The Gospel is all about grace

You can listen to today’s sermon here, or read on.

For the two years between graduating from college and starting seminary, I worked for my Father-in-Law as the Business Manager for his construction company.  It was a nice title to carry, what with my degree in Business Administration, but in reality, it carried very little responsibility.  Perhaps the most important thing I did in the day-to-day operations of Thomas Construction was write letters.  I wrote cover letters for bids.  I wrote rejection letters for job applicants.  I wrote cordial letters to business associates.  I wrote less than cordial letters – lots of them – to attorney’s offices who were threatening various law suits, subcontractors who had butchered jobs or were billing beyond their scope of work, customers who were taking their sweet time in paying bills, and homeowners who decided three years after their home was completed that they didn’t like the paint color in their master bathroom.  In those two years, I got pretty good at the art of telling someone to “take a long walk off a short pier.”  As a result, I’ve also become pretty good at realizing when someone else is very politely telling me to shove it.

Here, as we begin the first of six weeks in Paul’s letter to the Church in Galatia, it is abundantly clear to me that we are privy to a first-century version of a “where the sun don’t shine” letter.  Most of Paul’s letters begin the same way: Paul introduces himself as a “servant” or apostle of Jesus, addresses the congregation, offers them “grace and peace from the Lord Jesus Christ”, and then follows up with some sort of thanksgiving for their witness or commendation for their faithfulness or blessing upon their ministry.  In his letter to the Galatians, however, Paul takes a very different tack.  He begins on the defensive: “Paul an apostle – sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead …”  From the outset, it is clear that this letter is intended to rebuke the fledgling Galatian church.  Scholars have long speculated that a group must have come in behind Paul and raised doubts about his position as an Apostle.  These Judaizers, as they’ve come to be known, believed that Paul had rejected the true message of Jesus because he opened the doors of salvation to Gentiles without making them follow the laws of Moses.  Mary Hinkle Shore of Luther Seminary imagines their teaching:

Paul of Tarsus?  Who’s he?  Paul was not with Jesus in Galilee.  Why should you listen to him about what Jesus taught or expected of those who would follow him?  You say he told you that you did not need to be circumcised or keep the Law of Moses?  Where did he get that?  He was probably just trying to make things easy for you, to be popular.  He sounds like a people pleaser.”[1]

Paul spends most of the first two chapters of his letter to the Galatians arguing his pedigree – shoring up for the Galatian Church that he is who he says he is so that he has the authority to say what he says beginning in verse six, “How dare you!  I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel, perverted by those who have set out to confuse you…”[2]  These revisionists of the Gospel came flying in from out of town, denied the apostleship of Paul, and then added all sorts of extra rules to follow, as if faith in Jesus Christ wasn’t enough.  Stan Mast of Calvin Theological Seminary does the imagining this time:

Now you must complete your salvation.  You’ve believed in Christ, and that’s good, but that’s not enough.  Now you must obey the law of god. You aren’t really and fully saved until you do what God told his people to do in the Bible.  The Bible (for the Galatians that meant the Old Testament, of course) says that you must also obey the law of God to be saved.  Faith in Christ is not enough; you also have to be circumcised, keep kosher, observe the holy days, etc.[3]

It is so tempting to make faith more difficult than it needs to be.  In Galatia in the mid-50s AD, the issue for this Gentile Church was just how Jewish a follower of the Jewish Messiah had to be.  Did believing in Jesus require the sacrament of circumcision prescribed by God to Abraham?  Did it require following all 613 laws of the Torah covering everything from hand washing and food preparation to farming practices and slave trading?  Did it require pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem on the High Holy Days?  To all those additions and many more, Paul answers with an emphatic, “No!”  For Paul, the gospel is “timeless and fixed”[4] as he’ll write later on in chapter 2, “…we … know that we become right with God, not by doing what the law commands, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be accepted by God because of our faith in Christ– and not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be saved by obeying the law.”[5]  For Paul it is all about grace.  Undeserved.  Unearned.  Unimaginable.  Grace.

It is tempting to make it more difficult than it needs to be, which is why I’ve grown to love days like today, as we baptize little Marshall Long.  He doesn’t know what’s happening.  He can’t offer his intellectual assent to the three articles of the Apostle’s Creed.  His promises are worthless – mostly because he can’t talk, but also he won’t be able to enter into a legal contract for another 17 years and 10 months.  But none of that matters.  God’s grace is sufficient for him, and he is welcomed with open arms into the body of Christ this morning.  Much the same is true for us.  Even if you were baptized at the illusive “age of reason” or as an adult, chances are, you didn’t understand what was going on.  Not even the best theologians can tell you exactly what happens in baptism, and it doesn’t matter.  We can believe the articles of the Creed, but even when we question things, and let’s be honest, we all have doubts and questions from time to time, God loves us.  Our word may be worth more than the grunts of a 2 month old, but probably not by much.  We’ve all told our fair share of white lies, we’ve all stretched the truth for our own gain, and we’ve all fallen short of the ideal.  But none of that matters.  God’s grace is sufficient for us, and we are welcomed with open arms into the body of Christ again every morning.

Paul got really, really, angry when he realized that people were trying to make faith difficult for the Galatians.  He got so mad that he wrote one of the great theological treatises of all time, and in the end it all comes down to grace.  God’s grace, shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is enough to cover all our sins.  Trust in him.  That’s all that is required.  And when you can’t even muster that, remember the answer to the questions of the baptismal covenant that we will all reaffirm here shortly, “I will with God’s help.”  Amen.

 


[1] Commentary on Galatians 1:1-12, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1744 (28 May 2013).

[2] Galatians 1:6-7 paraphrased

[3] This Week at The Center for Excellence in Preaching, http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php (29 May 2013)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Galatians 2:16 (NLT)

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