A sermon based on Galatians 1:13-17, 2:11-21.
Think about the best handwritten letter you’ve ever received. Well, that may be tough, because many of us don’t even know the last time we received a handwritten letter, but try… Or at least imagine one.
I think about all the letters Ash and I mailed to each other when I was living in Zimbabwe… We had little 32 page notebooks that we’d mail back and forth.
Or I imagine a grandparent sending a care package to a grandchild in university… grandma’s cookies lovingly packed in box, a little note saying how much they love the grandchild, and how proud they are.
Or I think about my own kids will draw pictures for their friends and cousins, we’ll put them in the mailbox, and then a few weeks later we’ll get a reply letter, often filled with Paw Patrol stickers.
Don’t all these images make your heart warm, and filled with love, and nostalgia for the lost art of letter writing?
Now imagine taking all those warm memories and feelings, putting them in a box, wrapping the box with love and care, lighting it on fire and throwing it in a dumpster, because that might best describe how the apostle Paul is feeling in his letter to the Galatians.
Paul is mad.
He is writing this letter in a rage. Like, punch the air and kick things and pull out your hair and muttering obscenities rage.
See, the story of Paul and the church in Galatia is that Paul was a Jewish Pharisee who made a living of going around and killing Christians. And then Paul had this dramatic conversion experience, met the Spirit of the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, realized that he was a murderer, and then became this missionary of sorts.
But what’s important to remember is that Paul saw his work as bringing the good news of Jesus not to the Jews, but to the Gentiles. And if you’ve never heard these terms before, a Gentile was basically anybody who wasn’t a Jew.
There were quite strict laws within the Torah (which we now call the Old Testament) about how Jews and Gentiles were to interact, and how you could tell them apart, how they ate different food, and how their lives were supposed to be different from each other.
And since Jesus was Jewish, and all his disciples were Jewish, Christianity started off primarily amongst the Jews. But, as the spirit seems to be in the habit of doing, all sorts of barriers and boundaries were being broken, and very soon there were followers of Jesus who were Gentile, not Jewish.
And this was Paul’s work… to go share the good news about Jesus with the Gentiles.
So, he went to the Roman province of Galatia, which is now modern day Turkey, and he helped set up a church amongst the Gentiles there.
And then, he went on his way to go tell other people about Jesus.
But when he was gone, some Jewish Christians showed up to the church in Galatia and said “You know… Jesus and his disciples were Jewish, so if you really want to be followers of Jesus, you have to become Jewish first and obey our laws, and that includes what kind of food you should eat, and that includes circumcision.”
So then, when the apostle Paul found out that some people had come after him and undone some of his work, he was irate.
Kind of like when your kids ask seven times to have ice cream, and you say no seven times, and then 5 minutes later your partner comes home from work and shouts, “Let’s have ice cream!”
Infuriating. Because just like that, all your hard work is undone.
So Paul, when he’s writing this letter, just goes bananas. He writes that he sent by God, not humans, and that he was set aside at birth for this task (which is really quite the claim). He writes about how that other apostle, Peter, is a raging hypocrite, and how he called Peter out on something, and that Peter was wrong and I, Paul, am right! And then he goes into this deep theological rant that ends with him saying, “And if I’m wrong, well then, Christ died for nothing!”
Sometime, the apostle Paul and I aren’t friends. Like, the guy comes across as a raving egotistical maniac who demands his way. And this isn’t even one of his letters that comes across as sexist or homophobic, or where he seems to contradict himself.
In my office last week, as I was reading and learning about Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and his anger and his ranting, I called Mel to my office.
I hate preaching on the apostle Paul. In the book of Galatians, he’s just angry and ranting and yelling at people.
Oh really. Tell me more.
Yeah. He thinks that anybody who thinks differently than him is wrong.
And then he just goes about how God has sent him, and he just uses that to give more credibility to his own worldview. It’s all ridiculous.
Hmmm… Interesting. Does that remind you of anybody?
Go away Mel. I’ve got a sermon to write on the apostle Paul, and you’re not helping.
At the core of this angry letter and this conflict between Paul and others is the question: Are there markers of following Jesus? What are they? What are the signs? How do you know you belong? Are they external, like food laws and circumcision? Are they internal, like love and justice, and how do we define those? At first glance, these might be quite shallow things to worry about. But on a deeper level, we need to remember these were sacred questions of identity that they were trying to sort out.
Questions of identity… now that’s question that we’re still answering today, aren’t we?
To get a hold a how intense this debate, maybe the best modern day example is the question of same-sex marriage in Steinbach. They’re very different issues, and I’m not going to go into that this morning, but you know how it brings out all sorts of raw emotions and intensity… Yeah. Imagine that.
Okay. Back to food laws and circumcision.
Who’s in and who’s out? What does one have to do to be “in”? Can you break the rules enough so that you’re not longer in?
I was thinking about these questions of identity, or markers, and us here at Grace.
