“I went away at once into Arabia”

“I went away at once into Arabia”

Jamie Howison’s sermon on Galatians 1:11-24

We’re going to spend the next month hearing passages from Paul’s letter to the Galatians; a letter in which you get these glimpses of Paul’s simmering anger over what he sees as a deep problem in the young Christian movement. He’s more than concerned here; he’s mad. The issue at stake was whether or not Gentile believers had to become Jews in order to be Christians, and for Paul the answer was a definitive no. No, the full inclusion of Gentiles in the Jesus movement doesn’t require them to convert to Judaism and to follow all of its practices.

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The decision had actually already been made several years previous, at the Council of Jerusalem. As told in Acts 15, James stands and says, “I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.” It sets a really basic, bare bones standard, in which just a small list of things is set out as being required of the Gentile converts: stay away from things polluted by idols—which probably means meat that had been sacrificed to idols—fornication, the meat of animals that has been improperly killed, and blood. That’s a major stretch for these devout Jewish Christians, whose lives had been shaped by fidelity to the torah. One matter of sexual ethics, and three related to the dietary laws. If you’d just stretch a bit and meet us on these, we’ll flex on everything else… including circumcision…

The path to the Council of Jerusalem had really been paved by Peter, who in Acts 10 had baptized the first Gentile believers: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” They’re in, with no requirement that they first convert to Judaism.

But what do you know? A decade or more later, Paul has discovered that the issue has again arisen amongst the Christians in Galatia. Other leaders—perhaps from within the community, perhaps traveling evangelists like Paul himself—had begun to insist that the Gentile Christians also convert to Judaism; that they observe the torah in its fullness, and practice circumcision. Not only that, but as this letter to the Galatians moves forward we’ll discover that Peter himself has waffled on the matter. Peter doesn’t insist that Gentile Christians must convert to Judaism, but what he does is in some ways even more troubling; he stops sharing meals with them. He had shared table with Gentiles, but because he didn’t want to offend the group that wanted everyone to be a Jewish Christian, he stops. In Paul’s view, that’s appalling, and he calls Peter on it.

So that’s the background to what we heard read aloud today. The passage opened with Paul making a rather powerful claim for his authority as a teacher. “I want you to know, brothers and sisters… [that] I did not receive [this gospel] from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” I’m not making this up, people, and I didn’t get it from anyone else. This is straight-up revelation: the old walls between Jew and Gentile have come down. And then to give it some real gravitas, he reminds them of his own story; of how he’d been learned and zealous in his observance of what he calls “the traditions of my ancestors,” and how in defense of those traditions he’d made himself an enemy of the Christian movement. But God had other ideas, as God is so often wont to do, and so “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.”

Well you probably know the story as it is told in the Book of Acts, where Paul is basically knocked flat by the presence of the risen Christ, rendered blind for three days, and made to rely on the prayers and guidance of a believer in Damascus named Ananias in order to get his life on track. None of those details are included here in Galatians, just that Paul didn’t go to Jerusalem at that point, but instead “went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards returned to Damascus.” This sojourn into Arabia isn’t mentioned in Acts, but that shouldn’t trouble us. Acts is doing something different than just a straight-up historical record, and anytime Paul himself says something about his life or ministry that isn’t included in Acts, we should assume Paul is giving us the closest thing to what actually happened.

We have no idea exactly where he means by “Arabia,” and he says nothing of what he was doing there. Martin Luther thought it was a no-brainer: he was preaching the gospel, and in Gentile territory no less. Others have seen it as an extended retreat into desert country, so that he can sort out what rest of his life was going to be about. After all, he’d been called out of his Pharisaic Judaism into this renewed Christ-centered Judaism—that’s often called his conversion, but Paul’s own word for it is actually “call”, in Greek kaleo. He had been zealously serving God as a Pharisee, and now God—the same God—had stopped him in his tracks and called him to serve in a whole new framework. It is going to take a bit of time to sort that out… besides, none of the Christians trust him, because he was responsible for the arrest and death of so many of them.

It’s no surprise that N.T. Wright offers an angle on this time in Arabia that is particularly insightful. Wright sees Paul echoing the Old Testament prophet Elijah, who himself was a figure of zeal in his defense of the faith. Elijah had faced down Ahab and Jezebel, the king and queen who were importing all manner of corruptions and idolatrous practices into the faith of Israel, and he’d done it in a way that just about cost him his life. The zealous Elijah flees for his life to Mount Horeb, ready to pack in his prophetic ministry and cut his losses. It was, he thought, hopeless anyways. Like Elijah, Wright observes, Paul “had been very zealous for the Lord, but found himself confronted with a fresh revelation that made him go off to Arabia…” Like Elijah fleeing to Mount Horeb, maybe Paul is running to the Sinai Desert. Wright wonders if Paul was heading to Mount Sinai itself; to the place where the Law was first given to the freed Hebrew slaves. We can’t know, of course, but Wright’s point is this: That like the dispirited Elijah, perhaps Paul’s desire was to “hand in his commission [and] give up zeal as a bad job. However, like Elijah, [Paul] is given a new commission.” A new commission. It ain’t over, Paul; in fact it is just beginning.

Well, whether or not it was to Mount Sinai that Paul went, I do think there’s something to be gleaned from Wright’s perspective. I also think the fact that it took Paul three years to finally go to Jerusalem—the centre of the young Christian movement, and also the spiritual centre of Judaism—is instructive. Three years before he can go there, three years before he can talk with Peter. Three years. I am inclined to disagree with Martin Luther. I don’t think Paul was preaching in Arabia. I think he was getting his soul in order; that he was trying to reconstruct his life, his faith, his whole way of understanding his world. That would take time, prayer, study, space, and probably some agonizingly hard, lonely work. Everything he thought he knew about God now had to be reconsidered, wrestled through, re-imagined.

There is something in that for us, too, of course. We live in a world that tends to value decisiveness and action. Carpe Diem; seize the day… someone somewhere is bound to be posting that on their Facebook timeline right at this moment. “Just Do It”, those Nike ads told us, but sometimes “doing” is not the thing; being is. We don’t have to sort everything out in the moment, and in fact sometimes the most important thing is to accept our own need for time, space, discernment, waiting, being, and maybe even a little bit of hard, sometimes lonely work. “It took a radical disruption of my life,” writes the poet Christian Wiman, “to allow me to see the sanity of this strange, ancient thing.” The “disruption” was Wiman’s diagnosis with a terminal cancer; the “strange, ancient thing” was the Christian faith, or more specifically Christ himself. Trust, too, is all a part of this. Trust that when God stops you in your tracks or when a new challenge or a new question lands in your path, it is in fact at the same time a possible new beginning. It was true for Paul, and in a different way for Christian Wiman in his cancer; a cancer not given him by God, but through which he met Christ nonetheless. It just might take a while to see what that new beginning is. And that’s okay too.


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