+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What is human nature? The psychiatrist Scott Peck would answer, “Human nature is to relieve yourself in your pants.”[i] He’s right. Ask any two year old, that’s what comes naturally.
Think about the trauma of toilet training – the child’s trauma, not the parent’s. When most of us were about two, a very large authority figure began to suggest that there was another way. Not all of us immediately estimated this advice as helpful or necessary, especially boys. It made more sense to let go when the urge struck rather than restraining ourselves. But gradually, possibly out of desire to give something back to our parent or care-giver, we decided to give this new way a spin – to make a loving gift by using the toilet.
A couple years later, by four or five, what had been profoundly unnatural had become wholly natural. After this, a child still has moments of stress or fatigue or excitement and then forgets and has an accident, and not it feels unnatural. So within two years, through parental love and care, the nature of the child has transformed. They’ve seen a new way, and they’re willing to give it a go.
Galatia is a rugged, inland region of what is today central Turkey. Paul traveled through its cities once or twice telling people the good news of Jesus and setting up gatherings, mostly little groups of believers. After Paul had moved on, Jewish Christian missionaries from Jerusalem came to this region and began to encourage the Gentile, non-Jewish, adult male disciples to get circumcised. Paul had not made that a necessary part of following Jesus, but the Jerusalem missionaries challenged Paul’s authority and attacked his legitimacy as an apostle.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians responded to this. Paul was furious. Unlike his other letters which begin with thanks and praise, he began this letter with invective, rebuke, condemnation. It is his most polemical, angry letter, full of abuse, and while some of his cutting remarks are not without wit, he later regretted his lack of restraint toward these “troublemakers,” his term referring to the Jerusalem missionaries.
Paul wrote his letter in either the late 40s or mid 50s, about two decades after Jesus’ crucifixion. Right from the beginning, the church endured intense conflict with lots of uncertainty and confusion and animosity about what appeared to be very important issues then, but may seem to us relatively insignificant. It’s helpful perspective for us looking today’s heated controversies – they’re not an aberration, but the norm.
Paul took great offense from the claim of the Jerusalem missionaries that circumcision was necessary. It meant that to follow Jesus it was first necessary to become a Jew. Paul had discovered that Gentiles could become full members of God’s people without first converting to Judaism.
This was the primary point of Paul’s Damascus Road experience. Before then, Paul had been devoted to keeping Jews distinct from Gentiles, defending the purity of Judaism, insisting upon identity markers like circumcision and kosher laws and Sabbath observance, the outward marks of Torah, Jewish Law. Paul was highly zealous, ready to use violence to enforce this separation.
The vision of Christ on the Damascus Road transformed Paul’s understanding of God. It’s no longer us versus them. Paul still considered himself a Jew, but after his vision he saw that Gentiles were part of God’s purpose. His perception of outsiders flipped; they weren’t to be excluded, but included. God loves and longs for all people. Before this moment, Paul could not have imagined a more outrageous notion than God desiring Gentiles, but God showed Paul that he was now reaching out beyond Israel, re-defining his people.
Even more, Paul experienced God’s graciousness, his unbounded generosity. Paul had been persecuting God’s son, trying to destroy his work, and yet God embraced Paul and called him to be part of the work. It’s like Peter’s story, Peter who denied Jesus, abandoned him in his suffering, and yet received from the risen Jesus enormous new responsibilities. The experience of grace strengthened Peter to care for others.
Having also been on the wrong side, Paul came to see outsiders as necessary. The experience of God’s acceptance changed his heart, expanded it, transformed his nature. God called Paul to a new way.
It’s important to note that God’s call to Paul did not make his life easier; it did not bring him wealth; it did not improve his health; it did not make him more content or comfortable. A genuine call from God is not about what he does for us, not about our private well-being, but about what we do for him, what we do for the well-being of others, for the common good.
If you’re like me, you may occasionally wonder, “Well, what have you done for me lately, God?” A genuine call from God is, “What might I do for you, God? How can I be part of what you are doing around me?” God’s answer to Paul, “You’re going to proclaim Jesus to the Gentiles.”
The Damascus Road wasn’t so much a conversion: Paul didn’t change from being non-religious to religious, or from one religion to another. Christianity was still a part of Judaism, separating but still part of it. Paul was sort of changing parties, moving from Pharisee to Christian, moving from focus on purity to focus on the breadth of God’s love.
He made this move as a result of a new understanding of God. So the Damascus Road was more revelation than conversion, a new understanding that required Paul to do something – preach Jesus to the Gentiles. Paul understood it as God commissioning him, calling him. In the same way, baptism is accepting a call to be a Christian; it’s an assignment to make life about following Jesus, orienting our life around God, learning to love him and other people. New insights about God call us to live differently.
New insights about God also call us to see ourselves differently. Paul took on a new identity, a witness to Jesus. It gave him certainty about himself; it gave him confidence about who he was. Paul endured one hardship after another: repeatedly flogged, jailed, beaten, shipwrecked, and robbed; constantly on the move; in danger from friends as well as foes; in danger in the wilderness and at sea; often standing alone; regularly without food and water; constantly toiling.
His strength and courage came from his call, the certainty that he was working for good, and not in vain. His confidence in himself came not from his achievement or success or competence, but his trust in God, that he was following his call. It gave him courage to go against the grain. We see Paul breaking free from his past, from his culture, his beliefs, and expanding his identity, renewing his identity. Let’s be inspired by this. Let’s make it part of our lives.
Paul’s experience gave him confidence that God was working in and through his life. It transformed him. Scott Peck wrote,
What distinguishes us humans most from other creatures is not our opposing thumb or our magnificent larynx or our huge cerebral cortex, it is our dramatic relative lack of instincts – inherited, performed patterns of behavior that give other creatures a much more fixed and predetermined nature than we have as human beings.[ii]
The good news: our bodies grow old, and we can’t stop the physical decline, but we can remain young and growing – spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually. It happens for those who remain open to and seek transformation. The spiritually mature never stop evolving. Our hearts and minds don’t have to grow old if we keep a bit of that adaptable two year old in us. Let’s look for God, let’s expect God, to act to show us new things that open us to further transformation.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Scott Peck, The Different Drum, Simon & Schuster (1987), pp. 178-79.
[ii] Peck, p. 179.