Sunday, June 2, 2013

Still This Troubled Heart (Galatians 1:1-11)

St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Galatians 1:1-11 (I used the NRSV and J. Louis Martyn's excellent translation)
"Still This Troubled Heart"

When I was in college I was worried about my salvation.  I was worried about whether or not I’d go to heaven.  I was no axe-murderer—like the guys you see on the 10 o’clock news—but, at the same time, I was no activist, no monk, no “saint.”  So I took a few religion classes to find out more.  I took these classes hoping I’d find answers.  So I read and I read and I read. 

 “God will not deny grace to anyone who does what lies within them.”  I distinctively remember reading these words by the late medieval theologian Gabriel Biel.  I read further: as long you “did your best”—rejecting evil and trying to do good—you would be saved.  These words, originally meant to be assuring, proved to be anything but that.  In fact, they had the opposite effect on me.  As I noted earlier, I wasn’t a bad guy—at least, I didn’t think I was—but I had no way of knowing if I had done enough.  I had no way of knowing if I had done what “lies within me.”  In my quest for assurance I was left with doubt.  I was left with fear. 

But this all changed when I encountered the good news of the gospel.  And I am excited that for my first sermon here at St. Thomas I get to talk about the balm that quieted my troubled heart.  I get to talk about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  What one theologian refers to as the one-way love of God for suffering sinners like you and me.[1]  What the New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce summarized using these words, “Christ died [not for the healthy but] for the ungodly.”

It’s been offending self-righteous people for two thousand years now.  For just like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son, some of us find it downright upsetting that the wayward son is just as acceptable to the Father as us—the diligent, rule-keeping—older sibling types.  We’ve been trying to earn his love for some time now, how dare he accept these ungodly ones who most certainly have not done “what lies within them.” 

Yet, when we internalize the truth of the Gospel, even we—the self-righteous types—begin to realize that this unfair reality—this message that is too good to be true—is, in fact, what we’ve wanted all along.  A love from the praiseworthy that is truly unconditional; a love, that as the great hymn says, will never let us go.

This gospel, while found throughout both Old and New Testaments, is most explicitly stated in what has come to be known as the Pauline Corpus—and that just means the collection of letters traditionally attributed to St. Paul.  Unfortunately, for many of us Episcopalians, we’ve picked up the notion somewhere that Paul somehow complicated what Jesus made simple. 

This truly is an unfortunate reality, and we would do well to learn from our Lutheran brothers and sisters (of whom we are in full communion) that, rather than complicating Jesus’ teaching, Paul makes explicit what is often left implicit in the Gospel narratives.  And I’m going to say that again because that was profound for me the first time I heard it.  What Jesus often times left implicit, Paul makes explicit.

But first, why the popular notion that Paul just makes a mess of things?  Why do some people simply not like him?  One reason I’ve heard thrown around is that Paul is a very arrogant person.  A man obsessed with his reputation.  People point to the book of Galatians, to the very passage we read this morning.  Why does Paul need to say that he wasn’t sent by “human commission nor from human authorities,” they ask?  Is he implying that he’s better than other first century missionaries?  Is he saying that he has a closer connection to God than the others?  Is he saying that he doesn’t need anyone else? 

Some people also ask why Paul is so harsh in verses 6-9 going so far as to wish a curse on his opponents not once but twice!  Is this not some control freak that just cannot stand losing his position of prominence?

To address these questions we have to first ask ourselves, why is Paul defending his position of authority?  And why might he be defending it so passionately? 

If we read these opening verses closely we notice that some people are questioning Paul’s status as an apostle.  They seem to be saying that Paul’s authority as an apostle was derivative.  Based on what we can piece together from these eleven verses and the rest of the book, Paul’s detractors seem to say this for three reasons.  First, he was not one of the original twelve apostles.  He came later, so he must have learned all he knew from them.  Second, he had a checkered past—remember before he was missionary Paul he was Christian-killing Saul.  And third, and probably most importantly, they simply did not like Paul’s “Law-free gospel.”[2]  Much like the self righteous person in all of us, Paul’s detractors thought that the gospel that says we are made right with God by Christ’s work and not our own was too good to be true.

So what does Paul do?  He addresses his accusers.  He says that his apostleship is not derivative.  In regard to the truth that he wasn’t one of the original Twelve, Paul says that his position as an apostle was not bestowed on him by Peter, James, John or any other apostle, like his accusers say, but directly by God through a revelation of Jesus.  The Gospel—the teaching that he received—came from Christ himself.  (Think: Damascus road experience). 

