5-14-17 Galatians Sermon Series “One in Christ”
In the Scripture reading from the book of Acts that Tracy Temple preached two weeks ago on the stoning of Stephen, we were introduced ever so briefly to a young man named Saul of Tarsus, who it was said, held the cloaks of the those who stoned Stephen to death. Saul, it said, approved of their actions in condemnation of this subversive sect following the crucified radical rabbi Jesus, called “The Way.” Later in Acts, we read that Saul, while on the road to Damascus, Syria purportedly to arrest other followers of Jesus, encountered the risen Christ in the form of a bright light and a powerful voice that knocked him to the ground, struck him blind, and challenged him as to why Paul was persecuting him and his followers.
It’s a powerful story that’s told three different times in the new Testament and that leads eventually to Saul’s becoming the Apostle Paul, no longer a persecutor of Jesus but one of his foremost evangelists.
And the Book of Acts reveals that over the next couple of decades Paul would travel throughout the Middle East, Asia Minor, and other parts of the Roman Empire, creating - in a Johnny Appleseed sort of way - communities of Christ followers. Sometimes traveling with companions, other times alone, Paul’s three missionary journeys by land and sea enabled him to plant seeds of faith in Jesus Christ throughout the region, eventually ending up in Rome where he would be martyred around 64 CE.
After birthing these communities Paul would maintain contact with them by way of letters. We assume that there were likely many more letters between Paul and these communities than what we have now in Scripture, in part because that would have been the primary means by which people communicated in those times and Paul expresses great personal affection for many people in many communities, and also because in some letters he alludes to other letters that we don’t have. Therefore it would be a fair assumption that they remained in contact even if we don’t have access to all of their communications.
And as we shared last week, we have thirteen letters within the New Testament that are attributed to Paul. I say attributed because we know that only seven of the thirteen are considered genuine, having with certainty been written by Paul. Another three letters are believed with certainty to have not been written by the Apostle himself, but to have been written by one of his later followers in his name - a common practice in that time - in order to “correct” or even challenge what Paul wrote in one or more of his genuine letters.Then there are another three letters, called the “disputed letters,” about which there is uncertainty by biblical scholars as to authorship, but that a majority believe were not actually written by Paul either. So the nature of letters can be described as being Pauline (or genuine), non-Pauline (not genuine), or pseudo-Pauline (maybe, maybe not Paul).
In the book I referenced last week, The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon, biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe what they call “three Pauls” that are found in these three different categories of letters. The first they call the “Radical Paul.” This is the Paul represented in the seven genuine letters, whose writings and teachings most closely reflect the radical teachings of Jesus. Their second Paul they call the “Reactionary Paul,” and as represented in the non-Pauline letters this writer is reacting to or seeking to counter something Paul has proposed or proclaimed in the genuine letters. Then finally, is what they call the “Conservative Paul.” Don’t think of “conservative” in the sense of politically conservative versus liberal, but rather as seeking to conserve existing power structures and systems of authority within the Roman Empire, Roman imperial theology, and within the Pharisee-led Judaism of that time. As for timing, the genuine letters were all written by the 50s of the first decade of the first century, while the others were written decades, even generations later - well after Paul’s death.
And we talked last week about how, when reading Paul’s letters, it’s absolutely vital to understand the context in which they were written, and we presented that as a series of concentric circles. The innermost circle or context is what specifically is happening in the community to which Paul writes, in this case, Galatia. The second ring represents what is going on within the slowly expanding Jesus movement elsewhere in the Mediterranean world. The next ring considers what is happening within Judaism, because remember, Jesus, Paul, and all of the apostles and followers were all Jews and the Jesus movement was a sect within Judaism, not yet the separate religion it would later become. And finally, the outer and all-encompassing ring of context is the Roman Empire and Roman imperial theology. Everything that happens in this time must be understood in relation to Empire and both Jesus and Paul’s reaction to and rejection of Empire and imperial thinking and theology.
Now, I’ve mentioned Roman Imperial Theology a couple of times, so let’s look at what is meant by this term. Borg and Crossan offer this basic understanding for us.
“Before Jesus was born - or even if he had never existed - another human being was already proclaimed Son of God, and indeed, God Incarnate within the same first common era century and within the same Mediterranean world. In fact, almost all the sacred terms and solemn titles that we might think of as Christian creations or even Pauline inventions were already associated with Caesar Augustus, the first undisputed rule of the Roman Empire, from 31 BCE to 14 CE.”
“Augustus was Divine, Son of God, God, and God from God. He was Lord, Liberator, Redeemer, and Savior of the World - not just of Italy or the Mediterranean, mind you, but the entire inhabited earth. Words like ‘justice’ and ‘peace,’ ‘epiphany’ and ‘gospel.’ ‘grace’ and ‘salvation’ were already associated with him. Even ‘sin’ and ‘atonement’ were connected to him as well.”
