St Paul tells us that the Gospel he proclaims is not of earthly origin, from no human source (Galatians 1.11). When we hear this, our present-day assumption is that he means it comes from “the other side”, that it is supernatural, that it is in the department we separate off to one side of human life, the department we call religious.
But it is not what he means. Yes, he said he had a religious experience; yes, he was speaking of a profound spiritual incident that changed everything he thought and altered everything he did from then on. This is why he called it “not of earthly origin”, because it certainly did not come from anything he had experienced in the world before.
What he was really speaking about is that the impact made upon him that came from Jesus Christ, a real human being born of Mary, yet who came from the Father: the Man from heaven. The revelation he had was of the same order as the disciples after the Resurrection. It was inexplicable in earthly terms as far as they knew them - because the dead man that they all saw was not merely a resuscitation, but instead the same person they had known now living in a new creation. It was shedding its brilliance in this world, but was not being determined by it.
St Paul had been accused of making up his new found proclamation from his own changed tunes, or from schemes he had devised with other people. He was accused of inventing a new kind of preaching about Jesus that was different from the original Kingdom proclaimed by the Lord Himself. To this day, he is accused of founding a new religious institution, the Church, against the spiritual intentions and teaching of Jesus. Thus he was also blamed for not consulting the apostles before beginning his preaching, of being vain in pursuing his personal version of the infant Church’s mission, and thus undermining the authority of the Twelve. But it is all nonsense, then and as now. The other apostles found now fault with it and realised it was fundamentally the same as their own gospel. This was not so much because of the words and terms to be used, or the way they were expressed, but because for all of them it was clearly about a Person, who had come into the world as its Light.
Peter, the rock on whom Christ built His Church, saw this. James, the Lord’s own brother, corroborated it. Paul had truly been in the Light of the same Person as had shone through them too: the Son of Man, the Lord’s anointed, the Son of God, Emmanuel-God-with-Us, the Master, the Good Shepherd, the Ascended Lord of Earth and Heaven, the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Most of us do not have such dramatic revelations as St Paul’s and our encounter of religion feels much of the time as though it is firmly bound up with earthly origins, ideas and people. But think again of how it was for St Peter and St James. James, who we remember today (Galatians 1.19) knew Jesus all his life in such a very human way, as a relation in the same household and family. For James, therefore, the revelation that came to Paul in a flash came through a lifetime of growing up together from boyhood through adolescence, during which familiarity did not breed contempt but formed the close bond of affection and admiration that we can understand from our own families and life-long friendships. St James knew he had grown up with heaven – he would not realise it all the time, for it would have been like second nature. Thus for all that it was in earth, it was of no earthly origin. Jesus his brother was God among Us. For St Peter, the relationship was more recent. He began with being spellbound by a charismatic teacher coming to find St Andrew and then him on the shore of Galilee where they worked as fishermen. After that, it was a series of incidents in which Peter is brought up short by Jesus, Who shows him where he has not grasped the Kingdom of God, culminating in the one where he misjudges the purpose of the Lord’s Arrest, first in the garden and then in the palace courtyard to which he follows Jesus, but where he also denies Him not once but three times. And yet this was all the outward symptom of a deep inner connection with Jesus, the way in which the Lord intrigues those who seek Him out, so that the faulty foundations in Peter’s life of faith can be reconstructed by the resurrection and bear the life-long confidence in Christ to be built on them, a confidence that will one day cost him in turn not less than everything.
All of us, perhaps, have experienced a little of what it is like to know Jesus like St Paul, St James, or St Peter, to find ourselves in the presence of the Man from Heaven and to be changed as a result. Most of us have been growing up in our faith and belief in Him like St James. All of us have been trying to comprehend Him, yet repeatedly found ourselves letting Him down like St Peter, but nonetheless persevering and finding our way through to some kind of constant faithfulness. There may have been the flash of light, perhaps just once in our lives, like St Paul, a vision or an experience of God’s closeness to us, that has stood us in good stead all the way through and irrevocably altered the way we think and live. Perhaps it is a mixture of all three.
The point is that, whoever we are and whatever the Christian life is like for each one of us, our fellowship in the Church and the Christian faith itself are about the Lord Who came to the world with no earthly origin, in order to have the one thing he lacked - human nature - and to work within our human nature our human redemption, so that there could be human fellowship in the life of God Himself.
What the Lord meant to St Peter, St James, St Paul, St Joseph whom we also remember today (Matthew 2.13), and pre-eminently to the Mother of God was that to meet Christ in His Church is to be at the very entrance of heaven into the world, and the world into heaven: “I am the gate –whoever enters through me will be saved. My sheep will come in and go out and find pasture. I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10. 9-10)
In other words, today’s celebration of the Sunday after the Nativity is a feast of our rebirth as human beings in the Spirit of Christ, Who is born among us in the flesh. What had an earthly origin thus receives the eternal living that is heaven’s. Today the Lord of no earthly origin shows us how He takes on the form of human beings, so that we creatures can take on the form of God. He shows that just as God can unite with human nature in one and the same Person, so human beings can enter into and be part of the life of God. It does not require us to leave the world to live with God in His heavenly Kingdom, just as it did not require Christ to be unheavenly to convert the human Paul. “For God is with us” (Isaiah 8-9, from Great Compline on Christmas Night), and with God is how we are too.