Lunch with the Apostle Paul, Pt. 1: Appetizers

A dramatized sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
June 2, 2013

The Second Sunday after Pentecost

The Book of Galatians

Let me be honest. I haven’t always liked the Apostle Paul.  In the first place, he is so dogmatic in some of his letters – so determined to prove his point that it’s like being in a wrestling match with somebody who won’t let go until you see things their way.  And then, in the second place, he is such a product of his culture, isn’t he?  I mean, he is a Greek-speaking, first century citizen of the Roman Empire who just happens to be a former Pharisee.  In our context, some of his views are embarrassingly unenlightened.  But I have to tell you, the more time I spend with Paul, the more I like him. And maybe it’s just because I’m getting older, but I’ve been thinking lately that if I could have lunch with anybody who ever lived, I’d like to have lunch with Paul.  Now, that’s probably not going to happen, not in this life and so I have asked Dr. Scott Spencer, former interim pastor of this church and professor of New Testament and Biblical Interpretation at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond to play Paul’s part in a series that I’m calling “Lunch with the Apostle Paul.”  And today, in a special cameo role, our own David Powers as the waiter.

DP:    [Approaching table.] Good morning, sir.

JS:     [Seated at table.] Well, good morning.

DP:    Are we dining alone today?

JS:     No, actually I’m waiting for somebody. He should be here any minute.

DP:    Perhaps I could bring you something to drink.  Maybe one of our craft beers.  Or maybe a crisp glass of pinot grigio.

JS:     You know, I think maybe just some bread and maybe a half carafe of Welch’s grape juice.  Welch’s grape juice. 

DP:    Welch’s grape juice.

JS:     You know, call it tradition, but every time I come to this place, that’s what I drink. 

DP:    You’re Baptist, aren’t you?

JS:     I am, yes, thank you.

DP:    You Baptists do your drinking in private.

JS:     [Motioning to Scott Spencer, as Paul.] Paul!  Paul, I’m so glad you could join me.  Come sit down. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. 

SS:    He’s very strange.

JS:     He’s very strange.  Come, sit, sit, sit, sit. Glad you’re here.  No, no, no, no, I don’t do the Holy kiss but here, have a seat. 

SS:    Yeah, thank you.

JS:     You found something in our clothes closet that would fit you.  You know, folks, he came this morning in a robe which looked good on him but I was telling him that in this context, he might want to wear something a little more …

SS:    [Looking at choir.] But they have robes.

JS:     Hadn’t thought of that.

SS:    How do you wear this?  And yours is kind of ritzy, my brother.

JS:     God is good. Listen, I hope you don’t mind.  This, this is a Baptist church.

SS:    Whoa, whoa, whoa, I thought we were having lunch in the Market Place.  What is this place you said?

JS:     This is a Baptist church. 

SS:    No!

JS:     It is!

SS:    A church.

JS:     A church.

SS:    Well, this doesn’t look a thing like any of the house churches I worshipped in on a regular basis.  In fact, I know we are inside, but this room reminds me of the Ampitheatre  in Ephesis.  And I don’t have good memories of that place.

JS:     Alright.

SS:    I don’t know if you, you remember, but a whole, a whole mob gathered there.  They wanted my neck. 

JS:     I am familiar...

SS:    They were upset about what I was…

JS:     Moving on, moving on from that… just wanted to ask if you mind if I invite the whole congregation to sit in our conversation today.  You may not know this, but your letters have ended up in our Bible.  I mean, we think of them as sacred scripture.  So these people, you see, all of them have read your letters, they’ve paid attention to .., they’ve been guided by them through the years.  I think they would be as interested as I am to know why you wrote some of what you wrote.

SS:    You’re kidding, you’re kidding me… my stuff is in, is in the Bible?

JS:     It’s in the Bible.

SS:    We had a Bible.  The Bible.  The Torah.  The Prophets.  The Psalms.  I spent my whole life studying them and I have no intention of adding anything to them.

JS:     Holy Bible, says right there.

SS:    Well, fine.

JS:     Your letter.

SS:    I was trying to apply them, and interpret …  When I wrote Galatians, as you call it, no offense, but I didn’t have you in mind.

JS:     Huh!

SS:    I mean, I had them in mind.  They were one of my churches and I hadn’t been there for years.  I had founded the church and loved those people, gave myself to them, and wow! Things started happening after I left and I, I couldn’t get back to them.  So I wrote specifically to them.  And I wasn’t very happy. I mean, I don’t know if you’ve picked up on my tone.

