Galatians Sermon Series - “Live By Faith” 5-7-17
The Apostle Paul is second only to Jesus as the most important person in the origins of Christianity. Yet after two thousand years he remains one of the most controversial figures in the faith’s history. Some find him appealing, others find him appalling; some aren’t sure what to think of him, others know little about him. So as we begin this exploration of one Paul’s letters we’ll consider his importance, his mixed reputation, and how to approach the collection of writings attributed to Paul.
Paul’s importance is made clear simply by looking at the New Testament itself. Of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament, thirteen are letters attributed to Paul. Not all were actually written by Paul - and we’ll get to that in a moment - but they bear his name. In addition to these letters we also have the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, written by the Gospel writer Luke, in which Paul is the main character in over half of this volume. So half of the New Testament is by or about Paul.
In their book, “The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon,” theologians and bible scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan argue that Paul’s importance “extends beyond the New Testament and into the history of Christianity.” Not only was Paul primarily responsible for the spread of the early Jesus movement to include Gentiles (non-Jews) as well as Jews, but also for it’s spread across much of the Roman Empire at that time. And while Paul, like Jesus, never intended to start a new religion but rather was working within the structure of Judaism, he was primarily responsible for the emergence of Christianity as a new religion that, though it included Jews, became increasingly separate from Judaism.
Paul’s influence is felt throughout the history of Christianity. Many of its most important, most influential theologians were influenced by Paul’s writings, beginning with St. Augustine. In what is considered the world’s first spiritual autobiography, Augustine wrote in his Confessions, that after reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, “Instantly…there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all of the gloom of doubt vanished away.” After this experience mediated by the writings of Paul, Augustine became the most influential theologian of the first thousand years of Christianity.
In the more than a thousand years between Augustine and the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, Paul gained even more importance, especially for Protestants during the Reformation.
Martin Luther, the great Reformer, had his transforming experience of radical grace while preparing lectures on Paul, and Paul became the foundation of his theology, especially in how he contrasted grace and law, faith and works, language that shaped Luther as well as how we look at Luther.
John Calvin, the other most important Protestant Reformer, also made Paul central to his theology. Calvin’s theological descendants include millions of Protestants: Puritans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, and other Reformed denominations. And two centuries later, Paul played a central role in the birth of the Methodist church. Our founder, John Wesley, was converted to his mission to reform the Church of England while listening to a reading of Luther’s commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans, when
Wesley said he “felt his heart strangely warmed.” Wesley’s life work eventually led to a new denomination that we now know as the United Methodist Church.
Thus, hundreds of millions of Protestants around the world have Paul as their primary theological ancestor. Needless to say, Paul matters; how, and how much, varies greatly among Christians.
For some, Paul has been a mediator of radical, unconditional grace. That’s how Luther viewed him. Paul’s message of justification or salvation by grace through faith was joyously liberating for Luther, who in the Catholic church of the time had believed that to be right with God required meeting what were thought to be God’s requirements, a daunting task that tormented him and led to conflict and his protests (thus the name Protestant) against Catholic teachings. Borg and Crossan write, “Radical grace meant for Luther that God accepts us just as we are, and the Christian life is about living more and more fully into this realization, not about measuring up to requirements.
For Luther, Paul’s message was about the end of requirements, or the Law, as the basis of our relationship with God.
For other Protestants though, including many descendants of Luther, Paul’s theology has been understood, not as the abolition of requirements,
but as a new requirement - namely, that believing his theology is required in order to be saved. Despite the emphasis upon God’s grace, “justification by grace through faith” was heard as “justification by faith,” where faith was understood not at trust, but as believing, creating a new form of works righteousness: the “work” being “to believe.” Faith then meant believing in a correct set of doctrines (which, coincidentally, happened to be their’s), and this was the only way to salvation. So what Luther originally experienced as a joyful liberation from a works-based anxiety morphed into the source of deep anxiety for many.
This notion - that we are saved by something we do, that is believing a particular set of teachings about Jesus, God, and the Bible - continues among many Protestants in our time. It’s especially prevalent among those who emphasize [what’s called “orthodoxy,” or] “believing the right things” as foundational to being Christian and thus as a requirement for salvation.” (Borg, Crossan, pg 8) And, of course, there are thousands of different denominations and sets of beliefs, all of which, in one way or another, assume their belief is the best, the truest, the most biblical, the most Christian.
