-St. Paul and the Very Foolish Galatians Part 3/6-
Preached/Performed at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
16 June 2013
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Text: Galatians 2.15-3.1
CAST OF CHARACTERS:
Regular Text: Pastor Matthew, portrayed on Sunday by Pastor Matthew
Bold Text: St. Paul, portrayed on Sunday by Alex Koroleski
-Grace, mercy and peace is yours from the Triune God (amen).
OK, so as those of you who’ve been following along at home know, we’ve been doing a “sermon series” on St. Paul and his letter to the Galatians. This week. we’re going to hit up a topic much beloved to Lutherans: Justification by faith. Now, it’s pretty complicated, so...
(wooshing TARDIS sound)
What the...what’s going on?
(St. Paul walks on stage via the sacristy)
-Grace and peace brothers and sisters in Christ.
-Um, holy s-h-i-t. You’re...
-Paul (bracket saint apparently!), prisoner of the Lord, proclaimer of the Gospel, et cetera et cetera. At your service.
-Um, right. But you’re...St. Paul. What exactly are you doing here in Rochester of all places? Aren’t you supposed to be, well, two thousand years ago?
-Well, yes. I was getting ready to write a particularly scathing third letter to some obstinate Corinthians, when suddenly, I heard a whooshing, and out of thin air, why, a blue box appeared! A man stepped out, wearing what he called a “bowtie,” which he said was “cool.” Then he told me I was needed somewhere. We went inside the box (it was much bigger on the inside!), and next thing I knew, here I am.
-A blue box. A bow-tie wearing man. And what was his name?
-He just said “the Doctor.”
-Doctor? Doctor Who?
-Exactly. But that’s besides the point. Look, he told me this sermon’s only supposed to be 13 minutes or so, so let’s not waste time on petty details. I’m here now, and we’ve got work to do.
-Um, ok, I was just introducing the sermon. It’s on your letter to the Galatians. Chapter 2, on justification by faith!
-Let me guess: you’re going to say some version of how no matter what we try to do, we end up being self-deceived sinners who can’t escape their own idolatry. But luckily, Jesus loves us anyway and does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. And then end with some vague ethical precept about what we get to do now that we are under grace. Sound right?
-Wow, you’re good. How’d you guess?
-You’re a Lutheran. What else would you preach on?
-How do you know what a Lutheran is? And anyway, what’s wrong with that sermon? Isn’t that what the Gospel’s all about? Isn’t that justification?
-Well, sure. It’s good stuff. But sometimes, I get really concerned for all of you people. Sometimes, you’re not much better than those foolish Galatians. You make it all so...complicated.
-Complicated? What do you mean?
-Well, first off, how exactly were you going to explain the whole justification by faith thing?
-Well, I wanted to share with them how your Greek was pretty ambiguous. That no one’s really sure if you meant to write “by faith in Christ,” or “by the faithfulness of Christ,” or even “by faith, comma, in Christ.” No offense, but between the five-page long run on sentences, your poor use of the genitive, and your generally cantankerous tone, it’s not exactly like reading the Gospels.
-Oh, and I suppose you never ramble aimlessly in your stuff? But again, we digress. Look, that’s all really interesting. I’m sure some seminarians somewhere are spending their lives writing dissertations on it, along with commentary on my use of the comma. Really interesting stuff. But it’s also a lesson in missing the point. Let me explain.
-OK, go for it.
-Well, first, regarding justification, y’all western Christians have really made way too much of all it. “How do I find a gracious God,” “how am I saved,” “how do I know if I’m a good person or not,” etc. It’s all so...German. Existential. Self-obsessed. Which, by the way, is exactly what sin is really all about. Self-obsession. Taking perfectly wonderful things like the Gospel, or food, or sex, or whatever, and making it all about yourself. As if you’re God or something.
Oh, we’re good at that too. Making God all about us. As if every line in Scripture was about us and our own personal story and salvation. No offense, but it’s kind of narcissistic.
-Totally! Like all those people who spend all their lives on Facebook trying to get people to notice what they ate for breakfast, or how smart they are, or how cute their son is, or what a great hiking trip they just took. Our whole culture feels like its geared towards, well, ourselves.!
-Sure. And it’s just all those “other people” Matthew?
-Er, right...touche. Please continue.
-The way I see it, culture and context change all the time. But sin, far from being something “original,” is actually quite constant. Narcissism this. All about me that. Look how good I am. Look at the god I made today. I’m still waiting for some actual original sin. So much of it is really just “unoriginal.”
And look, that whole line about “justification by faith in Christ,” that was just the set up line here. Seriously. It’s like, throughout the history of Christianity, people keep stopping at verse 16, hear an opportunity to be self-obsessed, and stop reading what comes after.
-OK. What does come after Mr. Smarty Pants?
-A lot. Skip ahead a few verses. To 19 and 20. Listen up:
“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?”
Dang I’m good! That’s one of my favorite things I ever wrote. And probably most important too.
