by Jason Micheli
Galatians 1.11-24 (click to see Scripture text)
In his memoir, Accidental Preacher, my friend and mentor, Will Willimon, testifies to being encountered one late afternoon in 1975. Having locked up the doors of Trinity United Methodist Church in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Will was walking across the churchyard to the tiny parsonage for supper. “My heart sank,” Will writes, “when I turned and saw a young man, late twenties, perhaps early thirties, coming down the church walk. Just my rotten luck, I thought. These drifters’s hard luck stories differed, but all had the same ending, “Give me twenty-five dollars.”
“What can I do for you?” Will asked him, suspicious for the angle.
“Not a thing, other than what you’re already doing,” the stranger said, “Good work.”
“Odd comment,” Will thought to himself.
“I just stopped by to tell you I think you’re doing a great job here at Trinity.”
“You need money to get to Miami or Charleston?” Will asked him with annoyance.
“Money? No,” the stranger laughed, “I just stopped by to tell you that I appreciate all you do to get the good news out to folks. Nice work. Your sermons rock.”
Will says he looked the stranger over. He had a dark tan and was wearing khakis, scuffed loafers, and a green golf shirt— Izod.
“He didn’t look crazy,” Will writes, “But it can be hard to tell in a place like Myrtle Beach.”
“Say,” the stranger said to me, “do you get much time to read the Bible?”
“Er, uh, sure, I read scripture every day,” Will stammered, thinking this must be the grifter’s schtick— to wear his mark down with idle chitchat.
“What do you think of the Bible?”
“Uh, the Bible? I like it. I think it’s good,” Will answered.
“Thanks!” the stranger replied, “Of course, I had some great folks working with me. Glad to see it’s still in print! Right?” he said jovially, buddy-tapping Will lightly on the arm.
“Right,” Will answered, his throat-tightening.
“Let me guess what your favorite gospel is. Luke! Am I right? I bet you like Luke as a writer, don’t you?” the stranger said, “What a cool job Luke did on the parables, right?”
“I assessed him closely then,” Will writes, “He looked like he had just walked off the Gator Hole Golf Course.”
“Hey,” the stranger said, “I just wanted to stop by and thank you. I’m sure it’s not easy in this town. Really appreciate your hard work. You’re a go-getter! Don’t worry about the stewardship campaign. The money will come.”
“Sorry, I didn’t get your name.”’
“Oh, that’s funny,” he said, laughing, “Just Jesus to you, of course.”
Did he say, Jesus?
“Uh, if you’re Jesus, where are you headed?” Will asked him.
“Akron,” he replied.
“Business,” he responded.
And as Will finishes his remembrance, he writes:
“He took my hand, drawing me uncomfortably close, giving off a slight whiff of garlic and cigarettes, and said, “Well done, friend.” I received his embrace as stiffly as if I were Richard Nixon being hugged by Sammy Davis Jr. Yet as I watched him head towards the highway where he hitched a ride from a green Toyota, I thanked God for my credulous childhood, and also for some proficiency in dealing with the comings and goings of a God both friendly and mischievous.”
I know what you’re thinking. It’s a weird, crazy story, right? I mean, Jesus wearing a green golf shirt and pleated dockers? Come on, Jesus would be rolling in his grave if he knew some head-case reeking of Marlboro Reds was stealing his identity along the boardwalk.
There has to be a better explanation, right? Surely, this wayfaring stranger had to have been a burnt-out, delusional drifter, right?
Nothing exposes our functional atheism quite like a story like Will’s story. Nothing reveals our functional atheism more than our reaction to claims of revelation.
Look, I get it. I empathize with your knee-jerk skepticism. I swim in the same water as you. On any given month, I’ve got thousands upon thousands of dollars of chemotherapy coursing through my blood. Trust me, I believe in science and logic and rational observation, but, trouble is, I too can testify to being encountered.
It was homecoming morning in Charlottesville in 1999.
A month into the fall semester of my fourth year at the University of Virginia, I’d planned to skip the football game and was holed up at an empty carol back in the stacks of the old Alderman library.
I had a Bible on the desk for a class I was taking on the Gospel of John. I also had a couple of LSAT prep books I’d already started to dog-ear and underline. At the library carol on the other side of the row of bookcases was a tall, skinny African American man wearing large headphones and an orange and navy track suit.