Besides these very divergent interpretations of Paul and the writings attributed to him, his letters are not always easy to understand - they don’t always make sense to us. They’re not like the gospels, full of stories about Jesus and his teachings. In fact, Paul rarely mentions the stories of Jesus or the familiar teachings that we find so compelling in the gospels. Paul’s letters are just that, letters. When we read Paul, we’re reading somebody else’s mail. And these letters are written to faith communities that Paul established, places he had already visited to introduce Jesus Christ to them, and now he writes responding to very specific issues or problems that had arisen in those communities. And because these issues are local they don’t always make much sense to us if we don’t know the details of what’s gone on before and what precipitated the current conflict.
And if all of that isn’t enough to make some people avoid Paul, there’s the fact that many of the letters attributed to him endorse slavery, the subordination of women, and condemn homosexual behavior. They’ve been used for much of Christian history to justify systems of oppression including slavery.
The subordination of women within the church and society has lasted even longer that slavery. Only in the last few decades did most mainline Protestant denominations begin to ordain women as clergy. The Catholic church still does not, most conservative Protestant churches do not, and many of these teach the subordination of wives to husbands. And it’s passages from Paul’s letters that are used to justify these positions. Paul has been used to support systems or cultural conventions that are or have been oppressive to more than half the human race. What a guy, right?
And as if that’s not enough, one passage from his letter to the church at Rome, taken out of context, has been used to justify support of government oppression.
Romans 13:1-7 says,
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is not authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and whose who resist will incur judgment.
So while in our own society this passage is often quoted by conservative and evangelical Christians to support Presidents that they like (even as it’s conveniently forgotten when a moderate or liberal President is elected). More infamously, this passage was used by many German Christians to justify support of Hitler’s Third Reich during World War II. Closer to our own time and place, it’s been used by many Christians in this country to oppose civil disobedience during the civil rights movement and to legitimate supporting the American government’s decision to invade Iraq -
stating that Christians are to support their government whatever they do; an argument that is increasingly unpersuasive to many Christians and that Jesus himself never made.
So you get a sense of how tricky preaching Paul can be, if for no other reason than I’m 10 minutes into this first sermon on Paul’s letter to the Galatians and I have yet to talk about Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Paul, appealing or appalling, comes with baggage that has to be unpacked in order to be understood.
We won’t unpack all of it today, but there is one last things that we need to get on the table before we get into this particular letter.
And for that I turn to the great philosopher, Yogi Berra.
Yogi Berra, besides being a Hall of Fame catcher for the New York Yankees in the 1950s and 60s, was known for many of the things he is quoted as having said, such as:
- “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
- “It’s like deja vu all over again.”
- “You can observe a lot just by watching.”
- “Predictions are hard, especially about the future.”
- “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
- And most famously perhaps, “It ain’t over til it’s over.”
Years after his retirement, Berra wrote a memoir, famously titled, “I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said,” in which he corrects the record about which of the sayings attributed to him were actually his, and which he never said or that were reported incorrectly.
Paul never got a chance to correct the record, but it’s important to understand this: Paul didn’t really say everything he said. The overwhelming majority of mainstream bible scholars, have concluded that the thirteen letters attributed to Paul fall into three categories:
- letters definitely written by Paul,
- letter definitely not written by Paul,
- and ones about which there is great uncertainty.
- Again, Borg and Crossan write, “According to massive scholarly consensus, at least seven letters are “genuine” - that is, written by Paul himself. These seven include three longer ones (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians) and four shorter ones (1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon).
Written in the 50s of the first century, give or take a
year or two, they’re the earliest documents in the New Testament, earlier even than the gospels, the first of which, Mark, was written about 70. Thus, the genuine letters of Paul are the oldest witness we have to what was to become Christianity.”
“According to an almost equally strong consensus, three letters were not written by Paul: 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, commonly known as the “pastoral letters” or simply the “pastorals.” Scholars estimate they were written around the year 100, possibly even a decade or two later. These are seen as not genuine, or “non-Pauline,” because they have what looks like a later historical setting and a style of writing quite unlike Paul’s in the genuine seven letters. Thus the letters to Timothy and Titus were written in the name of Paul several decades after his death.
Now, we may think that writing in somebody else’s name was dishonest or fraudulent, but it was a common literary practice or convention in the ancient world, even in Judaism.”
“The third group of letters about which there’s no scholarly consensus, are, however, seen by a majority
of scholars as not coming from Paul.
Often called the “disputed” letters, they include Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians.”
Most scholars, including Borg and Crossan, “see these letters as ‘post-Paul,’ written a generation or so after his death, midway between the genuine letters and the later pastoral letters.”
“Thus,” Borg and Crossan offer, “there are three “Pauls” within the letters attributed to him.”
They call the Paul of the seven genuine letters the radical Paul - most closely reflecting the radical Jesus.
They call the Paul of the three pastoral letters the reactionary Paul, because the author of these letters is not simply developing Paul’s message, but countering it or reacting to it at important points.
