Now – before we jump into the reading this morning, I want to back up just for a moment or two… A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the work of the Jerusalem council as Luke recorded it in Acts.
If you remember, the reason for that meeting was to gain consensus around how to fold in the new believers among them who were Gentiles.
There were some among the Jewish Christ-followers who believed that in order to become part of the community, Gentiles needed to be law-observant, even to the point of circumcising new converts.
Others, including Paul and Peter, argued that God was clearly at work in the Gentile churches, as evidenced by the presence of the Holy Spirit. The same kinds of signs and wonders that the Jewish bodies of believers were seeing and experiencing were happening in Antioch and other gatherings where few or no Jewish members were present.
The conclusion of this difficult conversation was clear – as God expanded the welcome of all nations into the family, the apostles would not require any rituals that were specific to the Jewish tradition. Going and making disciples was to be about teaching the ways of Jesus, seeking the gifts of the Spirit and bearing fruit as they bore witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus as the Messiah for all people.
It is within this context that we need to read the letter from Paul to the Galatians. He had started this mostly-Gentile church, spent time teaching among them, assuring that they understood the source of their salvation – their faith in the work of Jesus Christ.
Now, they have been visited by some teachers who have told them they must observe the law. Paul writes this letter to remind them who they are – members of God’s household.
And to remind them how they got there -by faith.
We are entering mid-stream, so the greetings and salutations are done. After recalling for the Galatians his own struggles to keep the law, as well as a conversation with Peter about how keeping the law was not a means of creating belonging for most Jews, Paul is getting pretty fired up.
Just before our reading for today starts he describes how he came to understand the difference between faith in the law and faith in Christ. I want to read a portion of chapter 2 for you.. from Eugene Peterson’s The Message, so you can hear it in a more contemporary language…
We Jews know that we have no advantage of birth over “non-Jewish sinners.”
We know very well that we are not set right with God by rule-keeping but only through personal faith in Jesus Christ. How do we know? We tried it—and we had the best system of rules the world has ever seen!
Convinced that no human being can please God by self-improvement, we believed in Jesus as the Messiah so that we might be set right before God by trusting in the Messiah, not by trying to be good.
Have some of you noticed that we are not yet perfect? (No great surprise, right?)
And are you ready to make the accusation that since people like me, who go through Christ in order to get things right with God, aren’t perfectly virtuous, Christ must therefore be an accessory to sin? The accusation is frivolous. If I was “trying to be good,” I would be rebuilding the same old barn that I tore down. I would be acting as a charlatan.
What actually took place is this: I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn’t work. So I quit being a “law man” so that I could be God’s man.
Christ’s life showed me how, and enabled me to do it. I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God.
Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not “mine,” but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that.
See, to Paul, the idea of salvation, of belonging to God, is entirely wrapped up in trusting that Christ has already made that possible.
Not the law.
Not how well we understand and follow the law.
But the very fact that the Word became flesh and walked among us, making clear that God wants to us to be reconciled and in relationship with God and one another.
That is the transforming work of grace.
No longer focused on the law, Paul is able to focus on loving God and loving others, inviting them to know that same freedom. The self-giving love of Jesus has changed Paul so radically that he lives as if he were newly resurrected- powered by the Christ who indwells him.
So… when he hears that the Galatians have been taught that they must observe the law, so that people will see their faithfulness and know that they belong to the Way…
Well, he has some words for them. Strong words.
I can just imagine the Galatians, gathered at their synagogue around the leader for the day, the person who would read the letter… and it sounds just like the Paul they knew and loved…
Listen for the Word of the Lord to them and to us…
3:1 You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! 2 The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? 4 Did you experience so much for nothing? —if it really was for nothing.
5 Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?
6 Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” 7 so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. 8 And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.”
9 For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.
Paul goes into a little more depth here, but we’ll jump forward to verse 23
23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
28 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. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring,heirs according to the promise.
This is the Word of God for the people of God…Thanks be to God
Thanks be to God, indeed.
I mean that.
Even in his frustration, Paul is offering to the church in Galatia, to us and to all who would follow Jesus, a reminder of the grace that allows us to claim our places as children of God.
All of us.
Not because we do a great job of rule-following. In fact, we ignore the vast majority of the requirements set out for those who would worship the God we have come to know as Father.
Paul is reminding the Galatians that the Spirit’s work among them is all the testament the world needs to know that the crucified Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!
Which leads Paul to ask the obvious question: Is any of what they are experiencing…
any of the transformation…
Are any of the healings…
any of the signs of God’s resurrection power…
Is any of that a direct result of their efforts to keep the law?
The question actually implies the answer for them: NO. Of course not.
It all comes back to faith. That is, hearing and believing the truth about who Jesus was, how he lived and died, and trusting that the God whose promises are true raised this Jesus from the dead.
They were justified by faith.
All of which were being eroded by false teaching. Teaching that points back to Abraham’s circumcision as the beginning of the relationship between God and the Hebrew people.
If we look back to Genesis 17, we understand where this tradition begins. This is the moment in which God makes these promises:
Abram will be the ancestor of a multitude of nations
Kings will be among his descendants
The land of Canaan will belong to his offspring in perpetuity
They will be God’s people. Always.
And the sign- the seal of this covenant between God and Abram, now Abraham, is circumcision. For all the generations since, the Hebrew men have been marked.
This is how they indicate that they are part of the family.
That they belong to God through their connection to Abraham.
They are physically set apart.
And so, for them, it makes sense to ask the Gentiles to do just as Abraham and his family and all of their descendants did. And then to observe the laws given to Moses.