And so the basic structure of Roman imperial theology looked something like this:
Religion —> War —> Victory —> Peace
And as Borg and Crossan describe it,
“You must first worship and sacrifice to the gods; with them on your side, you can go to war; from that, of course, comes victory, then, and only then, do you obtain peace… So at its core,” they write, “Roman imperial theology proclaims peace through victory…” (106)
How Caesar Augustus was elevated to this level is far more than what we can cover in a sermon, but for our purposes, we must understand that this is the world into which Jesus was born, and the world in which Paul is writing. “Failure to understand how Rome’s imperial theology was incarnated in Caesar will result inevitably in failure to understand how Paul’s Christian theology was incarnated in Jesus the Christ,” they offer. (101)
So we must understand that when Paul and Jesus’ other earlier followers proclaimed “Jesus is Lord,” they were making not only a religious statement, but a political statement as well, that “Caesar is not” Lord, as imperial theology maintained. When they proclaimed Jesus as “Son of God,” it would be impossible to not understand the conflict and, as Borg calls it, “the confrontational echo” with that title being used for the emperor. Much of the language that was adopted to describe Jesus’ divinity, kingship, etc. was done so to directly counter what was said about the Roman Emperor. So as in the gospels, in Paul’s genuine letters, he is not seeking accommodation with the powers-that-be in Rome and throughout the empire, he is challenging them and their power structures directly in the message of Jesus Christ. That is the context in which the entire New Testament takes place.
So as we move into Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the identity of the specific Galatians to which he writes and the date of the letter are uncertain. If Paul wrote to the congregations he and Barnabas established on their first missionary journey, what you see here in blue, (Acts 13-14), he may have written Galatians as early as 49CE. According to this scenario, Paul was writing to congregations in the southern part of the Roman province of Galatia (part of modern day Turkey): Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. But if Paul was writing to the Celtic tribes that had settled in the northern part of the province of Galatia (also part of modern day Turkey), he was writing in the mid 50s to congregations around Ancyra, which he established on his second missionary journey, shown here in pink. (Acts 16).
And I’ll remind that you he wrote to the Galatians because his teaching and his authority had been challenged by Jewish-Christian missionaries from Jerusalem, who claimed that before these Galatian Gentiles could become part of the Jesus movement they must first be circumcised as the law of Moses dictated, which, if he were not Jewish, Paul might have called so much “hogwash.” And our message last week on the first couple of chapters of Galatians went into Paul’s teaching about our being saved by grace through faith and not by adherence to the Law. If we are saved by works or the Law, Paul says, then Christ died for nothing.
And we made the point that in much of the church, we’ve taken the idea of faith and its original meaning of “trust” in Jesus, or as Borg and Crossan define it, “total commitment,” in this case to Jesus’ program, and changed it into a different form of works righteousness as “belief.” That is, our work is to “believe” or give mental agreement to a certain set of beliefs about God, Jesus, and the Bible. And this goes against everything Paul has to say in this letter.
So a clearly frustrated Paul writes,
You irrational Galatians! Who put a spell on you? Jesus Christ was put on display as crucified before your eyes! 2 I just want to know this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the Law or by believing [that is, committing to or trusting] what you heard? 3 Are you so irrational? After you started with the Spirit, are you now finishing up with your own human effort? 4 Did you experience so much for nothing? I wonder if it really was for nothing. 5 So does the one providing you with the Spirit and working miracles among you do this by you doing the works of the Law or by you [trusting] what you heard?
Throughout his letters, Paul uses the term "law" (nomos) to refer both to Moses’ law and to the first five books of the Bible, the Torah.
This post-Damascus Road Paul now reads the Torah primarily as narrative leading to fulfillment in the Messiah and views the legal code within the Torah in a new perspective in light of the larger story culminating in Christ. Now in Galatians 3, Paul turns to the narrative of the Torah to make his argument.
In Genesis 15:6, after God promised Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, Abraham "believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." In Genesis 12:3 and 22:18, God promised Abraham that "all the Gentiles shall be blessed in you." Paul views these verses as evidence that God planned from the beginning to justify the Gentiles by grace through faith, and "declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham." "For this reason," Paul asserts, "those who believe are justified with Abraham who believed" (3:6-9).
In 3:10-20, Paul makes a number of scriptural points to show that the law is provisional, or temporary, in nature and function:
1.The law cannot justify or bring blessing, for it declares cursed everyone who doesn’t observe all that is written in it. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law in his death on the cross as he died as a result of the law taken to its ultimate conclusion (3:10-14).
