“Galatians and the Church”
Over the next few weeks we’re going to be focusing on the book of Galatians. It comes up in the lectionary at this time every three years. This year I decided we would make it our primary focus, and in a way it’s very fitting for us to listen to these days.
The United Church of Canada was founded 85 years ago. Discussions began in the late 19th century between several denominations within Canada. Most notably the Presbyterians, Methodists and the Congregationalist churches.
For several decades the topic was debated until finally they found enough common ground to go ahead with uniting the various denominations. They drafted the Basis of Union, organized the governance structure and celebrated 85 years ago this week the birth of the United Church of Canada.
From each denomination we have brought in various traits. Yet even in many communities, there is still a bit of left-over residue where their style of worship has hints of the founding group of the particular church or community.
We have always been a diverse church because we came from diverse places. This has been a trait we have celebrated for a long time; our differences yet our still coming together as followers of Jesus Christ. Each with our own history, style of worship and gifts.
As we enter into a time where we read Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we can’t help but draw some more recent comparisons. But before I go there, we should probably learn a little about this book we’ll be focusing on for the next month.
This letter was written by Paul around 50AD. Scholars aren’t convinced if it was one of his first letters written around the year 49 or one of his later letters written around the year 55. But they are fairly confident that Paul wrote it. He’s written it to a group of Christians in the region of Galatia. There’s no mention of a particular city or audience. So we aren’t exactly sure of where it was sent to.
So despite some of these questions, Paul’s letter to the Galatians is an important book. The book teaches some important things about living a life of faith in the world today. Important lessons we can hear and learn from today.
The first thing we can notice about this letter is how it is different than the other letters of Paul. Typically Paul opens his letter with a short greeting, then he moves into a time of thanksgiving and lifting up of the church he is writing to.
Let’s hear how this letter starts.
He opens with a greeting, as usual,
“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— and all the members of God’s family who are with me,
To the churches of Galatia:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
This is a little longer than he might usually open with, and right away he starts to talk about sin and an evil age. So there’s a hint something is up for those of us who may be familiar with his other writings.
Now Paul would normally move onto a prayer of Thanksgiving for the church he is writing to. For instance in Philippians he writes:
“I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”
This is typical of Paul. He thanks God for his audience and their faithfulness in following Jesus Christ. Listen to what happens in Galatians instead:
“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— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
Paul is ticked off in this letter. Paul goes on to report the authority by which he teaches. Paul teaches that his authority, what he has learned about a life of faith, he did not get from people. Paul received his revelation directly from God. He is very careful to note this, to the point where he says he it a couple times, and how it was not from any person. He even says he hadn’t seen any of the other apostles other than James, the brother of Jesus.
Paul is laying out a strong foundation, he is citing the origin of his authority before he enters into what it is that is bugging him so much.
So, what’s bugging him so much?
I won’t go into too much detail since we’re just getting introduced to the book, but I’ll give you a hint.
What’s bugging Paul is circumcision.
If we go back to Paul’s introductions of why he wrote the letter, we read that he feels the Gospel they have received from God has been perverted.
Paul feels the Galatians are being pulled away from what God has done to and through them. He says that even is he, himself, teaches them wrongly about the Gospel, then he should be accursed, just like anyone else should be accursed.
I love what he says, and it’s something we need to be self-aware of as well. Paul says, “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
How true these words are. Being a follower of Jesus Christ does not mean we are supposed to be people pleasers. If we spend all of our energy pleasing people then we cannot be faithful to our call to being Christians, because people put their own agenda before the needs of others or before God’s will.
Being a person who seeks God’s approval means stepping out and being faithful in our stances on things happening in the world. It means speaking out against the sins that are all around us, even in our churches.
Our own denomination has changed dramatically in the last 85 years. As a church that began as a coming together and a celebration of differences, we’ve continued to welcome a vast array of views. This is not necessarily a bad thing. When it becomes a problem is when we allow these views to direct us into a place where we are more social club than church, and then begin to push this mindset into our churches.
One of the basic rights of our local churches, as outlined in the United Church Manual is our right to define our own worship policies and practices. Recent events in our church is encouraging conferences and presbyteries to begin to “strongly urge” congregations to reconsider their policies with respect to what the national church says.
This is troubling to me. It begins to tell congregations that what they believe God has called them to do and be in their communities does not fit into the model the church is developing.
Do you see a parallel here? Paul is warning the Galatians to protect themselves because the church leaders are expecting them to change into something more homogenous. Something more inline with what the leaders say they should act and look like.
Our United Church is welcoming of a variety of views, but increasingly these variety of views are narrowing and other voices are being progressively shut out.
Paul is right. We need to know that Paul is right. No one can tells Christians what is right or wrong with how we live if we are being faithful to God’s call in our lives. If we are listening carefully to what God is asking us to be and do, then that’s who we are to be.
Listening to human teaching takes us in the wrong direction. God’s direction is the one to take, because anything else is a perversion of the Gospel message.
We read together from Psalm 146 this morning, which said,
“Put not your trust in any mortal, for in them there is no help.
When they breath their last they return to dust, and their plans become nothing”
God’s word is eternal. God’s promises never end. We are children of a God who leads us and guides us to the truths He would have us live out in the community to which we serve. Thanks be to God. Amen.