+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Think about a group under stress, facing a difficult decision on a controversial issue. It might be the Episcopal Church several years ago wrestling with sexuality, the Catholic Church considering transparency and reform, the NFL deciding if it’s going to address seriously the hideous, horrifying long-term damage its players do to each other, or a company like IBM trying to figure out, as it did years ago, whether its future lies with traditional hardware or being a services company, or it could be a political party: the Dems trying to come together on Syria or the GOP on immigration.
When groups experience stress and face crisis, they are making a choice: close ranks, protect themselves from the threats of the world, return to former ways and customs, to a previous purity, double down on the past; or, embrace dynamism, seek to adapt to a new situation, accept what is scary and foreign and try to learn from it, muster the courage for making mistakes and being wrong. Every movement, organization, family, nation, group encounters these moments of crisis, whether to go back to former norms or forward and learn and develop new norms. The solution is not clear. These turning points happen in every age, in every place, to every group, to every person.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians addressed the crisis was: do you have to be a Jew to follow Jesus? Paul had taught the Gentile Galatians that they did not need to become Jews to follow Jesus, meaning that men did not need to be circumcised. If I had been a Galatian Gentile, that’d be a relief. It would have been much more difficult, perhaps impossible, for me to pay attention to what Jesus was saying if following him required circumcision. So the decision involved important missionary and evangelistic considerations.
No doubt, Paul was a great evangelist, and great evangelism begins with trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, being empathetic, seeing the world as another does. Evangelism involves listening more than talking. For all his passionate, vivid, excited language, Paul was a better listener than writer or speaker.
But the expediencies of evangelism did not cause him to object to Gentile circumcision. He furiously opposed the circumcision party because they were taking the Jesus movement in the wrong direction: backward, toward being a narrow sect of Judaism based upon the law and not Jesus.
Jewish Christian missionaries from Jerusalem had come to the gatherings of Jesus followers formed by Paul and had challenged Paul’s credentials and authority as an apostle. They pulled out the Bible and pointed to Genesis where God’s covenant with Abraham required every male to be circumcised. Ever since Abraham, more than fifteen hundred years before Paul, the mark of being God’s people was circumcision.
Paul knew that changing the minds of his opponents, his fellow missionaries, was unlikely, but he made a strong play to hold the vacillating Galatians. First, he strongly defended the authority and authenticity of his apostleship, an argument from chapter one we heard two Sundays ago. Then, last Sunday in chapter two, Paul pointed out that the apostles in Jerusalem, like Peter and James, had approved Paul’s mission to Gentiles and had agreed that circumcision was not necessary.
In chapter three, Paul addressed the explicit biblical command for circumcision. He said, “Look, what set Abraham in a right relationship with God, what made Abraham righteous, was not circumcision, but Abraham’s trust and commitment to God, the fact that Abraham had confidence in God’s promise to make Abraham into a great nation, to be a patriarch with as many descendents as there are stars in the sky, and Abraham trusted the promise even though Abraham and Sarah were childless and well beyond child-bearing age.”
For Paul, believing in God, trusting God, committing ourselves to God, is what matters; that’s what makes us offspring of Abraham, not circumcision. Abraham first trusted, and later circumcision came into the picture.
In chapter three, Paul also rhetorically asked the Galatians, “You have all received the Holy Spirit, and you know that the Spirit has work in you and through you. Did you experience the Holy Spirit because you followed the law or because you trusted God?” Paul’s point: the Galatians had experienced the Spirit moving in them, among them, and long before the Jerusalem missionaries showed up and got them worrying about the law and circumcision. Paul was telling them to trust their own experience and to send the circumcision missionaries packing.
Galatians is Paul’s Emancipation Proclamation. Christians are free from the law; Jesus has delivered us from the law’s bondage and made it obsolete. Following the law does not set us right with God; trusting Jesus does. The death and resurrection of Jesus inaugurates a new age: before Jesus, the law ruled; after Jesus, we have freedom in Christ.
Paul saw the law as a kind of disciplinarian to help Israel, the people of God, grow up. In today’s epistle, the Greek word translated as “disciplinarian” refers to a specific slave job. The head of a household would authorize one of his slaves to look after his young child, to keep him in order, and to escort him to and from school until he had matured.[i] Paul was saying that the law was sort of a nanny.
Paul meant that the law had a divine, but temporary purpose: to prepare people for the Messiah. The law served to show people our selfishness, our sin, our separation from God. The law helped humanity become aware of its sin, but the law did not remedy sin. Jesus is the remedy for sin, the solution for our separation from God.
The image Paul gave us is the law as a disciplinarian to help Israel grow up, to mature toward adulthood. So from the time of Exodus when Moses brought God’s law to Israel, it had nurtured and promoted Israel’s developmental process. For Paul, it was for adolescence, a time of growing toward the adulthood offered by Jesus. Adulthood comes with new freedom, but also with greater responsibility.
Before Christ, society organized itself and assigned status according to race and ethnicity, class and caste, gender and marital status. This was life under the law, the old covenant, the old relationships.
According to Paul, after Christ, a new order came into being, all one in Christ, a new family, all brothers and sisters, children of God. Jesus had broken down the barriers to fellowship. It’s a radical declaration of the equality of all in the sight of God; that none is preferred. The church had to reflect this new reality.
Paul reasoned: if we trust God and accept our responsibilities as grown-up, mature followers of Christ, then we have new relationships of equality. Paul called the church, those in Christ, you and me, to unity above all kind of division, be those differences be about theology, race, class, or gender. Those differences exist and often promote injustice and inequality, but our responsibility is to rise above them. If we can’t, then we need a disciplinarian. We’ve not reached adulthood.
Now, frankly, Christians would be wise to refrain from considering themselves more spiritually mature than people of other religions. We can find spiritually mature people in any religion. Paul was trying to put these Jewish, circumcising missionaries in their place, to undermine their position that they were superior because they were circumcised.
The big picture: in Galatians, Paul offered a vision of God’s new creation, a spiritually mature community, one where there is unity, where people accepted individual differences, but these differences should not lead to hierarchy and superiority. It’s a vision of unity and equality: Jew and Gentile equal, slave and free equal, men and women equal.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] John Ziesler, Pauline Christianity, OUP (1983, revised 1990), p. 110.
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