Sermon by Pastor Christopher Nelson

We’re starting a new sermon series today, called “How Quickly We Forget…” For the next several weeks, we’re going to focus on St. Paul’s wonderful letter to the Galatians.

And the title for the series came easily, because Paul is truly annoyed at these congregations- they had forgotten the center of his message about Jesus when he planted those churches: that it was because of God’s love in Christ, and nothing else- NOTHING that anyone said or did- that made them- and you- acceptable in God’s eyes.

That is, it is God’s great love for God’s creation- for the people God created that caused God to become one of them- one of us- in Jesus of Nazareth, and in his sharing of our lives and our deaths that we are gathered into his presence through our lives, our deaths and into eternity…

What Paul was focusing on was the entire idea of “grace:” That we don’t earn anything when it comes to God- that we can’t do anything to make God love us anymore than God loves us- loves you- right now.

How could those churches so quickly forget that incredible news? Well, how could we?

Just think for a moment- as your bulletin says, life can get in the way; we’re pulled in so many directions. And we see people all the time forget the importance of relationships. I mean, where are the most vicious fights, as a rule? In families and in churches are good places to start…

The people we should love and care for the most are the ones it is so easy to go to war with… In my own family- in my life as a pastor, I have seen and heard- even said some of the most hurtful things- and it is almost never about how the family moves forward, or comes together. It’s about what members think they deserve- or how they perceive they have been treated…It’s too easy to forget that they are family…

Same thing in churches: The vast majority of churches don’t split over the Lordship of Jesus. But boy, you can sure fight over just about everything else- and loudly- and then leave if you don’t get your own way. How quickly folks can forget that in God’s grace in Christ, everything (and I mean everything) can be overcome.

We can forget that it is in God’s grace we can find love and forgiveness for ourselves- and for the people around us…

So before we’re too hard on these early churches, let’s look at Paul’s letter to them, and see what we can learn- about them, about Paul, and about ourselves…

First: we’re likely talking about several congregations here, in the region of Central Turkey- there is no one place called “Galatia;” it was a region. It was an area Paul visited on his first missionary journey, and scholars can’t come close to agreeing on a date for the letter. The closest we can get is somewhere between 50 and 55 AD, and the letter was most likely sent from Ephesus (on the Turkish coast), although scholars argue about that, too…

There are no travel diaries, with dates, times and places. The best we can do is compare Paul’s other letters, and try and pin down the order.

We can compare them to the Book of Acts, and try and see where they agree, but it’s important to remember that Acts was written some thirty years or so after Paul’s death, and Luke was using Peter and Paul to share the story of how the church grew from Jerusalem, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Rome…) And remember too, in Paul’s own writings we have a primary source- that is, if there is a contradiction between Paul and Luke, Paul was there…

We also know (again, from Paul’s writings, and from Acts) that there was a huge controversy in the early church about what it meant to follow Jesus.

We have talked before about how there was a group of people who believed that in order to follow Jesus, one first had to be a good Jew. That is, the men had to be circumcised, and the rules in the Torah- the Jewish Law- including the dietary laws- had to be obeyed, and then you could follow Jesus…

Paul absolutely disagreed- and argued that in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, everything was satisfied- made right with God, and to focus and insist on Jewish rituals was wrong in just about every way…

Then, there was the question of authority. And there were those who claimed that because Paul had not known Jesus during his earthy ministry, he could not be an “apostle,” the title given to the Disciples… His opponents argued that they had more authority than Paul when it came to teaching the Gospel, because they knew the disciples- those who had known Jesus…

Paul will have none of that: in his call on the Damascus Road- his vision of the Risen Jesus, and Jesus’ call to him, he sees himself as no less an apostle than even Cephas- or Peter, as we know him now…

He begins his letter with that claim: “Paul an apostle (no comma- name and title go together!), “sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead…”

 And Paul repeats that at the end of the first part of our reading- it is the basis of everything that follows: “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the Gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, not was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ…”

Let me digress for just a second: it is important for us to remember that although Paul received the Good News directly from Jesus, the Church in Jerusalem, through Cephas and James, confirmed that vision… We rightfully have huge problems with someone who claims, without affirmation, “I got this directly from God…” So while Paul has his individual Call, that Call has been affirmed by the Church- the Apostles in Jerusalem…

After identifying himself, and his authority, Paul greets the Galatian churches- this would be the “Dear Galatians” part of the letter. And notice how he begins it: everything has been shaped by his understanding of who God is, and how God works.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins… It’s ALL about grace…

Then, in every other letter we have from Paul, there is a “thanksgiving,” a word of praise and thanks to God for the congregation and the work they are doing. Not here. He starts yelling… If this were an email, it would be in all CAPS…

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace (there’s that word again) and are turning to a different gospel- not that there is another gospel, but there are some who 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!”