He was busy highlighting a bio-chemistry textbook and taking notes on colored index cards. I’d started working on some sample problems from the prep book when suddenly there was a guy leaning against the end of the bookcase, with his feet crossed nonchalantly and a crinkly, plastic-covered book in his hands.
“What are you workin on?”
“Me? Um, studying for the LSAT,” I said.
He had a beard on a tan face and dark hair that stuck out from the black knit hat on his head. He was wearing jeans that were ripped at the knees and a brown henley shirt.
“You’ve got a lot lawyers in your family already, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I said, “Wait, how did you…?”
“Don’t freak out, Jason,” he said, and pulled a different book— anthropology— from the shelf and flipped through it.
“You like that other class a lot, don’t you?” He said, pointing at the Harper Collins Study Bible.
“Yeah, I really do,” I said, “But I like the other classes too. It’s hard, you know, knowing what God wants you to do with your life.”
“I just want you to enjoy your life,” he said.
And I looked around for my roommates who surely must be punching me.
“Don’t do anything just to satisfy someone else’s expectations and don’t go down any path just to measure up to what the world defines as success. That’s what I freed you from,” he said, smiling.
And then he pointed at the Bible and said, “If you’ll have the most fun doing that, then that’s what you should do.”
He slid the book back in the empty space on the bookshelf. He held out his arm to fist bump me and said, “Relax, man. You’re going to have a grand time.”
“Hold up,” I said, trying to find my voice,” I didn’t catch your name.”
But he’d already disappeared behind the old, heavy fire-door at the end of the long row of stacks. After a few moments, I turned to the pre-med student on the other end of the bookcase.
Speaking up so as to be heard over his headphones, I said, “Did you catch that guy’s name?”
“What guy? Nobody been here, boss, but you and me.”
Not long after I started the ordination process in the United Methodist Church, I learned not to tell that story.
Clergy, ironically enough, were the quickest to think I was crazy and ask if I’d sought counseling.
Here at the beginning of his emotional appeal to the churches in Galatia, the Apostle Paul has just laid down four-lettered fire and brimstone.
“If anyone preaches to you a gospel other than the Gospel I handed down to you,” Paul writes with all caps urgency, “if anyone adds a single ought or should to the Gospel, let that one be anathema.”
The exclusivity of Paul’s Gospel begs the question, “Who died and made you the sole authority, Paul?”
“Why should we listen to Paul?” the false teachers whispered to the churches in Galatia, “Where did he get this Gospel of his anyway? After all, Paul didn’t even know Jesus.”
Anticipating the false teachers’s disqualifications, the Apostle Paul testifies today that the Gospel of grace is neither a human invention nor is it a religious tradition.
It is a revelation.
“For I did not receive the Gospel,” Paul writes, “from another human being, nor was I taught it by a human being; it came to me by an apocalypse of Jesus Christ.”
The word most Bibles translate as revelation is the Greek word αποκαλυπτω, meaning, “to uncover” or “to disclose,” but also, “to break in upon” and “to invade.”
The Gospel I handed down to you, Paul’s saying, I received in a manner no different than Peter or the other disciples— I received it directly from the Lord Jesus Christ, whom I did not know in his mortal life but who met me in the reality of his risen life.
Luke corroborates Paul’s testimony to the Galatians in the Book of Acts.
Saul, who’d already been an accessory to the murder of Stephen, was on his way to Damascus with arrest warrants when he’s encountered by the Risen Jesus, “‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’
Meanwhile, Luke adds, the Risen Christ was busy back in town, breaking in upon the life of a disciple named Ananias.
“The Lord said to Ananias in a vision, ‘Ananias. Get up and go and look for a man of Tarsus named Saul…lay hands on him…for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to preach my Gospel before Gentiles and kings and all the people of Israel…”
The Risen Christ αποκαλυπτω into Ananias’s life too.
Incidentally, this is why Paul refuses to let go of his Gospel of grace apart from the law.
Paul is his own sermon illustration for the message Christ gave him to preach.
What Paul thought was his merit according to the Law turned out to be nothing more than innocent blood on his hands.