There is a beautiful continuity in these traditions.
A continuity that points to the faithfulness of God.
And to the efforts at faithfulness – however imperfect – of the people God has claimed.
This continuity is actually what makes Paul’s argument all the more powerful. Because Paul reaches back even farther into Genesis… even earlier in Abram’s story.
Abram and Sarai have faithfully followed God’s call out of Ur to who knows where… trusting God to lead them to some land they have been promised. And They continue to wait for a child, though that promise seems more laughable by the day. They cry out to God along the way, and finally God responds to Abram’s despair…
God brings Abram outside his tent and saying, Look up… count the stars in the heavens if you are able. That is how numerous your descendants will be.
Abram looked up, but he wasn’t really counting.
He was trusting that the number was uncountable.
Once again Abram believed the Lord. And scripture tells us that the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
And it was then God that made the first covenant with Abram. It was a different kind of ceremony, one with visions and fire pots and carcasses of animals cut in half.
All made possible by Abram’s trust.
By Abram’s faith that God’s promise was real that God’s word was true.
It was at that moment that God claimed Abram and that Abram claimed God
And all those nations… all those descendants promised to Abraham?
All of them are equally God’s
Jew or Gentile
Male or Female
Slave or Free
All of them are have equal access to God’s grace
No multi-tiered comparisons
No bonus points for circumcision
No demerits for eating pork or drinking wine.
In Christ, All of them are equally beloved
In Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, Galatia…
In Judea, Samaria and to the end of the world.
Paul expects the Galatians to be wise enough and mature enough to claim their place in the family, and not to be distracted by this call to observe the law.
There are too many people around them who need to hear the good news and to experience the new life that Paul and his friends are living. There are people in need of healing and visiting and feeding and clothing… in need of the body of Christ.
Now, before we go any further, I have a word of caution.
I want us to be careful though about where we situate ourselves in this story.
There are voices – prominent voices – in the American Christian millieu, who would have us believe that the church is being persecuted. That we are under attack and that the true gospel is being watered down
They espouse a list of beliefs and behaviors that are definitely not a perfect match for those laid out in the Old Testament… but the list is long and is equally unlikely to bring life.
And that list is used to measure and judge, then label and stigmatize other beloved children of God.
Friends, I hope you hear this wrapped in all the love I have for you:
We are not called to bring judgment and shame upon one another
We are not called to segment the world into those we deem worthy and those who are not
We are not called to place spiritual disciplines onto anyone but ourselves
We are called to offer the peace of Christ, the love of Christ, the transformative presence of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit
We are called to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them the ways of Jesus. This commission remains true for all time.
As does the message Paul has for all who become part of the Body:
In Christ, all of us are equally God’s
Jew or Gentile
Male or Female or Genderqueer
Slave or Free
Republican or Democrat or Independent
Socialist, Capitalist or Anarchist
Gay or Straight, Pansexual or Asexual
Black, Brown, Caramel, Pink or White
Presbyterian, Baptist or Episcopalian
Young, Old and everything in between.
In Christ, ALL of us have equal access to God’s grace
No multi-tiered comparisons
No bonus points for dressing more sharply
No demerits for taking decades to find the courage to walk through the doors of a church
All of us are equally beloved
Because it is our trust in God’s promises that make us righteous.
It is our belief that God truly is more powerful than sin
More powerful than our fears and our prejudices
More powerful than our capacity for hatred and war
Our belief that God is more powerful than death…
That is what grafts us into the family of God
The proof of which is the work of Holy Spirit in and among us
Because it is only the Holy Spirit at work among us that moves us
To go beyond rote prayers of confession to repentance of sin
To set aside division and unite in the work of worship and justice
It is the Holy Spirit at work among us that moves us
to set aside our fears and long-held prejudices and welcome the alien and the stranger,
to choose love over hatred and to pursue the harder work of peace-making
All of which bring life and light into a world that reeks of death
Tomorrow is Memorial Day, but I feel like I have been commemorating the holiday for a week. I visited all kinds of memorials last weekend.
We walked around at the National Cemetery and Confederate Cemetery in Fredericksburg. We didn’t go in, but we drove past the Arlington National Cemetery and happened to catch sight of some 800 marines at the Iwo Jima Memorial, commemorating the day that the flag was raised.
We were surrounded by Honor Flight soldiers getting off busses near the WWII Memorial, each wearing yellow jackets or shirts indicating whether they had fought in World War II, Korea or Vietnam.
As we headed to the Vietnam memorial, I called my friend Kathy in Minnesota. She hasn’t been able to visit the wall in DC, but she help me find her brother’s name using FaceTime. We wept together from half a continent away as she recalled the brother’s whose death in war changed her family forever.
There was even a Blue Mile on the Half Marathon route- every few yards for an entire mile there was a poster with the photo and story or person holding a flag with the name of a marine who was killed on duty from WW1 right on up to current deployments in the middle east.
It has been a week of remembering and grieving.
A week of facing the truth of just how many lives have been given…
All in the hope that we might know freedom.
On this last Sunday of the Easter season, we gather to remember
We gather to remember, but not to grieve
We gather to remember and to celebrate
One life, given for all time, so that we might know a different kind of freedom.
A deep, spiritual and eternal freedom.
We gather, as One Church, called by One Spirit, empowering us for One mission –
To build the kingdom of God in which no one is hungry,
no one thirsts,
and no one must go it alone
When we are one body, one church, all going after that one mission… Christ is risen.
When we are one body, one church, all going after that one mission… He is risen, indeed.