Written by Pastor Ed
The Problems of a Preacher
August 10, 2014
Books of the Bible Series – Galatians
Imagine, if you can, that you are a teacher or preacher who has spent a great deal of time and effort traveling among a group of people, teaching them something new. Perhaps it’s a new method of farming that will yield much better crops, or a new technology that will help them communicate better, or a new way of building that will make their structures more weather resistant. You’ve worked long and hard and the people have been receptive and adopted the new ideas. You leave satisfied that you have done a good thing and people’s lives will be better for your having been there.
And then you learn that, not six months later, someone else has come along and begun to convince those same people that you were a fraud, and that their old way of doing things was really better after all. Would you be upset? Would you be ready to fire off a rather nasty letter to the people? You’d better believe it! And that’s exactly what Paul does. And somebody kept a copy! We call it the book of Galatians.
The letter, as a piece of early literature is interesting in and of itself. It is considered one of Paul’s earliest letters, often dated around the early 50’s AD, even before the Jerusalem Conference mentioned in Acts 15. Thus the first two chapter, in which Paul defends himself against charges that he is somehow not who he says he is, are the earliest accounts we have of activity in the early church. And Galatians is the earliest document we have that makes a distinction between Judaism and Christianity. For many years Christians were simply seen as a sect of Judaism, but Paul begins to draw a sharp line between the two.
Exactly who the letter is addressed to is somewhat unclear. Galatia was a region, not a specific congregation, and there is debate over whether it was the churches of Northern Galatia or Southern Galatia that are addressed. In the end it really doesn’t matter significantly.
The document is a letter; it has a greeting and a closing benediction, but unlike most letters of the ancient world or even of Paul, it doesn’t bother with a lot of niceties, thanksgivings and so forth. Paul gets right to the point, and doesn’t mince words. In the strongest language we find from Paul he cajoles, warns, shames, and encourages the churches of Galatia.
Listen to what Paul has to say about the people of the Galatian churches:
“I am astonished” (1:6 NRSV)
“You foolish Galatians” (3:1)
“I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted” (4:11)
“I am perplexed about you” (4:20)
“I am warning you… (5:21)
And if you think that’s strong language for the Bible, listen to what he has to say about those who are opposing him.
8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! (1:8 NIV)
and just to make his point he repeats it again!
9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! (1:9 NIV)
And later on, as his anger turns a bit hotter, he blurts out – “12 As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (5:12 NIV) I can just see J.C. Wenger grinning as they tried to figure out how best to say that. Just for fun, check a variety of translations. The NRSV puts it more bluntly, “I wish they would castrate themselves!” Not language most of us preachers would get away with these days.
So what’s the big issue that has gotten Paul so riled up? Well, in fact as we know from accounts in Acts as well as other of Paul’s letters, it was one of the main points of discussion and disagreement in the early church as it tried to figure out just what the relationship was between Judaism, out of which it came, and this new message of Jesus Christ. How Jewish did you have to be to be a Christian?
This is not a question that we wrestle with currently, but for the early church it was as significant and divisive as say the issue of homosexuality is for the church today. Put in broader terms, it was an issue between law and grace, which may be why Galatians was one of Martin Luther’s favourite books of the Bible.
Paul has been preaching a gospel of freedom – freedom from the law and all the rules and regulations that made up the Old Testament sacrificial system. Christ, he argued had abolished all of that in his death on the cross, so that our response need only be that of acceptance and obedience to the way of love shown in Jesus. Following all the rules and regulations would not get you into any better relationship with God.
Paul goes to great length in Galatians to show that this understanding came to him directly from God, and, by the way, was endorsed by the elders in Jerusalem as well. Even though it was Peter who received that initial vision regarding what was to be considered clean or unclean, Paul was the one who became the apostle to the Gentiles and who pleaded their case for inclusion into the church, without having to become Jews first.
This was a message that had been received and welcomed by the churches that Paul founded in Galatia and elsewhere. But now, it seems, someone –and it’s not clear exactly who these persons were – was casting doubt, not only on the message but on Paul himself and the Galatians were wavering. The detractors may have been local Jews who had become Christians yet wanted to maintain the old ways as well. Or they may in fact, have been Gentile Christians who wanted to follow the old practices of the Hebrew Bible, which is what they had, had accepted circumcision, and were now avidly urging others to do likewise.
