What is our faith built upon? What is the value of the Gospel? What do the letters of Paul, specifically the letter to the Galatians, have to teach us today? From now until I move we are going to spend time exploring parts of Paul’s letter to the churches in the region of Galatia and digging into what truths it holds for us today. Unfortunately we will not be able to get through the entire letter together, but I encourage you to take time to read it on your own.
Our theme today from Galatians is the Word of God. Specifically the Gospel message. This may seem like an odd message to some on this specific day - the day of Pentecost when we celebrate the birth of the church. But the growth of the church came when Peter went forth to proclaim the word of God to those gathered in Jerusalem - resulting in over 3,000 people being baptized. The Word of God is powerful and is the root of the Church.
A few months back our parish Bible study used Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible to explore what the Bible is and is not. Some of the ideas that Rev. Hamilton pushed back against was that the Bible is simply a book of rules, or an instruction manual, or a history book. When we find Paul in today’ s scripture lesson he is pushing back against some of the same mis-understandings about the Gospel that Rev. Hamilton addressed.
Paul had come to the region of Galatia, which is around modern day Turkey, to witness to the Gentiles. While he was there he suffered some of the most intense persecution, beatings, and sufferings that he ever encountered along his missionary journey. But despite all that happened to him, he deeply love the churches in this region. He taught them about finding freedom through the salvation offered in Jesus Christ. A spiritual freedom they had never experienced before.
But then he left the region, moving on to the next area, and it seemed like everything started to fall apart. Yes, the churches in Galatia wanted freedom, but they didn’t seem to grasp what it meant to be truly free in Christ. In the midst of the confusion entered a group known as the Judiziers, people who grew up Jewish and told them that their faith in Christ wasn’t complete if they didn’t act like a Jew. News got back to Paul and he was noticeably upset.
He is upset because the churches took the grace of Jesus Christ and imparted on top of it a list of rules - making it legalistic instead of loving. They put so many rules on it that they are in danger of losing what the heart of the gospel is all about - Jesus Christ. He saw what the Judiziers were doing as a hinderance to the faith that these gentile pagans who had came to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. The teachings of the Judaizers were becoming a hinderance.
I have to believe that the Judiazers did not set out to make the Gospel message more complicated. I want to believe that they had the best interest of the Galatians in mind. I want to believe that because too many Christians are like the Judiazers today, adding rules to grace. Trying to put forth the message that Jesus is not enough alone, even if we don’t mean to. We say that you need to believe in Jesus and in order to be a good Christian. You need to believe in Jesus and like a certain style of worship. You need to believe in Jesus and vote a certain way. You need to believe in Jesus and following the rules not of Christ, but of this specific church. All of the rules were weighting the Galatians down, just like they weigh us down today.
Some of the “ands” that we add to our faith are preferences - we want you to dress a certain way. Others are cultural misunderstandings about the Bible - such as not having tattoos, which during our study using Making Sense of the Bible we saw had more to do with ownership, being branded, then the expression of love or devotion that most tattoos show today. The truth is that we all have “ands” that we’ve added to faith in Jesus Christ that are weighing us down and distracting us from the gospel truth, making faith and grace far more complicated then it should be.
A word of caution. There is a distinction to be made between structure that helps us live out our faith by being acceptable and the Church representing Christ to the world and imposing rules on top of our faith that distract us from our mission. A wonderful example of this came from my spiritual director, who served with her husband as a missionary around the world for decades. The places where Christianity often faltered where those areas where North Americans and Europeans went into tribal cultures, introduced Christ to folks, but didn’t stop there. Instead of allowing people to live into their faith in the context of their culture and society, they took their evangelism one step forward, and one step to far, by explicitly telling people they weren’t quite Christian until they accepted the way of being and culture from the missionaries. For example, going into an African tribal society and trying to make them democratic in the name of being Christian. Democracy isn’t in the Bible and by trying to impose this way of living, they just confused what it meant to be a follower of Jesus Christ with their particular way of living.
During confirmation class this past year, we discussed how the “ands” that are imposed on people is really why the Church universal keeps fracturing. We add preferences, even about theological issues, to our faith and split because of that. We make faith confusing.
According to Michael Youssef author of Finding the Way through Galatians, “The judaizers also practiced a dishonest from of argument called ad hominem attack (against the man). They sought to undermine the gospel message by attacking the messenger, the apostle Paul.” Have you ever noticed when someone doesn’t have all of the facts right they just skip logic altogether and start attacking people? Paul wants the Galatians to know that he has preached the full and true Gospel to them. Jesus’s teachings, death, and resurrection. He didn’t water down the Gospel, as he was accused on by the Judaizers, in order to convert them. He gave them the whole gospel and let the Holy Spirit convict and lead them into faith. Now others were coming to make their faith about the law instead of Jesus, and that is not part of the Gospel message of Christ. Its almost as if they have been saved from a burning ship, are on the lifeboat, and are now trying to steer the boat back towards the flames. And when they can’t, they start jumping overboard and swimming towards the now sinking ship.
Paul once again proclaims that the Gospel message tells us that we are saved by Jesus Christ alone. Not by our own actions of following the law to a ’t’ or worshipping a certain way, or anything else that is done by our own merit. Paul isn’t giving them this message in a diluted form, or to make them like him. He is telling them the whole gospel because he is compelled to by Christ. Humorously, what the Juadizers are proclaiming about needing to follow the law, is what he believed before encountering the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Knowing how painful that road is, he is trying to steer the Galatians away from it, towards the Gospel. He doesn’t want them to follow a law just to please others, he wants them to please God.
Our deepest human desire is for companionship and we think we can achieve that by making people like us, or by making people like us, in our image. Paul speaks firmly against this, saying that we are not to proclaim the Gospel, the very word of God, to please others, but because we are compelled by God. We are merely vessels to help others glorify God!
How much of what we do and who we are, both as individual believers and this Church, is because we are seeking to glorify God and how much of it is to make other people like us? How much of what we do is to fulfill other people’s expectations and how much of it is living into the mission God has created us for?
Because the truth is that the Word of God is powerful. Rev. Hamilton has stated many times, and repeated in Making Sense of the Bible, that it was the message of the Gospel that lead him to faith in Jesus Christ. The message of Christ still converts hearts today - if we get out of the way and stop complicating it with our own agendas and laws. We need to get out of our own way in order to get back to the root of the church - the Word of God. We need to get out of our own way in order for the church to be re-born anew, like that first Pentecost. So Brothers and sisters I am commissioning you today, may the love of Jesus Christ and the grace that passes all understanding, shine through you, as it did the apostle Paul, so that those who do not yet know Christ come to that knowledge through you. And leave it at that. Don’t give into the temptation to make someone like you, so that others may be made in the image, not of us, but of God. Amen.