JS:     I have picked up on..

SS:    My tone.

JS:     There’s a tone, there’s definitely a tone.

SS:    It’s a tag in history, I would say.

JS:     It is.

SS:    And sometime the images get a little out of hand and in a calmer moment, I might have phrased things differently.  This is in the Bible now?

Some of that stuff shouldn’t be in the Bible.

JS:     You know, I thought that same thing.

SS:    Uh huh.

JS:     But, but it’s there.  Like it or not. And here’s the thing.  It has stood the test of time.  I mean, for two thousand years, people have been reading these letters.  They have been inspired by them.  There are people in this room who have read your words and heard the word of God.  So, we are grateful, Paul. 

SS:    Imagine that.

JS:     I just want to say we are grateful to you.  Thank you.

SS:    Hard to believe.

JS:     Hard to believe.

DP:    Will there be anything else?

JS:     No.  That will do. Thank you.  Thank you so much.  Big tip for you! … As I was saying, your letters, part of our Bible, we are really, truly grateful for what you’ve written.  But as your old friend Peter once said, there are some things in your letters that are hard to understand and I wanted to ask you some questions Galatians in particular.

SS:    Alright.

JS:     If you don’t mind.

SS:    Alright.

JS:     And let’s start, just with some information about you.  Like for instance,  here it says that you had a life in Judaism before you met Christ and I think you say here that you were violently persecuting the church.  Tell me about that if you can.

SS:    Well, I am still a Jew.  A Jew who believes in Jesus as Lord and Messiah, but that former life, that’s pretty painful.  I didn’t go into a lot of detail, but I guess that if you’re curious, I understand.  I don’t know, have you ever had the experience of looking back on a part of your life and not recognizing who that person was.   It’s like almost being outside of yourself and being even horrified by that.  How could I have done that?  Well,

JS:  It says you were violently, violently persecuting...

SS: Yes, yes, I know … Well, that’s true.  Now, in fact, my former life when I say something like that sounds like it was irreligious and no, in fact, I was hyper-religious.  Ever since I can remember, I was a student of the scriptures and loved the Lord and put everything into …  I was number one in my class in Hebrew School. 

JS: Hum!

SS: I mean, advanced beyond everyone else.  And got this incredible zeal for the things of God.  And you know, religious zeal is a very good thing if it’s directed in the right way.  But if it goes astray, it’s a very dangerous thing.  And that’s what happened to me.  I developed such zeal, I felt like I was cocksure about everything.  What I believed was the right way, the only way, and anyone who disagreed with me, woe be to them. 

JS:  Uh huh.

SS: The idea of a friendly disagreement, no.  These people, my fellow Jews, were following a crucified Messiah.  That’s scandalous.  That’s offensive.  Crucifixion was what the Romans did to enemies of the state and now they were worshipping this guy.  This was a threat to all of us and the only thing I could think of was this is wrong and that meant holy war.

JS: Huh!

SS:  And I launched a war.  I am so ashamed to say, but, but wound up having Christians beaten and arrested and some of them killed.  I gather today that there’s a... I don’t know, I sort of picked up,  I don’t know a lot about your role, but I pick up talk about religious terrorism being an issue in various forms, that’s what I was.  I was a religious terrorist.  Stupidly, foolishly, but still zealously thinking that God had charged me to kill in his name.  Well, I really don’t want to talk about it much more.  But, that’s it.

JS:  That was then.  But then this thing happened.  I preached on it just a few weeks ago from Acts Chapter 9, the way Luke tells that story.  You were on the way to Damascus, still breathing out threats and murder against the church, and then, he says there was this bright light and you fell to the ground and there was a voice.  I mean, is that anything like what really happened?

SS: More or less.  I love Luke, by the way.

JS: I love Luke.

