The book of Galatians was written to deal with a problem. Here’s the setup: the early church had come to realize that the good news of Jesus was for gentiles as well as Jews. What’s more, it was for gentiles as gentiles—they didn’t need to become Jews first and then become followers of Jesus. Gentiles were not required to follow the law, but, as we read in Acts 15, they were just expected to avoid food sacrificed to idols, avoid eating blood, avoid eating meat that was strangled and they were expected to not be involved in fornication. Here in Galatians, as opposed to Acts, Paul just mentions that gentiles were asked to help care for the poor. Think about what a dramatic shift this represented: it meant going from a way of life oriented around Torah law embedded in ethnicity, with instructions about everything from the type of fabric one should wear and how one should deal with skin rashes, to something else.
If we turn the lens open quit widely we recognize this as a fulfillment of Solomon’s prayer from I Kings 8 (our OT reading). At the dedication of the temple Solomon prayed that God would listen to foreigners who would be drawn to Zion and the worship of the one, true God. Listen to them, he implores, so “all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel . . . (v. 43).” Indeed the LORD answers Solomon’s prayer; God keeps the covenant with Abraham and multiplies his descendants beyond those who would naturally have his and Sarah’s names at the top of their family tree.
Indeed, God is steadfast and faithful, but not always in ways we expect. The problem that occasions Paul’s letter to the Galatians is that his readers seemed to have forgotten the central premise: one didn’t have to become Jew to be a follower of Jesus.
And so now there is Paul, apostle to the gentiles, needing to get defensive. Let me paraphrase: “No,” he says, “you non-Jews do not need to observe the markers of ethnic Judaism. That’s not what resuscitates you in God’s sight. That is not what gives you new life. Your life comes from God’s gracious work in Jesus. Your deeper, fuller life comes from Jesus’ life, his death, his resurrection and his ongoing presence through the Holy Spirit.” That, as I understand it, is the basic thrust of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
As something of an aside, this letter to the Galatians is one of those most biblical scholars agree comes from Paul. Paul’s relationship to the text is not in question. What is in question is our relationship to this text. What does this bit of Scripture mean to each of us? What is the Spirit of God saying to us now through this text? How do we receive life through the ancient words of this apostle?
Christians believe Scripture is more than words on a page. We believe the Spirit can reveal God through it. We believe the Spirit can disrupt our lives through it. Christian worship isn’t so much a reading group as it is a massive garage for serious automotive repair. In worship and in the reading of Holy Scripture the Divine mechanic examines our wiring, tests our moral brakes and the power of our sense of justice. Scripture is one of God’s diagnostic tools—useful for teaching and reproof, as Paul tells Timothy.
So what does this reading from Galatians mean to us?
One answer is straightforward and historical: if we aren’t Jewish and we count ourselves as Jesus’ disciples we owe that to the new work of God, to the “grace of Christ,” the “peace from God,” to the stuff Paul writes about in this letter. We are not saved or loved because of what we do, but because of who God is. That’s the old news that should always strike us afresh. That is foundational and true and not to be overlooked.
Beyond that, though, what does this text mean to us here, now? How does it test us? How does it diagnose us?
Our focus today is the first twelve verses of Galatians. This is really just Paul clearing his throat and clearing away the brush for the theological structure he’ll build in the rest of the letter. That being the case, there are still many possibilities for how these verses work on us.
We notice, for instance, that Paul makes much of the fact that he has been commissioned by Jesus. The gospel doesn’t arise from within us but from outside. When we feel like we have no possibilities within ourselves, there is the gospel of God’s grace from without. That’s why it’s significant that the Bible always strikes us as a bit weird. So, there’s that.
Or we notice that Paul says the work of Jesus sets us free from the “present evil age.” There is always much to love about human culture. Our own age is no exception, and yet we know full well that our age too is evil. We could list the ways, and from those Jesus sets us free. So, there is that too.
There’s also Paul’s insistence that there is really only one gospel. The gospel of self-help righteousness isn’t gospel at all. As he’ll outline later, it is slavery. So, there is also that.
And then, in parallel with his insistence that his commission comes from God, there is Paul’s confession that he isn’t seeking the approval of other people. He’s seeking only the approval of God. And don’t we need to hear that? How much of our energy is spent worrying about the approval of other people? Too much, of course. So, there is even that.
There is wisdom in each of those ideas, and if you feel the need to simply reflect on one of the ideas from these opening paragraphs of Galatians, please do. But there is something else I want to point us to this morning, something simple, something that is a part of the bedrock of this book. That is, the basic fact that the Christian message is centered on good news—gospel.
If you look at the third paragraph in our reading from Galatians, the term ‘gospel’ shows up five times—gospel, gospel, gospel, gospel, gospel! The Greek word is eua(n)ggelion, and it means just what we’ve said: good news, glad tidings, a positive report. The word more densely populates Paul’s letter to the Galatians than just about any other book of the Bible, with the possible exceptions of Philippians and 1 Thessalonians.
The challenge for us is that we are surrounded by news: much of it in the newspaper is quite bad, from violence at home and abroad, to the difficulty many in our city have finding housing. On the other hand, in the world of marketing much of the news is quite good. As I wrote this an ad on my computer screen promised me “freshness that outlasts your day.” Such news, such wonderful use of human talent and ambition—“freshness that outlasts your day!” This is our life though: random bits of information jammed together.
