We’ve made changes to the look of this post – using the print bulletin for the in-person worship service. The sermon is printed below the bulletin.
Update – the audio recording didn’t work out, so there won’t be one this week. We hope to have it figured out for next week.
Today we hear again from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Last week we heard him scolding the church he had founded there. A controversy had arisen when a new group of Christian Jews came to town saying that converts needed to first meet the demands of Jewish tradition – namely that males must be circumcised – before they could be true Christians. Paul reminded them that all are equal in God’s gracious love, there is no place for exclusion in the mystical body of Christ. There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female – all are one. God had promised provision for the nations through Abraham long before the law was given. All that was required was to trust the promise. The mark of belonging was not circumcision, but faith.
In this part of his letter, Paul writes more about this freedom – beginning with his own transformation from a Pharisee, passionate about each detail of the law, to one awakened to the vision of promise and of hope rather than judgment and fear.
Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21
13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
These are Paul’s credentials. He admits to his former life of violence against the early followers of Jesus Christ. He says he was zealous for the traditions of his ancestors. But, as is true for many who keep traditions, he had been a stickler for the details of performance – the things you had to do to maintain the tradition – without remembering the “why.” The core of the law is love – love of God with heart, mind, body, soul – and love of our neighbor as ourselves – even if our neighbor is one of those people.
We pick up the reading again with Paul describing an example of the battle between tradition and transformation – this time in Peter’s behavior.
2:11 When Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.
But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
As I’ve been thinking about this reading – and complaining to myself and our cats about how hard it is to preach on Paul – it occurred to me that there are several topics we circle around and can’t avoid if we try, like Paul, to come to terms with faith in Christ. Each one of them relies on a mix of personal experience, of communal practice and witness, and the ability or willingness to be inwardly honest, vulnerable, to open our minds and hearts to trust in things we can’t know.
Following a strict set of rules is a lot easier.
The first of these unavoidable topics might be the biggest leap – we’ve got to come to terms with the existence of God. If something in your experience and inner being accepts this, then we might venture a claim about the nature of God. I think we all have feelings or images that we individually associate with God. Is God kind and benevolent, or a critical judge your behavior, or a one-time creator who’s not that invested in daily life, or a wise and loving grandparent with a big lap and warm arms? Is exclusion or inclusion the ultimate purpose of God? And for all or for some? Those are some God questions to grapple with.
The next item on my short list of things that are hard to avoid is the birth of Jesus, and the messy configuration of incarnation. Paul wrote his letters before the gospels were written, and he doesn’t ever mention the incarnation or talk about personal stories or the parables of Jesus – he writes only about the consequence of belief in Jesus… about how it altered his life, and the claim that faith makes on one as a follower of Christ. But still, it seems obvious to say that a Christian has to believe that in some way, God is present in Jesus in a way that is not the normal way God is present in human lives. In Jesus, there is something more than the wonderful, but generic, sense of being created in the image of God. That “something more” is evident in the witness of his disciples and of those who recorded the stories and memories of his life and death. They clearly came to believe that Jesus was the Son of God.
Third on the list is the resurrection. We have recently heard again the Easter stories – how first the women, and then all the disciples experienced something so transformative that they believed without doubt that Jesus had risen from the dead – present with them for a time afterwards – and then not, but entered into the ever-present- living-ness of God, as a continuing, though invisible, presence. The book of Acts records accounts, stories, of how ordinary people within the early gathering of the church were so charged, so changed by the Holy Spirit and the reality of the risen Christ, that they shared the story, they risked their lives because of this new insight, and they lived it out in ways that spread the gospel throughout Jerusalem, to Judea, Samaria and beyond – to Jewish, Gentile, pagan, soldier, eunuch, slave…. This is the Jesus that Paul encountered on the road to Damascus.
We met Paul first – using his Jewish name, Saul – as he watched over the coats at the stoning of Steven and approved of the lawful right to kill those who claimed Jesus as Lord – Paul took up his mission as the defender of the Jewish faith and began a rigorous persecution of Christians. As we’ve heard this morning, he “was violently persecuting the church of God trying to destroy it.” He goes on, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” But Paul had a visitation. God intruded. The invisible presence of Jesus dropped him to the dust, and turned his world around. He changed from feared persecutor of the faith, to fearless promoter of the faith. And in his turning Paul saw all things with new eyes.
He brings us to the fourth point on my list of unbelievable things we have to reckon with as Christians: and that is Freedom. We heard about it last week, in the form of the specific example of circumcision. What are the indicators that you are one of those following the Way of Christ? How does belonging in this community show? The council at Jerusalem decided that the ancient, God-given, scriptural law of circumcision was not necessary. What is necessary is faith – and the marker of faith is the way one lives, the witness of daily life.
