The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson
In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying… Amen.
Well, Paul certainly failed in the tact department! On two occasions in the portion from Chapter 3 of his Letter to the people of Galatia that we heard read this evening, he referred to the recipients of his letter as foolish!
You foolish Galatians! He writes, Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. 5 Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Galatians 3:1-5)
We will spend a little time exploring the issue in Galatia, the details of which are different from our own, of course. We will, also look to see if the heart of the issue is not as relevant to us in our time and place as it was to the ones Paul thought of as foolish.
Paul, a Jew, has brought the gospel to a group of people in Galatia who are not Jewish and he has made it clear to them that to be followers of Jesus Christ they do not need firstly to become Jewish. Having established them in the faith, Paul has gone on his travels and a group of Jewish missionaries have arrived. These missionaries have insisted that if these Galatian converts wish to be sure of knowing God’s salvation in Christ that they must obey the Jewish law and, in particular, that they must become circumcised, and obey other laws such as those referring to diet. Paul has heard about this and, from the tone of his letter we can see that he is aghast.
Twice Paul writes, Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?
For Paul, Jesus’ love, Jesus’ faith in the God he knew intimately as Father, Jesus’ courage in facing death on a cross, Jesus’ resurrection, these are everything. And our hearing of these things and, through Jesus’ spirit, believing these things is our salvation. Adherence to the law, the Jewish law, or any other traditions, good works, liturgical actions, is not the key. Many of the works of the Jewish law, or many of the practices of the Christian faith, or in fact many of the moral activities of a humanist society may be utterly worthy. These works may well be the outcome of faith. But salvation is not found there.
As we look closely at the verses that follow Paul’s paragraph of exasperation, from verse 6 onwards, we find Paul quoting six passages of scripture from the Old Testament. The Jewish missionaries were using scripture to try to persuade the Galatian Christians that they must observe the Jewish law. Paul returns the favour and quotes scripture back. He looks at the scriptures through the eyes of faith in Jesus and he shows that it is God’s will that all be brought into the community of God’s love through Jesus’ faith.
Firstly, Paul writes about Abraham. Abraham is the father of the Jewish faith and the one thing that mattered about Abraham was his faith in God. In verse 6 Paul quotes from Genesis chapter 15:
Just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. (Galatians 3:6)
Abraham had incredible faith. In chapter 12 of the Book of Genesis, when we first hear about Abram, as he is firstly known, the Lord asks him to leave everything, …his country and his kindred and his father’s house, …country, family, home … all that give Abram his identity …promising Abram that he will be blessed. Later, in chapter 15, the Lord promises Abraham that he will give him descendents as many as the stars in the heaven. And Abraham believes God. Abraham shows incredible faith. Having faith is what matters most, Paul is saying, is, in fact, the heart of what matters. He goes on quoting from chapter 18 of Genesis where Abraham is told: ‘All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.’ (Galatians 3:8) God always intended that Abraham’s faith would spread to all peoples.
Having made this point Paul turns to address the issue of the law. The Galatians have been frightened into thinking they must obey the Jewish laws. Paul quotes from the Book of the Law, Deuteronomy, which portrays the Law as a curse and says: For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse (Galatians 3:10) And he emphasises his point by quoting from the prophet Habakkuk (2:4) who wrote to the Jews struggling in exile: ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’ (Galatians 3:11) Finally, Paul makes reference to Christ and his death and the freedom this gives from the Law: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written (here Paul quotes from Deuteronomy again), ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’. (Galatians 3:13, Deuteronomy 21:23)
Paul concludes his argument: in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3:14)
Paul is making his point in many ways in this chapter of his letter. He begins by being almost insulting, naming those he has brought to faith in Christ, foolish. He then embarks on a complex argument weaving together texts from the Jewish scriptures. What we might notice is how much Paul cares.
Paul cares deeply that those he has nurtured in the faith are not led astray. Paul cares deeply that those he has nurtured in the faith know what matters. And we might know perhaps that those who have nurtured us in the faith might see things the same way. What do we think matters? What do we think God notices? About what do we think God really minds?
What is the Law in our context and where might we get caught thinking that we have to keep that Law …and might keeping the Law can be, at times, to use Paul’s language, “a curse”. So many of the practices of our faith are blessings but when might they get in the way of loving God?
For Paul, the key to our relationship with God is Jesus’ faith, Jesus’ relationship with God, and our knowing that we are held and nurtured in that love. The key to our life in Christ is the faith of Jesus that gave him the courage to endure his passion and death, trusting that God is always about life, would bring life even there.
So, you, see, if one day we find ourselves struggling with our faith, and we have the feeling that if we just did a few more good works, everything would be ok, or if we just attended a few more services, or gave away a bit more money, we would be alright with God, let us remember Paul’s passion for the truth. That it is faith that matters and not just ours. It is Jesus’ faith that matters and our holding onto to him, believing in him. It is Jesus’ faith that matters … and our faith in him.