Sermon - 15th September 2019
Twisting the truth of Christ
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
As our starting point today, let’s just get our biblical timeline in order. We are hearing the words of St Paul which were written in the form of letters to new Christian communities around 25 to 35 years after the death of Jesus, and anything between 15 to 45 years before the Gospels in our bibles were compiled.
In our New Testaments, Paul is the earliest voice we hear, and like any leader of a Christian community, Paul had to be sometimes practical, and sometimes inspirational.
There are times in his Letters when he deals with basic issues of church management - such as times when he tells a church community how to deal with disputes, or how to respond to threats from the brutal and lawless cultures in which they were trying to survive.
And then there are times when Paul has to share, by means of the written word, his understanding of who Jesus truly was and what Jesus revealed about the God to whom his life and his teaching points us.
Like everyone who accepts a call to lead a church community, Paul’s judgment was better in some things than in others. He was a creature of his own background and upbringing, as well as being heavily influenced by the culture and society of those parts of the Roman Empire around which he travelled.
He had to balance a degree of realism along with his burning vision of the freedom which is promised to all who follow Jesus. And that may be why sometimes his teachings around the basic practicalities of his day have assumed a kind of divine biblical authority which they don’t deserve, while some of his deeply visionary insights get overlooked or given less attention than they deserve.
Today’s reading is one of his big, visionary insights and is actually about freedom: freedom from the chains of destructive traditions, freedom from discredited ideas, freedom from resistance to the liberating good news which Jesus brought.
It just isn’t immediately obvious from today’s brief extract exactly who Paul is challenging his Christian community in Galatia to do battle with.
In those first decades after the death of Jesus, there was a movement of people from within the Jewish tradition who tried to be exclusive. They resisted the inclusion of non-Jews into the still-developing Christian tradition. (Remember that those first Christian communities were formed and continued to exist as a reforming movement within mainstream Judaism, and they saw their future as remaining within Judaism).
Those who resisted the generous and unconditional inclusion of non-Jews into Christian communities were known as Judaizers, and they taught that members of Christian communities should re-adopt many of the traditional Jewish religious practices which made them distinctive and which set them apart from other cultures.
It had come to Paul’s attention that Judaizer missionaries were following him around and had persuaded some of the non-Jewish Christians that it is necessary for them to become Jewish in order to be true followers of Jesus
The logic of these missionaries may have gone something like this: Jesus was a Jewish Messiah, and his first disciples were Jews. They used the Jewish scriptures. Therefore, those who want to become followers of Jesus must first become Jews. And for the men, that means circumcision. To be one of us, these Judaizing opponents argued, you have to be just like us.
Paul’s response to this was to write to the Galatian church saying, “I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from God, who called you to himself through the loving mercy of Christ. You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ.”
For Paul, the Galatians are already and unquestionably brothers and sisters in Christ’s family, alongside Jewish Christians, with God as their father. Outward symbols of exclusive or distinctive membership are not necessary. The Galatian Christians are Christian enough, just as they are, because their belief in Jesus is enough. They have been called by God in the grace of Jesus.
If we think about some of the Christian traditions that we observe in our own time, some churches and individual Christians today may find themselves in the situation of the Galatians, being bombarded with messages from inside and outside of the church that demand them to be something other than they are called to be.
On the other hand, some churches and individual Christians may be acting as the Judaizers did in Galatia and elsewhere, demanding that others should earn their place at the table by conforming to long-standing customs, interpretations or practices that are increasingly being recognised as not essential to the heart of the gospel.
I am pretty confident that, within a couple of miles of where any of you live, there will be a Christian community which does not admit women to certain levels of its ministry.
And there will be a faith community which does not see God’s love in all people to the same extent that it believes its own exclusive community is blessed with that love.
And not too far away from your home there will be a faith community which believes it is divinely empowered to discriminate against LGB and T people in some kind of way - possibly quite openly, possibly by means of unequal rites of marriage and partnership, possibly quite carefully with phrases such as ‘hate the sin, but love the sinner’.
And the most frequent force which drives these communities to say, as the Judaizers said, “to be one of us you must be like us,'' will be a religious tradition which is frozen in time and chained to old covenants, ancient customs, and discredited beliefs which have been lifted to the status of divine judgments and teachings.
In our LGBT communities, we are used to having Paul quoted at us as the source for an exclusive faith - a selective membership - which keeps people out of the community of genuine Christian followers who deserve their right to belong.
But we hear less about those insights of Paul’s which liberate the followers of Jesus from those old covenants, ancient customs, and discredited beliefs.
Paul’s gospel message to the Galatians -- the gospel that he received in a revelation from God -- was not a proclamation of rules that would buy his churches entry into the family of God. His message was a proclamation of what God has already accomplished in Jesus Christ and continues to accomplish today.
Paul’s letter to that congregation in Galatia is a potent reminder to stand firm in the gospel of Christ and to trust in the good news of God’s free love and unconditional acceptance.
Already the Galatians - and we - are Christian enough, because our dedication to Jesus is enough.
So, what should we take to heart from Paul’s condemnation of religious zealots who seek to turn back the clock on God’s living, renewing and progressive revelation of his unconditional love?
Surely we should recognise that anything which imprisons another person inside exclusive or discriminatory religious traditions and structures does not reflect the inclusive and universal Good News which Jesus proclaimed and for which the visionary Paul - at his best - was an advocate.
The Good News of God’s unconditional love - whoever we are, whatever we’ve done, and wherever we come from - is ours by the free and unlimited grace of God, and not by the gift of men.
Whatever you may have been told in the past, you are already Christian enough. You are already free from the chains of destructive traditions, because your dedication to Jesus is enough. No-one here will find a reason to exclude you from the love of God.
And that is a message which I pray that this church will always share among the communities it serves, and saves, and celebrates.