It would be like persons who in modern day convert to Catholicism and then want to go back to using the Latin Mass as more authentic. If it was good enough for Moses, it’s good enough for me!
And Paul is appalled! “Oh you foolish Galatians!” Was all my teaching in vain? How could they fall for this garbage and question not just him, but his message which had brought such joy to them earlier? And so we have his response in which he first of all defends himself and the message he brought, and then tries once again to lay out the argument to these people that seem so slow to get it.
He argues from experience, from the Hebrew Bible going back all the way to Abraham, Hagar and Sarah, and appeals to the Law itself to argue that the Law and obedience to the law can never save anyone – not even those who lived under the law. Even Abraham was saved by his faith, not be the law which wasn’t even around at the time when God made his covenant with Abraham.
But Paul also has to be a bit careful. He is arguing that Christians are free from the rules and regulations of the Jewish system. They don’t have to follow dietary laws or rituals of cleanliness in order to be saved. They don’t have to offer sacrifices, wear certain clothes, or be circumcised – the ultimate sign of being a male Jew in the ancient world. In short, they were free from all the rules and regulations that had been so much a part of religious life in the past. All they needed was to accept God’s grace by faith. For those who wanted to maintain at least some of the old ways, he would have been seen, in modern terms, as a real liberal.
But, as is often the case, there were those who heard the message differently. For them, freedom from the law meant freedom from any restraints. We know from other writings that there were always those who saw took the message of freedom as a message of license – anything goes. If you didn’t have to follow any of those Hebrew rules, then you must not need to follow any rules. If it was just your faith that saved you, what did it matter what you did?
And to them Paul has to say, “yes, there is freedom, but not without limits.”
13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters;[c] only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence,[d] but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” ( 5:13 NRSV)
Freedom doesn’t mean you can do anything and he names a whole list of things that are part of their old life, works of the flesh. But, Paul continues, you have the freedom in the Spirit to practice the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are not governed by any law and are free to all. If you want to see if someone is a Christian, look for these fruits, not for whether they are following some rules and regulations.
Paul concludes this letter by adding his own personal hand at the end. Most letters were written using a secretary to do the actual writing, but Paul says,
11 “See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!” (6:11 NRSV)
suggests that he hopes no one makes any more trouble for him, and issues a rather curt blessing.
So what shall we take from this letter to the Galatian Churches? Well, I think there are several things, both of which continue to be part of the church’s agenda even today.
First is the question of who we listen to and how we discern what is true. Paul had spent time preaching and teaching in the churches, yet it didn’t take much for some other teachers to begin to lead them astray. I recall years ago when someone came into the community I was pastoring in and began holding house gatherings for people from neighbouring churches. And people began buying their line, which was clearly non-traditional, if not outright wrong.
And I have always been somewhat amazed at how people will dismiss, out-of-hand, Mennonite writers and scholars who are steeped in Anabaptist theology and the church, and accept almost without question some radio preacher or even celebrity who becomes popular. We need to be discerning in where we get our ideas and understandings.
But perhaps more than that point, Galatians keeps before us the question that has remained with the church all these years, namely, what is it that makes us right with God? Is it following certain rules and regulations or is it faith in God’s grace?
As Mennonites, this has always been a bit of an issue, since we place a great deal of emphasis on discipleship, following the way of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere. And, quite frankly, sometimes we have made rules and regulations seem as though they are the most important things in a Christian’s life. Growing up there were many clear rules about what we were and were not allowed to do and I recall the uproar that happened when people began to break some of those rules.
Thankfully we have gotten past much of that, and yet those questions still plague us. At Assembly in Winnipeg we continued to struggle with issues around sexuality and the question of inclusiveness. Are we falling back into the pattern of making following certain rules and regulations the basis for membership, or are we looking for the fruits of the spirit? Obviously these are not easy questions for the church still struggles as it did from the beginning.
But Galatians calls us to live a life in the Spirit, a life of freedom to love, practice generosity and patience, and experience joy and peace. As Paul says,
10 So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. (6:10 NRSV)