Second Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 9), Year C, June 2, 2013
1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43, Psalm 96:1-9, Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
For the next six weeks, we’ll be hearing a lot from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It’s one of the more important books of the Bible, for it proclaims the heart of the Good News. There are few other places in the Bible where the Gospel is laid out so clearly. While many books tell the Good News, Galatians explores what this means for us, and for our journey of faith, in clear and compelling words. We won’t be reading the whole letter in church, but I highly recommend you read the book for yourselves, and consider what Paul’s words mean for you as we explore the highlights together in worship. Today we start with the beginning of the letter.
In ancient times, people customarily began letters with a section of thanksgiving. People from Egypt to Palestine to Greece regularly started out their letters by thanking whatever God they believed in for the person they were writing to. Paul was no exception. No matter how messed up the congregation he was writing to was, he found something positive to say about them, some way to lift up what God was doing in their midst. All of his letters start out by thanking God for the congregation … except his letter to the Galatians.
You can imagine what it was like for the Galatians. They gather to hear a letter from the man of God who brought them to Christ. They expect that, even if things are happening that he doesn’t like, he will start off by giving thanks for everything they’re doing right. Instead, Paul starts by scolding them: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ!”
What had they done to deserve such censure, such attack? I highly doubt that they thought they were doing anything wrong! Some new teachers had come, fellow Christians, with a lot of new rules to add to what Paul had given them. The new teachers were Jewish Christians, who had grown up following the Jewish laws such as circumcision and dietary laws, and wanted the Galatians to do the same. After all, both Jesus whom they worshipped and Paul who had brought them to the faith were themselves Jews, who were circumcised and kept the Jewish Laws. Circumcision was a physical symbol that you belonged to God. If a man was circumcised, he was a faithful follower of God. If he wasn’t circumcised, he was an outsider, not a true follower of God. Circumcision was the mark of a Jew—it had been for centuries the thing that set followers of the One True God apart from all the other so-called gods out there. So shouldn’t these new followers of God do the same? It all sounds so nice and logical. A good way to prove that even though they started off as outsiders, non-Jews, they are now on the inside track to faithfulness.
Paul heard about what they were doing, and he hit the roof. This was worse than anything any other group had done, even worse than the Corinthians and their divisions and immorality. Why? Because in putting their trust in circumcision and belonging to the “in” group, the Christians in Galatia were starting to put their trust in their own actions, rather than in Christ. They were trusting to tradition rather than to the will of God. They had been freed by the Gospel, but they went right out and began their new life in Christ by hedging themselves in with new laws.
The Galatians weren’t alone in this tendency, of course. Humans throughout history have preferred to put their trust in their own actions, rather than in God. It seems that every time God’s Word comes to us, we celebrate it … and then go right on depending on our own actions rather than on God’s saving grace. God gives us a precious gift in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That gift is given for the salvation of the world, and it is greater than anything we on our own could possibly do. Yet still we look for ways to do it ourselves, rules and laws and traditions to follow that will save us, instead of trusting in God’s love. For the Galatians, and for many of the first Christians who came to Christianity from the Jewish faith, those rules and traditions were centered in circumcision and dietary laws. But it seems like every generation builds up its own lists of things people must do to be saved.
In the 16th Century in Germany, at the height of the Reformation, one of the things that Martin Luther hated most about the Roman Catholic Church was the way it had created so many obligations for the faithful. In order to get to heaven, you had to pray the right way at the right times, confess your sins and do the proper penance, fast from certain foods at certain times the church specified, and follow many other rules and guidelines set down by the church. Now, I think we all agree that praying is a good thing! All Christians should pray. And confessing your sins and being forgiven is also a good thing, and fasting can be a very effective spiritual discipline. None of the things the Roman Catholic Church required were bad by themselves: what was bad was that they said you could only be saved if you did all those things the way the Catholic Church told you to. Instead of relying on the grace and mercy of God, they taught people to rely on their own ability to do the right things. So, the Reformers—the first Lutherans and Calvinists and Anabaptists—quite rightly told the world that salvation didn’t depend on all the rules and rituals the Roman Catholics required.
But, a generation or two later, some Reformers had started their own lists of things people had to do to earn their salvation. Different things than the Roman Catholics, of course, but they still drew people away from relying on God’s grace. So the reformers had to fight the same battle over again, teaching people to rely on God’s grace instead of their own actions. How’s that for irony? It seems like we humans would rather do anything rather than rely on God’s promises and love. We know that there are things that can help us be faithful to God, things that can help us grow in our love for God and our fellow human beings. Prayer, reading the Bible, acts of fellowship and charity, all can help us grow spiritually. All can help us follow God more closely. But our salvation doesn’t depend on them. What are some of the things we Christians today hold up as essential for salvation? What things do we tell ourselves we have to do to be saved?
We human beings were created by God to be good, but we became broken by sin and death. So no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, we fall short of the goodness that God created us to be. We do the wrong things. We convince ourselves that we know best, and that we’re doing just fine on our own. We tell ourselves that our sins don’t matter. We blind ourselves to the suffering of our neighbors, and sometimes we even add to it. And then we look at a world that has been broken by sin and death just as we have, and think we can fix it all. We come up with rules and traditions to help us come closer to God, and then we pay more attention to those rules and traditions than to God’s call. But no matter how helpful our rules and traditions may be, they can never take the place of God’s love. We cannot be saved by our own actions and words, because our actions and our words are just as flawed as we are ourselves. No matter how self-sufficient we would like to be, we depend on God’s love and grace for every good thing in our lives.
Our salvation depends on the love of Christ Jesus, who came to this earth and was born as a baby, truly human and truly God, both human and divine in one person. For God so loved the world that he came to us as one of us, taking on human frailty and weakness. Jesus taught people about God; he showed them the love of God in word and deed. He healed the sick and the broken. He ate with sinners and tax collectors, with the outcasts, the ones society cast out, and he forgave them their sins and loved them. And when the authorities felt threatened by his radical generosity, he died so that all the world might be saved from their sins. For God so loved the world that he would let nothing come between us—not sin, not brokenness, and not death. Jesus Christ was willing to die for us. And now, because of God’s saving actions, there is nothing in this world—not life, not death, not rules or rulers, not angels or demons, nothing we do or fail to do—can separate us from the love of God. Salvation is not something we do; the Good News is not just another set of rules. Salvation is something that God does. The Good News is that God loves us no matter what, that no matter how much we fail or go astray, God will still keep coming to us with the gift of his precious love.
Amen. Thanks be to God.