-OK, it is really powerful. I’ll bite. Say more.
-Well, check it. First off, it’s not all about us. It’s about Jesus. What Jesus has done. The faithfulness of God in Jesus to us. Not about our faith, or what we do or didn’t do or how sinful we are or aren’t. It’s basically just a description of what Jesus is doing for us in the cross.
-But it does mention us a lot in there...
-OK, sure. But back it up. This is really important for all of you to get right. See, most of the time, with God, we start from ourselves. Our own experience. Our own opinions. And work our way forward to the scripture. Like when we say, “man, something’s not right, I need a gracious God, who can make me feel better?”
But in reality, we need to start with the cross. See, we wouldn’t even know we were sinners without Jesus having died first. It’s not, “we had this problem with sin, and so therefore, logically, Jesus had to die.” That’s an us-centered logic.
No, it’s more insulting to our pride than that. More like, “whoa. God died on the cross for sin. Which means, regardless of what we think, we must have needed the cross. Which means, regardless of how we understand sin, we were in a bad place. We can’t do this ourselves. God said so.” See how we start with God, rather than us? You don’t even really get to choose your own sin!
-OK, sure. I mean, it does set the whole thing up differently...
-Sure. But see, here’s the rub. Because not only do we set up sin starting with us. We also set up “salvation” in the same way. Starting with us. What we think we need to be whole. And so, inevitably, we almost always end up with a smaller picture of the Gospel, of Good News, than what God intends.
-You’re saying there’s a bigger Gospel here. Not just “Jesus died for our sins and we get to go to heaven?”
-Definitely. First off, it’s way more difficult than you thought. Being “crucified with Jesus.” That’s the first part of the Good News.
-Yes. Work with me here. See, as much as we love our sin, it’s actually - newsflash - not good for us. Our hearts are made in the image of God. We have this infinite capacity for desire, to desire God and to be in loving communion with all creation. That’s good. But our hearts are like collapsed stars, like black holes. They are damaged. Sucking all of the goodness in the world into themselves, trying to make everything about us. And then crushing and compressing them into coal. Idols. It’s this eternal itch that as mortal creatures, we can’t help but scratch. But can never satisfy.
-Yes. So when we are crucified with Christ, it means that on the cross, Jesus took our human nature, and the black hole and all that, and destroyed it. Sealed it up. Closed the gap. Reversed the flow. It’s not so much a payment for sin as it is a repairing of the breach. Jesus’ life and death literally destroy the sin.
-Sounds like Doctor Who talking.
-Right. See, we do people a serious disservice when we tell them that becoming Christian is this easy happy thing. It’s painful as hell. A crucifixion. Because we have to have our the black hole, the ego, systematically destroyed and removed.
-That’s good news?
-Yes! God in Christ does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, but long to have done. Ask an alcoholic or an addict; they can explain it better to you than I can. But it’s God’s gift to us.
-So Jesus saves me, only to put me through an excruciating journey of self-deconstruction and self-recovery?
-Partly. That mess is our contribution to things. And don’t say it’s not there ruining our life, and the Gospel. It is. And we know it needs to get gone. And it’s hard. But God is doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
-So is that the Good News then?
-No. Read the next part: “it’s not longer me but Christ who lives in me!” I meant that literally, believe it or not. It’s something that Western Christians seem to have grossly neglected. The gift of salvation is not just getting saved or going to heaven. The gift of salvation is: Jesus. Living. In your heart. Indwelling us. Alive in us. Making us new.
-Jesus living in our hearts? Isn’t that kind of...supernatural?
-Bingo homes. It’s not just some mythological existentialism. How else do you think you’re able to actually go about having faith - being faithful to God - in the first place?
-I just believe, right? I mean, that’s what they always told me. “Believe in Jesus and accept him into your heart” and all that? It’s free will to choose Jesus.
-And I thought you were a Lutheran! It’s not free will. It’s GOD’S WILL. It’s NOT ABOUT US! God literally gives us God’s will in our hearts. Makes us into new creations, new creatures. God doesn’t just put a stint in the black hole of our heart to keep it from getting worse. God puts God’s own Spirit in there. Like installing a brand new star, a supernova, a new source of power and life, right in our very souls!
-Dude, kind of like in Iron Man, when Tony Stark gets that new heart core energy thing, and then he can fly and power his ironman suit and fight crime and all that!
-And you watch too much television. But yes. God’s not just trying to polish us up, tell us we’re ok and accepted just as we are. That’s what WE want God to say. It’s so much easier on us.
But God wants to do radical heart surgery on us. Take out all the cancer of sin, remove the black hole. Make us healthy and whole. Salvation, after all, comes from the word “salve,” which means “health.” And then, God wants to make us new. Give us a new heart. A heart capable of really loving God, and loving each other. A heart that we were given when we were created. The heart we destroyed by turning it into a black-hole of self-centeredness and violence.
-That sounds trippy. Is that what Orthodox people mean when they say we are “divinized?”
