Good thing the Galatian Christians did not have access to Paul’s other letters. Because if they could read something like what we now call Philippians or Ephesians or almost any of the other dozen letters from Paul we have in the New Testament, surely they would be tempted to sing that song from Sesame Street: “One of these things is not like the others . . .” The opening to the Galatians is very definitely not like Paul’s other letters.
“Where is OUR thanksgiving section, Pastor Paul?” the Galatians would want to ask were they to compare their letter to the others. After the usual epistolary greetings and such in the first four verses—replete with a doxology to God—Paul launches directly into the letter without anything akin to “I thank God in all my remembrances of you as I have heard of your faithful service and partnership in the Gospel . . .” Oh no, not here. Not in Galatians. Instead Paul lunges out of the starting gate with a purple-faced tirade that amounts to his writing, “You IDIOTS! You fools! How in the world have you come to believe a false gospel so soon after I preached the real gospel to you!!!???”
In Paul Scott Wilson’s homiletics, students are taught to look for the “Trouble in the Text.” This is the “Wassup?” question about the biblical text that often helps locate some tension, some issue, some problem or question that gave rise to the text in the first place and that probably still relates to some similar—if not identical—Trouble that is in our lives yet today. Well, in the case of Galatians 1 the Trouble is clearly Paul’s pure pique at something going on in Galatia, and it does not require much more digging in the wider text of Galatians to figure out what that is.
And just to show you that the Troubles in the Text very often—if not almost all the time—still translate well into our current world, just consider this slogan that was emblazoned on a t-shirt I saw for sale in some junky Christian catalogue I got in the mail a while back: “Jesus Did His Best, You Do the Rest.”
That’s hogwash and heresy, of course, but it is also exactly the heresy that beset the Galatian church. False teachers—possibly under some Judaizing influence—swept into the church in Galatia after Paul left and scorned Paul’s “salvation by grace alone” message. Grace, they claimed, gets you a good ways down the road to salvation, true enough, but if you REALLY want to be saved, you have to do a lot of other stuff yourself to get across the Finish Line. Get circumcised, keep kosher, watch your step and follow the rules. No doubt about it: Jesus got the salvation ball rolling BUT you have to keep it rolling yourselves. Jesus did his best and as to the rest . . . that’s up to you.
Well, Paul was having none of it and he had no interest in having the Galatians think this way for one more minute if he could help it. To say that Paul does not mince words is a vast understatement. He curses, he damns, those who are pedaling this false message that humans have anything whatsoever to do with their own salvation. As Paul will make clear in subsequent parts of Galatians—and that will be Lectionary passages coming up in the next few weeks of the Year C Lectionary cycle—the very cross of Christ is drained of meaning when you think this way. If there had been some other way—any way whatsoever—to get salvation done, do you think God’s own Son would have had to go all the way to a gruesome death on an instrument of Roman humiliation and execution? Nobody who understands the cross would suggest anything else, and in a burst of hyperbole Paul says that this includes angels from heaven or he himself. Anybody who demeans Christ’s cross by suggesting that human beings could contribute anything to salvation is a false witness and worthy of being cursed.
But, of course, Paul knows full well that there were those in Galatia who had been and still were saying such things and so he slams them hard. First he says that if he wanted to be a people-pleaser, he’d preach a message like that too. No one likes to be told they are totally helpless, completely lost, sinful as can be right to the core. That’s off-putting. That offends. Far better to tell people “Well now . . . you aren’t so bad off. You’ve got stuff to offer. You have things YOU can still do under your own power to get yourself saved.” That’s what you’d say if you wanted to be nicer to people, Paul claims, but if you happen to think it’s more important to be nicer to God . . . then you tell the Gospel truth that sin’s effects on humanity are beyond devastating and you need God’s help 150% to get saved.
And just to make the point even more vividly, Paul adds that wherever it was these false teachers got THEIR ideas, Paul got his ideas from—eh-hem and drumroll please—Jesus Christ himself and directly from Jesus at that! Talk about being a name dropper! But there it is and as Paul makes clear elsewhere in Galatians and as he told people like the Philippians too, not only was this salvation by grace alone scheme not Paul’s own idea, it was the exact opposite of what he used to believe in his Pharisee days. But when Christ Jesus the Lord himself reveals to you something else, that settles the matter more than just a little bit.
Paul’s level of anger and even rage at the corrupting of the Gospel is an instructive thing for us preachers to read these days, especially in the American context where rags-to-riches stories of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps have long exercised a powerful tug on people’s imaginations. Modern people want to believe in themselves, want to be optimistic and embody a can-do spirit of opportunity and achievement. If downplaying our sinfulness is a way to get visitors into the church and if sunny promises of human-based rewards keeps them in the church once they get there, then that’s what we’ll preach. The main thing is that we still say mostly nice things about Jesus and find some place for the cross in our worship and preaching. That we maybe water it down a bit—stir in a little capitalist Horatio Alger sugar to make the gospel medicine go down—well what’s the harm?
Paul happened to believe that the “harm” in question is fatal. And if there is anything to Paul’s warnings about being cursed if you preach something else that waters down the centrality of Christ’s cross, then those of us who preach have more than a little cause to sit up straight, pay attention, and stack up our preaching against the Gospel Paul preached in Galatia and elsewhere.
At various points in her new book The Crucifixion, author and pastor Fleming Rutledge grapples with a question that has occurred to many of us at one time or another: would Christ’s death have the same atoning and saving significance if he had died some other way than being nailed to a cross? Could Christ’s peerless and sinless life have saved us if he had gotten run over by a Roman chariot? If he dropped dead of a heart attack? If Judas had just slipped a knife between Jesus’ ribs in the upper room instead of fleeing into the night to betray Jesus to the Romans? Is there anything about the cross itself that is peculiarly salvific and, in the grand scheme of things, necessary to achieve salvation?
Along with the shank of the Christian tradition, Rutledge answers this in the affirmative. The godlessness of the cross, the accursed nature of anyone who dies that way, the public spectacle and particular humiliation of a crucifixion: all these things were in accord with the nature of what had to happen for God to overcome sin and the power of death. The cross as public spectacle—and as a form of execution the Romans reserved for the lowest of the low class of people—was itself a sign and symbol and finally also the REALITY of what had to happen to God’s own Son for everything that was wrong with the universe to be set to right.
There is something about the very cross itself that tells us that what needed to happen for the atonement to be real is absolutely not something any human being could ever hope to achieve on his own. The cross itself—not as decoration, not as a piece of jewelry, not as some inspiring symbol of hope—tells us that if we think for one moment that we human beings have something to chip in to getting ourselves saved, we are deluded. And if we try to get other people to believe this same delusion, well, we come under the curse of God.
One wonders if even regular church-going folks today appreciate what that cross in the front of the sanctuary or that cross featured on the church’s sign out front really means.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 29, 2016
Galatians 1:1-12 Commentary