Simply Put… You Can’t Fool God
We have been hearing firecrackers popping since Thursday morning. The BBQ smoke has been filling the air as glorious BBQ’d meats have been on grills throughout the community for the past week. All of this being done in anticipation and celebration of Independence Day. Independence Day is one of my favorite holidays of the year. The holiday gives me an excuse to come up with new BBQ sauce recipes. But the holiday is also a time to pause and remember that we live in a nation where independence and freedom are values that give identity to us as a collective nation of people from differing backgrounds, races, and ethnicities. Freedom and independence are hallmarks of what it means to be an American.
The Galatian Church has earned itself a pretty bad reputation over the years. Throughout his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul holds nothing back. The intensity and urgency Paul writes with has led many to refer to this particular letter in the New Testament as Paul’s “angry letter.” From chapter one, verse one, all the way to chapter six, verse 18, Paul does not hold back his theological punches. His six chapter letter can be easily skipped over as you thumb your way out of 2 Corinthians and look for Ephesians. When you thumb over Galatians you miss “angry” Paul writing, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! 2 The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” (Galatians 3:1-13, NRSV)
Regardless of the good done by the Galatian church, because of Paul’s no holds barred writing, the Galatians have come to be known as foolish throughout the history of the church. To be fair to the Galatians, I think they may have been harshly critiqued over the centuries. After all, it was the Corinthians not the Galatians, more famously known for patient love, who were rebuked by Paul for getting drunk when they gathered around the Lord’s Table.
The passionate words of Paul seem to be more directed at his theological opponents in Galatia and less directed toward the average Galatian Christian trying to navigate their new found faith in Christ and what that may or not mean for their life in a community with others who were also trying to figure it out as well. Paul’s theological opponents in Galatia had convinced early Christians, Gentile converts, of the necessity of adhering to the Laws of Moses, specifically the practice of circumcision, as a prerequisite to their conversion.
Paul does not have time for rhetorical niceties, greetings, or blessings, as he had done in his other letters. Paul is fired up and it is time to thrown some theological punches.
The issue for “angry” Paul, particularly when it comes to circumcision, comes down to faithfully following the Law Moses or faithfully following the Law of Christ. Are Galatian Christians converts to follow the 613 Torah prescriptions or follow the two laws given by Christ - Love the Lord your G-d and love your neighbor (You might be thinking, who is my neighbor? Don’t worry, we’ll talk about that next week). For the newly formed church in Galatia along with churches being formed in other areas of the region, there was great debate among the faithful about adhering to the Law.
There were some advocating that those outside that original covenant be required to participate in a new implementation of the Law in order to be part of the faith community. While others advocated abandoning the Law of Moses entirely as those outside the original covenant established by G-d with Israel came to faith in Christ.
The practice of circumcision for Gentile converts was a question of identity, obedience, and assimilation. Since circumcision was a physical indication of the original covenant established by G-d with Israel, should Gentile converts be required to be circumcised as they found new identity in Jesus and began to live lives obedient to the Gospel, to the Law of Christ? Was this physical marker required for assimilation into Christ’s new creation?
Paul was not writing to the Galatians to persuade them to abandon the Law, or even the practice of circumcision, rather Paul was challenging the Law’s ability to make humans “right” with G-d, and since the Law is about what we do, Paul is questioning our ability to make our relationship “right” with G-d. Paul is questioning if humans can be faithful to the Law without turning the Law into a litmus test. Should the Law or rather, is the Law, and adherence to it, a prerequisite to experiencing the grace and mercy of G-d in Christ Jesus?
The grace and mercy of G-d is not intended to be oppressive or burdensome. Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30) Jesus did not say “my yoke is hard and my burden heavy.” Time and time again we see in Jesus’ healings, signs, and teachings that the grace and mercy of G-d is something that is to be welcomed into someone’s life and not something to be dreaded or feared.
Then for Paul the answer to whether or not the Law is a prerequisite to experiencing the grace and mercy of G-d in Christ Jesus is a hard no because oppression and burden are not synonymous with the grace and mercy of G-d in Christ.
Paul’s questions and theological jabs about the Law are not limited to the ancient church. Today we wrestle with questions of the Law in local church contexts as well. We may not be vigorously debating circumcision but I am sure we could come up with a list of prerequisites required of a person before and after they came to faith in Christ. Just as it did in the ancient church, the Law as a prerequisite to the grace and mercy of G-d has the ability to transform the freedom we have received from Christ into the check of a box on an ever growing list. Obedience to the checklist is not freedom in Christ and in turn takes our focus off of following Christ and turns our attention towards being faithful to the litmus test.
To make Paul’s words through this entire letter plain - Simply put… it is foolish to think we can fool G-d with self-righteous works of the Law to achieve salvation. Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection are sufficient for all people.
It is foolish to think circumcision - works of the Law - is a sufficient alternative to the Gospel. When we buy into the idea that there is something necessary for salvation apart from the grace and mercy of G-d in Christ we are like the ancient church in Galatia foolishly (Paul’s words, not mine) turning toward a different gospel (1:6).
It is foolish to fail to see the universal scope of G-d’s grace that brought the ones outside the original covenant into the presence of Christ’s grace and mercy. Paul’s Galatian opponents believed Gentile converts needed to first be grafted into the original covenant established by G-d with Israel. Paul wrote that we, all us, everyone full stop, are children of G-d through faith. Clothing ourselves in Christ removes the title “Jew or Greek.” Paul continues, “there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” (3:28-29, NRSV)
Jesus ministered to those outside the original covenant established by G-d with Israel by going to the “other side.” Jesus went to the very people, extending grace and mercy, Paul’s opponents say first need to adhere to the Law.
We are fooling ourselves if we think we can fool G-d. The focus of the Law more often than not is us, acts we can do to save ourselves, when the reality is, as Paul tells us, that it is the indwelling of G-d’s Spirit that produces saving works in our lives. We are foolish Paul writes to put our focus in the wrong place. Our attention on the cross is to be focused on Christ’s faithfulness because every time we place our attention on our own works our faithfulness will fall short.
The Law in place of the Gospel is an attempt to hide the scandal of the cross - Jesus came to save all. In belonging to Christ, all are “heirs according to the promise” (3:29). Not some. Not this group or that group.
All, everyone, are heirs, including you.
Avoiding the scandal of the cross enables us to “feel religious” apart from Christ. Avoiding the scandal of the cross enables us to say things like “I find G-d in nature” or in whatever hobby you may have when the reality is that for Christians, those of us who have died to ourselves in the waters of Baptism, we find G-d in Christ. Law abiding righteousness misses the real-life, self-sacrificing love of G-d and misses the power of G-d’s Spirit in Christians and among Christian communities.
Christ has freed us from the Law.
This a time of year when we celebrate, in big/loud ways, the freedom we have because of where we live. This past week, and extending into today, has been a celebration of the declaring of independence that lead to the birth of the United States. For us though, as Christ’s Church, those who proclaim Jesus to be Lord of lords and King of kings, our freedom, the freedom we have from the Law, is found through our dependence upon Christ’s faithfulness and not our own ability to follow the Law (independently), the Law of Moses or the Law we have created for others. Through our dependence on Christ and not the Law, G-d has promised to be present, empowering and moving not just us, but all of creation into the new creation made possible by the faithfulness of Christ.