If you were here with us last week, the story today may sound a bit familiar, but familiar in a way that your significant other is telling a story and you find yourself thinking, that is not the way that it happened. Or, when you’re reading history and you find yourself certain that’s not the way the event occurred, or that there must be more to what happened. That is this letter to the churches in Galatia.
Paul is writing this letter and he is ANGRY. We skipped the introduction where Paul writes, as he always does: from Paul, to the churches in Galatia: Grace and Peace. And as soon as the standard introduction has been given, he launches in: I am astonished you are so quickly deserting the Good News, which doesn’t sound like much but might be Paul cussing them out.
Paul had been north in what is now Turkey for many years, starting churches in the region that was known then as Galatia, in which the city Antioch, from last week, was found. It was predominantly a Roman, a gentile region, but because folks moved in these days, there were Jewish people just about everywhere. And there were some who were hearing the Good News of Jesus and were becoming followers of the Way that he taught, through the disciples, missionaries, evangelists. Paul says that Peter, whom he called Cephus, the Aramaic for “rock”, the nickname that Jesus had given Simon Peter all those years ago, Paul says that Peter is in the region and he had, for a time, been sharing at a common table with all the followers of the way. Until the leadership in Jerusalem, under James, brother of Jesus, it seems were not pleased. Paul calls Peter out, calls him names, has a come to Jesus with him, at least in this letter.
There are 2 ways that this text is generally talked about: First: as part of Martin Luther and Augustine’s understanding of individual salvation, of how we are not saved from all that we are by the law–or the actions we take. Martin Luther was all about Justification by Faith and not by works. And, at his time, it wasn’t by the money you could give to the church, rather by your faith. All of which is there to be seen but Paul is rarely talking about your personal faith, your individual salvation.
The other is that the law doesn’t count. One shouldn’t have to follow it because it doesn’t redeem, doesn’t save, and so it doesn’t matter. And it’s an idea that gets spread from the gentile followers of Jesus to the Jewish followers of Jesus to all Jewish people–that Jesus has become more than the law, more important than the law, has superseded the law, that Jewish people are wrong. Which can so quickly turn from we believe differently to you’re terrible to violently opposing a people unto death. Our reading of scripture should always be careful of how it causes and has caused us to treat each other–including our Jewish siblings. And that already assumes that all Judaism is is the law–as if it isn’t a whole culture, way of looking at the world, relating with each other and with God, a way offering gratitude and service. And, Paul doesn’t denounce his own Judaism, stating that he and Peter are Jews, and participated in the covenant relationship, the law.
I know this is complicated, Paul was never at a lack of words and seemed to thrive in complex sentence structures, this is has gotten a little heady. I’m going to try to swing it back around but, Paul is writing to a Gentile-Christian audience and writing about a Jewish-Christian audience, he’s not declaring anything about what it is to be Jewish or what they ought to be doing. In fact, what he’s saying isn’t all that far off from traditional Judaism…
What we have in Jesus is the way that we can be redeemed–which is church language for “right relationship” with God. Paul is saying that circumcision or the food laws will not set you in the right place with God, as these had never been part of the Gentiles relationship with God. What is evidence is that God is present in the lives of the Gentiles revealed in the Holy Spirit regardless of anything they are particularly doing, present regardless of what they eat, God is present because of who God is, who Jesus was, what Jesus did, because of the faithfulness of Jesus, not the faith of the people. Jesus is in the lives of everyone because of Jesus life and resurrection, because of Jesus’ relationship with God.
What Paul is saying is that there isn’t a thing that you have to do to make your relationship right with God for the first time or the 100th time again, this morning–no prayer you have to pray, no statement of belief that you have to sign onto, no doctrine you have to pledge to, no political stance, no book you have to read, no secret handshake, there is nothing that you have to do to make right your relationship with God.
And there is nothing you can do. Which sounds ominous but it’s because the relationship has already been set right. The works is done, the movement has happened, the grace has been offered. It’s why we baptize babies in our tradition–it isn’t because they have to be baptized to be saved but rather a theological statement that no one has to earn their way to God. This baby has done nothing, earned nothing, proven nothing, has prayed no prayer, declared no creed, simply lives in the un-namable trust and hope that the ones who brought them into this world will be there, no matter.
As we grow, we start challenge this trust, the trust that there is nothing we can do that will cause people to leave, that will damage relationships, and we get hurt, we hurt others, and sometimes to live in right relationship with other people there are things we have to do, apologize that must be said, reparations that must be made, reconciliation is sometimes work with other people, sometimes it’s not possible. But this all comes out of what it is to be human and how complicated being in relationship with each other is.
So we put that all on God. That there might be something that we have done or said or thought that might keep us from the love of God, from being in right relationship with God, that is being surrounded by the love of God, comforted, with purpose and hope, seeing God in our neighbors next door and around the world. And then we think that we have to do something to earn respect or forgiveness or love, like we do in the world around us with other people. But God is perfect love and we are already set right, already loved, called, forgiven, welcomed, made family by the faithfulness of Jesus whose life revealed perfect love.
The law, in the Jewish tradition, perhaps as Paul sees it, isn’t what set them right with God but the response to the covenant work God had already done: being intentional with food is a reminder of where it comes from and then offering gratitude, circumcision to set them apart–marked as God’s own people, the festivals and sacrifices came out of living that relationship with God and God’s people.
There is nothing we have to do, nothing we can do to have a right relationship with God, but the result of that outpouring of perfect love of God revealed in the faithfulness of Jesus call us to pour out the love of God into the world around us, by caring for each other, by treating each other as beloved family, by offering support, a helping hand, by making room, making space, making a home for each other, offering each other courage, by feeding the hungry, setting free the oppressed, healing the afflicted, being in right relationship with each other, with all of creation. The actions, the work, the law, the covenant, the things that we do, they don’t set us in right relationship with God, they don’t make God love us, they don’t make us worthy because you already are! And that is being redeemed by faith, forgiven by faith, loved by faith, not yours, but by the faithfulness of Jesus that loves you and sends you into the world to love share that love with others. You are already loved, already worthy, already welcomed, already, by the faithfulness of Jesus, not by anything you have done or said or believed. You are beloved and go and love others.