2.The promise to Abraham has chronological priority, having been given 430 years before the giving of the law to Moses. The later law cannot alter or annul the original promise, received in faith by Abraham on behalf of all of his descendants (3:15-18).
3.The law was given through angels by a mediator (Moses). It is a third-hand revelation from God, while the promise was spoken directly by God to Abraham (3:19-20).
"Why then the law?" Paul asks rhetorically. It was added "because of transgressions" but was only a provisional measure, "until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made,” the “offspring,” in this case, referring to Christ. While sin has been in the world since humanity gained moral consciousness, the law defined sin and made it known as such. The law served a custodial function with the authority to restrain and even define sin, yet it lacked the power to liberate us from sin (3:20-22), that is, it couldn’t transform us in such a way that we could keep from sinning. So Paul writes that "before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our custodian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith." (3:23-24).
The word translated “custodian” in the CEB and as "disciplinarian" in the NRSV is paidagōgos. In wealthy Greek and Roman families, a pedagogue was a slave entrusted with the care and discipline of a child when the child was not in school, until the child reached the age of adulthood. The metaphor suggests that the authority of the law is like a pedagogue, transitory, lasting only until the fruition of the promise -- "until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.”
"But now that faith has come," Paul continues, "we are no longer subject to a custodian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith" (3:25-26). The word translated "children" in the NRSV is "sons" (huioi). Sons would enjoy full rights of inheritance from their fathers. Yet it’s clear that Paul intends a gender-inclusive meaning by what comes next.
Now that Christ has come, the rite of entry into the community of Christ followers is no longer circumcision (available only to males) but baptism, available to all. "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" (3:27). Here Paul uses language from early baptismal liturgy, in which the newly baptized were clothed in a white garment, symbolic of the righteousness of Christ. All who have been baptized into Christ are clothed with him, wrapped up in him, and incorporated into him so that Christ becomes their primary identity marker.
All other identifiers are negated, for "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" (3:28).
The Babylonian Talmud (or Teachings) includes a morning blessing to be recited by every Jewish man, thanking God for not creating him a gentile, a slave, or a woman (Menahoth 43b). While it’s not certain that this prayer pre-dates Paul, it demonstrates the power these three categories held in the ancient world. Paul's declaration that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, is a radical dismantling of these primary identity and boundary markers. Differences in ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic status don’t magically disappear, of course, but Paul declares them to be irrelevant in the body of Christ. For one to be baptized into Christ means being clothed with Christ and finding one's primary identity and value in Christ. And being “in Christ, we are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise. All who belong to Christ share fully and equally in the inheritance of God's promises and the call to live as God's children and heirs.
The precise categories that divide us today may differ from those in Paul's day, but divisions persist in congregations and in the broader church -- divisions that run along lines of ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation, ideology, political affiliation, and any number of other factors.
Paul reminds us that whatever human categories may describe us, they do not define us, "for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." All human categories are subordinate and ultimately irrelevant to our primary identity as members of the body of Christ.
Yet, both in the world at large as well as in the church we continue to categorize and label one another, and to diminish one another on the basis of those human categories and labels. These are signs of our spiritual immaturity. Paul reminds us that since Christ has come, we’re no longer enslaved to those old divisions. All are justified solely by what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. In our Christian way of understanding the work of God, it’s through baptism into Christ that we belong to him and to one another. All share fully and equally in the inheritance of God's promises and in the mission to which God has called us, regardless of any social or cultural divisions or labels we seek to impose on another.
Do you suppose that this perspective could help us deal with contentious issues, which often have to do with interpretation of the law - both the law of Moses and denominational or church law? Paul reminds us that the law is provisional and can never justify or save us. In fact, it can only imprison us. It is Christ, Paul says, who frees us from what he calls “the curse of the law” and makes us children and heirs of God.
This doesn’t mean that "anything goes" in terms of how we live. Paul has plenty to say about how we’re to live out our freedom in Christ, as we will see in Galatians 5 and 6. Yet Paul's message to the Galatians, and to us, cautions us against allowing the law to annul the promise and destroy the freedom, unity, and mission to which God has called those we would label as Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, rich or poor, gay or straight, black, white, or brown, in and through Christ. God's mission to bless "all the families of the earth," begun with the promise to Abraham and passed on to us as children and heirs, takes priority over all human agendas, divisions, and laws - whether from civil authorities or church Judicial Councils.
Understand this truth if nothing else: there is no such law that can negate God’s promised blessing for all God’s children. And there is no such law that can limit how God chooses to work through the Holy Spirit in any person, male or female, gay or straight, who hears and respond to God’s call. Those divisions are gone, we are one in Christ Jesus. The law, Paul said, is a prison, but the truth of God’s grace given freely to all, well that shall set us free. Amen.