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Lunch with the Apostle Paul, Pt. 2: Soup and Salad

A dramatized sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
June 9, 2013

The Third Sunday after Pentecost

The Book of Galatians

Last week I sat at this very table and had lunch with the apostle Paul. Actually, it wasn’t lunch, it was just appetizers. And it wasn’t the apostle Paul, it was Dr. Scott Spencer, professor of New Testament and Biblical Interpretation at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. But he played the role of Paul beautifully. So beautifully that I invited him back for the soup and salad course. So, join us as we continue lunch with the apostle Paul.

Jim Somerville: [Seated at dining table.] Paul, did you find everything you were looking for?

Scott Spencer: [Taking seat beside Jim.] Well, almost everything.

JS: Oh, I forgot to tell you. You have to wave your hand in front of that box and the paper towel comes right out. It’s a new thing. Sorry, you can use that. Anyway, welcome…

Lynn Turner: [Running toward table.] Paul? The Apostle Paul? I don’t usually chase men out of the restroom, but I am such a fan of yours! Huge! Huge fan! I mean I have plaques in my office with your sayings on them! Oh my goodness! I’m sorry to interrupt. Could I, could I just get an autograph from you? Please? Right here where it says “Lynn Turner, Senior Associate Pastor”? Could you just sign right there?

SS: That’s you?

LT: Yes, that’s me! And could you maybe write something Greek? You know, one of your favorite verses or something?

SS: My eyesight is terrible.

LT: Well, anything. Anything will do.

SS: Big letters.

LT: Big letters, big letters. That’s great, that’s great. Oh, Paul. Can I call you Paul? I don’t think I know your last name.

SS: Absolutely.

LT: I’m so sorry to interrupt. But before I go, I thought I’d have to get to heaven to ask this question, but now that you’re here: could you please just tell me, why you said that women should not speak in church?

SS: You’re a fan, you said?

LT: Huge! Huge! Huge!

SS: I’ve sort of picked up that those statements have created a few problems in your days, is that right?

LT: A few.

SS: Oh my, oh my. I could take all day, explaining those couple of statements, it’s not that many. But they were particular statements to very particular congregations, not meant for everybody in every place. You know, I could take a lot of time saying that, but we don’t have that kind of time. So let me just say this. It’s kind of important not only for this, but for everyday. It’s important to consider my whole body of work. And my whole ministry. The whole picture. And on women, for example, I mean, if I were to pick a statement that would be kind of the mission ideal statement, it wouldn’t be one of those, it would be right here out of Galatians. That in Christ, there’s no Jew, Greek, slave, free, male or female… we are one in Christ Jesus! Women are as gifted as men, created in the image of God, saved by Christ’s grace. Oh and my goodness, how what people tend to ignore is that all scattered throughout my letters I mention women co-ministers all the time! I couldn’t have done my ministry without them- Lydia, and Phoebe, and Nimpha, and Juno was an apostle! Oh and my favorite, I shouldn’t have favorites, but… Priscilla, also known as Prisca, but I called her Priscilla. You know, these women that worked with me, some were single, some were widowed, some were married, it didn’t matter. But Priscilla was married to Aquila. Man, I got real close to this couple because apart from sharing a love for the Lord Jesus, we had the same trade, that we worked with leather goods, we made tents, and it just made for a great friendship. So I knew both of them very well, and Aquila, the man, bless his heart. He was an incredible craftsman. That man could make a tent like nobody else. But in ministry, he loved the Lord, but the man couldn’t preach his way out of a paper bag. Priscilla though, oh ho ho, smart, insightful, discerning, full of the spirit. I mean she could teach, and preach, and prophesy. Whew, I mean I couldn’t have done what I did without her. She was a great, well, associate minister just like you. So good for you!

LT: Well, thank you! I’m an even bigger fan, and I can keep my job! Thank you. [Walks off stage.]

SS: She better!

JS: Well, sorry for that interruption. You all will understand if we run a little over, it’s because we’ve been held up by that very good question. But anyway. Back to what we were talking about before. And we were talking about you, actually, about your former life and Judaism, and how you persecuted the church. Sorry to bring that up again. But then there was this experience on the road to Damascus. You said it was a kind of “apocalypse”?