Do we have any identity markers?
Like, historically, in Mennonite world, there were external markers: No dancing, no combining on Sundays, no drinking, no movies, no motorcycles… I’d venture to say most of these don’t apply anymore. When Grace Mennonite Church started 50 some years ago, if I’ve heard the stories correctly, we were known as the TV church because we let people own TVs.
Piercings, clothing, hairstyles, tattoos… marital status, job, wealth… Meh. I don’t think any of us would include or exclude based simply on those.
And then I was thinking about internal markers that would determine if one belonged or not. Like doctrinal statements or creeds or mission statements. Sure, we can make them, and we do, and we can strive to uphold them, but in reality, we know that we’re a diverse bunch here. We all hold different postures an attitudes towards pacifism, communion, baptism, marriage, heaven and hell, biblical interpretation… And very few of us are quite excited to go and be the doctrine police and make sure everyone is believing the right things… That if you don’t agree with a 7 point statement, you’re out.
We Mennonites do have a Confession of Faith, which nicely lists 24 things about faith and life, and it’s actually quite decent! But even in the introduction of the Confession of Faith, the book itself states that this is a guideline to interpreting Scripture.
Kind of like the Pirate’s Code from Pirates of the Caribbean. They’re more guidelines than actual rules.
Well, this all kind of feels like shifting sand, doesn’t it?
Well, we might feel like those Jewish Christians Paul was so mad at. If we don’t have the markers of food laws and circumcision to define who we are, which our sacred scriptures are really clear about, what do we have?
And here is where the apostle Paul, in all his anger and ranting, does something remarkable.
He starts using words that we read in our Bibles as justification. Now, you need to trust me a bit on this, but trying to figure out what he was trying to convey in Greek, and how we translate that words into English… It’s a tough slog for the experts, let alone us.
One scholar suggested that perhaps the best way we could try to get at what Paul was saying was that every time we read the word “justification”, we replace it with the word “belonging”. (Mary Shinkle Shore over at Working Preacher was really helpful here).
So then it reads like this:
15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person belongs not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might belong by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will belong by the works of the law.
But it gets even better.
We read the phrase “Faith in Christ”.
Verse 16 says: We know that a person belongs not by the works of the law but through faith in Christ.
Here, if our Bibles have decent footnotes, we read that it can also mean, “faithfulness OF Christ.”
So then, it reads..
We know that a person belongs not by the works of the law but through the faithfulness OF Christ… We belong because of the faithfulness OF Christ.
When we read it as the faithfulness OF Christ, it speaks to the relationship that Jesus had with God the father. A relationship of mutual love and trust… A trust that Jesus had in God the Father throughout his entire life, even when trusting God meant dying. (See Working Preaching again, and also Pete Enns in The Sin of Certainty).
“Paul is interested in telling his readers not about what we do, but about how Jesus lived, about the faithfulness of Jesus.
God’s grand act of faithfulness is giving his only Son for our sake. To use a poker term, God is all in.
Jesus’ grand act of faithfulness is going through with it for our sake. Jesus is all in.
Now it’s our move, which really is the point of all this.
Like God the Father and God the son, we are also called to be faithful. On one level, we are faithful to God when we trust God. But faith doesn’t stop there. It extends to faithfulness to toward each other – in humility and self-sacrificial love.” (Sin of Certainty, p. 101)
“Humility, love and kindness are OUR grand acts of faithfulness and how we show that we’re all in.” (Sin or Certainty, p.102)
So belonging, first and foremost, isn’t about any externals: circumcision or food laws or TVs.
Belonging, secondly, isn’t really even about doctrinal statements or confessions of faith. These serve important functions, they give us structure and help set up healthy boundaries for us to interact with… They help us try to discern how to live faithfully as followers of Jesus.
But the primary piece of belonging, the primary thing that marks us as followers of Jesus – Trust – . Do we believe things ABOUT God? Or do we trust God?
Paul is advocating TRUST as the basis for belonging. Relationship. Connection.
Or, to quote wise Richard Rohr, it’s not about being correct in what we think about God, but rather, it’s about our connection with God.
Now, I know the apostle Paul didn’t write this for us here at Grace Mennonite Church in 2017, but if we think about it… I think it works.
We have almost no external markers that distinguish us from others. We’ve actually been a bit of a refuge from that sort of legalism over the past 50 years.
We have very few specific group internal markers, as we try to practice the idea that unity doesn’t mean uniformity. Any doctrinal statements or confessions of faith that we do believe or aspire to, we know that others might not, and that coercing belief systems on people runs contrary to who we’re trying to be.
So maybe the one mark that we all have is us trying to trust God, a trust like the faithfulness OF Jesus.
As Jesus the Son trusted God the Father with his life, we are to trust our lives to the way of Jesus.
Do we trust the way of Jesus? Do we let Jesus tell us how to live?
Now, those are questions of identity that I think are worth writing letters about.