Galatians 1:13-17 & 2:11-21
You may have noticed that this week I chose for the reading to come from the Church bible directly, and not via another translation.
Very often I find that the Good News Bible over simplifies the text, but this week, in Paul’s letter to the Galatians I was glad of the simplification, for Paul’s writing is often dense and multi-layered; and it explores concepts and definitions of faith which are difficult to grasp.
Paul is talking about justification – in the Good News translated as “put right with” – in one of the study guides I read it suggested replacing justification with “belonging to” for, in our 21st century context, the way we use justification is not quite the same as the theological meaning.
The crux of what this passage is all about is what we must do to be part of God’s family through Jesus – what we must do to know we are Christians.
The early church was struggling; people were joining in their droves, and the disciples, the ones who had been with Jesus all the way through were trying very hard to accept these new people in, even though they were not Jewish by birth. This is manifested in the discussion here, where Paul is trying to explain why he and Peter have had what appears to be a very public row. Paul feels that Peter has used double standards – when he was first with the gentiles he had eaten with them and not suggested or imposed any Jewish food practises, but once other believers had arrived – who were Jewish by origin, he had pulled back because he was afraid it would cause a stir.
Those who were Jewish by origin were convinced (as you heard in the last two week’s sermons) that in order to really become followers of Jesus that all new converts must first become Jews before becoming Christian. Creating different qualifiers.
Putting obstacles in the way.
Adding conditions to faith.
Paul – who was the most learned scholar; who knew the law, and had indeed been an extremely vocal and violent persecutor of the followers of Jesus’ way; Paul knew better than most that this was not what God required of them.
Jesus had been sent by God to show people a simpler way. And Paul had been called by Jesus to bring that simpler way to those who were not Jewish by birth.
This new, simpler way, is no longer about sticking strictly to a set of Laws – even if those laws were God given.
No, the only way, the best way, to belong to God is by faith in God’s son Jesus.
Paul is talking about the question of who belongs in the faith community, and who doesn’t. In our faith community, how do people know they belong? What do we do, how do we act, what can we say to let people know they belong in our faith community?
What do we do, or say, that makes them feel that they don’t – sometimes, just by being who we are, doing the things we know, using the language of church we exclude new people who have no idea what is happening all around them.
Paul’s assertion, is that faith in Jesus is enough. In fact, that is exactly what Jesus said: no one comes to the Father except through me. This sounds good, doesn’t it?
But what about those who don’t help the church?
Don’t support our buildings financially?
Those who come along and use the church if it suits them, but not if it doesn’t?
What about those who believe in Jesus, but worship God in their own way, away from church?
Are they good enough?
Are we good enough?
Do we really believe that faith in Jesus is enough? Or do we feel like we need to add just a little bit more to be sure?
It certainly sounds good, reassuring even, but maybe we need to work long hours at the church just to be sure, maybe we need to be seen, maybe we need to lead/ join a group… the add-ons could be endless.
So, how do we live with this deep freedom Paul describes here?
For years – and I mean years, from bible study as a young mum in a wonderfully supportive group; to exploring my sense of call to ministry, to studying the bible in depth at university, to reading and studying for myself, and for preaching, in all of these times over probably thirty years, I have struggled with Paul’s letters!!
Firstly – they are densely packed and often difficult to understand; secondly they often leave me feeling inadequate, or with more questions than answers.
And thirdly, they often leave me feeling that what they are telling us is something that is far too difficult to really take on.
Today of course, we have the exact opposite!
Paul has, through complicated and heavily layered argument, brought it down to something that is actually very simple: we are made right with God through faith in Jesus.
No great tasks to perform.
No huge commitments to make.
Simply trust Jesus. Believe he is God’s Son.
Believe he died for us, for our sins to be forgiven. Believe that through Jesus our lives are restored to God.
Paul is stating that if we have our focus on Jesus right and we follow that way, then we do not need to think about the law or spend time on the outward showings of keeping the law; in other words, trust in God’s grace on this rather than our own particular good deeds or how we respond to the law.
Trust God’s grace
Trust God’s love
Live in and through that grace and with God’s love in our hearts and everything else will fall into place.
I do the things I do; live the way I live, not because I think I must do it; but because the way I live out God’s love is to share it in whatever way I can.
And, I know that all around me, in this our church family, I see the same – God’s faithful people, living and loving, and showing others God’s love in action.
And live in God’s love – that’s something we can all live by.