SJF • Proper 5c • Tobias Haller BSGMany of us here, at different points of our lives, have probably had the experience of starting over. Whether you call it turning over a new leaf, or starting a new life, I’m sure I am not the only one here who, after having had a career in one line of work, went back to college (or seminary, in my case) and took a new direction in a different field of endeavor. I know a number of you who have charted a new course in mid-life: who went back to school to get a master’s in social work, or in nursing, or to study some new emerging medical technology. Some of you left the land of your birth to come to this country in search of new possibilities in a new life. You began a new direction in your life — perhaps even such a different direction that you could call it a new life.
God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles.
All of our scripture readings today describe new life. The Old Testament reading and the Gospel talk about new life literally — in both cases someone who has died is restored to life, two sons raised from the dead and returned to their mothers. These two readings form a kind of a golden setting for the gem of the central reading, in which Saint Paul tells the people of Galatia about his conversion, his new life which was such a departure from his earlier life in Judaism. The two outer readings, describing a literal new life, form as it were a “Saint Paul sandwich” — as that central reading from his letter to the Galatians tells of his figurative new life. And it is on the filling in this sandwich that I want to focus my attention.
Unlike some of us who’ve changed our course of life in middle age because we were dissatisfied with how our lives were going, or felt a call to do something different with our lives than we were doing — Saint Paul was perfectly happy with his earlier life. Make no mistake about it, he was a star! As he says, he advanced beyond many among his people of the same age, and was far more zealous for the traditions of his heritage than they. We know from other accounts that he studied at the feet of one of the greatest rabbis of all time, Gamaliel the Great — who himself appears in the New Testament when he advises the Jewish leaders not to take a violent approach towards this new way called Christianity, lest they find themselves in the position of opposing God’s will.
It is ironic, though, that however good a student Paul was, he didn’t pick up on his teacher Gamaliel’s cautious generosity towards new things. No, Saint Paul was what we would call today — and what he called himself then — “a traditionalist.” He wanted things to be the way they always were, and he didn’t like change, particularly change that challenged things near and dear to this heart. While his teacher Gamaliel would call for toleration, Paul was zealous in his intolerance, and proud of it. He was not just politely advising people not to pay any attention to the Christians, to leave them alone and let this strange movement sputter and die out. No, Paul was busily seeking out Christian believers, arresting them, and seeing to it that the harshest penalty possible was carried out against them: he saw to it that Christians were put to death. He was not just a sympathizer in the anti-Christian cause, he was a zealot, a ringleader. And he became famous for it: so famous that he could assume that the people in far-off Galatia have heard, no doubt, of his earlier life in Judaism — before his new life began.
The reason Paul has to explain all this, of course, is because of that change of direction he took, that new life he began to live after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. It required explanation because it was such a complete turnaround, such a change — as the Christians in Judea heard, “the one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” This was not just a course correction: it was a 180-degree turn. It was a whole new life. It was like being raised from the dead. It was like being born again.
We hear stories of such amazing changes from time to time; many of them involving an encounter with Christ, perhaps not quite as literally as Paul’s encounter on that road to Damascus, but nonetheless real in its effect. I’m sure many of you here know about John Newton — the slave trader who began his conversion in the midst of a storm at sea, when the slave ship of which he was captain was in danger of sinking. There is an old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes, and the same goes for sinking ships! The thing is that John Newton followed up on his hasty intentions in the midst of a storm at sea, and eventually became an Anglican priest. He is remembered to us today chiefly because of his hymns, including what is considered the most popular hymn of all time, “Amazing Grace.”
But it is important to recognize that with John Newton, as with Saint Paul, the moment of conversion, the beginning of the new life, was followed up by, well, life. There was much, much more to Paul’s life and Newton’s life than simply the moment of conversion. In fact, conversion was an ongoing process throughout their lives. Throughout his ministry, Paul had his moments of intolerance, when his old impatient ways would come to the fore — just look at the later chapters of his Letter to the Galatians! — and he learned the hard lesson of patience in adversity.
And John Newton had to grow into his conversion, too. He did not, for example, immediately give up the slave trade after that stormy night and hasty conversion. It took a number of years for the light to break through completely, and for him to realize the error of his ways. He had a long way to go, and much more to experience, before he would join in the abolition movement with William Wilberforce, and help end the slave trade. And ironically, he did that in part by convincing Wilberforce not to enter the ministry, that is, not to change his course in life, but to remain as a member of Parliament, where he could work for decades to change the law of the land and eventually bring an end to the slave trade in 1807 — two hundred years ago last March.
But there was a long space of time between the stormy night of 1748 and Newton’s joining the abolitionists! Although something in Newton had changed in 1748 in the midst of that storm, although he had been born again that night, still there was much more to come as his new life took shape. He would later say that even after his conversion, “I was greatly deficient in many respects... I cannot consider myself to have been a believer (in the full sense of the word) till a considerable time afterwards.” Like any newborn, one who is born again has to grow into his or her new life, to come to maturity in that new life. It took years for him to realize that slavery itself was wrong, as Newton slowly learned the moral ABCs of his new faith, step by step, first crawling, then toddling, and finally walking tall and proud, in the full stature of Christ.
As Newton would put it, “I am not what I might be, I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I wish to be, I am not what I hope to be. But I thank God I am not what I once was, and I can say with the great apostle, ‘By the grace of God I am what I am.’” It is that amazing grace that not only starts us off on our new life in Christ, but teaches us the responsibilities that new life requires, and enables us to continue that life, a life that is lived, and lived out, in performing the actions of love and service that God commends — and commands.
All of us here have been born again in Christ — some a long time ago, some more recently. All of us are living a new life, far newer than just a different career or line of work, but a life that is new at its very core. And we are all of us still growing in that new life, still learning, still finding new opportunities to love and serve God and our neighbors. Few of us will make such a turnaround as John Newton, from slave trader to abolitionist. Few of us will have the impact on the world that Saint Paul or William Wilberforce did. Yet each of us has been given a gift, a precious gift of new life.
What will we make of it, this new life? The good news is that what we make of it need not be our own doing any more than the new start was our own doing. The grace of God in Christ is at work in us every day, not just the day we first encountered him in our hearts. After all, as Saint Paul affirmed, God set us apart before we were born the first time, and is surely with us after we have been born again in his name! He is there to work with us, and to strengthen us to do his will — always and everywhere. He is not just a life preserver to be called on when the boat is sinking! He preserves our life every moment of every day, our new life — the life he gave us when we were born again in his name.
The new life is a life to be lived, my friends. Our rescue was only the beginning, and life lies before us in a path that not only leads us to God, but upon which God is with us every step of the way. So let us live life to the full, and say in full assurance, John Newton’s powerful words, “The Lord has promis’d good to me, His word my hope secures; He will my shield and portion be, As long as life endures.”