There was a time when news was something people craved. They hitched up their horses and went to town for news. They journeyed through snow to the nearest hearth to hear news. Travelers were welcomed because along with their hunger and gritty stench they brought news.
Now we are saturated with news. I have an app on my phone that aggregates news from sources around the world. It condenses the articles and curates them based on my reading time. The problem this little widget addresses is not a lack of news but too much news.
What then does it mean to be a people gathered together as we are by good news?
For one thing the good news that is so fundamental to the faith of the early Christians was not just more information. Much of the news of our time is simply that—information, information that has no bearing on our lives, that calls us to nothing new, that frees us from nothing. My hunch is that much of our news is merely information we consume because in some way it entertains us. There’s a thrill in knowing. Or maybe we feel better about ourselves for also being in the know: so it was Peter Thiel that funded Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker (according to Forbes.com). This sort of detached, ‘objective’ knowledge demands nothing of us. Like high-sugar, high-salt food it meets one of our primitive desires, but ends up having no positive effect on our lives at all.
Stuart Murray—that British Anabaptist who wrote a slim book about stripping the faith down to its skivvies—spoke to those of us attending our annual area church gathering several weeks ago. He said that Christians in a post-Christendom culture should think of themselves as a prophetic minority. A prophetic minority, that is, instead of a moral majority. When a former majority finds itself in a new social position, they could turn into a disgruntled, fearful minority. They could be grumpy. They could fight among ourselves. They could despair. Or . . . or they/we could be a prophetic and hopeful minority. We can be prophetic and hopeful because as a minority we can try things a majority couldn’t. We can risk things and pioneer things. Because of that opportunity we can be hopeful. But we are also hopeful because we carry good news.
I think this is part of what it means to be a people gathered around the gospel. To be a hopeful people does not mean that we will not have periods of despair, it does not mean that we will not grieve loses in our lives or in our church. It doesn’t mean that we will not at times be intimidated by what we must do as a congregation or as individuals. Fundamentally, though, it means that like a compass needle returning to its proper orientation, we will be hopeful. To be a people who bear good news means the Spirit will draw us back to hope.
For Paul this would mean he was hopeful that Jews and Gentiles could be one people in Christ. Running against thousands of years of tradition, this was no small thing. But this was an outworking of the good news. For Paul it would mean a hope that social status would no longer divide this new people. He says later in the book that in Christ the differences between the slave and the free and between women and men are displaced by the fact that each are God’s children. In a Greco-Roman culture where the literary elite would thank the gods that they were not born a slave or a woman the Galatian experiment was no small thing. This is all part of what the good news meant for the Galatians. It made them predisposed to hope and it changed the everyday shape of their lives.
I think it was the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who emphasized the subjective character of truth. We usually think of it the other way around. We think of truth as something objective, something that can be known without personal commitment. What Kierkegaard emphasized—okay I checked, it was Kierkegaard—is that especially when it comes to faith our so-called beliefs must affect us. If we are a people fundamentally formed by bearing good news there should be some evidence of this. Unlike our knowledge of who funded the Hulk’s lawsuit, the news that in Jesus God has defeated the powers of sin and death should do something for us. There should be an obvious way it changes things. If we are no longer constrained by evil, there should be some evidence of freedom. There should be something odd and wonderful about us. There should be something hopeful.
So what does it mean to be a people, like the Galatians, centered on good news? Over the coming weeks we’ll see more of what this meant for Christians in the first century, but the question for us will not go away.
What does it mean to carry good news to work when a colleague shares about her spouse’s illness?
What does it mean to carry good news when we’re patients in the hospital?
What does it mean to carry good news when corporate budgets are put together?
What does it mean to carry good news when we discuss sexuality?
What does it mean to carry good news when we plan the family vacation?
What does it mean to carry good news with us to school?
What does it mean to carry good news in a difficult conversation with a spouse?
What does it mean to carry good news as we approach death?
What does it mean to carry good news at the cottage or on the golf course?
What does it mean to carry good news when finances are tight?
What does it mean to carry good news when it feels like our career is lost?
There was a time in many churches when it was trendy to “live the questions.” In most circles that times has past. Questions are important but life demands, if not answers, then at least convictions, well-founded hunches at the very least. When you’re young and you face choices about careers or education and all you have are questions . . . the market will make your decisions for you. When you’re older, and you face choices about raising children or spending money and all you have are questions . . . the state or the market will make your decisions for you. We need convictions, if our lives are to be anything more than pre-programmed.
Nevertheless, I think the most important thing I have to leave with you today is not a clear answer, but a question: What does it mean to carry the good news of Jesus with you? It means hope is our orientation, I’ve said that already. But more specifically, in the nitty-gritty of life, in the waiting for the bus, in the channel surfing, in the conversations over coffee, in the realization that your body can no longer do what it once could—what does it mean to carry the good news of Jesus with you?
I think that’s how our scriptural readings address us. They ask us that question. The text curls itself, like an ear, to hear our answer. No preacher can answer the question with the specificity your life requires; no community knows your life well enough to make your decisions for you.
How do you answer it then? You answer it as Christians always have, in prayer, in openness to God’s Spirit, in the recognition that if God can speak through a donkey or a bush afire, then God might speak through this text and God might even speak through your enemy. So once again the question is this, and here we’ll end: What does it mean to carry the good news of Jesus with you?
Answer this question for us God, each of us, in the specificity of the life that is uniquely ours, guide us to an answer – Amen.