Now, no one is going to argue that point, but it is so open-ended, and, therefore, seems likely that it will quickly fall back into the law – because what defines the right or acceptable witness of daily life? What does it look like? What kind of things do we have to do? It doesn’t take our brains any time at all to format a little checklist – wouldn’t an indicator bar be helpful? Like those that show the strength of a password you choose. And then we’re back to trusting the laws and traditions and indicator bars, and not venturing into the wonderful mystery of freedom, the grace God promises. Peter – who took the lead in arguing against the burden of circumcision last week – is having problems getting his mind around the freedom of faith this week.
The conflict was over kosher and the works of the law.
At his time, there were 613 rules of behavior that had sprung up around the 10 commandments. These extra layers of law functioned to buffer the core of God’s law and to protect the faithful from straying into sin. If a good Jew followed all of those laws, they could expect favorable judgment from their community and from God. The works of the law governed every aspect of life from the food you could eat, the cooking methods and the manner in which you could eat it, to personal hygiene, cleanliness, and childbirth; from housekeeping to animal husbandry; from harvest practices to financial management and legal arbitration if you happen to be gouged by your neighbor’s bull.
The works of the law covered all your basic life questions and oriented one onto a straight path to God. Peter wasn’t so sure that all these helpful laws should be tossed out with the baptismal bath water. He waffled on the issue of kosher, but Paul sets him straight. We know from the gospels that Jesus didn’t put much stock in the works of the law or bother about eating with the right people. Jesus was more interested in loving God and loving your neighbor as you love yourself, and even loving your enemy – loving the law didn’t make his list. Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship with the Gentile Christians implied that they were second-class citizens in the kingdom of God, that they could only become acceptable table companions if they learned not to bring hot dogs and jello to the pot luck. By leaving the table, Peter silently bore witness to fellowship based on Jewish law, rather than through God’s loving law of inclusion.
Paul writes, “… we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but only through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.”
It would be so much easier to understand this, if he wouldn’t use words like justify 5 times in the same sentence. “Justified” does not mean, “I can justify my behavior; let me explain my motivations and the extenuating circumstances that led me to act this way.” Justify means being put straight, getting your life in right order. We might know this use of the word from word processing on computers. There are little boxes on the menu bar that shift lines of writing so they all line up on the left side of the page. If you click another button or set a new tab, they will immediately shift and line up along the right side of the page. Those buttons justify the margins. They shift and align your words.
Paul says faith shifts and aligns our lives. We will act differently because we have been justified by Christ aligning us with God. If we believe that God is ultimately invested in a relationship of love with and for us; and if we believe that somehow Jesus was God incarnate, in the flesh; and if we believe that somehow God’s love is more powerful than death, and if we affirm that it’s not by our own doing or within our own power to make things right or even to live a life we’re proud of, the life we intend — but that those things, that power comes from God’s love claiming and freeing us as a gift of mercy — then, because of all that, we are made new, we are re-oriented; we are justified, re-aligned.
Priorities, values, relationships shift. They are put in a good order because we are acting out of faith in Christ. And it should… will… does show. Like Paul’s scolding of Peter, the actions of our lives should be consistent with our belief. As aspiring followers of Christ, we try to look beyond the first impulse of self (self- centeredness, ego) and see ourselves living within the grace of God – gifted and gifting. Through Christ, God intrudes in our lives to mend and straighten those relationships with God and neighbor and self.
I started out saying that there were four unbelievable things to come to terms with in the life of faith. Freedom sounds like it shouldn’t be difficult. It sounds like recess, spring break, the long days of summer. However, the freedom Paul is talking about isn’t freedom to do whatever you feel like doing. It is freedom to let go of fear and checklists. It’s freedom to trust divine encouragement and inspiration more than your ability to forge ahead and make it happen. You can’t bring yourself up to a satisfactory level of redemption. For Paul it isn’t so much a works versus faith thing, but a matter of trusting God. Good works are still good. But, do those good deeds and noble actions redeem you, or does God? Does willing yourself to believe save you, or does God’s Spirit claim you? Paul sees that the law he loves and killed for, can’t and won’t save or give freedom from doubt and sin and death – it has no power to do that – and, in the end, it will actually enslave you.
It is God alone who can offer life and changed mindsets and a right course for living – because it has to come from within, from an inner passion for God, not from duty or obedience. It is Christ living within you that transforms your life. The good works we do are then for the sake of a world that needs good work, a world that in all of its diversity and oddity and wonder, is beloved by God. We don’t believe so that we will be saved, we believe that we are saved. God has already shifted the margins, justifying our lives through Jesus so that we are recipients of that gift of mercy and are truly free to live into it joyfully and generously. The freedom of a Christian is to not fear.