I took a class in college on the book of Galatians, but honestly I don’t remember much from it other than I liked it. I loved talking with other about the scripture and getting into some of the details and making connections between it and other epistles (especially Romans).
We’ll be reading most of Galatians in our church over the next several weeks, and it’s great stuff. So I want to focus my preaching on it during this early part of the summer. Here’s the first installment.
Proper 4C — 2013 Based on Galatians 1:1-11
If you’re paying attention at all you’ll notice that our liturgical color has changed today from white to green. It’s been white since the Easter Vigil with one week off there for Pentecost when red came out in force. But now it is the green season, the long period after Pentecost, and it will remain this color until Thanksgiving.
This season is often called “Ordinary Time,” not because of its “day in and day out” rhythm, but because we count the Sundays after Pentecost. The “ordinary” refers to “ordinal,” the numbers associated with each week.
And with ordinary time we hear long sequences of readings week to week in church on Sunday. We’ll be winding our way through Luke for the rest of the summer for our Gospel stories, as well as reading chunks of Paul’s epistles beginning with his letter to the Galatians. My intent is to at least preach through our Galatian readings through the next several weeks to help you in your understanding of this important letter from Paul and also to make a connection between faith and life today.
Paul the apostle, after his awakening and conversion on the Road to Damascus—remember Paul (at that time in the story he is called Saul) had been killing followers of Jesus. He happened to be on another of these trips when Jesus came before him and knocked him down and asked Paul why he did these horrible things. Paul immediately became a follower of Jesus, and after some years of learning, began going out into the Gentile world to share the good news. Paul, a Jew, shared the gospel of Jesus (which hadn’t been written down yet, all the stories about Jesus’s life, death and resurrection were told orally), and he shared it primarily with all the non-Jews he could, the Gentiles.
This made some of the Jewish believers rather nervous. Up until that point most of the followers of Jesus had been Jewish just like Jesus himself. But as more and more people told about Jesus’ compassion and his love, his teachings and his healing touch, and especially about his death and resurrection, well, they couldn’t keep it just to followers of Judaism, they told non-Jews as well.
So Paul began to travel on missionary journeys and planting the seeds for churches. Once they were established he would move on to another area; he traveled all over the region sharing the good news about Jesus. And one of the places he came was to the region of Galatia. Galatia probably represented the southern part of modern day Turkey that is close to the Mediterranean Sea. If you can imagine coming from Israel, heading north to into Syria and then making your way west around the Sea.
All of that is background to the beginning of this letter. And as soon as you start hearing Paul’s introduction, you know that something is up. Paul usually began his epistles by saying he was an apostle of Jesus and then moving to some other greetings and a prayer of thanksgiving. But not in writing to the Galatians. He pens, “Paul, an apostle,” and then goes on to clarify just how he is an apostle, “sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead.” With only three words written, Paul goes on the defensive. He’s justifying his apostleship which didn’t come from others but from Jesus himself, back on that Road to Damascus. Paul’s authority comes directly from God, and he wants these believers to know this.
In other words, someone has come in behind Paul and claiming that Paul isn’t really a true apostle of Jesus. That he didn’t quite have everything right in what he preached; that he didn’t really know Jesus and so messed some things up. Paul wants to address this quickly, which is why he didn’t offer a prayer of thanksgiving at all, getting right to the matter at hand.
And that’s exactly what Paul does beginning in verse 6. “I am astonished,” he says emphatically, “astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel.” Someone or a group of people had come in after Paul left and began teaching something contrary to the gospel of Jesus and it has Paul on edge and completely aggravated. He’s ticked.
Paul gets a bad rap these days. Many in the church see him as this anti-woman, traditional, legalistic guy who cared more about following rules than anything else. This happens though because we look at Paul from our vantage point in the 21st century and want him to have progressed as far as we have on issues. Ironically, however, Paul himself was quite the radical in his day and age. And this is an example of that. Paul is angry because the folks who came preached that the Gentiles couldn’t be true followers of Jesus unless they adhered to the Jewish Torah, the Law. In other words, these ones perverting the gospel wanted more requirements placed on the Gentile believers in order to be good enough to follow Jesus. The gospel of grace, of salvation from sin and death as an unearned gift from God, became twisted by these Torah-following people. The Good News could only be accepted if you followed the checklist, they said.
Which is why Paul is so upset, because that isn’t the Gospel at all. He says a number of times in the next verses that if the gospel of love and grace is twisted—even by him or an angel—then that one should be accursed. The gospel message of Jesus came to all without added requirements from human beings. We humans tend to make things up, to make coming to Jesus harder than it needs to be, and begin restricting access to Jesus by any who want to come to him and be his disciples. So Paul says emphatically that his teaching came from God and that he only cared about God’s approval and not approval from others.
A couple of examples of how this has happened again throughout the ages. First, Martin Luther in his desire to reform the Catholic Church, claimed that indulgences and “buying” one’s salvation through good works and money was not the gospel of grace given by Jesus. His stand resulted in the entire Protestant Reformation, and, by the way, he was largely influenced by Paul’s epistle to the Galatians. More recently, theologian “Karl Bart and members of the Confessing Church of Germany drafted” a declaration saying a resounding “no to the Nazi’s usurpation of the church… against a false gospel of nationalism and ethnicity.” And in “1982, the world Alliance of Reformed Churches denounced the acceptance of racial apartheid by the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa as heresy.”
We can see glimpses in the church today, albeit a lot more subtly. A friend sent me a link this week to things Jesus never said that helps illuminate this. Here is a sample,
“By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have correct theology.”
“If anyone would come after me, let him disparage all other religions and their followers.”
“If you love me, you will regularly attend a church of your choice… within reason.”
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you a checklist of things to do and not do in order to remain in God’s favor.”
“For God so loved the world… you know like theoretically… as in, God loves the big ‘W’-world. But when it come to you specifically, there are quite a few things that would need to change for God to actually and specifically love… or even like… YOU.”
Whenever we say that someone has to look like us or think like us to follow Jesus, we are preaching a false gospel. Whenever we tell someone that they are not truly following Jesus unless they do a list of things or believe a certain way, our testimony about Jesus is deceptive. Whenever we make someone feel as if they are not loved by Jesus and invited into a relationship with him, we are accursed.
Let me say it as emphatically as Paul. You are loved by God, and God’s gift of salvation is free to all who come to him wanting life. Who you are or where you are from or what you wear or what you look like or how you live is not an issue needing to be changed or somehow “fixed” before you can experience God’s true grace. Jesus came to bring life. Period. He came and brought it through his teachings and miracles, through his unquestionable love and grace, and he offers it to you, no questions asked. You just need to decide if you want to accept it or not. If I, or if anyone else, tells you that you must jump through a bunch of hoops before you can truly follow Christ, well then let us be doomed. Jesus came to offer his love freely to all, and he offers it to you. I pray that you receive it again and again and that you know beyond a shadow of a doubt how deeply God loves you. That is the true gospel given to us by God so that God may rescue us from the darkness of this world and bring us into God’s light and truth.