The Experience of God's Gift

Week of Sunday June 16 - Pentecost 4
Epistle: Galatians 2:15 - 3:23

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through the faith of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. 17But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!18But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. 19For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ;20and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

3:1You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! 2The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? 3Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? 4Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. 5Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?

6 Just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, 7so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. 8And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.’ 9For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.

10 For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.’ 11Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’ 12But the law does not rest on faith; on the contrary, ‘Whoever does the works of the law will live by them.’ 13Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’— 14in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

15 Brothers and sisters, I give an example from daily life: once a person’s will has been ratified, no one adds to it or annuls it. 16Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring; it does not say, ‘And to offsprings’, as of many; but it says, ‘And to your offspring’, that is, to one person, who is Christ. 17My point is this: the law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. 18For if the inheritance comes from the law, it no longer comes from the promise; but God granted it to Abraham through the promise.

19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained through angels by a mediator. 20Now a mediator involves more than one party; but God is one.

21 Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law. 22But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

As I hover around Paul trying to make sense of a phone conversation which I don't fully understand by listening only to his end, I remember one of my favourite stories; the farmer who simply cannot connect with the words of church. He cannot make sense of the notion that the Spirit might speak to us. The theology of the Sunday sermons is a dead letter to him. He is despairing that it has any answers to his longings and struggles.

His minister, himself an old farmer, asks him to remember what it is like on the tractor at night. "Have you ever stopped for a leak and decided to shut the thing down for a few minutes, and turned off the flood lights? Just stood there in the dark and smelled the new turned earth and listened to the silence when all you can hear is the engine ticking a bit as it cools down?"

And the cocky just stares at him, stunned. "That's God?!" All his long experience of the Holy which has always been devalued, even denied, is suddenly validated. Until that moment, "...the farmers ...  were never led in prayers of thanks for the smell of warm diesel and freshly turned earth on a cold night as the tractor ticked and cooled..."

I've always remembered this story because it resonates so strongly with my farming experience. But I wonder what it means for a person who has lived in a city all their life and has never even smelled fresh fallow?

In Adelaide there is an overpass being built on one of the major transport routes which heads to the north. This is probably the biggest bridge building project Adelaide has ever seen. I happened to go that way on the way home from church one night, and was overwhelmed by the strange mechanical beauty of the scene as pieces of overpass were being jig-sawed together under the floodlights.

I have not yet made sense of what happened for me that night. How is it that I found something of God in an industrial site which my younger rural self would have found utterly alienating, and even a sign of our loss of God? The context of my life has changed.

Theology literally means God-talk. Theology becomes powerful and life giving when the talk about God relates to our lives by shining a light onto them, and helping us make sense of them. Theology is deadening, even if it is 'technically correct,' when if loses relevance to our lives.

Theology is always contextual. The further we are away from the farm, the less the story of the farmer will make sense for us. I met a city bloke who was visiting his girlfriend's family at Peterborough. He found being out in the silence of the fields (sic) around Peterborough discomforting, and even a little frightening. But when I moved to the city, I could not sleep for the noise. The smell and the filth distressed me. The sheer number of people set me on edge. There was no dark. How could you have described the love of God to me through the experience of the city?

How does this relate to Galatians 2:15-3:22?

Paul is doing contextual theology. He is seeking to be true to his experience of God and true to his experience of being Jewish. Some of the context is very different to our own; we may wonder what he is on about, a bit like a city person may wonder how warm diesel and dirt can carry a holy experience of God!

We need to be careful to separate the content of Paul's God experience from the context and culture he uses to describe it. Diesel, dirt, night, and bridges are the context for meeting God and speaking of God. The experience of God will persist, and God will be, even when turning the soil with a tractor and building overpasses are seen to be a travesty against God's earth. The experience of God persists, and God is, even though arcane discussions about Abraham, and Hagar and Sarah now make little sense to us. The context is not God.

We rejoin Paul as he defends himself. We ourselves are Jews by birth... is one more statement of his credentials. (2:15) But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not... (2.17) Obviously this charge has been laid against him by the interlopers from James.

What is going on?

Loader says the people "who upset the situation in Antioch" (2:11ff) and are now causing trouble in Galatia

have maintained a defensible and consistent stance: Christ came not to change scripture or its laws, the Word of God, but to add something. He was after all fulfilling the Jewish hope for a Messiah. The Messiah was not meant to demolish the Law but to make it victorious and effective.

I remember the text from Matthew: For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. And in Genesis 17 God says to Abraham

 ‘As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you...'  26That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised; 27and all the men of his house, slaves born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.

