Sermon 29th May 2016

Sunday readings: 

1 Kings 8: 22 – 23, 41 – 43; Galatians 1: 1 – 12; Luke 7: 1 – 10


Galatians, and what it takes to belong


Oooh….St Paul is really in a state about what’s happening to his church in Galatia. This, the start of the letter to his flock there, should really follow the conventions of the time in offering a rather formal introduction, extended thanksgivings and various other exchanges of news before getting down to the purpose of the letter. Somewhat like today in Middle Eastern society: a greeting, discussing the family, a bit of thanks for all the blessings of the past month and other social chitchat which might be part of the conventional prelude to the real business at hand. Oh, no…unlike most of the other genuine letters of Paul to his various churches, which start with between 8 and 15 verses before getting to the point, the letter to the Galatians opens with a mere 5 verses of introduction and then straight into what he’s so hopping mad about, in no uncertain terms. “I am astonished” he says “that you’re ignoring what I taught you.” Or, in less polite terms, “what the hell do you think you’re doing??” What I’ve taught you isn’t something I or any human made up, it’s a divine revelation to me which I’m passing on to you.


But… as with so much of edited down Scripture which we hear in church, this morning we only get the merest hint in these somewhat tangled opening verses of what Paul is referring to, and nothing explicit about why he’s really writing to the Galatians. If you take just this passage, it could sound as though Paul is annoyed (and more than a bit arrogantly petulant) that someone else is considered more worthy of attention and obedience than he is. Paul is quite concerned to establish his superior credentials.


We need to get further on in this letter before learning about the serious conflict in the Galatian community. So – without spoiling it for the preachers in the coming weeks, here’s just a bit of necessary scene-setting, teasing out some understanding of why Paul is saying what he does.


St Paul rocketed around the Mediterranean preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ, setting up or lending his charismatic support to church plants, and providing some basic direction how these new communities should relate to each other and what to believe about the one who is offering them salvation – Christ. His letters are almost always focussed on responding to particular issues which have arisen in each church. How to behave, who can be welcomed, what does it mean to follow Christ. But right at the beginning of the infant church, there was a fundamental disagreement about who was eligible to join. Did one have to become a Jew first before becoming a follower of Jesus? Basically, did Gentiles need to be circumcised (men only naturally) before being accepted for baptism?


The Jerusalem faction said yes, always, but St Paul thought he convinced them otherwise; that the Jerusalem leaders authorised him, Paul, to preach to and convert the uncircumcised Gentiles and bring them into the community of faith without any preconditions. We don’t hear about any requirements for women; but as women were almost invisible in institutional Judaism and 1st century society in general they probably welcomed the opportunity to join something which – at first – considered them equally deserving of full participation. So, off Paul went to Galatia and nurtured his flock of believers there in the firm belief that anyone professing faith in Jesus could be baptised. No surgery needed. Unfortunately, not all the leaders really did agree. If you think that the current rows in the Anglican Communion over the ordination of women, sexual orientation and same-sex relationships are vitriolic, these are all probably rather mild compared to the Jewish – Gentile issue which threatened to tear apart the Christian movement right at the beginning.


The Gospel which Paul preached was one of a salvation based on faith in Jesus and – as Paul puts it elsewhere – reconciliation to God through the power of the cross and resurrection; and what God has done for us through Jesus. Baptism was available for everyone. What Paul is getting so worked up about is hearing the news of Jerusalem faction fundamentalists visiting Galatia, going behind his back and demanding that all Christian men did need to follow Jewish law and be circumcised. In other words, insisting on entry requirements which Paul thought had been eliminated. “If anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!” he says, strong language indeed! Leading people astray, as he thought, didn’t sit well with St Paul.


Paul was adamant that the Galatians stick to what he taught them, and not to listen to “some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.” It can be argued that Paul himself was establishing requirements for belonging to the Galatian church, but different ones to other Christian elders who had their own interpretation of where the boundaries “should” be. It’s just that he considers himself to be right and those others to be wrong – because he firmly believes that he received those rules from God, they weren’t made up by humans. And Paul doesn’t really care whether or not humans approve: “If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”


When one joins a community there’s usually some sort of code or understanding about how the community is operated – if there are any rules, what are the aims and aspirations, even what’s allowed and what isn’t. The community known as a nation operates under some strict rules: among other things law, security and public order; and in return ideally provides accountability and protection to its citizens. Even religious communities have rules, perhaps disguised as “guidelines”. They can be positive or negative, established for mutual good or to keep out those who are thought to be unsuitable or undesirable. We tend to like boundaries and entry rules – they make us feel safe and sometimes make sure that we’re surrounded only by “people like us”. But, as necessary as they often are, boundaries are frequently created out of fear and feeling threatened. They exclude people, not only physically but also spiritually, economically and lots of other ways. Not exactly Jesus-like.


Dipping briefly into the Gospel reading, we hear that Jesus is approached to help a Roman centurion. An outsider and foreigner, representative of a hated occupation force who normally would be thought of as undesirable and unworthy of help from any Jewish member of the community. But, as with St Paul insisting that following Jesus is open to everyone, even his uncircumcised Galatian Gentiles, Jesus himself ignores conventional divisions and prohibitions; in this case he is more than willing to enter a home which would make him ritually unclean. In return, the centurion demonstrates an unqualified acceptance of Jesus’s authority, with total belief that Jesus will hear and help. There are no boundaries or preconditions here either – Jesus and the faith of the centurion come together in defiance of all human created barriers of prejudice and existing rules, without question. “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith,’ he says. The message of Jesus is that everyone is to be included, and not judged or excluded because of who and what they are. There are no hoops to jump through in order to come to him. St Paul would have approved, one guesses.


We’ll hear in the coming weeks about corrosive prejudices in the very early Church which caused painful and deep divisions; attitudes towards change and interpretation and practices which still ricochet around the institutional Church under somewhat different disguises. Prejudices which still prevent all Christians from seeing where the genuine unity is – in Christ, not in human made structures which result in artificial boundaries created in fear of change. St Paul was trying to teach the Galatians that faith in Christ was the only thing which really mattered. In Christ all were included. The message and mission of us here at St Mary’s is that all are welcome, all are accepted – come as you are, we won’t judge you by the amount of faith you have (or don’t have) – and we won’t produce hoops for you to jump through either. God is here for everyone. St Paul would have approved of us, one hopes.


© Leslie Spatt 2016