Robert F. Kennedy once told the story of an out-of-power general who looked on a public demonstration against the government in power unfolding in the street below his apartments. His personal ambition was fired, looking on this as a chance to ride the waves of public opinion back into power. As he saw the angry protesters approaching the gates of the president’s palace, he turned to his valet and said, “Get my uniform! I must follow my people so I can lead them."*
Kennedy’s point was clear: Unlike that general, leaders do not follow.
And: People of deep beliefs do not alter their beliefs to suit the crowds or gain acceptance.
In the verse that immediately precedes the words of our second lesson for today, the apostle Paul tells the Galatian Christians (I’m reading from the English Standard Version): “If I were still trying to please [human beings], I would not be a servant of Christ.”
A question that confronts every generation of Christians is this: Are we going to strive to please God or are we going to try to please human beings?
For the apostle Paul, writing to Christians tempted to alter the message of the gospel--the good news that God the Son died and rose to set sinners who repent for sin and believe in Him free from sin and death--the answer to that question is clear. Let’s take a look at what he writes in our second lesson, Galatians 1:11-24.
The first thing Paul underscores is that the gospel message and the Word of God, the Bible, that gives witness to it, are not human inventions. Look at what he says in verse 11: “But I make known to you, brethren [and sisters], that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man.”
In other words, the gospel about Jesus Christ is a truth from God, not something that a bunch of delusional people made up. Jesus of Nazareth was a real human being Who claimed also to be God and, according to those who followed Him, performed miracles, died on a cross, and rose from the dead.
If the first followers of Jesus Christ wanted to pull a fast one on people, they would have made up a different religion from Christianity.
They would have created a religious system that appealed to people’s egos, assured them that if they took certain steps they could get things like their own planets. (Like Joseph Smith and the Mormon religion he created.)
Or they would have promised people if they followed a proscribed set of religious acts, they would live in paradise. (This is the legalistic path commended by Islam.)
Or they might have been like L. Ron Hubbard, who created Scientology as a money-making scheme.
If they’d wanted a religion that could bring them money or power or popularity, they wouldn’t have made up the gospel. There was absolutely nothing to be gained by the first Christians by insisting that all human beings were sinners alienated from God--a message certainly not designed to win friends and influence people--whose only hope for forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, and a life with God that begins now and is perfected in the life to come, was to repent and believe in Jesus Christ alone.
That’s why the first Christians were persecuted, martyred, and marginalized. (That's also why many Christians in the world today are persecuted, martyred, and marginalized.)
The first Christians didn’t follow the crowds, but willingly gave their lives because they believed that Jesus Christ is, as He Himself claimed to be, the only way to life with God.
Paul goes on: “For I neither received [the gospel] from [human beings], nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Paul, like the other apostles and first Christians, came to receive the gospel through the direct intervention of Jesus Christ. And that's true of everyone who believes in Jesus Christ. Faith comes when we move beyond just hearing the gospel about Jesus and, in one way or another, Jesus encounters us and we willingly receive Him.
Now, in speaking of his encounter with Jesus, when Christ was revealed to him, Paul shouldn’t be lumped with people Joseph Smith, the inventor of Mormonism and claimed that it had come to him straight from God. Paul didn’t make up the gospel about Jesus. There were already people who believed in it; they were the people Paul was chasing down in Damascus, holding authority to bring Jews who believed in the gospel about Jesus back to Jerusalem, where they could be excommunicated from Jewish life and maybe face worse. (Like the first Christian martyr, Stephen.)
Paul knew the gospel before he went to Damascus. He knew it at an intellectual level, just as many people who occupy church pews know it. They can recite The Apostles’ Creed and John 3:16 by heart. They’ve heard the gospel many times. But they haven’t received it.
Years ago, I got a phone call from a man who said he was dying. He could no longer leave his house. But as he sat in his home, he remembered hearing the gospel about Jesus when he was a child. He wanted to repent and be assured of the forgiveness of sins. He wanted to receive the good news of Jesus. He wanted to know Jesus, to have a revelation of Jesus. So, he asked if I would come to his home and teach him more about Jesus. We met several times in a short period of time, because we knew he likely would be dying soon. On about our third visit, he asked me, “Could I be baptized?” After more than seventy years of hearing the gospel and knowing what it was, he finally received Jesus. With childlike faith, knowing that he wouldn’t survive the disease that was ravaging his body, he believed in the gospel that had been revealed in Jesus Christ and doesn’t come from human beings.
In our lesson, Paul goes on to explain how the gospel about Jesus turned his life upside down. Rarely does Paul present so much autobiographical information. His focus is on sharing Christ so that believing in Him, people can have eternal life with God. But he tells some of his own story here in order to show how the gospel of God’s grace changes enemies of God, which all of us are at birth, to children of God. Paul writes:
For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb and called me through His grace, to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.Paul had been a young man on the ladder of success within Judaism. He was learned, zealous, able. But God upset whatever plans Paul may have had for his life. God, in fact, already had made plans for Paul when he was in his mother’s womb: to preach the Gospel to non-Jews, Gentiles, people he had been taught to disdain, maybe even hate. But when the risen and ascended Jesus revealed Himself to Paul, Paul says he didn’t confer with human beings about it. He simply believed and followed and obeyed.