SS: World shattering experience with Christ.

JS: Yes, and after that it took you years, really, to sort all that out, to “work through the fog” as you said, and get to a place where you could understand what all this meant. And eventually, I think you told us, you began to put it into words, and to the words of the gospel that you preached wherever you went in the ancient world. We talked about that and ended with that last time. I want to talk to you today about something you mention here in Galatians, chapter 2. And I know this was one of your early letters and it appears that you are kind of working this out for the first time, but this whole complicated doctrine of “justification”. It’s complicated. I mean, I have a PhD in New Testament studies, I read many of your letters in the original language. I still have trouble understanding what you were talking about when you talked about being justified by faith through God’s grace. Something about being made right…

SS: Yes, that’s a very good way to put it.

JS: At any rate, it’s complicated. And people have made it even more complicated. There are scholars in our time who have written whole books on this one doctrine. So what I’m hoping to do today is to keep it simple. I want to see if there’s any way we can bring it back down to its essence: this idea of justification. And I think one of the reasons I love what one scholar says is that it seems to have that promise. He says that “justification is about how we become members of God’s true family”. And I love that word. You like it?

SS: Oh, I do. It’s a key, big idea. It’s God’s family.

JS: So here’s the question. How did you become a member of God’s family?

SS: Well it was pretty easy for me. I didn’t have to do much of anything. I was born into it. A tribe of Benjamin, one of the twelve tribes. Hebrew of the Hebrews. My family were devout Israelites, devout children of Abraham. I was circumcised on the eighth day. I remember it very well. Hahaha, not really. But I have the certificate and everything. I’ve got the pedigree. I was simply born into this, and you don’t choose to be born, you just get born.

JS: Okay, okay, okay, you were born into the family of God. But somewhere along the way, Paul, you came to the conclusion that Gentiles too, and not just Jews, could be part of God’s true family. I’ve been curious about that. Did you get that from Peter, because you know he went and visited Cornelius and the Holy Spirit came on those… was that it?

SS: Yah I mean I heard that story, it’s a great story. And great for Cephas, although we might talk later, he had a few problems later with that. But if you remember I said last week, I really didn’t talk with the apostles. I went and... (Watching Jim take a bite of soup) Not too good, huh?

JS: I wouldn’t recommend the soup.

SS: I went down and spent a couple of weeks with Peter and such, but that’s not really where I got this. I had to work this out for myself through studying the scriptures and through more communing with this deep presence of Christ. And this whole thing about Gentiles or the fact that the family of God includes all people made in God’s image. You know, that’s not a new idea. And I and my people, we’ve always sort of known that. I mean, God’s the creator of everyone and then, when God chose Abraham, the founder of our people, the so-called “chosen” people, that was never to be: “Well, now we’re chosen and everyone else can just take a hike”. No! From the beginning, you read about this in Genesis, and I write about it in Galatians: God took Abraham aside and said, “I’m going to work with you as a new people but through you all families of the earth will be blessed!” God’s been the god of all and always had everyone in mind. And the prophet Isaiah told us that we should be a light to the nations. So this has been very much a part of our history. But the problem is we haven’t been all that bright of a light sometimes. You know, and also we’ve gotten this sense of , well… a sense of narrowness about who we are and sort of “us and them” sort of thing. And also our timing’s been kind of out of whack. We know that God’s going to get all the Gentiles in, but we sort of had it in our idea that in the deep future, this sort of “great end of the age, once God restores us and works everything out and everything is fine with us then… ”, well sure… Gentiles, everybody else can come in. I mean at the end of the age. But we kept sort of postponing that. Well, what happened when Christ appeared to me in this big apocalyptic revelation that I talked about is that I realized through what he said and what he did that there was not this future way off. Then, the “then” was “now”! This was the new era! We were being rescued from this old evil age into the new age, and that’s why Jesus said, “Paul, I’m going to commission you to go to the Gentiles”. Well the only reason he would do that is because the kingdom of God was here! So it got my timing right. It was about now, and about the fact that all of these walls had been obliterated and shattered.

