Once, not too long ago, I stood on a friend’s deck and watched a huge electrical storm slice the night sky with lightning. Burst after burst lit the darkness like a strobe. It was better than Fourth of July fireworks.
In the back yard of this house is a big, old apple tree. The light of the storm would caress it in bluish light then plunge it into darkness. In strobe after strobe I would make out a trunk, then branches, leaves, more branches. In between these revelations of bits of tree all would be hidden in the murk of the night.
I have been reading Paul’s letters lately – just the ones most scholars think are his. And as I have gone along I have been having these bursts of illumination. I am seeing in flashes something that looks like an old, fruit bearing tree. Wow, I think to myself. Could it be? Maybe it’s naive. Maybe – I have never been seminary trained – I am finding things that would be construed much differently in the original language of the letters. But a Paul I have never seen before is emerging; a Paul who truly was converted to a very un-Pharisaic way of understanding our relationship to God.
Take the letter to the Galatians. In it Paul is hopping mad. His seedling church is being swayed by outsiders encouraging everyone to be circumcised. Why is this such a big deal to Paul? It is not about the practice itself; it is that circumcision is the gateway to life under the Law.
Another burst of illumination, and I see that when Paul talks about the works of the flesh, he is talking about the Law. The attitude that values circumcision is the same state of mind that produces such sins as fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and so on. Paul says that it is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who try to compel the Galatians. And turning to the practice of circumcision would be exactly like returning to their former practice of worshiping elemental spirits.
Here is what I think Paul is saying. The path to a relationship with God is not through any practice or behavior – nor is it through abstaining from any practice or behavior. It is not through following the Law. It is not through following any law. Those things are all ways of gratifying the desires of the flesh.
Instead we must live by the Spirit. Brought to our knees by the astounding revelation of God’s love for us, we die to our selves so that Christ can live within us. This is not a personal achievement produced by following practices well; it is pure gift. And the change of heart we experience when this inner transformation takes place is symbolized by the sacrament of baptism. That is why baptism is the Christian initiation rite.
In today’s passage from the Book of Acts, Peter says about the uncircumcised Gentiles, “And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
I experience the peace of God through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as the apostles did. Just as you do. The yoke that through the generations nobody has been able to bear is the yoke of the Law. Cleansing the heart by faith happens not through our effort but through God’s. The Holy Spirit moves within us, and we recognize that at the very center of our being is our true Beloved, is Christ. In relationship with him we willingly die so that our Love can live through us.
When the illumination of the lightning storm passes, I am left in the dark again. But my heart already lives in the light of the new day. It lives by the Spirit, in relationship with God, and it waits for the rest of me to catch up. Christ rules my heart. All I have to do is get out of the way.
Laurie Gudim is a writer and religious iconographer who lives in Fort Collins, CO. You can view some of her work at Everyday Mysteries.