In his zeal to perform works of righteousness for God, he had in fact been sinning against none other than the Lord himself.
Paul refuses to back down from the Gospel of grace not only because it’s what Jesus Christ taught him but also because Paul himself is exhibit A that in Jesus Christ God justifies the ungodly— God gives to sinners the righteousness his law demands.
Perhaps nothing underscores Paul’s message of unmerited grace, apart from any work of our own, than God’s prenatal call of Paul.
Just as an aside—
That Paul can look back on his life with what C.S. Lewis calls “grace-colored glasses” and conclude that God had set him apart in utero is good news for you in two ways.
You don’t need to be a Sunday School graduate to know the story of Saul being blinded by the light on the way to Damascus.
What most Christians don’t realize, however, is that, the scales having fallen from his eyes, Paul does not immediately set out from Damascus preaching the Gospel.
As he writes to the Galatians today, Paul entered a self-imposed exile in Arabia where for three years he was tutored in the Gospel by the Risen Christ.
According to John Stott, “those three years in Arabia were a deliberate compensation for the three years of instruction which Jesus gave the other apostles, but which Paul missed.”
The reason the Apostle Paul is adamant that he’s preaching the true Gospel, even though he suffers greatly for it, is that for three years he was taught this Gospel by the one who is the Truth that sets us free: “The Gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through an apocalypse of Jesus Christ.”
Look, I get the knee-jerk skepticism.
A three year, one-on-one Bible study with a tutor who was tortured to death two years earlier?
I swim in the same water as you. My life literally depends on science. I believe in logic and rational observation, but how else do you explain that, years later, when Paul makes his way to Jerusalem, not only is Paul’s Gospel recognized by the other apostles as the true Gospel, those same apostles accept the apostolic authority of Paul, despite the fact that Paul had once hunted them down and stoned them.
What can account for their acceptance of Paul and his Gospel?
Paul had their blood on his hands.
But they knew that Jesus is not dead. And they knew this Gospel preached by Paul sounded eerily similar to the Gospel the Risen Christ had revealed to Peter in a dream. What could possibly have compelled them to submit to Paul’s apostolic authority other than revelation?
A colleague in ministry told me the story of a friend named Nesteron, who lived in Iran, in a region where the Gospel is neither known nor available.
Nesteron belonged to an observant Muslim family, yet one day Jesus αποκαλυπτω into her life and made himself known to her.
“What was it like?” my colleague asked her.
“It wasn’t like an audible voice, but it wasn’t like a voice in my head either. It was something altogether different but altogether real.”
Unbeknownst to Nesteron, at this same time, her sister, who was studying in Europe, had received the Gospel from a classmate and was baptized.
Jesus later appeared to her and told her that she needed to go back home and share his Gospel with Nesteron and their family.
When Nesteron’s sister arrived back at their family’s home in Iran, Nesteron greeted her by saying, “I know— you’re here to tell me about Jesus. I believe in him. I’ve met him.”
A month later, Nesteron’s Father received a vision of Jesus in a dream.
“Jesus spoke to me,” he said, “He was dressed in a color like no color I have ever seen before.”
I could tell you so many stories.
I could tell you about Diane, a member of my first congregation in New Jersey.
The first funeral I ever preached was for Diane’s father, who came home from work one afternoon, went down to the basement, and committed suicide.
Before the police were able to reach Diane and break the news to her, Jesus came to her. “He was standing in the kitchen, on the linoleum floor, in front of the microwave and toaster oven. I don’t know how I knew it was him, because he didn’t say anything, but I knew he wanted to comfort me for some reason. Jesus wanted to comfort me, and here I was embarrassed by all the dirty dishes in the sink.”
I could tell you about Hector, an inmate at the prison where I served as chaplain.
Hector came to see me one hot summer day, his olive skin blanched white from fright.
“Man, no joke, Jesus Christ was just there— in my cell— last night before lights out. He told me everything I done is all forgiven. And then he told me my kids are going to be alright. Preacher, don’t you get it? Everyone up in here is trying to get out and Jesus Christ broke in to tell me I’m forgiven.”
Hector looked terrified, but it didn’t stop him from asking me to baptize him on Sunday.”
God broke in, he said.
Look, I get it.
