Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
I am astonished! 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! I am astonished!
With these stunning words, the Apostle Paul begins his letter to the churches in Galatia. These are harsh words. Harsh words from an apostle who, in writing another similar letter to a divided congregation at Corinth, begins with these words, “I thank my God always for you…”
I am astonished!
So, what is going on here, within the churches in Galatia, an area we would understand as present-day Turkey? What is going on in the churches that are some of the earliest founded by Paul and Barnabus, a result of Paul’s first missionary journey around the mid-1st century? And why on earth does Paul seem so angry with them?
Over the next six weeks, Pastor Mark and I will delve into these questions and more. We will be working our way through this letter to the churches in Galatia, a letter often called the Magna Carta on Christian freedom, a letter directed to congregations made up of both Jewish believers and Gentile believers.
So, some background.
As I already said, Paul likely founded these churches on his first missionary journey--a journey that lasted from 2-3 years and that consisted of moving from city to city, planting new congregations. In each location, Paul would preach the Good News--that simple, yet radical, Gospel alluded to in the opening words of his letter, the same words I opened today’s sermon with, words that speak of the freedom we have as believers--a freedom that comes as a result of God’s grace through Christ’s sacrifice.
Now this freedom wasn’t always easy for the early believers to accept. After all, consider that many of the early believers were Jewish--people who had been taught from early on that freedom came only from keeping the law. So, as the Gospel spread outside the Jewish community--as it was shared with Gentiles, with non-Jews who had not grown up with this same belief system--well, tension arose between the two groups. The Jewish Christians believed that the Gentile Christians should conform to the Jewish way of Christianity. This meant, at a minimum, that believers were required to keep the Sabbath and for male believers, in particular, it meant circumcision.
This dispute between the Jewish understanding of the Gospel and the Gentile understanding of the Gospel was not just isolated to the churches in Galatia. It was also an issue that arose in Antioch a few years later, when Paul confronted Peter over his teaching of Jewish conformity. Because of the dispute, the congregation there in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabus and others to Jerusalem, to bring this issue to the leaders of the church and, for once and for all, to resolve the issue. The meeting was what we understand from the book of Acts as the Jerusalem Council. It was at this meeting that the Council--this group of church leaders--ultimately and unanimously decided that Gentile Christians would not be subject to Jewish law and traditions.
Yet, as is so often the case, the controversy wasn’t easily left behind. After the Jerusalem Council and even after Paul had visited the Galatian churches a second time, word came to him that a group of likely overzealous Jewish Christians had visited these churches and had challenged both Paul’s authority as an apostle and the Gospel he had preached. They claimed that, because Paul had not journeyed with Christ as one of the early apostles, he lacked their same authority. As a result, they also challenged Paul’s Gospel message--a message of freedom from conformity to the law, the Good News of freedom given to us in grace by God through Christ’s death and resurrection.
This letter, then, is Paul’s response. This letter, a writing that was so influential for Luther in understanding Christian freedom, is Paul’s defense. It is a defense of both his apostolic authority and a defense of the radical and freeing message of the Gospel that he preached.
This is the background story for Galatians, this letter we’ll be studying over the next few weeks.
So, the question this morning is what does this story from nearly 2,000 years ago mean for us here today? As Christians in the year 2016, we know this stuff backwards and forwards. We know that we have been given this precious gift of freedom by God through the saving act of Jesus on the cross. We are Lutherans, after all! Grace is our middle name!
But, do we know it? Do we really know it? Do we truly know and accept it deep within ourselves?
I think not. At least not fully.
Within ourselves and in our congregations we may say we are free, but we don’t fully believe it. We still believe in conforming to the law. We neither trust that God has made us fully free nor do we believe it about others. How else can we explain our incessant drive to become better, to be more knowledgeable, to be greater experts in whatever, to become the best we can be and expect everyone else to conform to our own set of expectations, to cram our lives and our schedules so full of stuff and noise that we can’t even begin to hear God’s call to us and God’s message to us that we are enough? We are enough. We are enough just as we are.
It was just two years ago this spring that I applied to become a candidate for ministry in the ELCA. It was not a decision that came easy. It was not a call that I fully believed I had been given even at the time I submitted my application. You see, I grew up in a church where women were not allowed to be pastors. I know some of you here come from a similar background.
Even though, in my early 20’s I transferred my membership to a denomination that ordained women pastors, I was still not really free of that deep-seeded understanding. So, even though deep down I knew that God was calling me to ministry, I ran from that call. Keeping myself so busy with life as a single parent, working two jobs, going to school--that I simply closed my heart and my mind to it. I refused to hear God calling me. Even in my first year of candidacy, even after I’d taken that first, risky step into the unknown, I still wasn’t free of the belief that I was not enough for this work.
It was only last year, in my second year of candidacy, that I began to believe that, just maybe, I was enough. That just maybe this was what God was calling me to do. It came in my chaplaincy training. It was there, in the midst of my fellow trainees--this group of misfits that, included a Roman Catholic woman trying to determine her call in the midst of the patriarchal church that she loved, a Mormon chaplain trying to figure out his own call from God in the midst of a culture that viewed him and his church as on the fringe, a Lutheran fire fighter seeking to overcome years of abuse from his father, a young Lutheran man trying to find his own identity as a pastor apart from that of his older, med-school bound sister, and a former Southern Baptist minister who had left the ministry, burned out and wondering whether this was what God was really calling him to do. It was there, in this group of misfits, in this group of broken people struggling to find and live out God’s call to ministry in the midst of a broken world. It was there that my group and I began to understand that we were enough.
You and I. We are enough. In God’s eyes there is nothing--good or bad--that will change how God sees us or how much God loves us. Through one act. Through the sole act of Christ dying on the cross, our sovereign God has broken into our lives and freed us. Freed us from the weight of sin. Freed us from being bound up by the law. Freed us to fully be who God has called us to be whatever that may be. This is the radical Gospel that Paul preached and that he defends in his letter to the churches of Galatia and, yes, to us today.
I am astonished by it. I hope and pray that you are, too.
Preached May 29, 2016, at Chatfield Lutheran Church.