Paul to the Church in Galatia, "Don't Be Jerks!"

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Second Sunday after Pentecost
Galatians 1:1-12

Imagine this is what you heard when you came to church on Sunday morning!  I’m not sure how long I’d continue attending that church!  I mean, after all, most of us are already pretty hard on ourselves and after a long week at work or at school the last thing we want on a Sunday morning is to have someone yelling at us reminding us of all the ways in which we are not living up to expectations.
Having read today’s passage from Paul’s letter to the Church in Galatia shortly after viewing the Honest Preacher video clip, I thought, “wow!” This is exactly how Paul is in this letter.  And, my next thought was, “Thank goodness for Jesus because if we all we had was this letter from Paul. . . I’m not sure Christianity would be with us anymore!” Paul’s letter begins more or less like his other letters --- In the letter to Rome: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ. . .  Grace to you and peace. . .”[2]. In the letters to Corinth: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus. . . Grace to you and peace. . .”[3].   In the letter to Ephesus: “Paul, can apostle of Christ Jesus. . . Grace to you and peace. . .”[4]  Well, you get the idea. Nothing too bizarre here in the letter to Galatia: “Paul an apostle. . . Grace to you and peace. . .” All of Paul’s other letters then go on to give thanks for the community to which he writes. But, here, to the community of Jesus followers in Galatia, there is none of that.  Just, “It’s me Paul. Grace to you and peace.  Hey, you guys. Sometimes you are bad. You are real jerks. Don’t be bad. Or, as Paul actually puts it, “I am astonished!”[5] 
Whenever a text doesn’t follow the expected formula – in the case of Paul – Greetings, Peace, Thank you – it tells me, we need to pay close attention.  What has Paul so riled up that all of his homiletics training and all of his pastoral care training from seminary is left by the wayside as he just lays in to the community in Galatia?  Whatever it is, we best pay attention. 
Paul is known to have planted many Christian communities.  Pastor Gregory Ledbetter refers to him as a “midwife.”[6] He plants the seed of the Church, prays that God will water and grow that seed to fullness of faith, and checks in from time to time with a letter of encouragement or correction.  This is the way things were in Galatia.  But, since Paul’s work in Galatia, other missionaries have come into town and they are telling the community that Paul’s theology and Paul’s instructions on how to be a follower of Jesus are incomplete.  For Paul, the Gentiles (that is, the non-Jewish followers of Jesus) did not need to follow Jewish law and Jewish customs in order to be a faithful follower of Jesus.  However, the missionaries who came after him – Jewish followers of Jesus – felt this was incorrect and were teaching the Gentiles in Galatia that the gospel they had received was incomplete, that in order to actually be a follower of Jesus and to reap the salvific benefits of that, one needed to eat kosher, be circumcised, attend the synagogue on Jewish holidays, and so forth. So Paul is mad! Not only does he believe that these missionaries are teaching “a different gospel – not that there is another gospel” but he is feeling personally attacked – his credibility is on the line.  (Mind you, this is not necessarily a good reason to lose one’s cool; but, there we are).
So what is it that Paul is saying that differs so greatly from the message of the other missionaries?  In the first place, Paul does not think the Jewish Christians are “doing faith” wrong by continuing their traditional practices. In fact, Paul might argue that Jews should, in fact, continue those Jewish customs because he understands that those practices are what connect them to their heritage, their world view, their values.  For Jewish followers of Jesus, Paul understood that being a follower of Jesus was a particular way of being Jewish – not a new religion.  After all, Paul is a Jewish follower of Jesus.
By the same token, Paul does not think that the Gentile converts are “doing faith” in a better or more pure way than the Jewish followers.  It’s just that, for Gentiles to “pick up” Jewish customs is (a) not authentic to who they are and (b) not necessary to be a follower of Jesus.  As theologian Wendy Farley writes, Paul believed and taught that “Christ is a doorway through which anyone can enter at any time, not because belief is a new [human] ‘work’ or Christianity a new ‘law’” but because, “the gospel is the unbearably good news that divine love anticipates us, surrounds us, [and] precedes us; anything that serves as an obstacle to our awareness of this love is ‘accursed’.”[7]  “Jewish customs are consistent with faith; Gentile prophecy is consistent in faith. But limiting divine grace to these or anything else is not consistent with faith. Love makes one a Christian.  That’s it. Just the love of Christ.
The point for Paul – and the reason he is SO angry about what is happening in Galatia – is that, contrary to what the Jewish Christian missionaries are teaching, “one’s status and condition do not need to be altered in order to be invited into divine love.”  This is why later in the letter to Galatia, Paul writes, “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.”[8]  The gospel does not depend on our behavior. It does not depend on our words.  It does not depend on our lot or condition in life.  The gospel, in short, does not depend on us.  Rather, the gospel is wholly dependent on God’s love revealed through his Son, Jesus Christ.  Paul’s teaching in Galatia is not “gospel-light” – it is not a partial gospel - it is Gospel. It is Good News.
And as it is good news for the church in Galatia and in Corinth, it is good news in Ephesus and in Rome and right here in Evanston, Illinois, it is good news because it has the power “to set us free from the present evil age,”[9] an age marked by our fascination with and chasing after the false gospels – “not that there is another gospel” – the false gospels of “power, might, prestige, and hierarchical authorities.”[10]   My brothers and sisters in Christ, the love of God through Jesus Christ sets us free.  But each day the choice is ours – just as it was for the Galatians – will we choose our loyalty to the “familiar and stabilizing structures” of human origin or will we choose “the priority of the gospel”[11] as “received through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”[12]  If we choose the former, we will continue to chase after status and power in society, seeking an ephemeral salvation that is wholly dependent on human behaviors – some of which are in our control and most of which are out of our hands.  But, if we choose the later – the Gospel of Jesus Christ – we will know ourselves in the light of divine love. Right where we are. Right as we are.  In any circumstance, in any time.  A divine love that anticipates us, surrounds us and precedes us as it invites us to believe the Good News that we are God’s beloved children.  We already are God’s beloved children.  You don’t need to do anything.  Just accept this Good News.

[1] “The Honest Preacher,” Friend Dog Studios, May 23, 2016 accessed here on May 28, 2016.
[2] Romans 1:1-7.
[3] 1 Corinthians 1:1-3; 2 Corinthians 1:1-2.
[4] Ephesians 1:1-2.
[5] Galatians 1:1-3, 6.
[6] Gregory H. Ledbetter, “Homiletical Perspective: Galatians 1:1-12,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).
[7] Wendy Farley, “Theological Perspective: Galatians 1:1-12,” Feasting on the Word.
[8] Galatians 3:28.
[9] Galatians 1:4.
[10] Farley.
[11] Farley.
[12] Galatians 1:12b.