this killing, this purging, saying that all those known to have participated in this activity are going to be killed.

What do we do with that? Elijah justifies his actions by saying to God "I have been very zealous for the Lord". Isn't that interesting, just like Paul. Or perhaps better, Paul is just like Elijah in his zeal for the Lord. In fact, like Elijah, Paul goes to Arabia after his conversion experience. And in that story, the King in Damascus is out to get him, and so he flees to Arabia.

Now, what we don't do with such stories, hopefully, is precisely what Paul did -- taking it upon himself, in his zeal for God, to punish and even exterminate the enemies of God. Or, of course, what he perceives as the enemies, which are the followers of Jesus.

The Reverend Phelps from his small fundamentalist church in Kansas is the classic pathetic example of this. Protesting at funerals of US soldiers, announcing their deaths as God's punishment on the United States for allowing homosexuality to exist in this country. Fortunately, most folks, I think, see the Reverend Phelps and his followers as religious extremists rather than as thoughtful Christians. Unfortunately, he gets a lot of media attention every time he shows up for one of his misguided protests, confirming for some their prejudice against Christians as judgmental and anti-gay, making our efforts to present a different face of Christianity to the public all the more important and vital.

So now what we do with these difficult stories in Scripture, which don't fit that image that we want to convey (and that others sometimes use against us)? Ron Allen, who is a Disciple of Christ professor of preaching, says sometimes you just have to preach against the text. And that sounds a little harsh, shocking. I think a better way to say it may be that we have to correct one text with another, and Jesus showed us how.

Remember when Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, "You have heard it said 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth', but I say to you do not resist the evildoer. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek also. You have heard it said 'Love your neighbor, hate your enemy, but I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you".

See, that's the model for us and how to respond to those difficult passages, with the other texts that present a different view. Our hopefully more enlightened way of reading Scripture seeks to make it clear that yes, there was a time when people of faith saw God in a certain way. We might describe that as a 'tribal' view of God, a God who does good things for us and bad things for them. Who is gracious and loving to one group, harsh and cruel to another group -- those outsiders.

But that's an old way, even a childish way, of seeing God that we no longer hold. And so we have a choice, to believe in God who justifies killing and violence, or a God who is opposed to it. And by the way, please do not perpetuate the old myth that one of these views is the Old Testament view of God, the other is the New Testament view. Such is an anti-Semitic lie that we have been told for far too long. Read the book of Revelation and tell me the New Testament doesn't contain that tribal view of God who does those terrible things to all those people we don't like. Read the book of Hosea and tell me that the Old Testament does not have that loving, gracious view of God. So, see, both views are in both Testaments. And that older, judgmental view of God remains within our Jewish and Christian traditions, in a way to remind us of how human nature can distort the will of God even in Scripture.

But there is that other story, also contained in Scripture, the story of a loving, forgiving God, who treats all humanity with grace. And it is found throughout the Jewish and Christian traditions, and both are right there in the story of Paul. Transformed from one way of being Jewish to another way of being Jewish.

Paul's story is such a great story because it shows how someone can be righteous and wrong at the same time. You say, 'so what?', I've been standing up here and preaching and doing it a long time :).

Paul wasn't just a little bit of each, he was off the scale, zealous for God, and completely, dangerously wrong. Why? Because his view of God was of that vengeful, punishing God, who wanted him to purge the faith of all those misguided believers. A modern-day Elijah, if you will, who would wipe out the infidels. And by the way, in the Elijah story, never forget the other story of Elijah, when he goes to that home of the foreign woman and she takes him in, she shows hospitality, and her son dies, and he does everything he can, in fact he saves the life of that son, of that foreigner, that 'non-believer'. So both stories are even there in the Elijah story.

What is most striking in Paul's transformation, is not that he switched sides in that battle, but that he changed methods. His newfound zeal for Jesus did not lead him to begin persecuting those who do not except Jesus as he did (and as too many Christians would later do, beginning with the reign of Constantine once they gained the power of government and used it against their Jewish brothers and sisters) nor did Paul renounce his Jewish identity. What Paul did do was renounce his way of violence and persecution. Why? Because his view of God had changed. In chapter 2, that we'll look at next Sunday, he says: "The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the son of God who loved me and gave himself for me".

That understanding of Christ, who loved him and gave himself for Paul, changed Paul's heart. And with it, his use of violence to enforce the will of God. For me, this story of Paul's conversion from a life of violence and persecution to a life of servant-hood, suggests that the biggest challenge for us is not how do we convert more people to Christianity but how do we convert more Christians to Christ. To the way of nonviolence and peace and maybe, just maybe, if we can get our own house in order as the world's largest religion, others will follow suit.

And that brings me back to those ships trying to break that blockade of Gaza. I note that the Rachel Corrie, that Irish ship that was peacefully boarded (even if wrongly, by those Israeli forces) and commandeered and taken to an Israeli port, included onboard a Nobel peace prize holder -- Maryanne Corrigan. Do you remember her? 1976 Nobel Peace Prize winner, for what? For working the bring Protestants and Catholics together in Northern Ireland. She probably is the single person most responsible for the eventual peace accord that brought an end to that violence there. And now here she is trying to make the same attempt at reconciliation in the Middle East.

Now, read the story that's in the paper this morning. When those Israeli forces approached the ship, what did the crew do? They lowered a rope ladder to aid the forces in coming on board. If that isn't a modern-day example of turning the other cheek, then I don't know what is.

Amos Oz, an Israeli writer and professor of literature at Ben-Gurion University in Tel Aviv, wrote in the New York Times on June 1st in response to all of this: "Hamas is not just a terrorist organization, Hamas is an idea. A desperate and fanatical idea that grew out of the desolation and frustration of many Palestinians. No idea has ever been defeated by force. Not my siege, not by bombardment, and not by Marine commandos. To defeat an idea, you have to offer a better idea. A more attractive and acceptable one".

And you see, that's precisely what Maryann Corrigan did in Northern Ireland, and what she's now trying to do in the Middle East. If the good people of Israel and Palestine do not catch on, that violence will take on a life of its own. That because of the righteous, damnable zeal, on both sides, may well destroy all that is precious and true in that holy land.

Liel Leibovitz, writing for a Jewish online magazine (The Tablet) lays out this better idea in his call for lifting the blockade, he says: "Judaism, I firmly believe, is predicated both historically and theologically on the notion that God had designated one nation to be unto him a holy nation, and a kingdom of priests. If Israel is just one more nation among others, why bother having a Jewish state at all? If we want to preserve that exalted status, we must understand it as what it truly is: a terrible responsibility, a divine burden, a never ending call to justice. To that end, if we truly believe the tenets of our faith, we must worry not about others, but about ourselves. And we must do what is right no matter how dear the cost. We have an awesome and ancient guide to righteousness, the foundation for our morality, the source of our survival. If we exchange it for the trifles of politics, we will surely perish".

Liebowitz, I think, has it exactly right. The never-ending call to justice is the call of God upon us all. And if we truly believe the tenets of our faith, then we will also follow that example of Paul, renouncing all violence in our own lives. Following the one, who gave himself out of love for us and for all.

Such is the salvation and the hope for the world.

May it be.



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