How free is your grace?

Week of Sunday June 9 – Pentecost 3
Epistle: Galatians 1:11- 24 (plus Galatians 1:25-2:14)

For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.

18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; 19but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. 20In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! 21Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia,22and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; 23they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ 24And they glorified God because of me.

Chapter 2:
Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. 2I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain. 3But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. 4But because of false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us— 5we did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you. 6And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those leaders contributed nothing to me.7On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised 8(for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), 9and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. 10They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; 12for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction.13And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’

People don't do religion for fun. Maybe boys come to youth group because it is where the girls are, but this is not religion. Religion is when we look for what will make sense of life. Religion is where we seek 'salvation,' the 'answer' to all the pain and ambiguity of life which enables us to keep going.

If we have begun to understand what is at stake in life, and if a religion has provided us with some kind of answer, or even the hope of an answer, we will fight very hard to preserve that.

This is the situation which is faced by Saul, and then by Paul.

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. (1:13)

This was a man who knew, perhaps better than most of his fellow Jews, what was at stake. We need to remember that the first Christians were Jews. They were not preaching a good news which was outlandish. It made sense. It was, in many ways, familiar. It was Jewish.  Yet it threatened to undermine everything that Saul understood gave Judaism its saving power. This is why he "persecuted the church violently, trying to destroy it."

Something happened on the road to Damascus which completely changed his understanding. He received an un-covering from God. (The word translated as revelation;  apocálypsis,  literally means un-cover. Galatians 1:11) This uncovering revealed something which had been hidden from him. What this uncovering=revelation does, is make him the very enemy he had been seeking to root out and destroy. He is that which he had despised, and even feared. He will very soon have to defend himself against his former arguments, and allies.

To have become the very thing we despise is a miserable experience. To realise what we have despised was correct all the time—we were the ones who were wrong, and to begin to recognise the damage we have caused, is devastating. After the shame and confusion—perhaps a full blown personal crisis—we will be more determined than ever to hold close the truth God has uncovered for us.

It gets messier than this for Paul. It is clear that the people who have come to the Galatian churches are not what we would now call Jews. They are Jewish Christians who, it seems to him, are pulling the churches back into some of the misunderstandings of Judaism which he had repudiated.

What is the purpose of imagining Paul's feelings?

Firstly, Paul is talking about a fundamental misunderstanding, within the church, of how God relates to us; a misunderstanding which is not too far from his own fundamental misunderstanding that God had uncovered.

If this fundamental misunderstanding is being propagated by Christians who are close enough to Peter and James the brother of the Lord to 'name drop,' how likely are we to have avoided it in our time? History suggests that the early heresies and controversies of the church are constantly recycled.

Secondly, if these misunderstandings can provoke such anger on all sides, (e.g. 1:10, 5:11-12) will we face any less depth of emotion in our time? People don't do religion for fun. It is serious. Whether we are on the side of Paul, or the new teachers from Jerusalem, we are challenging what helps those who hold the other viewpoint make sense of their life. We are challenging the place where they seek 'salvation,' the 'answer' to all the pain and ambiguity of life which enables them to keep going.

Let me emphasise this by going beyond the end of the set reading for the week. Paul is angry and confronting. But this is not an SMS or a tweet dashed off in the heat of the moment. Delivery of letters was slow. He might have only one shot at this. So the letter is carefully angry.

What Paul says is considered. And the considered letter bluntly attacks Peter himself, calling him a hypocrite. (2:11-14) The part of the telephone conversation which we can hear suddenly makes clear what the issue is: until certain people came from James, [Peter] used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction.

Notice that Paul's implied rebuke of James the brother of the Lord, head of the church, is hardly any less than that of Peter. This 'other gospel' (1:6-7) which Paul regards as a falling away from grace (5:4) is being heard at the very heart of the church. We would not lightly stand up and attack the Moderator and General Secretary over fundamentals of the faith!

It would be tempting to think that the issues were food laws, and circumcision. That would let us consider the issue finished, for we do not now consider circumcision has anything to do with Christian faith. Few of us think of food as an issue, either, although vegetarian disciplines reflect a certain respect for the creation.

Food and circumcision were not the issue. They were signifiers of the issue; concrete things people did to live out their faith in God. The root issue was something else. Bill Loader sums up the situation for Paul and the Galatians delightfully.

It was not that [the Galatians had] reverted to their pre-conversion beliefs. It was rather that they had been swept off their feet by a new set of preachers who were much more like fundamentalists than Paul. These newcomers upheld scripture to the letter and so insisted that the Galatians must be circumcised, as Genesis 17 requires. They saw Paul's mission which excused Gentiles from circumcision as a sell-out of the truth. Paul was making faith easy. No wonder he was successful - all those God-fearers sitting up the back of the synagogue holding out against being circumcised could all jump down and join. It was a coup for Paul's mission, but they saw it as a betrayal both of scripture and of Israel. To Paul their approach is anathema - a real curse, as it still is in Christianity today, though we are generally more polite.

So Paul finds himself somewhat with his back to the wall. These opponents probably also claimed better credentials than Paul had. They could probably "names-drop" leading apostles with whom they had been associated. As for Paul he had no such authority. There was much more at stake than Paul's ego (though that must have played a role). It was a matter of what lay at the heart of faith. Was it grace with freedom to remove barriers, including biblical ones if need be, or was it law enshrined in an attitude towards the bible (theirs at the time) which is so familiar to us from today's fundamentalisms?

Do we enshrine our faith within a set of laws? Are we saying there are certain things which must be done, must be adhered to, to be loved by God? How free is our grace?

A colleague on Facebook directed me to Jim Palmer's blog this morning. Among fifteen things Jesus didn't say were,

All of these are summed up in the last one: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you a checklist of things to do and not do in order to remain in God’s favor…

As Bill put it, are we living and teaching and telling a "grace with freedom to remove barriers"; a grace-giving from God which tears in two the 'curtain' which separates us from God from top to bottom? (Mark 15:2) Or are we, in essence, saying that there is something we must do to remove the barrier, tearing it apart from the bottom up? It is as simple and blinding as that.

Galatians 1:11-2:14 was indeed Paul's defence of his authority. His revelation came from God, not people; it was endorsed by the "acknowledged leaders," and they added nothing to him.

But it remains today part of a crying out for the very basis of our salvation; the foundation of what we decide makes life liveable.

I found an old hymn in Together in Song (151) this week; The love of God is greater far, written by Frederick Lehman. This is the second verse.

When years of time shall pass away,
And earthly thrones and kingdoms fall,
When men, who here refuse to pray,
On rocks and hills and mountains call,
God’s love so sure, shall still endure,
All measureless and strong;
Redeeming grace to Adam’s race—
The saints’ and angels’ song

In this stanza Lehman was recalling Revelation 6:15

15Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; 17for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?’

So often we assume that God' grace does not reach those people who have not kept the same made up rules of God that we have kept. They will be found to have missed out. (We can have this attitude even if we think end times stories are only metaphors.)

If we are hard of heart, we tell ourselves they deserve it. If we are gentle, we mourn them and perhaps worry how little we did to love them. But if we are Paul, we know that even in a final cataclysm it would be that

God’s love so sure, shall still endure, all measureless and strong.

It is why we are so hard on our own prodigals, regardless of what we may say about Jesus' story of the Prodigal Son. It is why we are so hard on ourselves, and insist we must keep rules: no one deserves to be given a love such as this.

As we will see, it is given. That was Paul's blinding revelation.

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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