In response to the reality of his less-than-Christian past, Paul will make it clear that God chose him, a “savage wolf,” before he was born to be “not only a sheep, but a shepherd (an apostle).”[3]  Yes, he had persecuted the faith, but Jesus revealed himself to him, turned him from his wicked ways, and called him to spread the good news of the gospel.  And it’s true, Paul’s adamant defense of his character might initially strike the reader as arrogant or self-justifying.  But if you’re reading closely you’ll come to see that the reason Paul is pulling rank so hard is not to puff himself up, but in order to defend the true gospel that was so closely associated with his character.  You see, Paul’s detractors knew that the easiest way to discredit the gospel of unconditional acceptance for sinners was to cut away at his reputation.  “You can’t trust Paul’s word,” they say, “he wasn’t even one of the original twelve apostles.”  “Paul, you mean that zealot who used to kill us?  How could you believe a guy like that?” 

In short, the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, the good news of God’s unconditional love for sinners like you and me was associated with Paul in Galatia, therefore, to defend this Gospel, Paul had to first defend himself from half-true and false accusations.

So Paul is impassioned.  Not because his reputation is at stake, but because the message of liberation for sinners like you and me was under assault.  One of the main things that distinguishes Christianity from every other religion was under attack—the fact that you and I are at peace with God not on account of our works or karma or on doing “what lies within us,” but by the free gift of Jesus Christ.

So what does Paul do?  Instead of beginning with a customary thanksgiving for the Galatian congregation that marks the opening of all his letters, Paul instead begins with a rebuke.  In every other epistle, Paul always opens the letter by praising the congregation he is addressing, with something like “I give thanks to God always for you because of this, this, and that reason.”  He even does this for congregations that are way less moral like the wicked Corinthians. In fact, if you read all of Galatians, you’ll notice that the Galatian congregation is a much more moral group than most.  Nevertheless, Paul begins his epistle to the Galatians not saying “I give thanks for you always,” but instead, “I am amazed that you are so rapidly defecting from the God who called you in his grace, and are turning your allegiance to a different gospel.”[4] 

So in place of thanksgiving, Paul gives a rebuke.  Why?  The good news of the gospel is at stake.  In its place Paul’s detractors offer a false gospel of enslavement.  One which, as Paul says, “is really no gospel at all.”

Paul goes on to say that “some are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!”  And just like the Old Testament prophets he says that last part twice for emphasis.  He’s essentially saying, “No, really, the one who would hand you over to a false gospel of slavery, the one who proclaims a gospel of ‘do your best’ and you’ll be saved—double curse on that person.”

Again, why is Paul doing this?  Is it to make much of himself?  By no means.  The gospel that he proclaimed, brothers and sisters, is not of human origin—like his detractors’ false gospel.  The gospel that Paul proclaimed is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

And I think that for clarity’s sake, it is important to note that Paul’s detractors were not saying that the Galatians, and, by extension, you and I, are saved by works.  They were saying we would be saved by Jesus’ work plus our works.  For Paul’s detractors, Jesus’ death and resurrection alone was not sufficient for salvationAt the end of the day, they, like Gabriel Biel, were saying, “God will not deny grace to anyone who does what lies within them.” 

But for Paul this was anathema.  In fact, it was an anti-gospel.  For Paul, there is no middle ground.  To him, Jesus plus works for salvation is not good news—“it is no Gospel.”  In fact, according to Paul, the combination undoes our freedom in Christ and results in slavery.  For Paul, salvation is a free gift—it comes through the faithfulness of Christ and the faithfulness of Christ alone![5]  Paul is so angry in this letter because his detractors are putting a burden on these Galatian Christians that they could not bear.  They were calling the Galatians to bondage.  

When I read the book of Galatians, when I experienced the gospel and knew that my salvation, that my standing before God, was based on what Jesus did and not what I’ve done or will do, I realized that the saying, “God will not deny grace to anyone who does what lies within them” is not only misguided, but oppressive.  Salvation is a free gift that Christ extends to you and me.  This is the balm that stilled my troubled heard.  In this announcement I found assurance of salvation.  So if you’re worried about your salvation this morning, if you’re worried about whether or not you are going to heaven, if you’re worried about whether or not God will listen to your prayers, fear not, doubt not.  Christ has paid the cost with his own blood and it is sufficient for my salvation and yours.[6]

[1] Paul F. M. Zahl.
[2] F.F. Bruce
[3] John Calvin.
[4] J. Louis Martyn’s translation is better than the NRSV here.
[5] Or, it comes through the gift of faith, and faith alone. Either way, salvation is external to the individual and the church.  It is a gift not something we earn or contribute to.
[6] No less important (but maybe I’ll focus on it when this text comes around three years from now), Paul is also passionate about tearing down ethnic boundaries. By calling the Gentile Christians at Galatia to be circumcised, Paul’s detractors are building up walls between ethnic groups, thus marginalizing many of the non-Jews. In addition announcing the reconciliation of God and man, the Gospel also declares that we are all one in Christ regardless of cultural background or practices.  Christianity is truly a universal faith.

No comments:

Post a Comment