Paul’s opponents have been there, and have talked about the need to be circumcised- to follow the Jewish Law- and the Galatian churches have bought it… And here we have to ask “why???”

And while we will talk more about this as the series continue, let me give you an easy answer for right now- and let’s talk about it in the context of our own faith journeys…

To follow Jesus, the opponents argued, you have to DO something- follow the Law- that is, do something to show you’re worthy of a relationship with God… And the fact of the matter is that deep down, we LIKE that idea!

We like the idea we can earn God’s favor. We, like the Galatians, are attracted to the idea of the Law- of something we can DO, because we can use it to compare yourself with others (I’m better at keeping the commandments than you…).

But there’s a huge problem with that, Paul will argue. And Paul is on solid ground here. He’s arguing what Jesus himself had said. In fact, Paul is much closer to what Jesus taught than the opponents- indeed, and others through the centuries who thought Paul had radically changed the Gospel of Jesus. (George Bernard Shaw wrote an essay called “The Monstrous Imposition on Christ at the end of the 19th century!) The Gospel is far more profound than simply following the teaching of the “Good Rabbi…”

Let me show you what I mean: In the Sermon of the Mount, Jesus directly tackles the issues of comparing yourself to another. In effect, Jesus says to the crowd, “You folks might think you’re pretty good, because you believe you keep the 10 Commandments and the rest of the Law, and you lord it over the ones you think don’t… But what God cares about is your heart, and if your heart is not as pure as your actions, then you are just as guilty in God’s eyes as those who actually commit those deeds…

“You have heard it said by men of old, (men of old! Moses!) ‘you shall not murder,’ but I say to you if you are angry with a brother or a sister, or if you insult a brother or a sister, you are liable to judgment, or if you say ‘you fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire…” Anyone here ever called a family member, a co-worker or friend a “fool?”

Or, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that anyone who looks at another with lust has already committed adultery in their heart…’” Anyone here this morning not guilty?

This is a problem for all of us, I suspect: we’ve all been taught that we’re saved by grace, and yet deep down, we, too, try and impress God with our behavior, or we compare ourselves to others; we play the same “rules game” that’s been played from nearly the beginning.

And as much as it hurts to hear it, Jesus tells us that each of us is a murderer, adulterer and everything else. If we are dependent on ourselves to have a relationship with God- the relationship that God had with the Children of Israel when the Law was given, then we’re doomed!

We don’t need someone to reform us- we need someone to transform us- change us- save us, and that is how the Law becomes Gospel: it points us to Jesus. They call us to confess, “Lord, Help Me!” or in the words of the Ancient Jesus’ Prayer: “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner…”

And that is precisely what happens in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: we are gathered into God’s forgiveness and love- our relationship with God renewed and restored for our lives- through our deaths and forever!

That’s the Gospel Paul is trying to get home to the Galatians. It you take the Grace away, it takes Jesus away, and without Jesus, you’re lost!

The rest of our reading, Paul shares his own story- both his life before, and then just after Jesus began his relationship with him. I’m fascinated that he went to Arabia for a time away after his conversion. What did he do? We just don’t know.

But we do know that he went to Jerusalem, spent time with Peter and James, the brother of our Lord, and from them, he clearly learned the traditions of the early church. Often, when Paul writes, “I received from the Lord what I delivered to you,” he was sharing what he had learned in Jerusalem- from those who had heard directly from the earthly ministry of Jesus…

And if there is one over-riding thing we can gather from the last portions of our reading is that Paul demonstrated with his life that doing something first- showing some kind of worthiness to be an apostle of Jesus Christ, is NOT part of the equation! He was, if you will, an “anti-disciple,” doing everything he could to destroy the infant church- and God chose him…

And that’s where we’ll pick up next week. And, even though it’s Memorial Day Weekend, you won’t want to miss it… Will you bow your heads and pray with me, please?

Loving God, we give you thanks for all your faithful servants. Today, we remember the bold witness of your Apostle, Paul. Help us to remember his words. Help us to remember and follow the Jesus he proclaims. Help us to share Jesus with the people you bring us each day, not because we’re trying to prove ourselves to you or anyone else, but because we know your love and your grace are with us every hour of every day of our lives. We ask this in Jesus’ Name. Amen.