This is the first sermon in a six-week series on Paul's letter to the Galatians.
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
June 16, 2019
As we begin today to study and reflect on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, it is good for us to get a little context. Paul wrote a letter to the Galatians because they were a church in turmoil and Paul was their pastor. As pastors are called to do, Paul works to bring clarity, resolution, and peace to his congregation. The church in Galatia was established not long after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, in an area of Asia Minor completely unfamiliar with the itinerant preacher from Nazareth. When Paul arrived at about the middle of the first century, the gospel took hold quickly and the church grew rapidly. Paul is their pastor, but we remember that Paul was not one to stay put very long. Paul laid the foundation for the church, train the local leaders how to run it and care for it, then he traveled on to start another church in another city. As Paul arrived in another city to start another church, he got word that the church in Galatia was in trouble.
The trouble in Galatia stemmed from a group of Jewish-Christian missionaries who came to the church in Galatia with a message about Jesus and faith that was different from the message they had heard from Paul. Scholars have long called these missionaries Jewish-Christian because they were men and women who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of God, the Savior of Israel and all people. But they also believed that in order to have access to Christ’s saving power, to God’s grace, one must still be faithful to Jewish law and customs. They saw Christianity as a new and improved Judaism, and if you wanted to participate in this new and improved Judaism, you had to first adhere to Jewish law. And the missionaries were not concerned that the Galatians follow all of the Jewish laws, either, just one: circumcision.
Circumcision can be traced all the way back to the covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah. Circumcision for men and boys was an outward sign of the Israelites being incorporated in the covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah that they would be more numerous than the stars in the sky. The Jewish-Christian missionaries, according to scholars again, brought a message to the Galatians that if they were interested in being ‘real’ Christians, they must continue to be faithful to the practice of circumcision. Many in Galatia heard this message and did what they were told. It is likely that it was new church members, the freshest members if you will, who heard the message and responded. The conflict in Galatia began between those who were new in the church and followed the missionaries’ teaching and those who had been there longer and did not. Eventually, the news of conflict fell on Paul’s ears.
In the portion of Galatians that we’ve heard today, that you have printed in front of you, Paul takes up the topic of the relationship between faith in Jesus Christ and Jewish law. Paul points out that the heart of the Christian message has nothing to do with the law and everything to do with faith. Judaism as it was practiced in the time of Paul was all about the law—if the law said do it, you did it; if the law said don’t do it, you didn’t do it. Following the law was the only way into a relationship with God. This is why Jesus was always running up against the religious people in Jerusalem—Jesus wasn’t opposed to the spirit of the law, he was opposed to how the law often destroyed relationships and took people away from God. Faith, Paul says, and not the law is how every person is justified, made right, brought into a relationship with God and the whole creation.
But faith in what? Obviously in Jesus Christ, but what about Jesus is Paul urging the Galatians to have faith in? Simply said, the cross; the cross of Jesus is what Paul wants the Galatians to have faith in. Paul’s theology of the cross is that the act of Jesus dying the death of a common criminal satisfied each of the nearly 650 laws that are outlined in the boos of the Old Testament. These laws were in place to ensure two things: holy relationships between people and a holy relationship between people and God. On the cross, Jesus made good on both of these. But then removed the law as the guiding principle of God people so that it would no longer have a destructive effect on God’s people. Law’s destructive power, particularly religious law, comes from how quickly and easily it turns into the weapon of the oppressor over the oppressed.
Think of the woman who was dragged out into the public square to be stoned for being caught in the act of adultery. Before the stoning began, a lawyer asked Jesus, “What does the law of Moses demand?” The lawyer knew the answer, and Jesus did, too: the law says that she must be stoned to death. But Jesus knows that this situation is much more nuanced than the law of Moses could ever imagine. Where is the woman’s partner in the act of adultery? Shouldn’t they be held accountable, too? What sort of adultery were they engaged in? Were there witnesses? And if there were witnesses, does witnessing the act of adultery also make you guilty of adultery? And how exactly are we defining adultery here?
The cross puts all of this to rest. The cross makes a final and very clear statement that in our relationships with one another and in our relationship with God, the law is no longer our primary focus. Jesus said that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, and in fulfilling the law, in satisfying its demands, the law was taken down from its place of chief importance in the life of God’s people. It was taught as the only way into a relationship with God, but Jesus offers a much, much better way: faith. Faith is the way to God, the access point, the on ramp, the conduit. And the wonderful truth about faith is that it is sensitive and aware of and compassionate toward the nuances of life, nuances that the law could never handle or understand.
