A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
May 21, 2017
Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21
I don’t know about you, but I grew up thinking of scripture as a straight up “reporting” of events that happened 2,000 years. An account of “just the facts”, without any editorial influence. In some ways, it is, a chronicle of the experiences of our ancestors in faith.
And while I believe God in-spires, breathes in, to the words of Scripture, I also have to acknowledge that the humans who wrote down the stories we collected and put into the bibles had particular viewpoints and reasons for writing.
It is helpful to remember this as we read scripture. To remember how God can speak to us through human words, written down by people with egos and insecurities. God speaks through words written by people like us, people who want people to like us, who want people to listen to what we’re saying. There is a mystery in why God chooses to take human words and make them holy.
And as we read the letters of the New Testament, we also remember that none of these authors knew they were writing scripture. To them, scripture was what we today call the Old Testament. Paul’s letter to Galatians was a letter, written to actual people. People he loved and who he was disappointed to hear had started practicing some weird stuff in the faith, some “other gospel”.
It would be like after I’d been gone for a few months of my sabbatical, and word were to reach me that y’all had made some bad changes—I don’t know, you started charging admission to worship and started telling people their baptisms were invalid if they hadn’t been performed in the month of February, all while only serving communion to elders and deacons and then telling everyone else how awesome it was, and boy howdy were they were missing out.
Like Paul, I would feel compelled to write you a letter to figure out just what in the world had happened. And I would remind you of my authority to speak to you about the gospel. And I would encourage you back to the welcoming and inclusive practices you practice.
Today’s passage offers Paul’s account, written for his people, of how he thought the early church included (or didn’t include) people who had not be circumcised. If you were here last week, you heard a different telling of the events of the Council of Jerusalem. In Acts, we heard Peter say that God had chosen him to be the guy to take the gospel to the gentiles.
Peter and Paul have different accounts of the conversion of the gentiles, and that’s okay. It reminds us that our faith doesn’t call us to the same experience. It calls us to unity in Christ. Paul and Peter fought well, though, face to face, each speaking their own truth and working it out.
Christians sometimes act as if fighting at church is a sign of unfaithfulness, and so we pretend everything is fine, and then we talk about Mabel in the kitchen with our friends instead of telling her what she has done to upset us. Or we smile to Clarence’s face and then forget to invite him to the next men’s outing to the monster truck rally.
I hope we don’t have any visitors today named Mabel or Clarence. I didn’t mean you!
Disagreements in church happen. Because faith is something that matters. We have strong opinions, based on our experience, as do the people who see faith very differently.
What I really love about this passage, though, is the part after Paul insults Peter. When Paul gets all wound up, some good stuff emerges. “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith of Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.”
Sometimes our eyes glaze over as Paul starts talking about the Law and about justification. But this is the good stuff! Paul had grown up as a servant of the Law. He worked tirelessly, zealously, to uphold the traditions of his ancestors, as he says in chapter 1. I suspect the Law must have been an exacting taskmaster to Paul because of the way he talks about finding freedom in Christ. It was a huge gift and relief to him.
If you’re counting on your own ability to follow the Law, each and every part of it, in order to consider yourself justified, you’ll never quite reach it. It’s a goal that is always just beyond your reach. Paul says, “when God, who set me apart before I was born, and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his son to me….”.
In that I hear the relief of a man who found freedom.
In Paul’s words, we hear someone who found relief in the knowledge that our salvation is God’s act, as known through Jesus’ faithfulness. And if we are to impose rules, or other laws onto other people as they become Christians, then we invalidate the gift that is God’s grace.
J. Louis Martyn, one of my favorite Pauline scholars describes our tendency to make grace a two step process. We function as if the first step is that God acts. The second step is then we act. Martyn argues God acts. End of story. We never earn the gift of grace. He uses the illustration of a gift.
Think of the nicest gift you’ve ever been given, the one that seemed so extravagant, you barely knew how to accept it. When you receive a gift like that, how do you respond? You express gratitude. At the least, you write a thank you note, which is an appropriate way to acknowledge a gift with gratitude.
You don’t say, “yeah, thanks. I was going to go get myself one of these things tomorrow. I always knew I was worthy of this” and dismiss the gift.
You also don’t go around and tell people, “yes, so and so gave me this lovely gift, but the thank you note that I wrote is the best note that has ever been written, I tell you with surety. They’ll be showing their friends my thank you note for a long time, it was that amazing.”
The act of writing a thank you note doesn’t “earn” you the gift, or somehow make you more worthy of it. The gift has already been given, long before any wonderful thank you note you might write.
There’s something about the imbalance of the gift of grace that messes with us, I think. The enormity of the gift, and our inability to respond in kind, makes us uncomfortable. “God, that gift of grace was really nice, and I appreciate it a lot, so here’s what I’m gonna do for you…..” and we start trying to earn it, as if we could even the scales somehow.
We bargain, bargain, bargain, with all good intentions, eternally optimistic in our ability to respond, despite all evidence to the contrary.
And it is one thing that we consider ourselves in cosmic debt to the gift of grace, because we know we’re good people and we’re going to work at it until we’ve made the imbalance somehow more manageable. Right? But those other people—the ones who go to those other churches and who see and experience faith so differently than we do—how are they going to ever make up the imbalance? They better get on that right away or they are in big trouble. Glad I’m not them!
Jesus tells a story about two men going to the Temple to pray, one a Presbyterian, I mean a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector. “The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of my income.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”. (Luke 18:10-13)
Which one saw God’s mercy was a gift?
In Paul, I see both of those men. He started out as the Pharisee, literally. With a dawning awareness of the imbalance in his own relationship with God, and frantically trying to justify himself to make up for it.
Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is told from one perspective in the Book of Acts. In Paul’s own writing, he says simply says this: “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin, for I did not receive it from a human source, not was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ”. (Gal 1:11-12).
For Paul, God’s grace came to him as revelation—something that broke through what had been hidden. And it turned his whole world upside down. Paul certainly wasn’t seeking it out. He hadn’t taken a 10 week course to better understand Jesus. He knew everything he wanted to know, and it led him to persecute Jesus’ followers.
And then he had a grace invasion. Where God met him in the midst of his life and opened his eyes to grace.
Martyn writes, “emphatically excluded in Galatians is the thought that, provided with a good religious foundation for a good religious ladder, the human being can ascend from the wrong to the right. Things are the other way around. God has elected to invade the realm of the wrong—‘the present evil age’—by sending his Son and the spirit of his Son into it, from outside it.” (page 82, Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul)
Martyn calls it an “apocalyptic invasion”—it’s a revelation that we don’t seek out or intellectualize—it just invades. It is something to just experience. Our finite human minds will never fully grasp the mystery of God’s choice to invade our lives with Grace.
On my best days, I try to just let it wash over me like baptismal waters, listening for God’s voice at Jesus’ baptism, “you are my beloved child, in you I am well pleased”. And when I can rest in that, I’m freed to live my life as a thank you note to God, hoping “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”.
My prayer for us all is that grace will invade our lives, leading us to respond with our lives as thank you notes back to God.