JS: I’ve been reading your stuff. It’s good! Some of it’s hard to understand, but I’ve been reading it and I get that feeling that in Jesus Christ, the kingdom came into the world like a rock through a plate glass window. It shattered so much of we had understood before. And for you, I mean, it was this incredible apocalypse, as you say, this understanding that in Jesus Christ God was doing this new thing and bringing people into the family who had been outside the family or maybe people we had kept outside the family. But when you talk about this, when you say, “in Christ Jesus”, about being “in Christ”, I just feel like, you know, you’re soaking yourself in Christ Jesus. You are in Christ, and Christ is in you, and anyone who has gone through that experience is a new creation. A new creation! And so that person now can sit down at the same table with someone who was born into the family who has had a similar experience and they become a part of God’s true family.

SS: Indeed. And you know that phrase, “new creation”, I kind of pick up that you folks in the western world here are pretty individualistic, sort of it’s “me” and “mine”. And I get that. And we had some of that, this sort of “I in Christ and Christ in me”. Which, that’s true. And then Christ in you. But it’s also this new creation. That word “creation” is not just you individually and me individually, but we are a part of this big cosmic universe thing that God is doing, remaking the whole world and that’s going to include the whole family. So yes, individually, we are new creatures. But I think the vision needs to be a little bigger.

JS: So that word, “justification”, which means to “make things right”- God is not just making us right individually, even though that’s part of it, but making everything right, right now. It’s a big big big picture.

SS: It’s as big as all of God’s world.

JS: So if you have that in your head, if you have it in your heart, if you look out there and say, “God is making everything right. God is making people right- the ones that are in Christ, the one in whom Christ dwells”. That person is new and takes on a whole new status and sits at the table with all those others. Here you were, thinking this, you’re sitting at the table at Antioch, right, because this is in your letter to the Galatians. And you, having a meal, just like this, rubbing elbows with Gentiles, just like me. And Cephas comes down from Jerusalem and he sees all this and he hears this is a new creation. We’ve got this whole new community of Christ and everybody is equal and he sits down at the same table with you, with me, until, well, you tell it…

SS: Well, we’re having a nice little sort of cozy lunch, although with hundreds of people looking on. This is a little odd, it’s a little odd. We really should have food for them, although you said the soup’s not very good. So forget it. But, you need to understand that Antioch was the fourth largest city in the empire. Big metropolitan area. And our church was pretty big. Not unlike this, lots of folks. It wasn’t just a handful. And I mean we had a big table. Because God loves a big family. And everybody’s there. So it’s not just a handful of individuals we’ve gotten comfortable with. It’s people we’ve known for years, but people from different backgrounds, Jews, and Gentiles, yes the whole bit. It’s this wonderful, really, taste, of the great Messianic banquet that’s going to take place at the end. And we were doing that at Antioch. And Cephas came to be a part of that. And part of that was his experience with Cornelius, he had eaten in the Roman centurion’s house. God had said that’s clean. So he’d learned a good bit, so we were having a great time, sharing stories and all of this, and enjoying these fellowship meals. But then, you had this group of, well, I’ve called them a lot of things. Some of which I can’t repeat here. Let’s just call them “agitators”. I don’t know what translation you have. But let’s just call them that. They came from Jerusalem, and these were more of those strict types. You’ve got to only eat certain things with certain people. It’s not that they hated Gentiles but Gentiles had to do a whole lot. Basically they had to become Jews in order to eat with. So what they did- you won’t believe the audacity of this, brother James, although I guess you will since you read it- they came and had the gall to set up a separate table in our fellowship hall. And we had this great banquet, having a great time, but they weren’t going to eat with us. So they made a big deal about “we have our own, pure table over here”. Well, you know, some people, what are you going to do? Well, it got worse. When those folks came from Jerusalem- where you know, Cephas has some standing there- he sees them, he gets up, and goes over to the separate table! And my buddy Barnabas, we traveled all over the place ministering to Gentiles. He gets up and goes over there! Well, my jaw was just dropped. And then it started moving. Because I had stuff to say. This was not going to go unattended to. And I tell you what, I got up not to go eat at the other table, but I went over to where Cephas was and I got right in his face, brother James, and I told him, “what kind of message are you sending?” And to be quite honest, I called him a hypocrite!

