Today I want to pick up on some of the things that Brian said in his sermon last week about Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been reading excerpts from this letter, and we’re doing so today and next week as well. But I want to take a step backwards and give you an overview of the whole letter – its background, what it says and how it’s relevant for us today. And I want to start by reminding you of the story of a modern tragedy.
In 1994, as many of you will remember, the African country of Rwanda was the scene of a horrific genocide. Ethnically, Rwanda is divided between Hutus and Tutsis, and the bad feeling between the two groups ran deep, with many grievances on both sides and a long history of violence between them. The two groups were fairly easily identified as well; one was usually characterized by lighter skin pigmentation that the other, and government-issued identity cards identified people as either Hutu or Tutsi.
The flash point for the genocide was the assassination of the Rwandan president, a Hutu, on April 6th 1994. Within a few days, the Hutu-dominated military and government had begun a carefully orchestrated program of killing, leading eventually to the deaths of approximately eight hundred thousand Tutsis and moderate Hutus – those Hutus, that is, who were in favour of finding a peaceful solution to the long-standing conflict. Most of the victims were killed in their own villages and towns, often by their own neighbours and fellow-villagers. Militia members most commonly murdered their victims by hacking them to death with machetes, although some army units used rifles to do their killing.
All of this is horrific enough, but for the Christian church there is an even more horrible side to this. Rwanda was the most evangelized nation in Africa; over 90% of the population claimed to be Christian, and over 65% were Roman Catholic. Christian teaching includes a strong call for forgiveness and reconciliation, but apparently the Christians of Rwanda paid no attention to this. Their loyalty to their own ethnic group was clearly more fundamental to them than their loyalty to Jesus Christ.
Well, it’s all too easy for us to point fingers at the Rwandan genocide, but of course honesty will force us to admit that there have been many times in history, especially European history, when so-called Christian nations have fought each other. Followers of Jesus Christ have put on the uniforms of their country, picked up rifles and killed other followers of Jesus Christ who happened to be wearing the uniform of another country. Once again, our loyalty to our own nation has been more fundamental to us than our loyalty to Jesus Christ and to his people.
Why am I mentioning this in a sermon today? Because this issue of fundamental loyalty is right at the heart of the message of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Galatia was a district of southern Turkey where Paul had travelled, preached the gospel, and planted churches, churches that included both Jewish and Gentile Christians. And the question the Jewish Christians were struggling with was this: which was more important, their loyalty to Jesus – which they shared with the Gentile Christians – or their loyalty to their Jewish heritage and culture and identity – which they did not?
Let me give you a bit of background. In the first century AD Jewish people had scattered all over the Mediterranean world. In many cities there were Jewish communities and Jewish synagogues, and while they participated fully in the economic and social life of the cities in which they lived, they also clung fiercely to their Jewish faith and identity, and particularly the three practices that marked them out visibly from their Gentile neighbours: circumcision, the food laws, and keeping the Jewish calendar, especially the Sabbath. They believed that these practices were the signs of the true people of God; they were like the identity cards that the Hutus and Tutsis carried in Rwanda. How could you tell who God’s chosen people were? By their observance of circumcision, the food laws, and the Sabbaths and holy days.
Of course, the first Christians were all Jewish, and they believed that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel. But Jesus had commanded his disciples not only to preach the gospel to the Jewish people, but also to go to all nations and make them his disciples. So right from the very beginning, there was at least a theoretical commitment in Jewish Christianity to go beyond the ethnic boundaries of Israel and create a multinational and multicultural community, the new people of God, marked by their faith in Jesus, God’s anointed king.
But the practical details were difficult to work out. Godly Jews were forbidden from eating with Gentiles, because Gentiles didn’t keep kosher. But the Holy Spirit guided the early Christian missionaries to ignore this rule. And when Paul began to travel across the Mediterranean world, he taught people that it was not circumcision and keeping the ritual laws of Judaism that counted, but rather putting your faith in Jesus Christ, receiving the Holy Spirit, and living a life of love. These were the fundamental things that united the Christian community, both Jews and Gentiles.
But not everyone agreed with Paul on this, and the disagreement came to a head in the city of Antioch in Syria, where Jewish and Gentile Christians lived together in harmony. In those days the central act of Christian worship was a common meal. Nowadays our Holy Communion is a formal service with a tiny piece of bread and sip of wine, but in the early church it seems to have been a lot more like a potluck supper with prayers and readings added. And the common meal was of course a sign of the unity of the Christian community; it was unthinkable to Paul and some of the other leaders that there would be two separate community meals for Jews and Gentiles, one kosher and the other not. That would be a huge breach in the unity of the Body of Christ. So Jewish and Gentile Christians in Antioch ate together quite happily as one Christian family united by faith in Christ.
But then some other Jewish Christians came down from Jerusalem, and they weren’t happy at all with what they saw. To them, God had commanded in the scriptures that we be circumcised and keep kosher. “These Gentiles haven’t been given the full message”, they said. “Yes, faith and baptism are the beginning, but now they need to be circumcised, to keep the Sabbaths and the food laws and all the six hundred or so commands in the Torah”.