Faith recognizes that sin will always try to derail people as they seek communion with God. Faith recognizes that all people fall short of the God’s glory, but that the only thing that matters is God’s grace and not how far we fall. Faith recognizes and honors that God comes to each one of us in different and unique ways, that God is bigger and more powerful and much more creative and persistent that we could ever imagine. Faith understands that there are things in this life that are beyond understanding and comprehension. Faith knows that forgiveness is a way of life and not a one-off courtesy when something goes wrong or when someone says something hurtful. Faith points in the direction of the sacraments, because in those simple acts with bread and water and grape juice, we see the world as it can be and as it should be. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Now, I know that’s a lot to take in all at one. But by now, hopefully you are starting to understand that when Paul wrote to the Galatians, he was not writing so much from a position of pastoral love as much as from a position of pastoral anger. There is a lot at stake here and Paul is not going to just let the Galatians be led astray. Paul had come to them with this message of liberating, unconditional love and amazing grace, and just a few false messengers had turned the Galatians in another direction. The missionaries were moving the Galatians away from the good news of their justification through faith, back into a life of fear under the thumb of the law. Paul preached redemption through Jesus; the missionaries preached redemption through circumcision. Paul preached freedom through faith; the missionaries preached freedom through captivity to the law. Paul preached the unconditional love of God; the missionaries preached the love of God conditioned on following the rules.
But even though Paul may have been angry with the Galatians, he offers them a quite elegant way to come back into the truth of the Gospel. Paul says, “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.” This is the theology of the cross I just mentioned. Paul continues: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” The Galatians can reorient themselves to the truth of the Gospel and live in the glory of God’s unconditional love if they check their motivations and remember their true driving force. The law is gone, so their driving force should not be following the law. The temple, the religious authorities, the tangled mess of government and religion in Jerusalem and all the fear these things bring into the world—all of that is physically far away from them…fear is not their driving force. Their driving force is Jesus. “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” Their driving force should be Jesus.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, this is where the letter to the Galatians has a lot of wisdom for us today. I can’t speak for the past because I wasn’t there, but I can speak for right now, and right now, being a follower of Jesus can be tough. It can hard to be a Christian these days because there are just so many different things vying for our attention, distracting us, leading us from the truth of Jesus. I’m not going to try and name these things because I believe you know what I’m talking about. And the things that challenge our faithfulness to Jesus, our ability to live as his people, are not just out there, or somewhere out there…some of the stuff is right within the walls of the church. Probably more than ever before, there seems to be a stream of Christianity in the world to meet every single need we could possibly invent for ourselves. I wonder what Jesus would think of all the many different expressions of his message in the world today.
But the good news of the Scriptures today, of Galatians, is that into this complexity, into this mess, into this whatever you might call it, there is an elegant way for us to come back to what is true, what is real, what is the Gospel, and it is the one by whom we live and move and have our being, Jesus Christ. Jesus must be our driving force. Jesus must be what we lead with in everything. Jesus must be the words that we speak to one another, whether those words are compliments, complaints, criticisms, or critiques. Jesus must be the actions we take when we are at work, at home, at play; in the church, in the office, at the pool, in the car. Jesus must be our first thought when we wake up and the last thought before we go to sleep. His love must be the love that we show, and his love must be the motivation for showing that love. Jesus must be in our heads, in our hearts, in our hands and feet, and probably most importantly these days, in our eyes. We must look at the world and all that is in it with the eyes of Jesus. We must listen as he listened. We must reach out as he reached out. We must seek the truth as he sought the truth. It is no longer you and I that live, but Christ who lives in each one of us. And it is as simple as opening the gospels and reading and listening and watching to see just how we can be like Jesus in everything we do.
That’s the challenge and the choice that is before us today. Will we allow Jesus to be our driving force? Will we have the courage to let Jesus lead and be everything that we show to the world, or will be deceived, distracted, detoured, and derailed by all the many things that seek our devotion? Will we let Jesus live in us because by his cross he has set us free, or will we harbor in our hearts and in our minds the hurt, the resentment, the anger, and the judgment that is so much easier to hold there? Will we listen carefully to Jesus’ word and test everything we hear as to whether it is true to his life and message, or will we allow ourselves to be led astray by the many wolfs that at this very moment are wearing the sheep’s clothing? Will it be the law or faith? For the sake of Jesus Christ and his tender love and mercy, may God lead us to choose rightly. Amen.