by Wallace McCray
What is reincarnation, a cowboy asked his friend?
It starts – his old pal told him – when your life comes to its end.
They comb your hair, and wash your neck, and clean your fingernails,
And puts you in a padded box, away from life’s travails.
Now the box and you goes in a hole that’s been dug in the ground,
And reincarnation starts in when you’re planted beneath that mound.
Them clods melts down just like the box, and you who is inside,
And that’s when you’re beginning your transformation ride.
And in a while, the grass will grow upon your rendered mound,
Until someday, upon that spot, a lonely flower is found.
And then a horse may wander by and graze upon that flower,
That once was you and has now become, your vegetative bower.
Now the flower that the horse done eat, along with his other feed,
Makes bone and fat and muscle, essential to the steed.
But, there’s a part the horse can’t use, and so it passes through,
And there it lies upon the ground, this thing that once was you.
And if perchance, I should pass by, and see this thing upon the ground,
I’ll stop awhile and ponder, at this object that I’ve found.
And I’ll think about reincarnation, life and death and such,
And I’ll come away concluding, why you ain’t changed all that much!
Change. Is change really possible? Do we really change that much?
In some ways it is obvious we have changed. As we look back into our lives we can see that we have grown older or taller or we have more gray hair or less hair. We have changed physically and we have also changed mentally. We know more than we used to know. We have more experience.
But in an other sense it may seem that we have not changed at all. Our personality is pretty much a constant. Who we were as a child remains who we are as adults. But there are parts of ourselves we are not happy with. There are perceived weaknesses in ourselves we wish were different and we can be frustrated or in despair that we don’t seem to be able to change the way we want to.
We may have a desire to please others that leads us to act or say what we don’t want to do or say. This may cause us to come home from church or a party frustrated because of how we acted.
On the other side, some of us may be frustrated because we are unintentionally insensitive to others and seem to always be putting our foot in our mouth.
We may be stuck in a pattern of worry and anxiety and be frustrated that we can’t break out of it. We know that as Christians we are to cast our burdens on Jesus but struggle and seem unable to consistently do that.
Maybe you are annoyed that once again you ate more than you should have eaten. Perhaps you passed on, once again, a piece of information that had been given to you in confidence.
Perhaps you are stuck in the grip of a temptation and can’t get out of it. As much as you pray and determine to break the pattern of sin in your life, you fall once again into the trap.
Maybe you grew up with a lack of confidence but God has built you up and given you confidence in who he made you to be. But then you go to a meeting or some other gathering and all those old feelings of insecurity come flooding back and you ask, “Will I never change?”
We become frustrated with ourselves because of our inability to change. And then, of course, we are often frustrated because of the inability of others around us to change.
For anyone who is frustrated with their seeming inability to change or who is about to give up praying for someone else to make a change in their life, today’s passage from Galatians is good news.
It is good news because Paul stands as a model of one who changed and demonstrated the freedom to change which comes with the Gospel of Christ Paul preached and defended.
Some of us seem to slip into the Kingdom of God without making much fuss. We didn’t walk forward in church to give our live to Jesus and didn’t even raise our hand when the preacher asked for every head to be bowed and every eye shut. We simply prayed and began to live our lives for Christ. The change that occurred in us was significant, but from the outside, not that much seemed to have changed.
This was not the case for Paul. No one could argue that Paul had not changed. Saul (his Hebrew name) was zealous for the Torah and when the high priest in Jerusalem received a request from the synagogues in Damascus asking for help in combating these followers of The Way, followers of Jesus, Saul is the one he selected.
Saul was skilled in logic and reasoning. He was adept in arguing, knowledgeable in the Torah and he was filled with zeal to destroy this new sect of Judaism that was attacking his beloved Torah. He was the perfect choice to bring order to the synagogues of Damascus.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the synagogues. He set off for Damascus and on the way Jesus dramatically revealed himself to Paul and his life was never the same again. This encounter turned Paul around 180º and his zeal turned now to promoting the faith he had sought to destroy.
The first bit of good news for us in this passage is that you can change and those you care about can change. We are never without hope. You may have lived on the fringes of church for many years but it is never too late to turn. Noreen Maxwell in our community of faith here at RPF is a great example of this. At the age of 84 she came to church and discovered that this is what she had wanted all her life. There is never a time that is too late for you and if you have been on the fringes of the church for ten years or eighty years, you can turn, as Paul did, and begin to follow Jesus.