This is the situation in which Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians. He felt very strongly that Christ had called him and commissioned him, and sent him to the Gentiles with a gospel of freedom. He felt that he was being attacked, and his children in the faith were being misled. So in this letter he argues and rages and exaggerates and twists scripture verses to make his point, all to preserve the truth of the gospel. This letter is a bit like the inflammatory posts you read on political blogs, complete with insults; at one point in the letter Paul even says, ‘I wish that those who want you to be circumcised would go all the way and castrate themselves!’ And there are some fundamental Christian truths that this letter sets out which are absolutely essential to us today. Let me quickly list them for you.
First of all, the gospel of Jesus Christ is not primarily about human effort but God’s grace – God’s love, that is, that we don’t need to earn, because it comes to us in Jesus as a free gift. To put keeping the law at the centre of the Christian life is to make it all about human effort, and that’s just a way of puffing us up and making us conceited about how holy we are. Even more than that, it divides the Christian community between the successes and the failures: the ones who are sure of their own goodness and look down on everyone else, and the ones who know they’ve failed and are just waiting for their eviction notice. But this is not the Christian gospel. The Christian gospel tells us that we are all sinners, but that God reaches out to sinners and welcomes them home in Jesus. And when we put our faith in Jesus and are baptized, we are accepted into the family of God, not on the basis of any human effort, but on the basis of the love of God in Jesus. And so Paul says, ‘We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ’ (2:15).
By the way, this is directly relevant to our experience of God today. Over the past few days, hundreds of thousands of people in southern Alberta have had to leave their homes because of what the insurance industry calls ‘an act of God’. Some of those folks will be religious people, and I know from past experience that some of them will be asking themselves, “What have I done to deserve this?” Some of you might even have asked yourselves that question from time to time.
But you see, that question makes no sense in the context of the Christian gospel of grace! That gospel message tells us that Jesus loved his enemies and gave his life on the cross for their forgiveness; the gospel, in other words, is about a God who loves his enemies, rather than sending fire and floods and judgement on them. The Christian message isn’t about our need to keep every single command of God in order to avoid being punished by fire and flood; it’s about the love of God reaching out to all people – Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free, men and women, the good and the bad and the ugly – with the same offer of forgiveness and a fresh start through the love of Christ. In other words, it’s not about how good we are; it’s about how good God is. That’s the first thing.
Second, Paul tells us that a new thing has entered the experience of Christians: the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is filling us, and he will guide us into the way of Jesus. But this way will not be so much about obeying the ritual laws of the old covenant; rather, it will be about growing in Christlike character. Paul sums this up in today’s reading, in chapter five, where he gives us two lists: works of the old sinful nature, which he calls ‘the flesh’, and the fruit of the Spirit. We read the lists from the NRSV which uses a lot of ten dollar words; let me read them to you from the New Living Translation, which prefers two dollar words! The works of the flesh, Paul says, include ‘sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarrelling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, wild parties, and other sins like these’ (5:19-21). But the fruit of the Spirit is ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ (5:22-23).
So the way of grace and faith doesn’t mean that we Christians are free to sin happily in the knowledge that God will always forgive us! No; the Holy Spirit will be working in our lives, transforming us so that we become like Jesus. But this will not be about obedience to ritual laws and boundary markers; it will be about growing in Christlike character. As Paul says in 5:6: ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love’.
So we’ve seen that Galatians teaches us first that the gospel isn’t primarily about human effort but about God’s grace, and second, that God gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit to grow the character of Jesus in us. One more thing: the Christlike character the Spirit produces in us includes reaching across boundaries to produce a community united on the basis of our commitment to Jesus Christ. Paul spells this out in one of the best-known passages in this letter, from last week’s readings, when he says:
‘…in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 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’ (3:26-28).
And having been made one in Christ Jesus, how can we divide ourselves up again on the basis of lesser things? How can Gentiles split from Jews and eat separately? How can masters sit by themselves in church and keep separate from slaves? Or, to think in today’s terms, how can rich Christians hoard the wealth of the world and ignore the millions of brothers and sisters in Christ who live in abject poverty? How can Hutus and Tutsis who claim to be Christians go on to murder each other? How can Christians go to war against their fellow-Christians from other countries just because their government says they are enemies? What about their primary loyalty to Jesus and his way?
You see, this letter to the Galatians doesn’t pull any punches! It sets out clearly for us God’s vision of a new community gathered around Jesus Christ, marked by faith in him and love for one another. It tells us that our fundamental identity is not that we are Jews or Gentiles – and today we might add old or young, or left wing or right wing, or catholic or protestant, or Hutus or Tutsis, or French or English, or Canadian or American or Iraqi or Afghan or anything else. To make those things our fundamental identity is to worship false gods, and to put something else in place of the one true God and his Son Jesus Christ. And Paul will have none of this; to him, these lesser things are unimportant, and taking pride in them is a snare. Rather, he says, ‘May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. For neither circumcision or uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!’ (6:14-15).
So as we continue to read Galatians, let’s focus on that new creation. Let’s not get stuck in the past, where differences of race or nationality or economic circumstance divide us; rather, let’s come together as the reconciled people of God. God has accepted us all on the basis of his love for us in Christ; we have all been baptized into the family of God as children of God, and we have all been given the gift of the Holy Spirit to transform us into the likeness of Christ. So what matters any more is not our differences, but what unites us: faith in Christ and love for others. To live by those things is to walk in the way of Christ. Let us pray that God will fill us with his Holy Spirit, who will help us to do this. Amen.