In the eyes of this understanding of the Law, Paul is without excuse. He is "demolishing the Law." Loader says

Paul has to meet the objection that his approach dismisses the biblical law and represents Christ as doing the same. It makes Christ into an enemy of the Bible, because it suggests Christ rejects what the Law requires. Christ seems like a servant not of goodness but of sin (2:17).

This is simply not true, according to Paul. We are not "justified" by works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ. There is something completely new happening through Christ. The law is extraordinarily important: we were guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. (3:23) But as well as being guarded by the Law, we were imprisoned by it! Christ is something more than the Law.

Bill says "Through the Law, as it operated in this way, Paul was brought to the point where he needed to be rescued and where he was rescued through God's offer in Christ." I wonder if it might not be more accurate to say that Paul was brought to the point where he knew he needed to be rescued. He felt the futility of trying to be right with God through the law:

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.’ 11Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law.... (Galatians 3:10-11)

When we try to be a good person we soon find we cannot do it. We are always falling short of good. There needs to be some other way, some grace that allows for our imperfection, our lack of willpower, and our very human desire to be safe above all else, which is so often contrary to the good.

This is contextual theology. When he writes about Law and curse, Abraham, Hagar and Sarah, it is not some kind of physics that needs to make logical sense to us. He is seeking to make sense of his Jewish tradition; he could not imagine life without the Law, yet he is seeking be true to his new experience of God on the Damascus Road, and beyond. The argument is difficult for us; the Law is not so large in our experience. It is alien.

We should not so much seek to be convinced of Paul's arguments about the law; that would be like me trying to communicate God to a West Coast farmer through my experience of the Adelaide overpass! We are perhaps better to ask questions like these: "What have we made Law? What is it that has "guarded us" for God, and pointed us towards Christ coming into our lives? Is there something that has pointed us towards truth which we are substituting for the truth, and thereby let imprison us?

Loader  again:

Paul was not jettisoning the scripture. He appeals to it regularly. His argument is that Jesus is the one who brings us into a right relationship with God (justifies us) and this offer of a right relationship stands in its own right. It is not dependent on our fulfilling the requirements of biblical law first or as well. It is a matter of accepting the offer of that relationship - believing it is offered and saying yes to the offer and so entering a new relationship with God.

Paul is very clear that this relationship has nothing to do with being Jewish, or keeping the law. Galatians 3:28 says, There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

And this is simply given to us.

What gets in the way of our entering this new relationship?

One of the barriers to relationship with God is when we use words whose meanings we have forgotten, or whose meaning has changed. Doing theology is to find our own words for what we mean; words that which reflect Paul's message, but which work in our context. That is a sign we are beginning to understand. J. Louis Martyn (Galatians pp249-250) is anxious about the use of the words justified and righteousness. The words are home either in the language of the law—where to justify "implies" the existence of a definable legal norm—or in the language of religion and morality—where "righteousness" implies a religious or moral norm. .... Paul intends his term to be taken into neither of these linguistic realms. Hence we will find some advantage in using the verb "to rectify" and the noun "rectification." ... they are words that are not commonly employed either in our courtrooms or in our religious and moral institutions. The subject Paul addresses is that of God's making right what has gone wrong.

I am not justified; there is nothing that can justify some of what I have done. It is forever wrong. Neither can I become right; in moral terms I am wrong; every day; and always will be. But God, despite this, says Paul, has made right what has gone wrong in our relationship.

I fear we too often preach righteousness and justification without really knowing what we mean by the words. They may then misdirect us; or worse, become a Law unto themselves where the question "are you justified" becomes a test like "are you baptised in the spirit?" or, "do you abstain from alcohol?"

The relationship with God is also obstructed when we put conditions on the relationship. As I said in a previous post, "we are so hard on ourselves and insist we must keep rules because no one deserves to be given a love such as God gives us." We cannot believe it is this easy! We are afraid to trust—that is what cannot believe means—that God really gifts us; that God really makes right the things that have gone wrong between us. We want to invent rules to get saved.

Psychologically, I think it works like this. If I don't make a rule for you to get into my church and be saved—some test you have to pass—then I can't feel good by excluding you. If I exclude you it means I am better than you. It means my faults are really are not so bad—trifling really—you are the one with the problem.

What I am really doing is projecting my faults on to you, and excusing myself. If I allow that God just lets you in then maybe God just let me in, too! I, too, am not good enough to get in in any other way.

And so I am forced to face the evil that is in me. And because I do deep down know some of that evil, and can't hide it from my consciousness, I cannot believe God would just let me in, so I need to show myself I am better than some others who God, aka me, has excluded. So I set up works.