You can change and those you love and are concerned about can change. You may have prayed for years for someone, your spouse, your child, your parent, your uncle, aunt or cousin or a friend. There is never a time too late for them to turn. None of these are without hope that they will turn from their present course and fix their eyes on Jesus.
There is no one who is so bad that they cannot come into the Kingdom of God. If Paul, the persecutor of the church was invited into the church by Jesus, is there not hope for us all? There is still hope that Ossama bin Laden, if he is still alive, can turn his heart to Jesus and become an advocate in his world for the Gospel.
There is hope for the Hutus who slaughtered the Tutsis in Rwanda. There is hope for the corrupt politicians and dictators of the world. There is hope for the politician you love to despise. Hope for Bill Clinton of the US and hope for Le Pen of France. Hope for the left and hope for the right. Hope for the rock musicians and hope for the lounge singers. Hope for stars of the screen and stage and hope for the homeless and destitute.
There is hope for any and every person on the face of this globe. If Paul could change, then anyone can change.
So don’t give up praying. For yourself and for others. God has not taken a vacation. He is still active as he was in the life of Paul. He is active in your life and in the lives of others around you. Pray and look expectantly to see evidence of his creative efforts to turn people to him.
No one can argue that Paul did not make a dramatic change in his life, but in another way, he really did not change that much.
Paul Simon wrote a lyric for his song, The Boxer that goes like this.
Now the years are rolling by me,
They are rocking evenly
And I am older than I once was
But younger than I’ll be – that’s not unusual
No it isn’t strange.
After changes upon changes we are more or less the same.
After changes we are more or less the same.
Paul made a dramatic 180º turn in his life, from persecuting the church to being the strongest advocate for the church. Paul changed direction. That is clear. But did his character change?
We don’t know how old Paul was but I guess that he was in his twenties when he was converted and is now, at the writing of this letter in his late thirties or early forties. He is in his prime. The picture of Paul that emerges from this first letter of his, written fourteen years after his conversion, is one of a man who is brilliant and knows he is brilliant. When he speaks he speaks what he knows to be true. He has no doubts and does not easily tolerate fools who do not go along with him.
In a discussion he carries people along, helping them to reach the conclusion he so brilliantly came to. He is passionate and people are carried along with the power of his ideas and his passion.
This was true of Saul the Pharisee who could argue brilliantly with the followers of Jesus and get them into a trap so they could be executed and this was true of Paul the advocate for Jesus who could reason brilliantly with those who resisted this new church. From this perspective, Saul did not change much, he just changed teams and took on his Greek name, Paul.
The conversion of Paul took a brilliant man zealous for the Torah and zealous to destroy the new Jewish sect threatening Torah and turned him 180º to be a brilliant man zealous for Jesus and zealous to build the new church. Paul was a brilliant man, zealous for the truth, but he was not always an easy man to get along with. Just ask John Mark and Barnabas with whom he had a fight because he refused to take John Mark with him a second time on a missionary journey.
In the New Testament, this is the fourth time Paul tells his story. He does so three times in Acts and now in Galatians. As he tells his story, an unpleasant side of Paul reveals himself.
Imagine that you are living in the time of Jesus. Jesus appears to you after he has ascended and you are convinced that he did indeed rise from the dead. You are also aware that Jesus came from Galilee and spent three years working with a small group of men, teaching them, training them, eating, drinking and sleeping with them. These men are the ones Jesus had been training to take his place. They saw him heal and cast out demons. They knew what made Jesus laugh and what made him upset. They had been intimate friends of Jesus when he was here in the flesh.
So don’t you think you would want to go to them to learn from them? To submit to their teaching and learn from the ones who had learned from Jesus?
Not Paul. Listen to Paul in this letter to the Galatians. He consistently puts distance between himself and the disciples of Jesus. He does not treat them with deference but with disdain.
He begins in his introduction: Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by man, read here the disciples of Jesus now in Jerusalem but by Jesus Christ and God the Father.
He expands on this in verses 11 and 12.
I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
His gospel was not polluted by the apostles who spent three years with Jesus, he got his gospel straight from Jesus. No middleman for him. No sitting at the feet of these disciples of Jesus for Paul.
He then goes on to tell how smart and advanced he was in his education.
advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age
He emphasizes once more that he is independent
I did not consult anyone
and in fact he makes it explicit that he did not go to see the apostles in Jerusalem but went off by himself to study.
He grudgingly admits that he made a trip to Jerusalem, but emphasizes he spent little time there and saw only Peter and James, the Lord’s brother.
