"No 'Buts' about It!"
From a homily delivered at the International Center Chapel this morning, February 28, 2011. It is a part of the ongoing, Monday morning sermon series through Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.
“No ‘Buts’ About It!”
February 28, 2011 • IC Chapel
“For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.”
Here Paul takes a trip down memory lane . . . and not at trip that would have been terribly pleasant for him. Just take a moment, and think of one of the worst things you’ve ever done—one that makes you cringe to even bring to mind. [Pause] Horrible, isn’t it? Now think of Paul. He’s admitting here in writing that in his former life, he had spent his every waking moment trying to destroy the church of God—by violence, no less. Paul was, in effect, a bounty hunter of Christians, tracking down brothers and sisters in Christ from Jerusalem to Damascus, and hauling them back for trial and execution. He was a coat-holder at the stoning of Stephen. As his zealous compatriots picked up stones to crush the body and skull of their innocent victim, Paul stood by . . . watching the carnage, and enjoying it.
This is what life under the Law had come to for Paul. It had led him so far astray that it had even made him a party to murder. And that is exactly why he tells the Galatians about his sordid past, because they were in danger of falling into the same trap—of falling back into a life of bondage under the Law.
Anything that gets into the salvation equation between Jesus, you, and your heavenly Father, is a piece of the Law, and will eventually bring you back into bondage. For the Galatians, it was circumcision and the Jewish law. “Sure, Jesus died for your sins, but before you can really be a Christian, you need to be circumcised and live like a Jew.” For us today, I suppose we could just fill in the blank: “Sure, Jesus died for your sins, but . . .” (The proverbial “but”!) “But, you have to do something . . . But, you have to make a decision and invite Jesus into your heart . . . But, you have to get your life together and stop sinning . . . But, you have to give up alcohol and tobacco to be a real Christian. But, you have to live a victorious life . . . But . . . but . . . but you have to . . . !”
Thank God, the Gospel turns our “buts” and our “have-to’s” around, and makes life in God’s kingdom about nothing that we do, and about everything that God has done and continues to do for us in Christ Jesus. “But,” declares Paul, “. . . [God] who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me . . .” You see, the Gospel’s “but” always has God as the subject, and you as the object of his boundless love. It turns the Law and its “have-to’s”, and our feeble attempts to fulfill them, on its head. “It is finished!” . . . “It’s done,” Jesus declared before he died (John 19:30). And you know what? He really meant it! He took care of it all . . for you.
Before you were born—or as Luther says, “when I could not think, wish, or do anything good but was a shapeless embryo” (AE 26:72)—God loved you, predestined you, set you apart to be his very own. Born of the flesh of your parents, you were born again by the Holy Spirit through the waters of your baptism—called by grace to be a child of God. No decisions there. Only gift! And at your baptism, the Holy Spirit descended, and the voice of the Father was pleased to reveal to you his Son—Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, for you!
With Paul’s conversion on the Damascus road, this Gospel “but” turned him around to become an apostle to the Gentiles. For you, Jesus’ Gospel “butting” into your life means that you are free. It means that you are free to be the child whom God has made you to be—to serve in the vocation that he has given you, here in this place, at home with your family, and in the world, caring for others. It means that you are freed to serve—no longer as a slave to the Law, but as an heir of the Gospel. No “buts” about it.
Rev. Jon D. Vieker
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