A Sermon for Covenant
“The Soul Venture”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
June 9, 2013
Kyndall Rae Renfro
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
Paul has one main point in this section, and his point is this: he received the message he preaches from God and not from man. He goes to great lengths, retracing the steps since his conversion, reinforcing that in each time and at each place, he consulted God, not humans. Over and over Paul reiterates this one thing in different ways—that he did not confer with any other human beings.
Paul must be being accused of the opposite. We don’t have a written record of what his opposition is saying, but we can gather from his defensive explanation that someone is spreading false information. They are claiming that the Gospel Paul is preaching does not come from God but from human sources.
I have been accused in my life of speaking from human reason rather than from God, so while I can relate a little to Paul’s passion, I must tell you, it is a really difficult thing to prove—whether you’re speaking from God and for God or whether you’re just speaking out of your own head, regurgitating the tired words of the uninspired.
One of the reasons it is hard to prove to others is because it is a very hard thing to prove to yourself. It’s a tricky business, speaking up for God, and if you’ve ever tried it in any capacity, then I’m sure you know what I mean. It is terrifying and uncertain and impossible, and the best of us still quake in our boots when we open our mouths because that is just what it is like to speak of God when there are no words at all that will ever quite do.
I find Paul’s passage in Galatians so fascinating and so terribly relevant to our own modern dilemmas about God-talk. It speaks to the tension we all feel between community and solitude, between the importance of listening others and trusting our own conscience, between relying on the church and listening for the voice of God alone.
As Baptists in particular, we have a rich heritage in soul competency, that is to say, it is a part of our identity and history as Baptists to affirm and protect the right of every individual to hear from God on their own accord. The idea that you and I can and should hear directly from God—not through a mediator—is one the founding principles of our Baptist branch of the Christian faith, and so the Baptist in us applauds the Paul of today’s text and his insistence that God has spoken to him.
On the other hand, common sense might make us a little leery of how adamant Paul is that he didn’t consult anyone. After all, plenty of other places in Scripture encourage us to seek the counsel of others. We all know that a “Lone Ranger” type of faith doesn’t cut it. Community is essential. Listening is essential. If I want my soul competency respected, that means I have to respect the soul competency in you as well. It is not a matter of saying, “I know best, the rest of you should shut up and listen.” It is a matter of saying, “We all have the capacity for knowing; your insights deserve to be heard just as much as mine do.” And so, even for Baptists, there is a tension between reserving the right to hear from God all on our own and acknowledging the need to respect and to listen to the community. But today’s text is a resounding reminder that there are indeed exciting and perilous times in the life of faith where you are compelled, even required, to act alone, regardless of who agrees with you.
Keep in mind what it is that Paul is preaching here, what it is that his opponents find so alarmingly heretical. The issue is not that Paul preaches Jesus—so does his opposition! The problem with Paul’s Gospel is that he has been called by God to preach it to the Gentiles, and not only that, he preaches it to the Gentiles without requiring a conversion to the customs of Judaism first. From the earliest inception of our Christian faith, God was calling people of faith to break molds and the only proof they had of this boundary-exploding work of God was their own personal testimony of an encounter with Jesus Christ. There was very little “evidence” they could offer in support of their actions and their words, other than to keep repeating the same thing: God has revealed this to us.
Paul’s story is not a mere description of what happened to him, nor a mere example of the things that happened to believers in his time; I think we can interpret Paul’s story as prescription and as promise for what will continue to happen in the ongoing movement of God is the world. This story means very little for us unless it is an invitation to us to hear from God ourselves, like Paul to trust in the competency of our own souls, to experience call, to follow the voice of God wherever it takes us, and in spite of opposition to keep following. When we reduce the Gospel to a mere a thing that happened once, it quickly loses its hold on our life. When we understand the Gospel as call, as something active, as something that challenges the status quo, as the movement of God in the here and the now, suddenly we have something compelling to which we can commit.
