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Sermon for Ordinary Time, Galatians 1:1-20
One of my favorite visuals from literature or film is the lost or abandoned city, especially if they are overgrown. They appear in movies that go to ancient places, like in the Mummy movies, the city filled with apes in The Jungle Book, or Congo. They also appear in post-apocalyptic films, like I Am Legend, where New York is starting to be overgrown. The reason this image resonates with me, is because it can be a powerful metaphor if we let it, an image that both demonstrates the immense accomplishments of human beings, but also our failure to truly attain what we seek. The artifacts of humanity are there: towers, walls, houses, skyscrapers; but they are derelict, abandoned, and most importantly: they are being reclaimed by nature. Trees, grass, weeds, thorns, moss, vines, and even wildlife, start to take back over what was lost. Evil and death may scar God’s world, but like the trees that take back an abandoned city, God’s new creation will take back what is his and restore it, complete it, and make it finally whole.
This is the key message of St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians. He is writing to them because they are listening to false teachers, and forgetting what he taught them: That God’s act of salvation is an act of grace and not by human effort. We built our cities, our civilizations, our power, but it is God through Christ who is reclaiming the world.
Galatia was a large region right in the center of Asia Minor, what we now call Turkey. Interestingly, the area that Paul went to was an old Celtic kingdom, the Celts being a semi-civilized people that swept through Europe, settling in what we now call France, the UK, Ireland, and Spain. The region has no historical or archaeological evidence of a Jewish presence from this time, so the church there was likely entirely Gentile. The only “gospel” they would have heard is Paul’s, the one he preached according to what he was taught by the Lord Jesus himself. This letter is one of his earliest, and would have been read in the churches of Galatia by the messenger as a part of the liturgy.
The letter is a response to the churches, Paul having heard that a group of teachers, Jewish Christians from Jerusalem, came to Galatia, and were teaching a gospel that required not just faith in the finished Work of Jesus Christ, but for a person to become ritually Jewish first. In other words, they were demanding at minimum circumcision, and possibly other requirements of the Old Covenant as well, such as food laws.
They did this by undermining Paul’s authority. That is why he begins this passage by saying, “Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.” Paul is making clear: I did not receive this gospel from any human person, or angel, but from the risen Christ himself. The Teachers are questioning his authority, but as we know from Acts, Paul was confronted by the ascended Jesus on the road to Damascus, and later in this letter he relates that he spent 14 years being taught in Arabia by none other than revelations of Jesus Christ himself. His gospel is the gospel of Jesus, and that of the teachers is compromised, requiring from the Old Covenant what the New Covenant has fulfilled in Jesus, and no longer requires of us.
There is not really any other gospel, any other good news, than that which is given from Jesus. The stakes here are high: Paul usually follows his formal greeting, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” with commendations for the group he is writing to; not here. He immediately says, “who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,” which is a succinct statement of the Gospel itself, and then, by saying “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” They have turned so quickly, and by listening to these teachers, they have gone dramatically astray. How?
Because the gospel is this: Jesus gave himself for our sins, in order to set us free from the present evil age, the old, scarred, twisted creation of lust, hatred, greed and envy. The Son became incarnate and did what he did to establish a New Creation, and we are freed to become a part of that New Creation. The center of the Gospel message is liberation, from the power of Sin and Death which hang over us and enslave us.And this gospel, this gift of liberation, is undeserved, unearned, unrepayable.
God has done a new thing in and through Jesus, and what the Teachers were trying to do was set the clock back, to make the old requirements under the Law still valid. But those things died with Jesus, and those things no longer have any weight, because they simply pointed forwards to him. As Ambrosiaster put it in 400AD, “Now Christ by atoning for our transgressions not only gave us life but also made us his own, so that we might be called children of God, and made so through faith. What a great error it is, therefore, to go under the law again after receiving grace.” When the Teachers require circumcision, they are telling these Gentile believers, new to the faith, that something more than Jesus is required to be saved, and to this Paul says, absolutely not.
The New Creation is not built by human hands, and you are not welcomed by becoming a Jew first, or Catholic, or Anglican, or Evangelical, or patriot, or an anarchist, or republican, or democrat, or anything else. The Galatians, and you are welcome, Christian, because you believe in the promises of God. Nothing else is needed, other than your “Amen.”
Galatians is a book that destroys our human pretensions. Our cities may dwindle, and decay, and rust; but the New Creation of God, the Kingdom, reclaims those lost places like the irrepressible power of nature. Human accomplishment is only impressive until our power over the world is lost, and the Gospel says it is: Only Christ has power over this world, and it is being recreated to be the dwelling place of God and only by his grace. And this central message of the Gospel is what we will be studying through these next few weeks.
I will end with two things: first, believe. God’s grace is sufficient for your greatest failure, your worst sin, your deepest shame, your severest weakness. Because it is grace that saves, not you, and nothing more is needed to receive it but your faith.
Second, Paul ends by saying “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” We are the ones who place obstacles to faith, and we mustn’t. We must never be a place where a person walks in and, because of who they are, feel as though there is no grace for them until they change. Change must happen to us all, by the working of the Spirit, but that is a result of God’s grace, not to earn it. Any obstacle we place to someone coming before the throne of grace, is seeking human approval, not God’s. Let us, rather, do as our Lord did and does, and invite all to receive the grace of God which brings life, liberating us from sin and death. And let us be the first to come and receive, not because of our actions, but by the grace of God. Amen.
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