Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 3, 2022
Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16 Commentary
“It ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up” has spilled from the lips of at least some of us. Sometimes, of course, we try to cloak our braggadocio in the mantle of false humility. But few of us easily resist the temptation to brag about ourselves or people who are dear to us.
Thugs recently distributed anti-Semitic leaflets in our largely Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Local politicians were quick to condemn this hate crime. But one of those leaders couldn’t resist the opportunity to also describe how much he’d done to discourage such violence. His claims came perilously close to tone-deaf boasting.
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, Paul speaks twice about “boasting.” In verse 13 he refers to how some of his Galatian enemies want to “boast” (kauchesontai) in Christians’ “flesh.” In verse 14 the apostle expresses his own determination to only “boast” (kauchasthai) in the Lord Jesus Christ’s cross. The radically different reasons for boasting mark a major difference between false teachers and Paul. An exploration of that difference might serve as a springboard for the proclamation of Galatians 6.
Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia chronicles what seems to be the substance of his running battle with powerful false teachers. They, writes N.T. Wright (Galatians, Eerdmans, 2021) are trying to force Galatia’s new Christians to do what some Christians in Jerusalem tried to force Titus to do: be circumcised. Circumcision and its ongoing place in the life of Jesus’ friends are, in fact, among Galatians’ running themes.
In verses 12 and 13 Paul accuses his rivals of trying to “make a good impression outwardly” so that they may “boast about” Christian converts’ “flesh.” It’s not an easy accusation to understand. Some scholars suggest that those rival teachers wanted to boast about their success in making converts. Others wonder if Paul’s rivals were boasting about how they were still observing Torah even after receiving God’s grace with their faith in Jesus Christ.
Wright (ibid) suggests Paul’s rivals, under pressure from the pagan authorities, wider community, and Jews, were, instead, boasting about how they were maintaining the status quo rather than challenging the powers-that-be. They were bragging, in other words, of bringing these strange “wannabe-Jews” into line. In that understanding, Paul is accusing the false teachers of wanting to brag about Galatia’s converts so that they can put up a good front before a sometimes-hostile world and culture that’s watching them.
What’s more, Paul also accuses his rivals of wanting to avoid persecution (12b). He doesn’t identify who might persecute these false teachers. We sense, however, that his rivals wish to avoid antagonizing their fellow Jews who look suspiciously on their association with ritually unclean non-Jews. Their solution? Make the non-Jews act like ritually clean Jews by, among other things, being circumcised.
On top of all that, Paul charges his rivals with failing to “obey the law” (13a). This charge of hypocrisy, notes the New Testament scholar Elisabeth Johnson echoes the charge the apostle levelled in Antioch against Peter, Barnabas, and other Jews. Paul is claiming that false teachers don’t want to try to keep the whole law themselves. They just want the Galatian converts to do so.
Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson will want to consider how Paul’s rivals’ hypocrisy is echoed in our own cultural context. Joel Rosenberg’s The Auschwitz Escape chronicles Jacob Weiss’ internment in the infamous Auschwitz Concentration Camp.
He reflects extensively on the camp’s guards’ hypocrisy and desire to put a good face forward. In Auschwitz, the Nazi murderers took and gave most inmates Sundays off. On Easter, many of them attended the camp church. Weiss tells of actually hearing an organ playing, his torturers sings hymns and reading Scriptures, as well as ringing bells when the services were over.
Weiss asks, “Who were these people? What God were they praying to? How could they beat and slaughter and burn human beings six days a week and then read the Bible and pray on Sundays … If this is what it meant to be a Christian, Jacob hoped all Christians would rot in hell, and the sooner the better.”
Paul devotes at least some of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson to distancing himself from similar hypocrisy that his rival teachers display. He largely summarizes his stance with verse 14’s, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
Paul, in other words, refuses to join his rivals in boasting about anything or anyone other than the saving work of Jesus Christ. It’s a truth that Isaac Watts echoes in the second stanza of the hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross:” “Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast/ save in the death of Christ, my God!”
Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson may want to explore Paul’s creational references in verses 14 and 15. In verse 14 he speaks of the world (kosmos) that has been crucified to him, and him to it. Elisabeth Johnson (ibid) suggests that that “world” is the one which the apostle calls the “present evil age” to which he refers in chapter 1:14.
The world to which Paul has been crucified and that has been crucified to him is that which sin, Satan, and death dominate. It’s the world in which their slaves are still divided by race and gender. It’s the world where things like circumcision still signal religious virtue.
The world about which the apostle writes in verse 14 is, quite simply, the world from which Christ’s saving death on the cross has freed Paul and his fellow friends of Christ Jesus. That world, says Johnson (ibid), still exists, but has lost its iron grip on Christians. It’s not yet completely dead. But it is certainly dying.
In its place, adds Paul in verse 15, “is a new creation” (ktisis). After all, Christ’s death on the cross is not just a historical fact. The cross isn’t just a symbol. The apostle insists that something very real occurred there. Jesus didn’t just purchase our salvation at Calvary. He did not, as Paul professes in chapter 1:14, just “rescue us from the present evil age.” Through his death, Jesus Christ also created a whole new world.
As Chrystal Hall writes, Christians sometimes think of that new creation as individual Christians. Through faith in Jesus Christ, the Spirit makes us new persons. Yet as Hall goes on to note, Paul’s concern throughout his letter to the church in Galatia is almost always with the Christian community. How can Jesus’ friends from different backgrounds and of different genders live together with God and each other? By together being a new creation.
That understanding helps explain the argument Paul makes throughout the rest of Galatians 6. That new creation made through Christ’s cross looks like Christians who gently restore their fellow believers who have been caught in sin (1). It carries each other’s burdens (2) and shares all good things with their instructors (6). The new creation shaped by the cross of Jesus Christ does good to all people, especially to brothers and sisters in the faith (10).
Yet as Eugene Peterson (Travelling Light, Colorado Springs, CO, 1988) notes, Paul doesn’t call Christians to do good especially to those who are of the family of faith because they’re deserving. Instead he challenges us to care for our nearby brothers and sisters in Christ because they are there.
Peterson goes on to write, “The biggest deterrent to the drudgery of caring for an everyday friend is the dreaming of helping an exotic stranger. Giving from a distance requires less of us – less involvement, less compassion. It is easier to write out a check for a starving child halfway around the world than to share the burden of our next-door neighbor who talks too much.”
“Peace (eirene) and mercy (eleos),” adds Paul in verse 16, “follow this rule.” In other words, where there is new creation, peace replaces hostility, and mercy replaces vengeance. In the new creation that the cross of Christ makes, Jesus Christ’s friends together get a delicious taste of the new creation he’ll inaugurate at his return at the end of measured time.
In noting that doing good to those who are far away is easier than doing good to those who belong to the nearby household of faith, Peterson refers to John Updike’s novel, The Coup (182). Its central character is Don X. Gibbs, a U.S. embassy official whom locals murder as he tries to deliver American junk food to the drought-stricken African country of Kush.
Gibbs’ widow says of him, “I’ve forgotten a lot about Don … actually I didn’t see that much of him. He was always trying to help people. But he only liked to help people he didn’t know” (italics added).
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