In the third group there’s a strong attempt to accommodate Paul’s thoughts to the conventional mores of his time, especially to the Roman Empire, so in comparison to the radical Paul, they name the Paul of the disputed letters the conservative Paul - as in trying to conserve existing thinking, existing power structures.
And the writers’ purpose, they say, is not to raise a debate about the use of terms like “radical,” reactionary,” and conservative,” but rather to insist that the post-Pauline, pseudo-Pauline letters are actually anti-Pauline with regard to major aspects of his theology.
They represent a taming of Paul, a domestication of Paul’s passion to the normalcy of the Roman imperial world in which he and his followers lived.” (15)
That is, they attempt to counter or dial back some of the more radical ideas found in Paul’s genuine letters in order to conserve or maintain existing power structures or influence bases within the Roman Empire and Roman imperial theology that Paul threatens.
So, as we begin to study Paul’s letters in general, and Galatians in particular, it helps to look at them within their context by imagining a set of concentric circles.
The innermost circle would be the community to which he wrote. What specific issues or questions have arisen in that particular community that Paul seeks to address. The second circle that encompasses the first is what’s going on at this time within the early Jesus movement. Remember, it’s not Christianity yet, it’s a movement with Judaism that is spreading slowly in two different directions, among Jews and among Gentiles.
The third circle is within the context of Judaism itself and how do Paul’s teachings reflect or reject common thinking within Judaism. And then the last or outermost, all-encompassing circle is the Roman Empire, because everything they do, everything that not only Paul but Jesus said and taught were done so in the context of, and often either in response to or rejection of, the Roman Empire and Roman imperial theology. So in order to understand Paul’s letters we must consider the context.
Paul's letter to the Galatians has had an immense impact on the Christian understanding of the role of faith in our being made right before God. In it he responds to a severe challenge to his gospel and his apostleship defending “the truth of the gospel:” A person is made right before God on the basis of what God has done in Jesus Christ, not on the basis of Moses’ Law or any other kinds of works-based righteousness.
The letter’s thesis is found in Galatians 2:16: “We know that a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the Law but rather through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” Salvation is God’s gift; in cannot be earned by anything we do.
This letter was written in response to the appearance of Jewish-Christian missionaries who came to Galatia questioning Paul’s authority as an apostle and the gospel he preached. Paul’s gospel didn’t require the Galatians, who were Gentiles, to be circumcised or to adopt Moses’ Law. These missionaries, however, insisted that if the Galatians were to enjoy the benefits of the Jewish Messiah, they must be circumcised and do what the Law required. Paul maintained that the Galatians were already in right relationship with God because of their faith or trust in what God had done in Christ, but these missionaries were adamant that the Galatians must be circumcised and follow Jewish law as well.
So, the larger question Paul addresses is this:
Is trust in what God has done in Christ sufficient for salvation, or is more required?
Paul responds in three ways:
- First, he reviews the events of his past to show the Galatians that he received his gospel and apostleship directly from God and Jesus Christ rather than from humans, therefore, they can trust the gospel he preached to them.
- Second, which is what we’ll touch on next week, he explains that the Galatians receive salvation because they’ve been baptized into Christ and received the gift of the Holy Spirit, therefore, they don’t need to be circumcised.
- Finally, Paul argues that even though the Galatians are not under the Laws’ authority, they fulfill [Christ’s] Law by practicing the love commandments through the power of the Spirit, the focus of our later messages in this series.
So, in that context, Paul begins this letter, as he does in all of the genuine letters, with this form of greeting:
From Paul, an apostle who is not sent from human authority or commissioned through human agency, but sent through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead; and from all the brothers and sisters with me.
To the churches in Galatia.
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. He gave himself for our sins, so he could deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. To God be the glory forever and always! Amen.
This leads to our first passage today. Paul recounts what they already know about him from his prior visit:
he was a Pharisee’s Pharisee - he worked harder than anyone, was stricter than anyone, in enforcing the very Law of Moses that he now says no longer applies in Christ. God called him, he said, and revealed to him through his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road, this new gospel of grace alone. He didn’t receive this gospel from any other human beings, including and especially the apostles in Jerusalem, it came to him directly from Jesus Christ - straight from the horse’s mouth we might say - so he accepts no human challenges to the nature of his message or the validity of his apostleship to the Gentiles.
Paul’s conversion speaks to the priority of grace - the fact that he didn’t “find” Jesus, it was through God’s initiative of grace that Jesus “found” him.
The divine initiative, the prevenient grace of God, initiates the contact with Paul, and, he says, with us.