Then, skipping ahead into the passage from which Greg will preach next Sunday (I asked his permission), Paul writes of a second trip to Jerusalem in which he took Barnabas and Titus with him.
He emphasizes once more that he was not dependent on these disciples of Jesus. The Holy Spirit sent him, he did not go because the other apostles asked him to come. While there, he presented his gospel to those who seemed to be leaders who seemed to be leaders.
Then in verse six he writes of the apostles, Peter and John, two of the three inner disciples of Jesus and James the half brother of Jesus. These are people who were closest to Jesus, who knew the most about Jesus. And how does he describe them?
As for those who seemed to be important—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not judge by external appearance—those men added nothing to my message.
Paul says in effect, “I met them but they had nothing to say I didn’t already know.
And again in verse nine he writes of these leaders of the church in Jerusalem
James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars,
“Who seemed to be leaders” “who seemed to be important” “men who added nothing to my message” “Those reputed to be pillars”. The derision and cynicism of Paul towards these disciples of Jesus just drips off the page.
The conversion of Saul was in geological terms, an earthquake and Paul dramatically changed from his defense of Torah to his pursuit of Jesus. But now began the much slower and more difficult process of refining character. This was, in geological terms, erosion, and erosion does not happen overnight.
When Paul writes of salvation in Romans, he writes of it as a two-step process. First we are justified, made right in the eyes of God. This happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. He was fighting against God and was brought into a right relationship with God. He was justified. And then, as well, began the second step, sanctification, the process in which slowly, over time, we are molded and shaped to be the person God originally meant us to be.
In Galatians, we see the beginning rough edges of Paul. Undoubtedly, in the first fourteen years of his Christian life there had been much growth, but there were still many rough edges to be refined.
Paul wrote for the church our understanding of sanctification and as you read through Paul’s letters chronologically, he gives us a living example of his theology. There is a sense of progress in Paul’s life and it seems to me that if Paul had been able to redo the early years of his Christian life, he would have done them differently, with a larger dose of humility.
Let me show you what I mean. Paul wrote Galatians in 47 AD and in his introduction you can feel the sense of importance he has about himself.
Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father,
Eight years later when Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, there is a bit of a shift that tells me Paul has matured as a Christian.
54 I Corinthians
For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
Do you hear the humility in Paul that was missing in his letter to the Galatians?
Thirteen years after his letter to the Galatians he describes himself as a prisoner of Jesus Christ in Philemon and a year later in Philippians
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
Seventeen years after he wrote the letter to the Galatians, at the end of his life he wrote to Timothy and in this letter we see the progression of Paul, the spiritual maturity of Paul, the process of sanctification at work in Paul’s life
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.
Paul moved from an apostle sent not from men nor by man to the least of the apostles and the greatest of all sinners.
In Walter Wangerin’s book, Paul, a Novel, he writes of Paul who overpowered people in the beginning of his Christian ministry with his brilliance and charisma. At the end of his life, there was a different Paul. Still brilliant but with a humility that allowed the power of God to shine about him. At the end of his life, the erosion of his rough edges had created a more powerful man of God.
In Paul’s life we see good news for us. The power of God that was at work in Paul transforming him is also at work in us transforming us. We are not stuck with who we are. God is at work in us and what we have been is not what we are. Who we are is not who we will be.. We are becoming what God wants us to be.
I want to encourage you to persevere this morning. Continue to pray for those you care about who are not yet in the kingdom. Do not give up hope. Continue to persevere in your own Christian life. Paul knew about this struggle. He wrote in his letter to the Romans
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.
You are not alone in your struggles to overcome sin. You are not alone in your desire to be delivered from the weaknesses you dislike in yourself. Paul was involved in that struggle. I am involved in that struggle. All Christians are involved in that struggle.
The Holy Spirit is at work in you to mold and make you into the man and woman of God you were originally intended to be. Cooperate with the Holy Spirit. Follow Paul’s advice to the Colossians
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8 But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.
Your new nature, given to you when you gave your life to Christ, is being renewed. Carry that hope with you.
I have been a Christian for 31 years. Maybe you think I should have made more progress in all that time. But as Tony Campolo once said, “As bad as I am, you should have seen me before.” God has changed me very significantly over the last thirty one years and there is still a lot of room for growth.
Growth in our Christian life does not come easily but we do not give up hope. In Christ we have been set free and are free to change.
Say with me this morning
I have hope.
God is at work in me.
I am not stuck with who I am.
What I am today is not what I will be tomorrow.
I am becoming what God wants me to be.