JS: He was!

SS: I think the phrase I’ve heard around here, "flip flopping"? You know, kind of with one group of folks, but then over here, so it’s sort of trying to you know… and what kind of message is that sending to this fellowship of people? That somehow they’re not good enough? That they’re second class? “Well I’ll eat with you as long as, you know, whatever”. Well there the walls start going up again. There the divisions start happening, there the suspicion comes in, and there the family starts being ripped apart. And that’s a travesty of the gospel. That is, brother James, another gospel. That’s not good news at all.

JS: Bad news. You were there for all of that. And you were so convinced that in Christ these Gentiles, these Jews, were part of God’s true family. They had come into the family together. There they were having a meal, and to separate oneself from the true family of God… to say those people aren’t good enough for us… that seems like utter hypocrisy.

SS: It is, it is.

JS: See I think it was not only then that that sort of thing was going on. I think it goes on now in our world. I mean here you are saying, “If anyone is in Christ, that one is part of this new creation”. I preached a few weeks ago, on Easter Sunday actually, from the book of Acts. Your friend Luke did a good job with that book. But there was a verse in there I was saying, “Anyone who has been worked upon by the right making power of God is acceptable to him. Anyone, anyone”. And I think we do still draw these lines. We say anyone who is like me, anyone who comes to my church, anyone who has my same understanding of the scripture is acceptable. God seems to be saying, “No, Jesus changes everything”. Suddenly, the doors have been thrown open. God is welcoming people into the banquet hall who have never been welcomed before, never thought they were welcome, or maybe someone was there keeping them out. And now they’re coming in, and this is in Jesus!

SS: Oh absolutely. And it doesn’t mean that we all of a sudden become cookie cutter copies of everyone. That we do think the same thing, that all of a sudden now we look alike, dress alike. We don’t! One of the great gifts of humanity is how different we are! And how rich that is. Different colors, different backgrounds, different customs. All of that is wonderful and can be celebrated, and I can disagree with you. But in Christ, it’s not that I have to agree with you or you with me or we have to knock down, drag out until somebody wins. Christ has already won. And that’s the victory that counts. And so in the midst of our differences and special identities, we find that common bond in Christ and we learn to celebrate that and come together as one rather than be threatened by that.

JS: I’m looking at something you wrote here in Galatians where you say, “You are all sons of God, daughters of God, through faith in Christ Jesus. All of you who were baptized into Christ”- and there that is again- “have clothed yourselves with Christ”. So I’m thinking about how we do it here, right up there in the baptistery. When someone is baptized, they put on this white robe, they step into the baptistery…

SS: The river?

JS: Sometimes, actually. But here, we dip people down into the water, they come up again, and we talk about that, about being buried with Christ in baptism and rising to this whole new life. But I’m thinking about those baptismal robes. Those white robes. You know? And I think if those doors were open and people were coming in here and all of them wearing the white robes, you would say, “Look, it doesn’t matter who you were before. You have been baptized into Christ Jesus. You are part of God’s true family”. And all those other distinctions- Jew, Gentile, male, female, slave, freed, the ones you mention here, and probably a lot more that we could mention. All of those fall away in this new family, this true family of God that is being formed through what Christ has done. Am I going too far with this?

SS: No, no, that’s a lovely image! I come pretty close to that in Romans. But the clothing thing I love, which also involves- and you said this too- it’s symbolically a disrobing first. It’s a putting off. It’s a laying under. It’s the dying. And what we’re talking about putting off, which you said just a moment ago, is putting off these distinctions that we think are threatening. Not denying who we are, but putting aside those family hostilities that we just think are so important. So it’s disrobing, being washed, and then coming out, and the robe of Christ. I also talk about that robing and clothing in some places being really a garment of love and forgiveness. That’s how we get along in the family, in this big family around the table.

