Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 12, 2016
Galatians 2:15-21 Commentary
“I have been crucified with Christ so that it is no longer I who live but Christ in me.”
What a soaring declaration. It’s one of the most famous lines in the New Testament. In fact, it’s so well known that it’s one of those verses that became context-less somewhere along the line. It’s a counted-cross-stitch wall hanging, a Christian greeting card epigraph, words etched into stained glass under a picture of Christ hanging on the cross.
Ah, but that line did have a context, and in this case it’s not just the context of a letter to Galatia that I am referring to. Within that epistle there is a sub-context. It’s a personal narrative with Paul reporting in the first person what he said when he met with the Apostles in Jerusalem some while back (and a good many years after he had become a Christian Apostle himself, as Paul recounted in an earlier Lectionary passage from Galatians 1). And that context is an argument, a donnybrook, an all-out theological fist fight between Paul and, in this context, especially the Apostle Peter.
Paul had just spent years working among the Gentiles in places like Corinth and Galatia and all over the then known world. He’d been declaring the message Jesus himself gave him: salvation is for everyone—Jew or Greek—without precondition. It’s all grace. It was all taken care of by Jesus in his death and resurrection. Paul had put his neck on the line again and again in preaching this message. So he was sure that the folks who had been Apostles long before he had become one were on the same page. They had received the same Spirit of Christ as he had, after all. So they were surely all singing the same song in the same key, right?
Well, perhaps not. Because Paul found out that some among his fellow Apostles were still willing to insist on Jewish ceremonies—circumcision chief among them—as a precondition to becoming a Christian (or as a way to make sure you were REALLY saved even after you had become a Christian). By this time the Apostle Peter had reason to know this was wrong. He’d had that rooftop vision in Joppa, had witnessed the Spirit’s outpouring on Cornelius and family, and had himself told the Apostles that he did not wait for those folks to become Jews first before he baptized them as Christians. It’s all grace, it’s all the Spirit’s working, it’s all God’s work so that all human ceremonies and works are at an end. Peter knew this.
Except now Paul himself witnessed that Peter—he who had had such feet of clay during Jesus’ earthly ministry—could still waffle and wobble depending on the company he was keeping at any given moment. When some fierce and radical pro-circumcision people were within earshot, Peter might just mumble that yes, perhaps, maybe, it is possible after all that . . . maybe this is necessary. Or at least it couldn’t hurt to go ahead with it (actually it might hurt but . . .).
Paul was livid. He confronted them to their faces, and in Galatians 2 Paul tells the Galatians this story as part of his explanation for why he was so mad at them for caving in to the same thing sometime after Paul had departed Galatia. Thus the “I have been crucified with Christ . . .” line is a quote of what Paul preached—a bit purple-faced no doubt—in front of the other Apostles, including Peter who may have heard that now-famous line while cowering in a corner as he blushed and trembled at being called out for something he knew full well was the truth.
What an extraordinary image! The first man who ever heard Galatians 2:20 was having his ears pinned back by those words at the time. And if it’s true that Peter blushed in holy embarrassment at times while Paul spoke, it may also be true that he turned red in a bit of anger at having been called out by this guy who had not even been around Jesus physically the way Peter, James, John, and the others had been. If only this Paul person were not so correct . . . why, Peter might even have to say something!
But Paul was right. More than a little. If there had been ANY other way to salvation—particularly any other way that we human beings could have taken care of on our own to begin with—then God’s own Son would not have had to die so horribly, so publicly, so gruesomely and accursedly. There is, logically speaking, only one reason that the Son of God did die that way and that was because it was the only way. It’s all grace or it’s all in vain as far as Christ’s sacrifice goes. Paul saw no middle ground here, could not conceive of a compromise that could be brooked, could not abide so much as a hint of anyone’s working their own way to heaven.
It’s still a struggle today, of course. Oh, not concerning circumcision or keeping kosher or any other noticeably religious ritual or rite. But we have more subtle forms of adding on to the work of Christ to make sure we are in good with God. Mostly it’s our public morality. Ask the average church goer what differentiates her from her unbelieving neighbor and the answer won’t be “Nothing at all save for the grace of God in Christ.” No, it will more likely be “Well, I live better than those folks. I get up and go to church Sunday mornings while they sleep in and watch ‘Meet the Press.’ I don’t party on the weekends like they do and get all drunk and loud. I’m just a better person, God’s kind of person, you know?”
The cross remains an offense even to Christians because its message really is exactly what Paul said it is: none of that morality does you ONE SINGLE OUNCE of saving good! Forget it. Bracket it. Realize you are as lost as your worst neighbor were it not for God’s prior grace poured out from the cross.
Something about that image of the Apostle Peter cowering in a corner, alternating between embarrassment and anger, captures this nicely if we can remember the context for Paul’s famous words in verse 20. Because from time to time we are all Peter, we are all full of ourselves, we are all willing to grant more credit to the human side of things than we should if we really want the cross of Jesus to shine with the luster of grace it deserves. We deny it, of course. But hearing Paul’s soaring—and also searing—words in Galatians 2 in context pins also our ears back and should cause us once again to let go of our foolish confidence in our deeds and just let Christ be all in all (and all in all also always!).
According to John’s gospel Jesus’ last cry from the cross was, “It is finished!” As Richard Lischer has written, you can understand the English word “finished” in different ways. One way is in the sense of completion. When a baker has “finished” making an apple pie, it’s ready to eat. In England, however, the British use the word slightly differently. If you are out for dinner and someone asks for some more kidney pie, the server may say, “Sorry, luv, but the kidney pie is finished.” She doesn’t mean it’s baked and ready to eat but that it’s all gone. The pie is not completed but depleted.
The Greek word Jesus used to declare his saving work “finished” on the cross means that it is completed, whole, ready to go. Yet sometimes we act as though Jesus really did not wrap it all up. He took the work as far as he could go before getting whacked but then he was finished–now it’s our turn to provide the last few missing pieces. But we’re wrong.
Sometimes in a film we see a scene in which a son who has long been estranged from his father is told his father has died. And sometimes this ne’er-do-well son will ask, “Did Papa mention me before he died? Did he say my name?” As Lischer notes, contained in such questions is the desperate hope that the words of a dead man might retroactively re-make the past.
Jesus knew that every last one of us has that wish deep down. We want the past to be better than it was. So we keep running, hoping to hit on a winning formula that will make things better by healing the past. We keep trying to extend life to give ourselves more time. An article in the New York Times Magazine once suggested that breakthroughs in genetics and medicine might let people in the near-future live vibrant lives until they are 150. Maybe such a prospect sounds good to all those old folks who look back on the regrets of their past and conclude, “There just wasn’t enough time. If only I had a little more time, I could fix this or that, reconcile with him or her.”
But it’s not finally a matter of time. There could never be enough of that. We need something more and something else to fix what’s broken. We need Jesus. We need his cross. We need to join him on that cross and just get dead so that God can raise us up again. We don’t get stuck at any transition point but we move right on to the final destination. We look to Jesus’ death and maybe we also ask, “Did Jesus mention me? Did he say my name?” Yes, he did. And he said you could stop running. “It is finished.”
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!