As you know if you remember Luke’s account of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus which he presents in the book of Acts, Paul did go to Ananias on a street called Straight in Damascus, where Paul was baptized, given sight again, and his call to preach was confirmed. But, according to Paul, while he already knew the gospel before he went to Damascus, now he believed in it. He received the gift of new life by faith in Jesus Christ.
And, Paul says, he didn’t dilly-dally. He did what God called him to do: preach the good news of Jesus. There has been some speculation that when Paul when to “Arabia,” he was on a retreat, spending time alone with God in preparation for his ministry. Martin Luther didn’t believe that for a second. In his Lectures on Galatians, Luther says: “What else was [Paul] to do but preach Christ?” Paul, because of his faith in Christ, set out immediately to do what Christ had called and commanded him to do!
Not all of us who claim faith in Jesus Christ are called to be apostles to the Gentiles like Paul, but we are all called to be witnesses for Christ. “You will be My witnesses,” Jesus tells us.
Many times through the years, Christians have told me that they feel completely inadequate to witnessing for Christ. They say they don’t have the training for it.
But here’s the thing: You don’t need training to tell others about the most important Person in your life! You don't need training to be a witness for Christ if you have received the gift of faith in Him, any more than you need training to tell people about your favorite restaurant, baseball team, or TV show.
If Christ has revealed Himself to you as your loving God and Savior and you believe in Him, the Holy Spirit will give you the words you need to say and the actions you need to do to live out your call as His witness. In another place, Paul says, “I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me.”
When Martin Luther challenged the hierarchies of Church and State with the pure gospel of Jesus Christ, he was asked, "Who are you, Luther?" He said that he was only Luther, but he spoke with the authority of the gospel behind what he said and it was up to the hierarchies to prove that he didn't.
Luther also said that a simple peasant armed with the Word of God had more authority than any pope, bishop, cardinal, or priest without the Word of God.
You have that same authority when you know Christ as your God and Savior. You have the same authority to share the gospel that brings life with God to all who believe it that Paul had! We can say with Paul, writing in Romans: “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation...”
In verses 18 to 23, Paul underscores that the gospel and his authority to preach it and teach it had not come from human beings, but from God. He went to Jerusalem not to get the approval of the first Christians there; Paul was confident that he already had God’s approval for the gospel he preached. He went to seek unity for the Church and to assure himself that the Church in Jerusalem was actually preaching and teaching the gospel, the good news that sinful human beings are saved by God’s grace through our faith in Jesus.
When Paul got to Jerusalem, he learned that Christians there who had never seen him, knew about him. They knew that God had taken a man who had been a religious terrorist and through God’s grace, turned him into not just a believer, but a preacher of God’s truth. Paul writes in the last verse: “And they glorified God in me.”
Now, Paul wrote these verses near the beginning of Galatians to underscore that, while he was nothing in Himself, the gospel had given him authority. When we believe in Christ, we have authority too, an authority that comes from the crucified and risen Jesus to live with confidence and hope as people of God.
When someone says to you, “Isn’t there room for Buddha or Mohammad or atheists in the gospel? Isn’t there room for the ways people think and live today in the gospel?,” you can say, “The God made flesh in Jesus Christ loves Buddhists and Muslims, He loved Buddha and Mohammad, and He loves the people He made who show contempt for Him by willfully going their own ways rather than seeking to follow God’s way. The gospel says that Jesus alone is the way, and the truth, and the life. It says that He died for the sins of the whole world and offers new life to all who will submit to the crucifixion of their old selves and rely on Christ alone to raise them to be who God made them to be. There is room for everyone in the gospel of Christ. But there’s no room for Christ in the life of anyone who won’t let the gospel take hold of them and make them children of God.”
When we share our faith in Christ with others without boastfulness or unkindness or arrogance, we need not hang our heads in shame or be embarrassed. Even if the world rejects faith in Christ as passe, we know better. We belong to the Alpha and the Omega, the master of time and eternity, the Lord of heaven and earth, the author of life and the conqueror of death! We belong to the King of kings Who died for our sins and rose from the dead to tear open eternity for all who will follow Him.
Never be afraid.
Never be afraid!
Never be ashamed!
Never be embarrassed to lift up Christ, the Name above all names, the only name given to us by which anyone can be saved!
You may not please everyone when you follow Christ, but you will please the only one Whose opinion matters, the God we know in Jesus Christ. Amen
*I told this story from memory. I believed that Kennedy recounted it in the memorial edition of President John F. Kennedy's book, Profiles in Courage. But when I checked my copy, I didn't find it. I now believe that Robert Kennedy told the story in the preface to Thirteen Days, his memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Since I no longer own a copy of that book, I couldn't check on it. But the story, conveyed here in its essence, is one that has stuck with me since I first read it in 1969, one year after RFK's death.