SS: Friend of mine. We traveled together a good bit.  Luke has, should we say, a bit more developed imagination, likes the audio-visual pyrotechnics a little bit more.  I mean, it makes, it makes for a great story, no question about it.  And he more or less has it right, but you know, I don’t reflect on those details. I don’t talk about them in my letters. Part of it is, it, well, to be honest with you, I don’t remember all the precise details.  I was in kind of a, a bit in a fog. Luke does say I was blinded for three days.  He got that right.  And so I just don’t quite remember it all.  But, it was this most incredible experience, none the less.  I had a word for it, and I use it in this letter…

JS:  I was going to say, here you say, “I received all of this through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”

SS:  Ah, that’s it.  Yes.  And you know, I wrote in Greek so the Greek word behind it, and I gather folks have not kept up with their Greek very well.  The word that is apocalypse – revelation is o.k., but really, it was an apocalyptic, world-shattering unveiling, what the word means, of the living Christ in person.  There probably were lights and sound, I don’t know, but it was just this, it changed everything.  It ended my world and began a new one, and also it began, not just for me, but this was an apocalyptic event for the entire world.  God was showing now that Christ was alive and had conquered death.  That he was rescuing us from this whole present age. So I had this sense, this incredible apocalyptic insight and I don’t know, again it’s hard to describe in one, two, and threes.  I know people want that, but I can’t do that.  I don’t remember everything but I do have this profound remembrance of a presence.  I mean this was the personal presence of the living Christ, the crucified one that I had so persecuted the followers of.  But now within me, around me, and the Spirit of God was there in such a powerful way.  You might remember that I wrote to the Romans that sometimes the Holy Spirit comes within us and there is such fellowship and communion with God, but it’s not in this normal discourse.  It’s with groaning and sighs, but words, but unutterable words. That’s what I experienced, Brother James.  It was that, that kind of sense of presence and everything was new. 

JS:  So Luke says you spend about three days blinded, but in this letter, in Galatians, you say that you went away into Arabia and then back to Damascus but that, about three years, and then you went up to Jerusalem, spent a couple of weeks there, you talked with Cephas and maybe with James, the brother of Jesus…

SS: Just a little bit.

JS:  And then back into Syria, and into Solicia, your home territory for fourteen years, that’s a long time.  What was going on?  What were you thinking?  What were you doing during those days?

SS:  Well, to be quite honest, I was working through the fog.  You know, again I picked up bits and pieces when you are in another world, and in religious life, lots of talk about conversion, which is a lovely term.  Life-changing and even using my example is somehow the big model conversion.  Well, kind of wish they wouldn’t do that but that’s, that’s o.k.  But what I really sometimes have a problem with is this sense that conversion, maybe mine in particular, is this sort of presto-change-o-magic moment and I sort of, you know, had this experience, dusted myself off and then hit the floor running.   Boom!  One hundred and eighty degrees in the other direction, just as pretty as you please.  And it doesn’t work that way, my friend.  Change, oh yeah, we’ve already talked about that.  A whole new world. But it takes time to sort out what that means when all of a sudden everything is turned upside down.  You know, Jesus needed a little wilderness retreat.  He took forty days.  I needed a lot longer than forty days.

JS:  (Laughter)

SS:  I needed all these years, and I didn’t need so much to talk to people as just again, get alone and commune with that presence and try to begin to figure out what in the world had happened to me and what was happening in our world. 

JS:  You were being converted.  I mean, it took years.

SS: Exactly.

JS:  Probably the rest of your life.

SS: Exactly.

JS:  But you were also commissioned.  I’m, I’m looking just at the beginning of this letter – it says Paul, an Apostle, and I know in some of your letters, you start off by say, Paul, a Servant of Jesus Christ, even a slave of Jesus Christ, but here you seem intent on proving to the Galatians that you are in fact an Apostle.

SS:  You picked up on that, huh?

JS:  I did!

SS:  Yeah.

JS:  Tell us about that.

SS:  Yeah, yeah, that’s, well, you’re right.  You know, I don’t like having to defend myself.  I don’t like talking about me.  I’m commissioned to talk about Christ.  My story, as I’ve already indicated, is a pretty shameful one.

I want to talk about the grace of God in Jesus, but you know sometimes, Brother James, you just get, get forced into something.  And you’ve got to defend your reputation. Not for its own sake, but for how it affects other people. 

JS:  Uh huh.

SS: Because what had happened in the churches in Galatia is that after I had my work there and established a great foundation, I thought, not because of me but because of the grace of God, I went onto some other places, but some other teachers started coming in.  Twisting the gospel and turning into some directions that were very harmful, particularly for the Gentiles – we may have a chance to talk about that some other time – and it just was this sense that Ah! this is very wrong.  And they were doing that by undermining me, saying, “Ah, you know, Paul, he knows a little bit but now we are going to tell you the real truth.”

JS: Uh huh.  He’s not one of the twelve.

