2nd Sunday after Trinity
25.6.17 St Barbara’s
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Imagine if Christianity was a faith that for the last two thousand years had been simply a faith of Jewish people and a few non-Jewish people who had become Jews in order to believe in Jesus. Imagine how different our world, our culture would have been. Imagine how different our own lives would have been. We almost certainly would not be here meeting this morning. The issue that we are going to be exploring today has the most profound consequences for us, even though it all took place 2,000 years ago.
Remember last week and Paul’s journeys around the mediterranean world. On his first big missionary journey he had gone to the Turkish mainland, to the province of Galatia and had established churches made up of Jews and Gentiles in a number of cities.
But a major problem had arisen. Not all Jewish Christians were happy with the message that Paul was preaching – a message that Christians did not have to follow the Jewish laws. In practical terms, that meant that new believers did not need to get circumcised, did not need to observe Jewish religious festivals and did not need to follow Jewish food laws. Those unhappy with this – known as Judaizers – started going round to all the churches that Paul had established in Galatia and were preaching against Paul, casting doubt on his authority and his message, pressuring Jewish Christians to continue to conform to Jewish laws and new Gentile Christians to adopt them. After all, they argued, Jesus was himself a Jew and was a Jewish messiah. Surely he meant for believers to follow in that faith?
These were strong arguments, and were beginning to gain purchase with the Jewish and Gentile Christians in Galatia. So Paul writes a letter – that we know as the Letter to the Galatians – to try and convince them to hold firm to the faith he taught them.
It is a passionate letter. Half-way through the letter Paul appeals to their friendship. He reminds them of how they cared for him when he was ill, and how they welcomed him as if he “were an angel or Christ himself”. He reminds them of what they went through together, and the joy they had together. He tells them that their rejection of him is like the “pain of childbirth” so upset and saddened he is. And he writes that he longs to be with them, to speak with them in person. Paul writes as a friend, as someone who deeply cares about them and about the wrong direction some of them, under the influence of the Judaizers, are beginning to head in.
As well as the appeal to friendship he makes the following key points in his letter:
The Galatian Christians were beginning to doubt whether Paul’s message was legitimate and whether he had the authority to preach it. Paul writes that his teaching is true. He received it by direct revelation from Christ – the revelation that turned him around from persecuting to serving the church. It was not something he made up. Nor was it something made up by others that he was now regurgitating. It was a message direct from Christ. And it was a message endorsed by the church leaders in Jerusalem – they had met with him and had been willing to endorse his ministry to the Gentiles without question. In other words, no matter the smears against him, his message was true and could be trusted.
Having re-established his authority to teach, he then goes on to the main point of his letter: we cannot be saved, we cannot be brought into a right relationship with God, with sins forgiven, by obeying the Jewish law. Only faith in Christ can achieve that. Only Christ’s death and resurrection can enable us to know God. The law cannot do that. To pretend otherwise is to suggest Christ died in vain.
Because he is writing to win back those with a Jewish background who are wanting to re-apply the Jewish law to their lives and the lives of Gentile Christians, Paul appeals to the Old Testament to make his case. Remember Abraham,the father of our faith, he says. Abraham was saved/ brought into relationship with God – indeed into a uniquely special relationship with God where God promised to bless the entire world through him – 400-500 years before the law came into being with Moses. The key ingredient for following God for Abraham, and for all Abraham’s children afterwards (the Jewish people), is not obedience to the law, but faith. Faith is what matters.
Which would have begged the question from his readers: so what is the point of the law? Paul’s answer is simple. The law was given not to save people but to show them they couldn’t possibly live up to God’s standards and needed saving. The law acted as the means of diagnosis – this is what is wrong with you – not as the means of cure. An important first step in the recovery from illness is usually diagnosing the problem. Once you know that then you can apply the right cure. The law highlighted that even in our own best efforts we cannot make ourselves right with God – we are in need of forgiveness. That was the diagnosis. The cure is found in the love and sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
Paul’s argument is that we cannot earn our salvation, and even if we could, we would find it humanly impossible to do so. God welcomes us into relationship with him through what he has done for us, not through what we have done for him. It is the most wonderful of all life’s gifts. We are free to live life, not enslaved to the keeping of endless laws. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” he declares. We have been set free – why then go back and put on the chains of the law?
Not only that, but in Christ, we are welcomed into God’s presence, not as fearful wretches squirming in his presence, but as his children, sons and daughters, whom he encourages to call him “abba”, literally “daddy”, a term of the most extraordinary intimacy. We are given the gift of his Holy Spirit, a gift he reminds the Galatians that they received not when they started obeying the law but when they believed in Christ.
But for those worried such freedom could be abused, could be used as an excuse for “anything goes”, Paul is equally clear. Our response to the overwhelming, freely given grace of God, is to live lives of love, to cultivate and nurture in our lives the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. He describes what living lives of gratitude to God’s grace looks like: lives that carry others’ burdens, that gently restore those who fail, who are humble, who take every opportunity to do good.
And so Paul signs off his letter in his own hand, urging his readers once more to turn from law and place their faith in God’s gift of grace in Christ.
So what does this letter have to say to us today, when Jewish food laws and circumcision seem very far removed?
Well, firstly that wonderful message that I cannot earn God’s love – he gives it to me freely – and all I need do is reach out to receive it with faith remains as relevant today as it was then. We all live with the temptation to think we need to earn God’s love, whether by our achievements, or our moral behaviour, or by being a good person, or by simply turning up to church. The liberating truth is that none of that counts. The only thing that counts is faith in the love of Christ. Sometimes we can overcomplicate our faith.
Secondly, such an extraordinary message of grace breaks down so many of the barriers that divide us. Paul wrote in the letter that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” That was a radical message. If there was no difference between believing slaves and believing masters, that would mean no one was inferior and all should be treated with equal respect and dignity, something that would send shock waves through the whole Roman world, built as it was on the subjugation of slave labour. If there was no difference between Jews and Gentiles, that would mean claims to superiority based on religious or ethnic identity no longer applied. And likewise the oppression and ill-treatment of women, so common in the ancient world, as today, could no longer be countenanced. Free grace meant free grace for all, lifting all to the status of children of God. Living out that message in our lives is a challenge for us all.
And finally, the message of grace draws each one of us into a place where greater intimacy, deeper love of God, becomes possible. It is a tremendous gift, beyond price, and yet freely given. May we treasure it and allow it to change out lives.