June 20, 2010


“Getting it Right”

Galatians 2:15-21


Greeting:  Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will ofour God and Father; to whom be the glory forever and ever.  Amen. 

Again this week I’d like to draw your attention to the Epistle lesson, Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia.

I wish I’d instructed you last week to go home and blow the dust off your old bible and read the whole letter.  I know some of you would have worried about reading a whole book of the bible, but this book is relatively short.  Not like Jude short, but it isn’t long like Leviticus long.

If you happen to go home and do this I must caution you.  If you have read other letters by St. Paul you will notice that he usually starts with a nice Apostolic greeting and then gives thanks for those to whom he writes.  He doesn’t do this in Galatians.  Paul gets cranky right away.

I remember as a child, my father came home from work pretty dependably at 5.  My mom was a stay-at-home mom which meant that she didn’t work outside the home.  If there happened to be any shenanigans at home during the day, my mom would often threaten us by saying, “wait till your father gets home.”  About 4:30 I’d make myself scarce. There was nothing worse than having dad come through that door, already in a bad mood.  Now this was a long time ago.  We didn’t have texting or twitter or even cell phones for that matter, but we did have a telephone.  It had a dial on it that would click as it returned after each number was ‘dialed.’  And my mother knew his office number.  Nothing was worse for me, or him I suppose than for him to have to come home mad about some transgression of the rules.

Because Paul is on his way over to Ephesus when he gets the news he cannot storm in the door and start yelling.  So he writes this letter, doesn’t give thanks for anybody, and if you read with an ear toward Paul’s voice, he starts yelling:  “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.”[1]

Here’s what he is mad about: As far as we can tell from Galatians 2:1 – 10, Peter, James and other Jerusalem leaders had agreed that the gentile converts of Paul’s churches did not have to join the covenant of Abraham through circumcision and adoption of a Jewish lifestyle to be saved by faith in Christ. This agreement did not change the status of Jewish Christians, who presumably continued to adhere to their traditional religious practices. Nor did it address the problem of Christians in a church like that in Antioch, which included both Jewish and gentile Christians.  It seems as though there this agreement intended “in essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, and in all things charity,” be we don’t know what this meant in practice.

So ‘out in the mission field’ you have Jewish Christians sitting down to eat with Gentile Christians.  Now, this is more than tolerance, for to do so required that Apostles like Peter must set aside certain tenets and laws of the ‘faith’. Then there is the arrival of Christians associated with James, who apparently insisted that the “Jewishness” of Jewish Christians forbade such association.  “Look it up in your bible,” they said, and this led Peter and his entourage to separate from the fellowship with gentile believers.  These folks who drank from the pure water of the faith insisted that ‘real’ Christians followed the rules and regulations of the law.

The church in Galatia was primarily gentiles, not Jews.  So I can imagine that when the people from James came they discovered some new insights into this Christian faith.  “Oh, you mean that’s how we are supposed to be doing it?”

I have told you before that since birth I’ve been swimming in the waters of the Reformed branch if this great river.  When I went to seminary, I learned of something called the Mercersburg Theology, a perspective on this same faith that was born and grew right here in our neighborhood.  When I graduated I joined groups that help me keep learning about this, one that is heady, The Mercersburg Society, and one that is worshipful, the Order of Corpus Christi.  I am thankful that I have been able to serve in churches that know something about this, even if we never say it out loud.  Even before I arrived, their worship was shaped in the right way and the people even know what the Heidelberg Catechism is. 

Of course, not everyone is so enlightened.  This week was a week of graduations and, more to my point, Baccalaureates.  We attended one for my son’s class in Oley on Tuesday.  It is nice to sit in the back and be critical like everyone else.  An old friend was the designated ‘pray-er’ at the Oley event and was part of the organizing committee.  He is much more, let’s say eclectic in his approach to worship.  He is certain that’s how it should be.    It was a beautiful night and so people were milling around outside the school after the service chatting, just like you do here at church.  My friend came up to me and said, ‘what did you think of the service?’  I told him that I thought it was a perfectly fine expression of secular humanism but it didn’t even resemble anything worshipful to me.  Becky scowled at me.  In the car I asked her what that look was for.  She reminded me that I can be more narrow minded certain against the certain than the certain are certain.

See, when I’ve become certain of something, and my view of that something is different, if I am not careful, I attack people who are differently convinced.  As I get older, I am less likely to go on the attack, and more likely to simply dismiss those folk as ill informed or simply ignorant. 

And as is usually the case, I came to church on Tuesday and began reading the lectionary texts for today.  There was Paul’s message to the church in Galatia.  Paul is on the attack.  Paul is not angry because the Galatians are living out their faith in a distinctive way, or that their practices in the faith provide certain helpful guidelines in their life.  He is furious that they have swallowed whole the idea that there is something, in this case many things, that you have to do as a precursor to faith.

I was reading an article the other day about a woman who says she had some questions about how to shape her daughters motives for being a good person.  She titled the article, ‘Raising a Churchless Child.’   I was once someone who thought that I could simply raise my children by offering a good example, being kind, and generous, and leaving their own religious decisions up to them.  Then, only as a young adult, my grandfather gave me a book of structured daily devotions and readings from the ancient sages of the church and I began to practice my faith.

In conversation with my more Orthodox friends I discovered that most of my ‘new’ ideas about God and the church were not new, but had been around since the third century.  I learned that my appreciation for Ecumenism, and the connection between Christians was not something first started in the 1850’s at Mercersburg.  And, even after becoming a seminary trained minister, I’ve learned that having some discipline about being part of a particular church family and participating in that peculiar life of faith and service strengthens my faith.

It is tempting to be a fascist about this.  From time to time, like at baccalaureate services, my tendencies toward this rise to the surface.  But it is only tempting because I see how many people are not helped along in their relationship to God and to their neighbor by the flea market approach to faith.   Also, attentiveness to my favorite brand has produced a relative certainty that I am getting it ‘right.’

Yet, every now and then when the lectionary brings it around, I am forced to read these words of St. Paul, who says to me and those like me: “We know very well that we are not set right with God by rule-keeping but only through personal faith in Jesus Christ.  How do we know?  We tried it…”[2]  Paul insists that it is not the practices we keep that are the foundation of our union with Christ. 

I do not have to imagine Paul telling others that learning and embracing their Christian tradition as best they can is the pathway to a fulfilling and robust faith.  I do not have to imagine Paul reminding everyone that it is not that tradition, it is not those practices, but it is Christ that is the subject of our faith.  I think that Paul states this quite clearly here in Galatians.  Living a Christian life, worship in a particular and perhaps peculiar way, serving others, and being generous do not save us.  They strengthen our relationship with the One who does.

Living a Christian life, worship in a particular and perhaps peculiar way, serving others, and being generous do not save us.  They strengthen our relationship with the One who does.

[1] Galatians 1:6-7, RSV

[2] Galatians 2:15, The  Message