SS: That’s right. Yeah, well, and they are right. Okay?  They are exactly right. I was not one of the so-called pillar apostles.  That was the term that was going around – the big three, Peter or Cephas, that means the rock by the way,  I mean, you know Jesus gave him that name, the rock, kind of hard to beat that, well, unless you are the brother of the Lord, James.  You’re not related to him, are you?

JS:  No.

SS:  But, no.  I mean. How can I compete?  And then John, for goodness’ sake.  They were with Jesus, knew Jesus from the foundation, yeah, and I mean they are legitimate apostles, had seen the risen Christ.  I was this Johnny come lately, no question about that, with a bit of a past.  More than a bit of a past.  I grant that.  And I understand why people might doubt me, but I didn’t choose this.  I didn’t all of a sudden decide, “Well, a nice career change would be in order, and you know, maybe I’ve been a little hasty about these Christians.  It seems to be working out for them so I think I’ll go that direction.  Hello, here I am, I am an apostle.  I had nothing to do with it.  Christ just hit me and took over and not only did he say “I am the true Lord and Messiah,” he said, “I’ve got a job for you, Paul.”  And he commissioned me to be an Apostle.  Another Greek lesson, forgive me, but it’s important here.  You all just take over the word Apostle from Greek.  Apostolos.  And it’s really not that fancy a term as it’s kind of come to be. It just means one who has been sent.  But, of course, in this context, it particular means sent personally and directly by the living Christ.  That’s the only qualification for apostleship one means.  Everybody can have their letters of recommendation, their pedigrees or whatever, but that gives me authority, not because of who I am, and so I had to fight for my apostolic life here for the sake of my people who were being bewitched and led astray. 

JS: You were that kind of apostle. You were sent by Christ with a message.  Can you sum up for us in a few words, I know that’s hard, but we are really running out of time.  Could you sum up – what was that Gospel message that you preached to people as you went from one town to another?

SS:  The Good News.

JS:   The Good News.

SS:  You know, I can summarize it, I think.  Two quick statements from my letters.  One from another letter that I wrote to the Corinthians.  “In Christ, God was reconciling the world.  Putting it together, remaking, repairing it, making it right.  Justifying it, I think is the term you all use.  It just means making things right because the world had done very wrong.  But now it was all being renewed and enlivened.  The resurrected Christ was beginning that ministry of reconciliation.  And it happened to me personally and I had that ministry to others.  And then what I say I think somewhere there in Galatians if I recall, it can really be summed up this way, Brother James.  I have been crucified with Christ.  Nevertheless, I live. It was all shattered, it was all blown away. But there’s new life.  Not I, it’s not my life, but the life of Christ within me.  And the life that I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.  That’s the gospel – it’s good news for me.

JS:  It’s good news.

SS: It’s good news for everyone.  It’s still, it’s the best news. It’s God remaking, making it right, justifying us and we participate by our faith and our faithfulness. 

JS:  So are you saying that the same Son of God who loved you and gave himself for you loves these people and gave himself for them?

SS: Oh, indeed.  This is not some private special secret gnosis that I got.  I know people tend to elevate … this is ridiculous.  No, this is the Christ for all.  This is the God who made everything, remaking everything, and bringing all of his people, Jew, Gentile, slave, free, male and female, together in Christ.

JS: That is Good News.  I love the way you say it here in Galatians, that thing about being crucified with Christ.  It’s no longer you who live but Christ who lives in you.  That is good.  I quote that sometimes.  In fact, I think you’d be surprised how often you are quoted, not only in church but everywhere.

SS:  Really?

JS:   Really. I mean, I haven’t done a wedding in the last ten years where I haven’t read from First Corinthians 13, the Love Chapter.

SS:  Oh, yeah.

JS:  And at funerals, people often read from Romans 8.  I know you didn’t have chapters and verses, you just wrote, but, it’s that part where you say, “What will separate us from the love of Christ?” 

SS: Not a thing at all.

JS:  Nothing.  And then on the first Sunday of every month, I always quote from 1 Corinthians Chapter 11, where you said to the Corinthians, “I passed along to you what I also received, that on the night he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread.  When he had given thanks, he broke it, he said to his disciples, “This is my body.  It is given for you.  Whenever you do this, do it in remembrance of me.”  Do you remember that?

SS:  Yes, and after that, he took the cup.  And he said, “This is my blood of the New Covenant. Drink it and every time you do, do it in remembrance of me.” 

—Jim Somerville 2013

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