I swim in the same water as you. Every bit as much as you, I have been conditioned by the Enlightenment’s lack of imagination.
The way the Risen Jesus αποκαλυπτω into Paul’s life— it’s different in degree but not in kind from the way Christ reveals himself to all of us.
Indeed this is Paul’s whole point here in Galatians.
It’s not just that Paul received the Gospel by revelation; it’s that reception of the Gospel always comes only by revelation.
Paul’s calling in grace is unique, yes, but it is not singular.
Reception of the Gospel always comes by no other means but by revelation.
Whether it’s a preacher preaching the Gospel into your ear-balls or the Gospel being handed to you in bread and wine or the Gospel promise sung to you in a carol by a choir, whether you dreamed a dream or received a vision or were blinded by the light, reception of the Gospel always comes by revelation.
To the extent that you grasp the promise of the Gospel— to the extent that you trust that all of your sins belong to Christ and all of his righteousness belongs to you— it’s because you have been grasped by the Gospel.
No, it’s because you have been grasped by God through his Gospel.
This is exactly what Jesus says at the feeding of the five thousand, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me.” And Jesus says it again after the raising of Lazarus: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will be drawing all people to myself.”
Thomas Jefferson famously redacted the Bible, excising from the New Testament all those passages Jefferson deemed too supernatural for a rational, scientific child of the Enlightenment any longer to believe. But if Jefferson understood what Paul is asserting about the nature of the Gospel, Jefferson would have had no choice but to remove all of the apostle’s letters as well.
Because, Paul is claiming that every time we proclaim the Gospel, we become conduits of the Jesus who is not dead.
Every time we share the promise of the Gospel, we become conduits by which the Risen Christ can reveal his grace to others.
We are his apocalyptic means.
As simple an act as you reassuring a friend with a troubled conscience that, on account of Christ, the entirety of their sins are forgiven— Paul’s point today, that’s an apocalyptic event.
Those are the cracks where the Living God breaks in upon us.
We marvel at or we puzzle over the mysterious, blinding light type encounters with Jesus, but the sheer fact any of us believe the Gospel, it’s every bit as miraculous and supernatural as loaves and fishes or walking on water or summoning forth the dead from their tombs.
Whether it’s as slight as a mustard seed or as massive as mountain, you faith is the crater left behind by the apocalypse of God.
A couple of summers ago, after reading a draft of my friend Will’s memoir, I asked him, “How is it that I’ve listened to all of your sermons several times over and read nearly every one of your books, yet I’ve never heard your story about being met by Jesus outside that church in Myrtle Beach?”
Will chuckled and said:
“I quickly discovered that if I told anyone that story , especially in a sermon, then most people just wanted to ask me how they could have such an experience for themselves, as though the experience is somehow more important than the message.
The message is more important than the experience— that’s why, for example, Paul doesn’t say much more than a sentence about his own encounter with the Risen Christ but he never tires of preaching the forgiveness of sins.
Besides, if only God can reveal God, then I’ve got no advice on how you can have an experience of Christ. Anyone who claims they do is a liar, and any experience of God that can be choreographed is not the Living God.
The only place we know to go where we can expect to be met by Christ is the place Christ has promised to show up, and that’s in the Gospel.”
And he does show up.
Against the tide we are all swimming in, he shows up.
I could tell you so many stories.
I could tell you about the kid, a graduating senior, who came up to me in the parking lot after the West Potomac Baccalaureate service.
He’d already loosened his tie and unzipped his graduation robe.
Squinting in the sun, he said to me, “You know, you’re not much of a preacher. You talked too fast and you tried too hard to charm us. Still, I don’t know how else to explain it but somehow God broke through your not very good sermon and, in spite of you, God spoke to me today.”
“Are you just messing with me, kid?”
“Well, what do you think God said to you in my apparently inadequate sermon?”
“He said that it doesn’t matter what I make of my education and opportunities because, in Jesus, I’m already enough and no failure or success can change that.”
I took a step back from him, like I’d accidentally tip-toed onto holy ground.
“Do you think that sounds like something Jesus would say?” he asked.
“Kid, I know for a fact that it’s something Jesus would say.”
11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; 19but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. 20In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! 21Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia,22and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; 23they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ 24And they glorified God because of me.
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