Scripture - Galatians 1:1-12
1 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— 2 and all the members of God’s family who are with me,
To the churches of Galatia:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
6 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— 7 not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 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! 9 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!
10 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.
11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
*Hymn - The First Song of Isaiah (FWS 2030)
I remember my first flute lesson in college. I had been playing the flute for eight years at this point - all through middle school and high school. For never having taken a formal lesson and learning through my own practicing and what my band teachers had taught, I was pretty good. Through some miracle, I hadn’t learned too many bad habits, I could read music pretty well, and had some decent technical proficiency and thanks to singing, decent breath support. There wasn’t much I had to unlearn.
So when my flute teacher handed me a piece of music full of whole notes on it I thought it was a walk in the park. I played through the notes as they were written without too much thought. She asked me to play it again, but this time paying attention to the beginning and ending of each note. The next time through, she wanted me to pay attention to my embouchure - the shape of my lips - and change them slightly on each note to hear how the tone changed. The third time through I was to pay attention to my breath. And so on and so forth. The next set of exercises was to make sure I had my scales down cold - not just memorized with my mind, but know them on an instinctive level ....down to muscle memory.
I had to go back to the basics to pay attention to the fundamentals - because any flaw in tone production, technique, phrasing - will show up as you work your way through the basics. By getting these things right, or by continuing to work on them and practice them, your playing will improve overall. It’s not easy work. It’s not even very exciting work. But it’s important work.
This is the heart of what Paul is getting at in this letter to the churches in Galatia - get back to the basics of the Gospel. He dives right in with fiery admonishment - they are perverting the message of the Gospel of Jesus that Paul preached among them.
By making new believers in Jesus undergo Jewish initiation rites before being able to participate in the life of the church.
In the beginnings of the church, there were no real distinctions between Christianity and the Jewish religion. This small sect of the Jewish faith called themselves followers of The Way, and it was attracting all kinds of followers - both practicing Jews and those who were not. In other words, Jews and non-Jews alike were drawn to the Way because of how they saw people living their faith together. Paul was one of these early followers of The Way who felt compelled to share this Gospel message specifically among non-Jewish people. We’ll hear a bit more about Paul’s story next week.
The issue that early followers of The Way had to wrestle with was this -- some early leaders of this movement believed that in order to properly follow Jesus, non-Jewish people would have to first become Jews and become subject to the same laws that Jews practiced -- especially around circumcision, dietary laws, and other Jewish customs. Paul was in a different camp - that Jesus was the fulfilment of the law and came to save all God’s people to a new and different relationship with God so that Jews and non-Jews alike could live in freedom - freedom from the evils of this present age, freedom from being bound by rules and regulations, freedom to live as human beings beloved by God without the weight of the Jewish tradition.
Paul makes it clear that he received this message by a direct revelation of Jesus Christ - not mediated by humans, not something he learned about in a book - but something he experienced straight from the source. Not only does Paul root the Gospel in his own revelation of Christ, he roots his mission to proclaim Christ to the Gentiles as one given by God as well. Paul claims his apostleship not from human authority, not because he was sent by any person or persons, but from Jesus Christ himself. He argues that in this, he’s not trying to win approval from others, he’s not trying to advance himself or appease others - because, let’s face it - preaching Jesus Christ crucified and risen; Jesus, an executed criminal, a prophet disgraced and rejected by many of his own people, doesn’t win anyone popularity points. As Dan Clendenin who writes at Journey with Jesus notes, “To the Jews [Jesus is] a scandal and to Greeks he's foolishness.”
What Paul knows in his bones - and what he desperately wants the Galatians to remember - is that the Gospel is not bound by traditions of the past, but transforms them in the light of the risen Christ. And to put conditions on the love and hope that are freely offered in Jesus perverts the Good News that we are freed from sin and saved into a new life with God.
Elaine Heath in God Unbound writes this: “Paul neither rejects nor disrespects his tradition but comes to see it in a new light. Non-Jews are just as beloved to God as Jews, he realizes. People need not follow all the rituals of the Hebrew tradition to experience God’s love and salvation fully. Jesus the Messiah has come for all people.”
I’m going to do a quick word substitution in part of the above quote.
“The unchurched are just as beloved to God as the insiders. People need not follow all the rituals of the Christian tradition to experience God’s love and salvation fully. Jesus the Messiah has come for all people.”
For me, that hits a lot closer to home. I can sit and nod along with the conclusion that Jesus loves everybody and that God’s love and salvation are there for everybody, and thanks to Paul we don’t need to follow all the ins and outs of the Jewish law to accept the reality of what Jesus has done for us. But when it comes to the stream of tradition that we stand in - traditions that have shaped me in my experiences of God, traditions that hold meaning for this community, traditions - it challenges me to consider what is truly at the heart of all those things that hold importance for us?
For Paul - and for us - it’s the gospel. God’s love and forgiveness and freedom from sin for all in the name of the risen Christ, and the ability to live into the fullness of that Good News as individuals and as a community. Back to the basics.
In Health’s own wrestling with Paul, she notes that “Paul convinced me afresh that a great tradition lies behind our traditions...Paul’s vision in Galatians does not threaten the true gospel, which proclaims the tradition behind the tradition. It only threatens a church that subsumes the gospel to institutional priorities, doing so in the name of tradition.”
We live in a time of great cultural shifts, of deep division, of rapid change. The effects of that are felt keenly in many congregations across white American Christianity with declining membership, dwindling budgets, and decaying edifices. It is difficult to grapple with the eroding and changing of the traditions we have inherited because many of us have found meaning and comfort and strength within those traditions. The danger comes when we fail to hold space for the ways the gospel is incarnating itself outside of our expectations and familiarities.
We’ve seen this here in our congregation. Many of us remember a time when people came to worship on Sunday mornings because it was the thing to do. Pews were fuller, there were more programs that reached out to youth. The Parish House was a place of community-wide fellowship. This place hosted graduations, Christmas parties, and so much more. But the culture has changed, more than just people finding other things to do on Sunday mornings. When people talk about connecting with God or about their spiritual experiences, they don’t talk about buildings or programs...they talk about nature, about connection with others who are seeking God in their lives.
It reminds me that the heart of the matter is how we engage with the great tradition - to love the tradition behind the tradition - to place ourselves in the unfolding story of the gospel and to pay attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit in to see what God is doing - both within and beyond this church - and how we must be a part of it. What we did in the Parish House for January and February - not only in worship but also in eating together - is a part of that journey and the beginning of the conversation that God is inviting us into - of how we take the tradition of this church - one that has been on this island for over two hundred years - and see the heart of a community that has pursued faithfulness to God in every generation and ensure that there is a community for a new reality, a new set of people, some of whom are within these walls...and many who are not.
We can take hope from the ways Paul helped expand the views of these early Jewish Christians when it came to their perspectives of God, neighbor, tradition, and mission. And we can do this as we pay close attention to our understanding of the basic Gospel message and how people are experiencing God’s action and movement in their lives.
As Elaine Heath reminds us: “The church belongs to God. The church is God’s idea, not ours. Our vocation as the church involves our participation with God so that we can give this world a glimpse into God’s great heart of love. To take up our apsotolic vocation today we have to come to terms with this reality: The God we love, the God revealed in Christ, is much bigger than we knew. God has never been bound by our theology or our traditions. It is now time for us to see the unbound God.”
May we have such faith that as we recommit ourselves to the gospel - as we get back to the basics - we will see and experience the ways that we are a part of a much bigger story and movement of God’s work in this world - and that we may be enriched and enlivened by it together. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son and 6 month old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.