In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
TODAY, THE DAILY OFFICE lectionary directs us to Galatians 1. It is a short letter: we’ll complete it in only six mornings. It is short but it is also central to understanding Paul’s theology. Today, I would like to give you just a brief introduction to the major theme of the letter: why it was important to Paul and why it should still be important to the church today.
Let’s begin not with Paul but with Jesus; that’s always a good place to start.
Mark 2:1–12 (ESV): 2 And when [Jesus] returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2 And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. 3 And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. 4 And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. 5 And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11 “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” 12 And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”
Jesus here makes what the scribes consider to be an unverifiable — and blasphemous — claim: to forgive sins. What visible, tangible proof can he offer to substantiate his claim to such authority? He heals the paralytic before their eyes. Is this firm proof of his authority to forgive sins? Not really, but the implication hangs in the air: if he can do something physical, something extraordinary — healing the paralytic — then perhaps he can do something spiritual, something extraordinary — forgiving the man’s sins. Jesus uses something seen, something physical, as evidence for something unseen, something spiritual.
This relationship between seen and unseen, between physical and spiritual shouldn’t catch us off guard; it’s the foundation of the Sacraments. Our catechism asks the question, What is a sacrament?, and answers:
A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. God gives us the sign as a means by which we receive that grace and as a tangible assurance that we do in fact receive it (To Be A Christian, Q121, pp. 55-56).
But how do I know I’ve been born again? Because you’ve been baptized. How do I know that Christ’s death and resurrection apply to me? Because you’ve fed on his body and blood in the Eucharist. How do I know that I’ve been forgiven? Because the priest has pronounced the words of absolution upon hearing your confession. In all these Sacraments, something seen, something physical is used as evidence for something unseen, something spiritual.
Now, let’s bring Paul into this discussion. Paul comes — wherever he comes — proclaiming good news, the ευαγγελιον — the Gospel — he calls it. And what is the Gospel? That the human story which went wrong in the Garden has been at last put to rights on Calvary, that the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth — the Son of God — has undone the sin of Adam, broken the chains of death and hell, and reconciled man to God. Paul insists that Jesus is the climax of the long and winding story of Israel, the people that God chose to be his instruments of salvation for the whole world. This is crucial. God made very specific promises to the Patriarchs — to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — to bless Israel. But, God also made promises to bless the whole world through Israel, so that ultimately the Gospel of Jesus Christ, given first to Israel, would be for all peoples. Further — and this is absolutely central to a right understanding of Paul — the Gospel must be for all people on equal terms; as it applies to Jews as Jews, so too must it apply to Gentiles as Gentiles. And if there is one and the same Gospel for both groups, that can only mean one thing for Paul: the Law upon which the Jews have always based their righteousness, can no longer be that basis. He says it this way:
Galatians 3:10–14 (ESV): 10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
This is Paul’s conviction: it is not by law, but by faith that we are justified before God the Father through Jesus Christ — all of us, Jews and Gentiles alike.
That is a radical claim. It is not the way that Jews had envisioned the climax of their story. So, what is the evidence that Paul’s Gospel is true — that this telling of the story is true? That question brings us back to Jesus and the paralytic, back to the Church and the Sacraments, back to the notion of a visible, physical sign of an invisible, spiritual reality. How can we know that Paul’s presentation of the Gospel is true? By the incorporation of Jews and Gentiles into a single worshipping body. By circumcised Jews and uncircumcised Gentiles sitting down together around a table for a meal. By Jews who keep fasts and feasts and holy days and Gentiles who do not do such things gathering together on the Lord’s Day for Scripture and prayer and the breaking of bread. This is the visible sign of the spiritual effects of the Gospel. Paul writes about this essential unity in Ephesians:
Ephesians 2:11–16 (ESV): 11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
Once there were two groups — the Jews (the circumcised) and the Gentiles (the uncircumcised). These groups were separated by the Law that served not only as a badge of identity for the Jews but as a wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles. But — good news, Gospel — Jesus has broken down that wall by his death and resurrection and has brought the two groups together into a single body and reconciled them both together — in the same way, faith — to God.
For Paul, any division in the church along ethnic lines, any division based on the Law, any hint that the Gentiles are second class Christians or must convert to Judaism to become Christians is to strike at very heart of the visible symbol of the spiritual truth of the Gospel. Division is a denial of the Gospel. That is why a matter that seems so trivial to us — circumcision — is so essential to Paul. Any Gospel that requires a Gentile to be circumcised is a false Gospel. And that is exactly what’s happening in these churches in Galatia. In Paul’s absence, some rival group has infiltrated the churches and is insisting that Gentiles must obey the Law — symbolized by circumcision — to be truly Christian. And the churches have been led astray.
You can hear the exasperation in Paul’s voice when he writes:
Galatians 1:6–9 (ESV): 6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
See how seriously Paul takes this matter. If you preach another Gospel — if you insist upon circumcision, upon faith and keeping the law — then you are anathema: accursed, an evil thing appointed for destruction, just as Jericho was appointed for destruction during the conquest. There really is no harsher judgement than this.
Paul spends the rest of his letter expounding this basic theme: there is only one Gospel, for all people, through faith in the one Lord Jesus Christ.
So, how does this ancient argument over circumcision relate to the church today? First, it’s important to see that circumcision was not really the issue; it was merely the presenting problem that revealed the fundament, underlying issues: the tip of the iceberg we see that warns us of the hidden danger out of sight. If I might couch the real problems in more modern language I would identify these two:
1. Jesus and
First, Jesus and. For the Jews to claim that circumcision was required in addition to faith was to imply the insufficiency of the Gospel. It’s to say that Jesus alone is inadequate. Jesus and … is required, in their case, Jesus and circumcision — Jesus and the Law. And Paul would have none of that. The Gospel is about what God has accomplished on our behalf in and through Jesus Christ. No other sacrifice is required — or possible. No human work is required — or possible. Jesus and Jesus alone is both necessary and sufficient.
Our issues are not the same today as were the issues in the first century; we don’t debate circumcision and the Law. But we are no less tempted to say Jesus and than were the Galatian Christians. It’s just that our ands are different than theirs. Jesus and the right political party. Jesus and the right social justice movement. Jesus and the right position on immigration, gun control, the environment, fiscal policy and so on ad nauseum. Now, we don’t usually make these ands matters of salvation, though my wife was once told by a colleague that you could not be a Christian and a member of a certain political party; I’ll not mention which party. While we don’t usually make these issues matters of salvation, we do let them divide us, which was the second of Paul’s fundamental concerns.
We live in what is called — and increasingly is — a cancel culture. Don’t agree with someone? First, have nothing more to do with them and second, use every means at your disposal to discredit and destroy them — even if they are brothers or sisters in Christ. For goodness’ sake, don’t sit around the table and share a meal with them or confess your sins together or share in the Eucharist with them! I’m not talking about people who deny the faith or distort the Gospel — about people who are real dangers to the church. I’m talking about people we disagree with over secondary, non-essential matters. I’m talking about the easy path of division instead of the difficult way of reconciliation. But I’m also talking about divisions in the church along racial, economic, or political lines. As with marriage, so with the body of Christ: what God has joined, let no man put asunder.
These are two of the major themes to keep in mind when reading the rest of Galatians: the dangers of Jesus and and the threat of divisions in the church. There is one more dominant idea: the validity of Paul’s own apostolate — certainly as important now as then. But that’s another homily.
For now, I close with Pauls’ opening benediction:
Galatians 1:3–5 (ESV): 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.