Wonderful Words of Love
Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21
Sunday, May 21, 2017
Explain justification – words on a page in alignment – it’s a way of talking about being in alignment with God and belonging in the community of faith…
Once in a while someone will ask me if I miss preaching since I’m no longer a pastor in a local church. I always tell them that while there are things I miss about pastoring a congregation, preaching is not one of them. There are a number of reasons I won’t bore you with but the most important one is that I don’t miss preaching because I have really come to love receiving sermons more than giving them. Over the last three years that I’ve been a regular here on Sunday mornings, I have really grown to appreciate Brad’s approach to his sermons. I appreciate the questions he asks, the seriousness with which he engages the text and the ways he both challenges and comforts us each week. When I’m not here on a Sunday morning I truly miss receiving the thoughtful wisdom and guidance as well as the challenges he poses. We’re really lucky to have a pastor with such a well-developed and finely tuned gift for preaching!
So, this morning what I have decided to do is to talk a little bit about the somewhat confusing passages from Galatians we’ve read this morning and then share with you something I wrote that was inspired by Brad’s Ash Wednesday sermon from 2016.
First, Galatians – What in the world is going on here? I find Paul’s writing and the Epistles in general difficult to read, understand and glean insight from. Here’s what I’ve learned this week about the passages we are pondering this morning.
The Galatians are Gentile Christians whom Paul evangelized and formed into communities of faith a number of years prior to the writing of this letter. Now, years later, they are writing to Paul in utter confusion because some other missionaries have come to Galatia telling them that if they are going to be followers of Jesus, they need to first prove their faith through following the laws of the Torah. They especially need to be circumcised. This is confusing to them. Paul has already assured them that this is not required, that their faith in Christ is sufficient but now they’re hearing a different story. So, we presume, they get in touch with Paul hoping he can set them straight.
The letter to the Galatians from which we are reading today, is Paul’s response to their letter seeking guidance. In the verses from chapter one that __________ read for us, Paul is starting out his response to the Galatians by establishing his credibility and authority. He is defending his teaching and his interpretation of the gospel. He asserts that his teaching has authority because he received it directly from God. He was himself a Jew, faithfully and fervently following every tenet of the law when God intervened and showed him another way. Paul was completely transformed by this encounter from a fervent persecutor of those who were following Christ to a prolific and enthusiastic evangelist.
It’s important to remember here that we are not yet talking about two separate religions – Judaism and Christianity. At this time in history there is only one religion – the Israelite religion following the laws of Moses. And within that one religion, there are some who are also following Christ and others who are not. The split into two separate religions doesn’t fully take place until much later than this. With the conversion of Gentiles raises many questions for this group – do those who do not already follow the laws of Moses need to adopt those laws in addition to adopting the traditions and beliefs of those who are also following Christ? Or, can they be followers of Christ without adhering to the laws of Moses? Paul is asserting in Chapter 1 that the do NOT have to follow the laws of Moses because God revealed this truth to him directly and as a result of this revelation Paul knows that all who follow Christ are accepted and loved by God through God’s action of love and faith in Jesus and not through their own actions. In other words, God revealed to Paul that faith is a gift from God, not something we earn through works.
In the second passage that I read from chapter 2, we are getting a glimpse into the core challenge that has arisen within the Israelite religion. That question and challenge is – what do Gentiles who are following Jesus have to do to be faithful? Do they have to first become Jews in order to follow Jesus or is it o.k. for them to be Gentiles who follow Jesus and to be included in the body of Christ?
Last week, when we were talking about a similar passage from the book of Acts, Brad compared this tension in the early church to the conversation that many churches have had about serving children communion. In this case the tension is between those who believe a person needs a certain level of maturity and a certain knowledge about the sacrament to participate in communion and those who believe it is o.k. to welcome children to the table based solely on the fact that they are beloved ones of God. This congregation has made the decision that welcoming children at the table is more important than excluding them until they gain some form of special knowledge. We have opted to trust that God is at work in the lives of the youngest among us and that through the sacrament and their inclusion in the community they will come to understand over time what communion means to them.
