I recently heard a great quote from an enlightened author named Paul Smith, “Christianity started in Palestine as an experience, it moved to Greece and became a philosophy, it moved to Italy and became an institution, it moved into the rest of Europe and became a culture, it moved to America and became a business”. While history is never that simple, that statement gets right at a fact, the institutional church long ago moved away from the spiritual experience of the first century Jews it reveres and even worships. And that is a problem—why? So what, why should we care? We should care because those experiences are transformative—and healing.
The late scholar of Jewish studies Alan Segal wrote the following in his landmark book, Paul the Convert, “To comprehend Paul’s experience, we must inquire into the secret and imperfectly understood Jewish mysticism of the first century”. I, as I’m sure you can tell by now, agree wholeheartedly. Scholarship and a great deal of common sense tell me so. Marks of the early and often strange Jewish mysticism are simply all over Paul’s letters. And whenever we read any of those letters we must always remember this: every bit of Paul’s theology is informed by his own transformative spiritual experience. Our text today is no different. If we don’t remember that Paul was radically changed by what we call today a non-ordinary state of consciousness, we simply cannot understand what is going on for Paul—or for that matter in early Christianity period. By the way—just a related side note here. This week, while preparing my final sermon, I had a chance to reflect on the state of the church in our contemporary culture. These days we hear a lot about a decline in the number of people attending church but I don’t believe the current obsession with numbers in the church is doing it any good—you know—the constant cry of oh no they’re all leaving—because Christianity is not primarily about numbers and money. Christianity is about the transformation, not the money, not the good time or entertainment, of human beings. If people want to be entertained they can go to a movie or an amusement park—now, if they have a desire to transform, to renew their minds, as Paul says, they can follow Christ by taking up a transformative practice. And one thing the institutional church would do well to remember—Discipleship does not depend on church attendance, money given, or committees sat on, never has, never will, period. In spite of all that, I will say this—if the church wants to attract people they should think about something—the church is losing its influence, especially among younger people,—that is simply true. In the modern West Institutional Christianity started to decline at the very same time that the number of people interested in transformative spiritual practices like meditation and yoga started to increase. In recent decades many people left the church because they were fed up with all the moralizing and spiritual starvation. Just ask all the baby-boomers that became Buddhists. These two trends, the decline of church attendance, especially among younger age groups, and the increase in the numbers of people practicing ancient techniques like meditation and yoga, along with many, many other things, tells me the church needs to open up, look beyond its walls for some advice—because, when it comes to spiritual growth and development, there’s something new going on out there—and a lot of it is very good, in fact it might even remind one of the early church. A fun, and loving communal experience is great—we all like and need that—but without practices specifically designed to target the deepest levels of the human psyche, the kind of transformation Paul and Jesus experienced--simply will not happen—a good and comforting time might be had—but not rebirth, not the feeling that Paul is describing in Galatians when he says, I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me”—it was Paul’s revelation or apocalypse of Christ that told him that the ultimate “I” or subjectivity is Christ.
So, to go back to the brilliant insight of Alan Segal, how does looking into the mysticism of Paul’s day help us when we read a text like Galatians? First, we need to understand the word I just mentioned, Apokalypsis—Paul uses this all important word at the very beginning of the letter. “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that 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 a an apokalypsis of Jesus Christ”. First century Jews used this misunderstood word when discussing their non-ordinary states of consciousness, their visions, their trances, their journeys to heaven. As we go through this morning’s text we should keep that in mind.