JS: You know, I’m pastor to these people and I’ve heard some of their stories, and some of their stories are heart breaking about rifts in their own families where the relationships aren’t all they’re supposed to be. Sons and daughters estranged from fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters who can’t get along. It’s heart breaking. And I think about how it would be in any of those families to know that the relationships aren’t what they ought to be. But I think about this from God’s point of view. How he looks at the world he made, the people he loves, how he would love for all of his children to be gathered around the same table. And yet, so often, that we are pushing and shoving and keeping people out and getting there first and making sure it’s us and not them, and it must break God’s heart.

SS: I’m sure it does. It breaks Christ’s heart. It’s Jesus’ own example. I don’t like to talk a lot about Jesus in my letters. But he and I talked a lot and I know. And you all read, I’m sure, you have part of the scriptures surely are the things that Jesus said and did well. Jesus himself ate with all sorts of people. Jesus loved nothing like a great banquet and he was willing to draw some eyebrows about “who were those tax collectors?” Nobody seems to like tax collectors. Are they popular in your day?

JS: Not so much.

SS: Okay, I didn’t think so. But yah, Jesus ate with them and with the so called sinners, and boy, that can be any type of person. A sinner is just someone that you don’t like, that you don’t like what they’re doing. But Jesus ate with them. And said, “Look, this is what it’s like”. And told one of his greatest parables- was about a great banquet where everybody’s invited. Go out to the highways and the hedges and the streets. And it’s not just a little “let’s have a nice little cozy family dinner”. Or even what we might call a family reunion, unless you view the family as as big as all creation. Out in the lanes and highways, there’s a place for you here. Come on in and share in the messianic banquet.

JS: So I’m thinking, Paul, and we probably need to wrap things up. You know, because of Lynn. I’m thinking there may be somebody in this room who feels like they don’t belong or maybe like they don’t have a place at God’s table. And I wonder what you would say to them, to that person.

SS: Yah, I would just boil it down I think in the words we’ve already talked about from Galatians. And that is, just hear these words again, friends. There is neither Jew, nor Greek, slave or free, male or female- and fill in your own pair of opposites- there’s none of that. In Christ Jesus, we have been baptized together as one people. And I go on a little bit there to also say to bring father Abraham back into this… we’re all, whether we’re Jew or Gentile, if by faith we have accepted our place in this family, we are all children of Abraham and that doesn’t mean “okay, well, yah, we’ll sort of jot you down as a child of Abraham”. We’re fully heirs, brother James and all of you. We are heirs to the full blessedness of God, and joint heirs with the only begotten son Jesus. And we’re adopted kids. Jesus is the natural kid, if you will. But God has created such a family by his love that we are fully vested in this. And that’s what I would say to everyone else: accept your place in the family. Sit down at the table and enjoy the bounty of God’s goodness.

JS: Those are good words, Paul. In Christ Jesus, neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, everyone of us can find a place at God’s table. Would you close with prayer?

SS: I’d be happy to. Let’s pray. Abba Father, who art in heaven as we prayed even a moment ago. As you taught us Lord, to pray. Jesus, as you call your own Father “Abba”, you say that’s who we call God too. Our Father, in this one family, we are heirs together with you and with all of God’s children, regardless of our backgrounds and colors and everything that we often put up as barriers between us. Lord, as Jesus prayed one time, as Jesus and the Father are one, I pray that my people will be one. Lord, I pray, that all of your people in this place, in this community, in this city, and indeed in this world, because this is all about new creation. Your plan is big. This is a big family. Make us one in you. In Christ’s name. Amen.

JS: Thank you, Paul. We’re going to sing together hymn 494 in just a moment. I want to invite you to come today if you will, to come forward professing your faith in Christ. It may be that this is the day when you say, "I’m ready. I’m ready to be baptized into Christ Jesus and become a part of God’s true family." I invite you to come forward if you would.

—Jim Somerville 2013

 
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