We may be tempted to think, no, no, no, this could never happen to us. Paul had that dramatic encounter with God on the way to Damascus, but such spectacular shows of the divine splendor do not happen to us. Unless you belong to the more charismatic category of people who seem to have a direct line to God’s wishes and God’s wisdom, then it’s likely you feel more like miracles and direct communication and the ability to hear God in dreams and visions is bit antiquated and not about to happen to you. The rest of us tend to experience God more like the still small whisper that Elijah encountered. We don’t get the clear, full-on experience of running into God on the roadway; if we did, we’d likely have the passion and drive of Paul too. But unfortunately for us, God just isn’t nearly so compelling nor so clear.
Interestingly, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul doesn’t discuss at all the dramatic details of his Damascus conversion. We only know that part of the story by reading the book of Acts, written by Luke. Paul himself spends little to no time reminiscing about the fantastic. The string of events he recounts sounds far more mundane. Dramatic beginning or not, it is likely that Paul’s day-to-day experience of hearing from God was far more like our day-to-day experience of hearing from God—subtle and slow and uncertain, full of waiting and wondering and watching, complete with agonizing prayers of longing and crippling feelings of God’s absence. And yet, he is able to speak with such boldness and confidence, to say with surety, God spoke to me.
This past week I had the opportunity to visit the home of an incredible Latina artist local to San Antonio, Enedina Vasquez. She greeted us at the door of her house by saying, “Welcome home,” and in we walked to a truly extraordinary sight. Every foot of space in her home was art. The doors were painted; the windows were painted—every spare inch was full of bright color. Paintings hung all over the walls, and in the spaces between paintings were signatures written in Sharpie. Everyone who visits her home, signs her wall. I paused to read some of the signatures. One person had written, “At school they tell us it’s bad to write on walls and I love your artwork!”
Enedina is someone with so much inspiration inside her that it had burst out of her being and splatters everything she touches and everything she sees. It was quite a sight to behold.
Enedina recently graduated from seminary and she showed us her illuminated journal from seminary. On the left page, she often wrote a Scripture. On the right page, a beautiful painting depicting the text. But, she told us, for the longest time she felt inadequate at seminary, like she was not capable of interpreting Scripture, of handling it, of deciding what it meant.
I often hear similar things from people. They do not feel that they could pray in public, or they could not speak aloud about God, or they could not teach or share a testimony. I often hear this from women first beginning to preach—they do not feel worthy. Who are we to open our mouths and speak of God? It is daunting. It is uncomfortable. We’d rather stay home.
On every page of Enedina’s painted journal, she would begin with a black, rectangular box—four dark painted lines to frame her art, and then inside the frame, she filled the box with color. One day in class, her seminary professor read the Scripture, then she laid out a bunch of photographs and told the class, pick up the picture that speaks to you. And that was the moment Enedina experienced freedom, the day she knew she could in fact handle Scripture, pick it up, look at it, engage it, and interpret it for herself. From that day forward, the black rectangular boxes disappeared from her artwork. As you flip through her journal after that point, each page is filled with color, no borders at all. The color explodes on the page, all the way to the edge, no empty spots, no restrictions, her soul and her interpretation taking up all of its space.
What would it be like if your soul exploded onto a page? If you held back nothing? If you stopped being afraid that you might color outside the lines by accident? What would it be like to reclaim your own soul competency for the adventure that it is? What if you allowed your soul to take up all its space—to open and expand and to fill a page or to fill a room, at the very least, to fill up the one life you were meant to inhabit?
This isn’t to ignore the need for community, but to reaffirm the adventure of knowing God for your own self. This is the only way Paul ever learned that God was calling him to explode past the boundaries and take the Gospel to the Gentiles. Paul had to get really serious about hearing God for himself. What if God is still talking, and what if you’re a person God wants to converse with, and what if you are in fact worthy of hearing and speaking on behalf of God? What if you can handle Scripture, pick up inspiration in your own two hands and begin to participate in the molding of a new world? What if the Gospel continues to call us out into the unexpected.
May we fill up this life with the expanse of our souls, may we let God in, and may God fill us to overflowing. May we spill out into the world like an explosion of color. May we challenge the boundaries that would limit love, may we speak and sing and write and color our interpretations of the divine all over the world as if we were worthy to do so, as if we created in order to create, as if we carried in our hearts the spark and image of the divine, as if we were being called to tell a story, to be good news to a neighbor, and to be a light to the world. Amen.