The first work of law seems to me to be present in the very translation of chapter two in Galatians.

In NRSV it says

... 15not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe [ie trust] in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ.... 20I live by faith in the Son of God...

In each place it implies that what saves me is not God's gift in Christ by my faith in Christ. I am saved by having faith? What if I have no faith!—I believe, forgive my unbelief, cries the father in Mark 9:24. How much faith is enough? The linguistic logic of our culture is inevitable; believe more; believe harder! Work so that you can be saved by your faith!

Martyn says we are rectified by the faith of Christ!

Paul writes pistis Christou Iêsou, an expression which can mean either the faith that Christ had and enacted or the faith that human beings have in Christ, both readings being grammatically possible. Recent decades have seen extensive discussion of the matter, sometimes even heated debate; and the debate has demonstrated that the two readings do in fact lead to two very different pictures of the theology of the entire letter. Is the faith that God has chosen as the means of setting things right that of Christ himself or that of human beings? Attention to a number of factors, especially to the nature of Paul’s antinomies and to the similarities between 2:16 and 2:21, leads to the conclusion that Paul speaks of the faith of Christ, meaning his faithful death on our behalf.

I believe—forgive my unbelief... is my own cry. If my relationship with God is to be made right by my faith in Christ, then I am completely stuffed. I don't even know what to believe in!  Seriously, what do crucifixion and resurrection mean? How do they work? We don't know after two thousand years of talking and arguing. How can I believe what I don't even understand? Only believe, you say!! You mean like... lie?! Say "I believe," when I have no idea?! What sort of magic is that? Do you think God wouldn't know I'm doing that? I don't know what I believe from one day to the next!

But if Jesus' trust in God— Jesus who journeyed to Jerusalem, and who died on the cross— contains what is necessary for me to be made right with God, then I at least have a prayer.

I use the colloquial language purposely. If the faith cannot be expressed in the colloquial then I doubt it has any meaning at all.

The next verses, after the set lectionary reading, are crucial.

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! 2The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? 3Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? 

Clearly they did not keep the Law. They trusted what they heard from Paul, and then felt the life of God flow into them in a new way. The Galatian faith was based on an experience; their experience.

4Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. 5Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?

Paul is not asking them to sign off on a set of doctrines. He is asking them to trust their experience of God which came when they decided to trust the too easy news that God loved them. If I sign off on doctrines, I trust someone else's experience!

As I consider this, I realise I do not know what the Galatians experience was! Clearly it radically removed the usual divisions and snobberies of community life: there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female. (3:28) There was some sense of radical freedom. (5:1, 5:13) There were the fruits of the Spirit; their lives were transformed from the usual experiences of life in the flesh. (Galatians 6:16-26) How did they feel that? What happened? We don't know.

Neither do I know exactly what Paul told them; how he "evangelised" them. There is little sign in Paul of any of Jesus' stories that we know from the gospels. The gentile Galatians had obviously become familiar with the Jewish stories of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, whether from Paul or the interlopers from James. Otherwise the rest of chapter 3 up to next week's reading, and some of the later conversation, would be meaningless to them.

The discussion of Abraham's faith and belief struggles to be meaningful for our context. He adds meanings to the story of Abraham that might greatly surprise the original story tellers. He is doing a sort of midrash which is designed to make sense of his discovery that the Law is not sufficient or necessary for our relationship with God being made right.

As in so much of our lives he has intuited something from his experience and is now rationalising it!

In this case he has intuited the radical love of God; that is; God has uncovered his seeing and revealed more of the reality of God than Paul could previously see. This revelation/intuition seems to go against the teaching of his Jewish background, so he re-imagines what it is to be a descendant of Abraham. (Galatians 3:6-14)

In the logic of our culture and context, his argument is fanciful. If we are looking for something that makes sense to us, and will intellectually persuade us, we will be disappointed. But it doesn't have to make sense to us. In context... he is playing with his experience, teasing meaning from the revelation, writing poetry about Abraham. He is the farmer remembering the ticking warmth of fresh fallowed night and rejoicing in his experience of the Holy.

Will we trust our experiences of Holy God, or will we seek to bolster it up with our laws? Will we trust the Love of the night as the damp earth crumbles in our hands, or will we repeat arcane arguments that are no longer convincing, as though our many words will ensure the Holy?

Will we trust that God has put things right between us, and this is why we find love and holy power swirl in the floodlit dust of a building site, or will we insist that is too easy; God does not appear on the way home; God does not come to farmers taking a break; you have to work for it?

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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