Esther Mae Jones and The Greyhound Bus Ride

Over twenty years ago now, when I was a seminary student in New Jersey, my girlfriend (now my wife!) lived in Virginia.  To go and see her, I often took a Greyhound bus.  On one particular trip, I sat next to a woman who introduced herself as Evangelist Esther Mae Jones.  I remember her to be a small fiery African American woman, with graying hair, wire rimmed glasses, with a lunch neatly placed on her lap.  We chatted for a bit, and I told her where I was going.  “To see my girlfriend,” I said.  “You’re going to marry that woman,” she said.  We had been dating about nine months at that point, so I wasn’t sure what to make of the prediction. 

But she was right.  We’ve been married twenty one years now.

We talked some more.  I told her I was a seminary student.  She had all sorts of warnings for me about that.  Not to let my education get in the way of what God might want to do, not to get distracted by all kinds of theories and teachings.  Then she got to teaching herself.  She told me to write these things down.  “Do it!” she said.  I remember getting out a yellow post-it pad, and began writing.  She watched me to make sure I got these things right.

“The only thing that God cannot do is fail.”

“Let God do it for you.”

We need to hear those wise words from Esther Mae Jones.  God cannot fail.  And He will do it for you.

I think Esther Mae Jones and the apostle Paul would have been friends.  Especially that last part:  Let God do it for you.  Because that is another way of saying what Paul said to the churches in Galatia.

He writes,

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!

Strong words for Paul.  He is extremely concerned that some folks have come into the very place where Paul preached freedom for people, telling them they needed to do some other things to really be accepted into God’s family. 

I was listening to another sermon on this, and was reminded that  Paul is a man who claims to have seen a resurrected Jesus Christ.  We have to decide if he is deluded, if he hallucinated, or is a real eyewitness of truth.  For this man goes on to write more letters, and his letter helped shape this movement of following Jesus.  He went on to suffer hardship for this message:  beatings, shipwrecks, imprisonment.  Ultimately, according to at least two traditions:  he was beheaded by the emperor Nero. 

At the end of the day, we need to decide if he’s telling the truth.

Paul is frustrated that the Galatians are “trading in” the greatest news for a different gospel.  The greatest news is that Jesus has secured their salvation through the cross as a free gift from God. It’s Jesus and nothing else.  That’s a lot of church words, but I’ll explain more in a future post. 

Why were they doing that?  Why were they trading that good news in?

Paul says some others have come in to “trouble and distort” the gospel that was preached to them.  The word “trouble” means to stir or shake up.  I thought about the things that “stir” or “shake” our belief that God is for us and with us.  First and foremost, pain and suffering.  When we experience pain and suffering, we often attempt to control our situation, and can often fall into impatience, hijacking perhaps what God wants to do in His timing.

Think about that:  you believe something being taught to you.  You receive it, embrace it.  It becomes a part of who you are.  You experience joy because of it.  A sense that it is right and true and good.  You feel hope.  And then something bad happens.  Sickness, an accident.  You lose something or someone.  And then someone comes and tells you, “Well, that’s because you were believing that message; let me tell you how to get out of that predicament.”

And the message they try and sell you isn’t all wrong.  In fact, parts of it sound like the other message.  It just distorts some things.

The word “distort” brings to mind one of those carnival mirrors.  It distorts the picture of who we are.   So too does a “gospel” that says you have to do all of these things to stay right with God.  

The basic “distortion” Paul was wanting to point out was any message that proclaimed:   “Jesus and…”  In Paul’s day, it was believe in Jesus, AND Obey these rituals.  Believe in Jesus AND Obey these days and seasons.  Believe in Jesus AND Obey these dietary laws.

We hear some of that in the New Testament and can dismiss those things because they’re not a part of our culture.  But what about this…

Well, the way you really show your devotion to Jesus is through serving here.  

The way you really show that you’re serious about your faith is if you volunteer.  

Or give money. 

Or go to this class, this program, this retreat, embrace this discipline, that discipline, on and on and on.

I wonder sometimes if some of you have feel that way when you go to church.  I don’t think it is the intent of some churches to do that.  I know my hope is to create a space for people to discover the person of Jesus, and become a life long follower of His.  To know His grace and love.  I believe when we begin to do that, we’ll join Him in His already existing mission of transformation of our neighborhood, our city, and the world.  But I wonder if sometimes people hear something different. 

There’s a subtle difference between a message that says, “We’re offering these things because it might be a pathway for you to grow in this relationship with Jesus;” and, “You need to do these things to really be accepted by Jesus, and be a part of us.”

Paul feels very strongly about this.  He says that if anyone–even an angel from heaven–is preaching something like that latter message, that they should be cursed.

This word curse is the Greek word  anathema. The first definition I came across in a dictionary was  “a votive offering set up in a temple.” “Devoted to the divinity”–either consecrated or accursed. In other words, Paul was saying, “Let them be devoted to God–for Him to deal with them.”  By the way, Paul says he would wish himself were accursed from Christ for the sake of his brothers in Romans 9:3.

So this is a serious message:  We do not need to turn to earning God’s love or favor; it is by grace we have been saved.

Examine your heart and mind on this:  How many of you are hearing that message and saying “Yes Yes I know.  But I have to do this too…”

Paul would cry out and say “No!”  If you begin to believe that, you begin to leave Jesus behind, in essence saying He is not enough.  He says he’s astonished that the Galatians are “deserting” the one who called them live in grace…God’s free gift.

Jesus is enough.  He is more than enough.  At the core of our faith is a belief that He came to be with us and for us.  To have a relationship with us–we do that through prayer, through studying His words, through learning from one another.  Don’t abandon that relationship by believing you have to do something more to earn His acceptance and love.

I was thinking this: 

“The good news is so good that we try to be good, or do good, to stay good. But we don’t have to.”

Esther Mae Jones would say:  Let God do it for you.

God loves you.  Let Him do this for you.  He has set you free.

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