As Paul brings this landmark letter in for a landing, he says a whole lot of things quickly. The whole letter gets summed up in two main themes: First, we need to do our best to glorify God in how we live and in serving one another in love. Second, there is nothing to boast about except the cross of Christ alone. It’s all grace and after that it’s all gratitude. You can create good momentum in your life by sowing seeds that come from the Spirit of God or you can create disastrously bad momentum in your life by sowing self-indulgent seeds that are all about satisfying your fleshly desires. But God is not mocked: you can’t do one and expect the other. There is a moral fabric to the universe and it does not bend according to whatever is convenient for you.
This is a pretty hard line for a letter that, as noted in the previous sermon commentary article on Galatians 5, was mostly all about grace alone and the need to bracket out completely our human deeds. If you want to talk about how we get saved, Paul does not want to hear a single syllable about human achievement. But if you want to talk about the post-salvation life of discipleship, Paul likewise does not want to hear a single syllable about libertinism or self-indulgent living. You have to go with the flow of the cosmos and that flow is a tidal wave of grace. Grace catches you up in the tremendous, paradoxical power of Christ’s cross and then carries you along forever. You won’t be the same person after grace washes over you as you were before—that’s impossible. A new creation has taken root in each of our hearts now and it will issue forth in all new living.
We will be the distinctive people of God that God desired all along—indeed, the kind of people for whom God created a delightful world of flourishing in the beginning. That is why a tiny phrase in verse 16 is so important: Paul refers to the church as “the Israel of God.” This is a teaching that is reflected all over the New Testament but rarely stated with such direct precision as here. The Church is now the New Israel.
Way back in Genesis 12 God called out to a childless senior citizen named Abram and promised to make him the father of a mighty nation. That curiously unlikely promise was then couched immediately in a context as wide as the universe: not only would Abram be the wellspring of a mighty people, that people would one day spread the blessing of God over the whole earth. All nations would be blessed, saved, and so be a part of God’s program.
Flash forward a few hundred years and the people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—now known as Israel—actually exist. In Exodus 1 for the very first time in Scripture Israel is referred to by Pharaoh as a “nation.” God will lead that nation out of Egyptian slavery eventually, and after a time of chastising wandering, into a land of their own eventually. And then for a long time the focus is all Israel all the time. The people themselves routinely forgot that they existed as God’s beachhead to the wider world. The Book of Jonah is the Old Testament’s premiere case study in Israelite ethnocentrism as Jonah initially disobeys God’s call to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh on the odd chance they’d actually listen and God would actually save them. Jonah was a card-carrying member of the Israelite “Members Only” club and was not keen to have greasy Ninevites get admitted to the clubhouse. But God declared his love for those people—and even for their cows—and did save them as one of many Old Testament hints and whispers and reminders that Israel as a single nation was never God’s end game scenario.
It was always to be bigger and once Christ came and reached out to all people—and once Pentecost came and universalized the message to all nations—Israel did not cease to exist but came into a whole new form called the Church of Christ.
This is an important biblical-theological point for a myriad of reasons, not least that it clears up the perennial confusion regarding how to interpret various Bible passages in the light of the current-day nation of Israel founded in 1948. The fundamentalist insistence that something salvific is tied to this one nation and government blows past the fact that political Israel is nothing and only the spiritual Israel of God / the Church matters now in God’s economy of salvation. Yes, with Paul (pace Romans 9-11) we can continue to hope for the salvation of the Jews but that is a separate question from some country in the modern day Middle East.
Paul’s almost in-passing mention of “the Israel of God” is a nice reminder for us preachers—and to remind our congregations of as well, therefore—of something we sometimes forget: The Bible narratives just one story, one grand narrative. Reality is, to God’s mind, one big Story and each of our individual stories finds its place nestled inside that wider drama. My story and your story has meaning not intrinsically per se or in and of itself. Rather my story and your story takes on a deeper meaning when we see it as part of God’s narrative of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation.
God set up this creation to be a place of flourishing and delight. He meant for us to help each other (bear each other’s burdens) and minister to each other because in shalom no one worries about his or her own needs—they will be cared for by others even while we are ourselves busy doing that same thing. And because the whole thing went terribly wrong, God took the decisive steps needed to set it back to right again and although doing that took no less than the horrid public spectacle of God’s Son dying on a cross, salvation was accomplished. A new day did come. A New Israel was formed that now includes every race, every skin color, every background, language, gender, socio-economic status you could name.
The conclusion of a letter like Galatians might look ho-hum from the outside looking in. But seen from the right angle, these closing lines in Galatians tell the whole Story in ways deeply redolent of all the hope we have through Christ Jesus our Lord!
From his wonderfully fanciful sketch of Abraham from the book Peculiar Treasures (Harper and Row 1979 p. 4) here is Frederick Buechner:
“In spite of everything, Abraham never stopped having faith that God was going to keep his promise about making him the father of a great nation. Night after night it was the dream he rode to sleep on—the glittering cities, the up-to-date armies, the curly-bearded kings. There was a group photograph he had taken not long before he died. It was a bar mitzvah, and they were all there down to the last poor relation. They weren’t a great nation yet by a long shot, but you’d never know it from the way Abraham sits enthroned there in his velvet yarmulke with several great-grandchildren on his lap and soup on his tie. Even through his thick lenses, you can read the look of faith in his eyes, and more than all the kosher meals, the Ethical Cultural Societies, the shaved heads of the women, the achievements of Maimondies, Einstein, Kissinger, it was that look that God loved him for and had chosen him for in the first place. ‘They will all be winners, God willing. Even the losers will be winners. They’ll get their name up in lights,’ say the old man’s eyes. ‘Someday—who knows when?—I’ll be talking about my son, the Light of the world.’”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 3, 2016
Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16 Commentary