Back to Galatians – Paul is clearly on the side of those who believe that Gentiles do NOT need to follow the Torah in order to be faithful followers of Jesus. His argument is that all any of us needs is faith, which comes to us as a gift from God. This conviction arises out of Paul’s own experience of being transformed by God’s word and wisdom. Paul’s faith in Christ came as a result of God’s action and therefore, Paul is convinced that this is all anyone else needs as well. In Paul’s mind, it is not required to follow the laws of Torah to be accepted by God and therefore, those who follow the laws should not place a stumbling block in front of those who were Gentiles and are now following Christ. Justification, or alignment with God comes through faith. There isn’t anything we can do or say to force God to love us – we are already loved, received and set right with God and there’s nothing we can do to alter that reality.
Say something about anti-Jewish sentiment rooted in Paul and the idea that while faith is a gift we do not have to earn, there are a variety of ways we may choose to practice our faithfulness. For Jews, practicing that faithfulness comes in the form of adhering to the laws of the Torah. For the Gentile converts practicing faithfulness comes in other forms, which Paul goes on to describe in this letter. It’s not that one religion is better than the other it’s more a plea to accept the various ways that the groups are practicing their faithfulness. And it’s an assurance that we do not EARN our place in God’s heart, we are already there through God’s gift of love, which brings me to Ash Wednesday of 2016 and the Wonderful Words of Love I heard from our pastor that night. I’m quoting from a blog post I wrote the next day:
Last night during the Ash Wednesday service at Mt. Vernon, UCC my Pastor Brad reminded all who were gathered of these important things:
We are dust and to dust we shall return but in between is life and life is meant to be lived to the glory of God so what you will do with your one wild and wonderful life?
We are loved beyond our wildest imagination by a God who never gives up on her people.
We are never alone for God is always with us, even in our times of deepest despair. In the midst of our questions and uncertainties, in our anger and self-loathing, God sees, knows, accompanies and loves no matter what.
There is nothing we can do or say that removes us from God’s love and forgiveness. There is no failure too big, no sin too great, no shortcoming too offensive to turn God’s heart away from God’s people. Before we’ve failed, or sinned or fallen short, God’s grace has already swept us up and set us back on solid ground from which we are free to try, try and try again. As I was driving home I realized that one of the most important things for me about participating in Christian community is being reminded of these things and so much more on a regular basis. These words of love from God through my pastor go straight to my heart that so desperately longs to believe them and more importantly to live them.
These words of love shape and form me and the community that hears them. Over time, slowly, slowly like drops of water on a stone they change us and form us into a beloved people. And as we are transformed we are sent out into the world to share what we have come to know for ourselves and to speak these words of love to our neighbors, our families and our world in all we say and do.
This regular rhythm of speaking truth into being, of telling week after week this story of love and radical divine acceptance is one of the most important gifts the community of faith offers to the world. It is why and how I have stayed in the church throughout my adult life. It is why I went to seminary and it is why we must do better at getting this story and these words into the hearts and minds and onto the souls of our neighbors. These words are powerful and true and they can be trusted. They are a healing balm in a hurting world and we must not keep them to ourselves.
This is the truth that Paul knew and that he was trying to impress upon the Galatians and anyone else who would listen – God’s love and acceptance transcends all earthly rules, regulations, boundaries and judgements. The Galatians didn’t need to be circumcised or follow the purity laws or observe dietary guidelines of Leviticus because in Christ’s death and resurrection they were already welcomed into God’s heart, already claimed, already forgiven, already loved beyond their wildest imagination. I’m sure that if they found those practices a life giving way to practice and nurture the gift of faith no one would have stood in their way but these practices should not be required of them. And, my friends, the same is true for us. We too are loved and claimed and set free to live in respond to this love. We are set free to practice our faith in ways that nurture and sustain us, to share love freely with all we encounter and to see in every person we meet the spark of God’s love in them, too. And so I am here this morning to tell you that you are enough, right now, wherever you are and however you came into this sanctuary this morning. God sees you in all your fullness and loves you no matter what.
May this be so for all of us today and every day. Amen.
Sermon - Tisha Brown