Paul reminds us that Christ’s revelation and Christ’s love continually break through the bounds that religion sets on them. For Paul, limiting grace in and to a particular community or in relation to particular religious practices will always violate the gospel. And the church cannot be reminded of this often enough.
Paul claims that the leaders of the church in Jerusalem were changing their tune about salvation by grace through faith by requiring circumcision of Gentile converts, calling them hypocrites. For Paul, this practice threatened a total corruption of salvation by grace, meaning that radical trust in Jesus alone was not enough. To reinstate the law as a means of salvation, was a betrayal of the agreement between he and Peter that allowed Jews and non-Jews to be equal partners in the early Christian community. If we think of a traditional practice as essential for faith, we exclude from our community lovers of Christ who practice differently than we do. Think, for example, Catholics who deny communion to non-Catholics or other Protestants who
re-baptize people who weren’t baptized “their way,” or within the United Methodist Church and the debate of LGBTQ rights. This would have been catastrophic for Paul - and for all non-Jewish Christians. Paul and Peter, like Christians through the centuries, are struggling to live into the reality of divine grace that is no longer tied to compliance with Mose’ Law.
And one of the reasons this is difficult for some is that in the face of God’s unbounded and freely given love and grace, those institutions and people who would try to somehow mediate or control access to God’s grace through socially created divisions or religiously oriented requirements or commitments, lose their standing - their authority - their control.
Communities of faith don’t need to be identical
because the gospel doesn’t depend on uniformity.
Their agreement was threatened when Peter waffled between his allegiance to Jewish tradition and allegiance to a new community devoted to Christ.
For Paul, the gospel could survive plurality, but it could not survive the displacement of divine grace by binding customs, laws, and moral codes. Religious traditions give structure and meaning to our lives, but they also produce divisions in the human community among Catholics, Methodists, Greek, Orthodox, evangelicals, progressives, Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims. Like Peter in his moment of indecision, we often feel more allegiance to our religious party than to the teachings of Jesus.
But Paul’s letter to Galatia is a reminder that being a Christian is not about allegiance to religious parties.
God plays no favorites.
For Paul, through death and resurrection Christ comes to dwell in the human heart and to produce a community based not on social distinctions, rules of law, or even uniformity of belief, but on love.
We become “In Christ,” as Paul puts it.
And being “In Christ” reveals the essential intimacy that exists between humanity and its creator, an intimacy that we can neither neutralize nor police, because it doesn’t depend on us but on the graciousness of God.
Free from the logic of a social world built on the oppression of others, we’re able to recognize others as bearers of the Divine as well.
God so urgently desires to display love for all humanity that God takes human form, walks among us, and shows us - in word and deed, in birth and death, and in victory over death - the intimacy and power of God’s love. Though Christians know this indwelling through the revelation of Christ, it can coexist with any religion, which is why Jews and Gentiles alike could enter into Christian community. “Christ in us” requires nothing but faith that rests in the confidence, the trust, that God is God and God is Good. This was the stumbling block for the missionaries to Paul’s gospel in Galatia, and it remains a stumbling block for many Christians today.
For Paul, if Christ’s gracious presence and God’s overflowing grace is reduced to a mere by product of compliance to some new religious law, then the gospel itself is lost.
Paul, in his time, speaks to the difficulty of sorting out what Christianity will be as it moves from its base among Jesus’ Jewish followers out into the wider world. Notwithstanding his views on faith, Christianity did become a new religion and, for many, unfortunately, a new set of laws. Many Christians feel attached to their familiar beliefs, moral positions, worship practices, and songs of their community. In a pluralistic and changing world, it feels important to cling to these as if they were the gospel itself, because they seem stable, reliable.
They reflect our ordinary understandings of what allegiance to God should look like. Changing a hymnbook or rethinking an ethical position can make us feel as if “Christ died to no purpose.” But Paul reminds us that faith involves the ongoing anguish of fidelity to a God who remains mysterious, even in God’s most intimate revelations. He writes of the difficulty, even fragility of trust in unconditional love. He invites us to confidence in a cross that never ceases to disorient our minds.
Paul’s depiction of the priority of faith as simply trust provides neither crystal clear answers nor comforting practices. Instead, we’re offered Christ himself.
If we begin with trust, we can live into our traditions more lightly. We can enjoy the practice our particular community provides without insisting that it is the only way.
Our trust in God’s grace can allow us to be nourished by our tradition without assuming that those who practice differently have no knowledge, relationship, or salvation from God. Faith as an act of trust rather than a requirement tied to belief, gives us the confidence to honor our heritage, while recognizing the new things God is doing in other people’s lives. The radical Paul of the seven genuine letters insists that our trust in God’s radical, unconditional love is always justified, and never regretted, and is the only thing needed for salvation, in this life or the next. Amen.