In verse 23 Paul says that before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. Put simply, these words clearly reflect Paul’s own spiritual experience—the apostle’s own non-ordinary state of consciousness. As I said, ancient Jews developed and practiced a meditative technique that was designed to induce visions and trances. It was in such a state that Paul’s life-changing conversion is likely to have happened. These experiences often bring with them a sense that one’s ego has been transcended, that one is no longer estranged from God or the ultimate reality—and this heals the fundamental human wound. It is, needless to say, a powerful and moving experience. Think again of Paul’s words, by likening the law to a disciplinarian, he is saying that it is like a slave charged with keeping his master’s son out of trouble—so one is being dealt with by a mediator—not directly by one’s Father. Under the thumb of legalistic religions we are like a child estranged from his or her parent. That was the situation under the law—estrangement—the works of the law could not bring justification, could not reunite divine parent and child. It took Paul’s non-ordinary state of consciousness to justify him, to reconcile him to God. There is of course in Paul’s metaphor a developmental implication. Before his conversion experience Paul was like a child that needed a disciplinarian—now he has outgrown that stage. Literally hundreds of studies have shown the developmental benefits of non-ordinary states—simply put they have been shown to accelerate one’s growth through moral stages of development—the bottom line is these ancient practices and experiences work—and the modern west is increasingly acknowledging this, in fact many therapists and psychiatrists are now prescribing meditation. Paul’s experience changed him and led him into a new relationship with the law—and his old religion—aren’t we, like Paul, called to have a new perspective on our old religion?—there’s the dangerous part—the powers that be in your old religion, no matter what it is, may not like the change a transformative experience brings about in you—Paul was, and in fact remains, a very dangerous man. Institutional religion always views mystics with suspicion—for once you have direct experience with the divine you don’t need the meditators, so mystical experience is often feared and mistrusted by those who represent the institution. Remember, Paul and Jesus both got themselves in hot water with the good religious people of their day. After such a direct experience one simply finds the mediator unnecessary because, as Paul says in verse 26, one is reunited with God as a child of God. This reflects Paul’s mystical or spiritual experience and his radically different view of the law afterward. During such an experience Paul and other ancient Jews believed they were being transformed from regular human beings into children of God that were similar to angels—in other words they became like heavenly beings with knowledge of the heavenly places. Contemporary people who experience these states often report feeling like they have been reunited with God, nature and the deepest regions of their own psyches—in short they feel radically changed by these experiences. In verse 27 Paul says, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ”. According to a standard Jewish myth operative in Paul’s day, the first human being, Adam, was said to have been the radiant image of God, and he and Eve were thought to have worn garments of light that were then lost as a consequence of the Fall. In Genesis 3:21 we hear that after their sin, God made garments of skins, for the man and for his wife, and clothed them. Some Jews in the first century, Paul included, believed that this lost radiant image could, to some degree, be restored prior to death. This myth is behind verse 27, a statement about Baptism and being clothed with Christ—being clothed with Christ meant healing the deep wound of the Fall. Paul’s own conversion had, for him, begun to reverse what had happened as a consequence of original sin; in short it had saved him—and was saving him. Several studies show that non-ordinary states of consciousness often heal our deepest psychic wounds—and healing means salvation.
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”. I recently heard a sad statement—Sunday morning is still the most segregated time in America. A major characteristic of the spiritual experiences I have been speaking of is the sense that the old or separate self has been overcome—that one is connected—and somehow identified with All things, All people, that superficial differences are not ultimate—are not to be feared—The rabid political correctness of our day is not born out of those differences being overcome or relativized—it is often born out of those differences being feared and suppressed. Modern Christians would be well served if they were encouraged to have experiences in which they feel, not intellectually know or agree with, that we are all one, that we are all part of this incredible God that shares us. Now that would save---save us all from feeling we are estranged, that we are unloved, or disconnected. We all read about, see, and feel the terrible consequences of this fragmentation everyday—people who overcome that feeling or heal that wound are transformed, they are truly justified. Real justice depends on real justification, not political thinkers and their schemes—Jesus and Paul are still trying to tell us that—real justice comes about through experience—an ultimate WE experience in which one feels reunited with God and neighbor— the kind of ultimate “WE” experience Jesus and Paul had. The ultimate “WE” is the church—the mystical body of Christ. There is no building or religion big enough to contain it—in order to be it we must go beyond all walls—the walls of our buildings, and most especially the walls of our old selves. The ultimate “WE” is not a philosophy, it is not an institution, it is not a culture, it doesn’t depend on what you wear, or what you believe, nobody owns it. The ultimate “WE” is a feeling, it is an experience. It saves us—it justifies us—it loves us. Amen.