One of the things I love about Jesus is the way in which he used a variety of different ways of teaching people. There are the stories and parables he told, which catch your imagination and make you chew away to get at the marrow, so that the working it out becomes part of the learning process. And then there’s the action learning, when Jesus does something, like feeding over five thousand people, but he doesn’t just do it, he involves those around him, and then reflects on it with them afterwards. Sometimes, however, Jesus just tells it straight, no messing around. Today was one of those days.
Jesus is in the temple. It’s a couple of days after he’d entered the city on a donkey, and Passover is coming up. Before the week is out he’ll be dead, hung on a traitor’s tortured cross. He is speaking to his disciples and to the crowds, all those gathered in and around the temple in the lead up to Passover, the great feast of the Jewish faith. Amongst them are the religious leaders, the council members, the higher ups, and Jesus is angry with them because they have put barriers in the way of people coming to know him, of living faithfully for God.
At this time the Pharisees were the dominant political and religious party in Jerusalem. Their main concern was that the Jewish people should never go into exile again, but should live in the land that God had promised them, with as little interference as possible.
Their method for achieving this had two dimensions, one political and one religious. The religious strategy was to make sure that nobody ever broke God’s law again. They believed that they had been sent into exile previously because the people had been unfaithful to God, and broken God’s law. That was not going to happen on their watch. The political aspect of the strategy was to make sure that nobody upset the Romans. They had managed to organise a special arrangement, by which the normal Roman method of importing all their gods had been suspended, and worship was allowed to continue at the temple undisturbed. There was also an element of self-rule. This delicate balance must never be disturbed.
Jesus calls them out on this. He accuses them of keeping the letter of the law, but completely missing its heart. They have become legal experts rather than just and merciful shepherds. They have developed such a show of religion and sanctity but their hearts are far from God and the love that is needed. They are so keen on keeping the peace that they are going to resist the revolution, the revolution that God has sent in the person of Jesus.
Their two-pronged strategy is going to fail. The religious element is going go fail because true obedience to God’s law flows from obedience to the two commands at the heart of the law. “Love the Lord your God with all you are, and love your neighbour as yourself”. If love is missing, as it was for the Pharisees, then all else is in vain. The political element is going to fail because, in the end, there can be no compromise or accommodation with the world. As the Pharisees found out in the end, as the Temple was destroyed a few decades later, silencing the truth of the Kingdom and prophetic voice of faith might buy short term appeasement but will never lead to long term peace.
Saul was a Pharisee. He was a Pharisee of Pharisees. He absolutely thought like this. He had studied the law and knew it inside out. He knew all the extra rules which meant that you didn’t even come close to breaking the law. He knew the importance of keeping order, and making sure the Romans didn’t get upset. After all he was, himself, a Roman citizen. He didn’t just travel over land and sea to make converts but to make sure that this upstart Christian cult didn’t get anywhere, that it was nipped in the bud, that it was crushed before it led the Jewish people away from the law or provoked the Romans into action.
He was on his way to Damascus when something astonishing happened to him. The way that it is described in our reading from his letter to the church in Galatia is quite interesting. He says this, “God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles.”
There are three things that I find interesting about this verse. Firstly his conviction that he had been set apart from birth and called by grace. This is a man who had had a remarkable conversion experience. His whole way of looking at the world had been turned upside down. Things that he had believed about God, about faith, about people, about the best way to live, had been completely changed, and yet he believes that God set him apart from birth. He knew that he had been wrong, thought wrongly, done wrong, and yet he trusts the grace of God to forgive him and rests on that sense of call. Whatever we have done in the past, whatever or whoever we have had to change our mind about, there are things in our future that God has prepared for us to do, and we should do them, and trust God’s grace to deal with our past. Paul was not the only one to have been set apart from birth, we all have, we just need to choose whether or not we are going to walk in the way we have been set apart for.
The second thing that interests me is the preposition. I think I might have expected Paul to write, “was pleased to reveal his Son to me” but he didn’t. He wrote, “was pleased to reveal his Son in me”. What might this mean? We know from other places that Paul’s conversion experience included some external events – he saw a bright light, heard Jesus speaking to him, fell down, was struck blind. These might all be described as Jesus being revealed to Paul. But it seems to me that this phrase suggests an internal change at the same time, almost an internal blossoming of realisation in Paul’s mind and spirit as he experienced the power of Jesus convicting, forgiving, commissioning him internally.
As John Wesley described his experience of coming to a living faith in Jesus as he listened to a preacher, “while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
When we talk about our faith we need a good mixture of external and internal. Too much external and it can all sound very dry and mechanical. Too much internal and it can appear subjective and relative. Paul’s heritage was all about the external. That’s one of the main problems that Jesus had with the Pharisees – you’re like unwashed pots or whitewashed tombs – the externals look fine but the internals are rotten. It took Jesus being revealed in him for Paul’s internals to finally match his externals, and this match up shaped the way in which he went on to give a fully balanced presentation of the gospel, the external realities of the cross and Jesus’ death and resurrection, along with the internal effects of knowing the power of being forgiven and living in grace, empowered by the Holy Spirit.
The third interesting thing is that Paul was sent to the Gentiles. That’s like an ex Manchester United player being sent to evangelise the terraces at Stamford Bridge. It is the strictest gamekeeper turned most outrageous poacher imaginable. The Gentiles are completely beyond the law and are the ones causing all the political trouble. This is as far from being a Pharisee as you can get. But, the transformation is complete, and Paul applies all his natural energy and zeal, and all the learning and top class religious education he’d benefited from to the new task. Convert the whole world.
I wonder what unexpected tasks God might have for us. I wonder how God is going to use the experiences and skills that we have picked up over the years in new ways to reach out to people that we never imagined coming alongside. I wonder if we will be ready and willing to answer that call.
If there is one thing that an ex-Pharisee is going to have no trouble spotting it is a Pharisee. And as he writes this letter Paul can see Pharisees and he does not like it one little bit. He has seen two kinds of Pharisee attitude at work and he knows that these attitudes are the enemy of the truth of the gospel and he is going to fight to his last breath to oppose them.
The first Pharisee attitude at work is the one that wants to enslave people to religious rules. We see this in verses three to five. “Not even Titus was compelled to be circumcised … false believers infiltrated to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them … so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.” Paul knows that the truth of the gospel is that it is the good news of grace, opposed to the bad news of the law.
The law shows us that we can never be holy, we can never be good enough. Grace shows us that in Jesus we are holy and that we are made good. We don’t need the old, outward, external sign of being the people of God, because we have the new internal sign of Christ revealed in us that flows out into our lives and the lives of the people around us. We are no longer slaves, we are free in Christ.
The second Pharisee attitude at work is the one of appeasement. There it is in verses 11 and following. Peter and some of the others had decided that it was politically expedient to placate some of the Jewish Christians that had come to visit and separate himself off from the Gentile believers. Paul calls him out. Verse 14, “When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel…” This is at the heart of it for Paul. Is what we’re doing in line with the truth of the gospel? Does it express love and acceptance and forgiveness? Freedom or slavery? Grace or law? Peace and quiet or peace with justice? Placating or peace making?
The spirit of the Pharisees is one that we need to be on the look out for. Jesus was unsparing in his condemnation of it. Paul was sensitive to it because he used to inhabit it. Both knew that it is toxic to the truth of the gospel. In our lives, in our church, there must be no place for it. Religious rules that enslave and appeasement that compromises are both fatal. Instead we choose the truth of the gospel, freedom to live and peace to proclaim.