When our five-year-old son was younger, about two, his favorite movie was Cars, by Pixar. In that movie, race car Lightning McQueen finds himself stuck in a small town the week before his big Piston Cup race. He befriends an old pickup truck named Mater, who is voiced by Larry the Cable Guy.
Mater declares himself to be, among other things, “the world’s best backwards driver.” He shows Lightning his skills, using his rear-view mirrors to look behind him and quickly drive backwards through town and over various obstacles. “Don’t need to know where I’m going,” Mater says to an impressed Lightning, “Just need to know where I’ve been.”
Where have you been? What’s your story?
There’s power in our stories; there’s power in a good and compelling story. Paul knows that, and so in the second half of Galatians 1, he tells the Galatian churches his story.
He preached the Gospel in Galatia—that Jesus “gave himself for our sins to rescue us” (v. 4) and that “God the Father… raised him from the dead” (v. 1).
But this Gospel wasn’t enough. The Galatian Christians came under the influence of some teachers who said the Galatians needed not just faith in Jesus, but steadfast observance of Jewish rituals in order to be truly at peace with God. These teachers tried to undermine Paul’s authority.
So Paul tells them a story—his story. “You have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism,” he says in verse 13, “how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” Paul had been so zealous for his faith that he tried to root out and destroy people of any other faith. He treated Christians with violence, and “breathed murderous threats” against them.
Then God intervened. Acts 9 tells the story of Paul (then called Saul) heading to Damascus to find some Christians to imprison. He’s on his way, part excited, part bloodthirsty, listening to Slayer or Pantera or Wolves in the Throne Room or some other heavy metal to get him pumped up. And then—a bright light from heaven flashes all around him. He gets knocked to the ground and hears a voice, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” It’s the voice of Jesus. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
Paul goes to Damascus, still reeling from the vision and unable to see, eat, or drink, and finds a man named Ananias who restores his sight, baptizes him, and sends him on his way, a new man.
This account is what one reader of this passage called a “Biography of Reversal.” It’s a biography of major reversal.
Where have you been? What’s your story?
Well, mine’s not quite like that. I always wanted a conversion story like Paul’s. I remember in high school when I first learned about giving a “testimony.” I didn’t think I had much to say. The questions were always—what was your life like before Christ? How did God intervene? What is your new life in Jesus like now?
I grew up in a Christian home, two pastors for parents, and as an oldest child, was a pretty well-behaved pastor’s kid. I do remember saying a prayer when I was four to ask Jesus to be God of my life, and then a recommitment to Christ in 8th grade. But nothing flashy. I wished I had a testimony like Paul’s, or like that big-name speaker at the youth rally: I was into drugs—not just doing them but selling them– and went to clubs till 3am every night, was in a gang… and then I got saved!
And here’s Paul—persecuted others, tried to destroy them, violent… then a bright light and a loud, booming voice!
It’s a great testimony, a great conversion story.
But Paul wants to point beyond the conversion itself, and to the person who is behind the conversion. Paul has this incredible testimony, but if he were here explaining this letter to us this morning, I bet he’d say—don’t get too caught up in remarkable reversal in me… give praise to the God who orchestrated it! –The God who is behind every testimony, whether it’s the testimony of a well-behaved pastor’s kid or of an ex-murderer.
This God, Paul says in verses 15 and 16 does four things–with Paul, with an ex-gang member, with anyone who comes to faith in Christ.
First, God sets his people apart from birth. God has knit each of us together in our mother’s wombs (Psalm 139:13).
Second, God calls us by his grace, by his undeserved favor. St. Patrick put it like this: “I was like a stone lying in deep mud, but he that is mighty placed me on top of the wall.” A stone that is stuck in mud has no way of pulling itself out—someone has to come along and do that. God has called us, pulled us out of our mud, by his grace.
Third, God has been pleased to reveal his Son in us. It really gives him joy to do that! It’s like a highlight of his day, this act of showing us Jesus.
Fourth, this is so that we might share the good news of Jesus with others. Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father, who is in heaven.” We do this, in part, by living lives that bear fruit (a testimony to grace), which Paul will elaborate on later in the letter.
Like Mater from the movie Cars, Paul knows where he’s been. His aim in the second half of Galatians 1 is to say that whoever he is, wherever he has been—that is ultimately rooted in the gracious initiative of God. “Grace means you’re in a different universe from where you had been stuck,” author Ann Lamott writes, “When you had absolutely no way to get there on your own.”
This is what makes our stories in Christ compelling—not the details of what we’ve done or haven’t done, but who has been there with us, all along… setting us apart, calling us by grace, and revealing his Son Jesus in us. This is a compelling story. Those of us who have said yes to Jesus have powerful testimonies, because the one who stands behind our testimony is powerful.
The Revised Common Lectionary is going through Galatians in six weeks. Two Sundays ago (June 9) was the second Sunday, covering Galatians 1:11-24. The above is excerpted from the sermon I preached on that passage. See my first Galatians post (Your Grace is Enough?) on Galatians 1:11-12 here.