Sermon by the Rev. Kate Ekrem
Let me read again from the Letter of Paul to the Galatians:
Dear Galatians, ARE YOU NUTS? Didn’t you listen to a word I said?
Ok, Paul didn’t say those exact words, but pretty close. He wrote: “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 – not that there is a different gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Chris. 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!”
He is really upset. What is he so upset about? What is the big argument about? Paul founded this church in Galatia, and apparently after he left, some other Christian missionaries came and said, what Paul said, was not quite correct, here’s the real deal. And now Paul is writing to say, they are wrong and I am right! And he’s really really upset about it. Because the argument goes right to the heart of what Paul believes the Gospel is all about, right to the heart of who Jesus is and what his death and resurrection mean.
The gospel Paul is preaching is merely this: salvation is through Jesus Christ. Full stop. There is nothing you need to do, nothing you need to say, nothing you need to even believe, no paper to sign, no oath to swear, no law to follow, Jesus has done it all, 100% of whatever needs to be done to save your soul and reconcile you to God, has been done. It’s totally completely done.
These other Christian missionaries who came to Galatia after Paul said, yes, sure, but you know Jesus was Jewish, and we have this ancient tradition which is very meaningful and the 10 Commandments are pretty darn important, and if you really want to follow Jesus, you need to follow those commandments, keep kosher laws, get circumcised, that’s a fuller and richer understanding of this tradition we’ve been given. To give up those traditions, this rich heritage with all its ethical teachings, to say they didn’t matter anymore, would mean throwing overboard customs that had kept the Jewish people together for centuries through many trials and tribulations. This made sense to the people in Galatia, so they started following those laws and customs, and this is what got Paul so upset.
Now, let me be clear. These Jewish Christians did not think that they could earn salvation through works. That was a later idea that was read back into this time, but it’s not correct. And Paul was definitely not saying that Jewish Christians should betray their history, heritage, and customs. Paul was just saying that gentile Christians shouldn’t have to take on those practices. He was making an important but subtle point. As one theologian has put it “Christ is a doorway through which anyone can enter at any time.” (Feasting on the Word)
That may seem pretty self evident, we may be saying, yeah, Paul was right and those other missionaries were wrong, but think of it this way, when people come to our community we tend to say, welcome, hey, let us tell you about our church, here’s the Book of Common Prayer, it’s really great, and have you been baptized, do your kids need to be confirmed? And the Eucharist, that’s really important, but you can’t receive it until you’ve been baptized, these are our traditions, please join us. That’s the kind of thing to which Paul is saying, no, no, no. There’s actually nothing, nothing, you have to do to become a member of our community because, Jesus already did it, he already made us a community. That’s it, that’s all. Full stop. No footnotes or asterisk.
Love makes a person a Christian. And not our love, but God’s love for us, the love is something that God begins, not us. The life and death and resurrection of Jesus are what proves this to be true. Paul is so desperately trying to say that if we don’t’ get this key point, we’ve missed the whole thing.
You know, this is tricky stuff. I mean, really, then, what is it that makes Christianity distinctive as a religion. According to Paul, there really isn’t any belief or creed or tradition or practice except the unconditional love of God through Jesus Christ equally given to every human being. The end. Apparently that’s so hard to accept, so hard for us to wrap our minds around that we have to do all this (church, worship, etc.) to mediate the incomprehensible and unquenchable, the overwhelming and unending love of God. If Christianity is anything, a way, a practice, then it is just responding to that love.
Paul an amazing character because he was completely uncompromising about the Gospel as he received it: that nothing, nothing, stands between us and God’s love. God’s love was not an abstract concept to him, but a concrete experience that he literally devoted every waking hour to sharing with others. And the Gospel he is sharing is not a soft or watered down Gospel. It’s straight up and hard work. When Paul talks about “this evil age” he means the world around us that is so fascinated with and caught up in having wealth or power or prestige or status. The revelation of God’s love through Jesus breaks all this. All people are loved equally unconditionally by God, there is no status at all. No one is better than anyone else in God’s eyes, we’re all sinners and fully justified. What’s so hard and uncompromising about this is that it turns out there is no authority or tradition or social organization that we can make a foundation for our lives with. The only foundation is Christ.
No wonder many of Paul’s contemporaries in the early church thought he was the one that was nuts. He spend this whole letter to the Galatians just trying to convince them of that one thing. There’s only one thing, God’s love, the end. And now I’ve spend this whole sermon doing the same. I hope you’ll continue to remind me of this truth as I continue to remind you, because reminding each other that God loves every human creature unstoppably and unendingly, is one thing this place, this community, is good at and good for. Perhaps we have that much in common with that small church long ago in Galatia.
Works consulted included Essay on Galatians by Wendy Farley in “Feasting on the Word” and “Introduction to the New Testament” by Raymond Brown