-Yes! See, that’s a Gospel! That God loves us so much that God sent God’s Son to die, to repair the breach that has disrupted relationships and ruined the image of God in us. And God isn’t just “saying” we are good. God is making us good. Making us even better than good. Making us God’s. Transfiguring us. And giving us this intimate, divine union with Christ in our hearts. It’s about this deep relationship with God that’s now made possible. We are literally made one with Jesus. With God. With the source of all being and light and love and grace.
-Whoa. That’s pretty huge. Like you said, it’s a much bigger Gospel when we stop making it about us. Like that blue box you flew in on. Much bigger on the inside if we just let go of our preconceptions and step inside.
-There you go. That’s why I’m so ticked at these foolish Galatians! Not because of what they are doing wrong, necessarily. But because they are not seeing just how big and how awesome and how beautiful this picture of Jesus’ salvation is! They’re limiting God, and so limiting their community too!
-Right. So there’s that word salvation again. Are you saying there’s nothing “personal” about it? Since, you know, it’s not about us?
-Um, no. Like I said, we START with Jesus and God. But THEN, we absolutely need to claim this for ourselves. Look at what I wrote. It’s Christ who lives IN ME. Christ died FOR ME. Christ loved ME.
-And how exactly is that not narcissistic?
-It’s not narcissistic or selfish to accept a gift. In fact, it’s more prideful NOT to accept it. To only want it on our own terms. But that’s a huge part of the gift. It is communal AND personal. It’s not just a theory. It’s something God is giving to particular, individual people. God is not far off. God is so close to us, as St. Augustine once wrote, closer to us than we are to ourselves! We can’t pass this gift off.
-I can anticipate my people (who are here, by the way, listening to us) wondering: that’s all great and good, but how does knowing all this good stuff about God actually matter for us? How is supernatural divination actually practical?
-Fair question. I think you started to hit the nail on the head when you were talking about the iron man. We’re given the gift to use it, to live into it, to experience a full and abundant life. It’s first and foremost about living in freedom, and in service to others.
-Freedom AND service? I’m lost.
-OK, look. The rest of the letter is about the practical stuff. What it looks like. How to live it. There’s plenty of “to-dos” coming up. But for now, I think the practical application is this: ITS NOT ABOUT YOU. CHRIST IS DOING FOR YOU WHAT YOU CANNOT DO FOR YOURSELF. I think most times, we need to start with being reminded about who God is and who we are in God, before turning on to being instructed in what to DO or BELIEVE.
See, the Gospel, I think it’s a lens to look at our selves and our reality and to ask: am I making this about me? Or am I seeing it through this Good News in Christ? As a paranoid and prideful narcissist? Or as a beloved, divinized co-creator? Which power will we choose? Whose promises will we trust?
-Power? Choice? Wait, isn’t that just getting back into, you know, doing stuff?
-Look, if you’re not using it, you’re losing it. Like playing an instrument and never practicing. You can’t get better at something if you don’t play. The difference is, you’re no longer self-obsessed. No longer required to look at whether you get it right, or how you look doing it, or whether other people like it. You are free from having to justify yourself. You don’t have to make salvation happen!
-What if I don’t feel free?
-You are. You are perfectly and completely free. It’s not an option. The challenge now is, do we live like free people, empowered and indwellt and intimately loved by the God of the universe? Or do we continue to live under the tyranny of our own way of doing things? Of us at the middle?
-Got a metaphor or something? I’m still lost.
OK, look, it’s kind of like this. Let’s say you’re in a sailboat, in the middle of a lake. You can’t move it on your own, but you know it’s supposed to be sailing. It’s no fun without the movement. Suddenly, a wind blows. You can still sit there and say, “oo, a wind, what does it have to do with me?” Or, you can raise your sail, man the rudder, and let the wind move you on to adventure. You aren’t the one powering or moving the boat - but because of the wind, you’re able to start practicing your skills. So it is with the indwelling of Christ’s faithfulness, giving life to our faith. It can be intimate and gentle, like a soft breeze brushing our cheek. Or it can be terrifying, like a tsumani kicking up waves that just begs us to risk a thrill ride on a surfboard.
-Dang, you’re good. I like that.
-Good. So, I think a better question is: where do you sense the Spirit blowing in your own life? Where do YOU feel it crucifying pride and self-centeredness? Where do you see it leading you into new creation, even at great risk and uncertainty, calling you to cling to the promises of the Spirit?
-Wow, that’s a great question. Maybe I should ponder it during our Open Space time. I mean, I have so many places I put myself first. So many places I make excuses to try to justify myself, or put myself above others...
-Good idea. Especially since I think we’re out of time. But before I go, can you tell me what you heard me say today?
-Right. Um, so I think I heard you saying that if all we do is obsess about us (how we are saved, justified, what faith looks like, etc), we end up falling into the trap of narcissism, making it all about us. Which is bad, since we don’t actually have the capacity to satisfy our infinite cravings and desires. But, if we start with God in Christ, we discover that not only is God offering the gift of removing our defects - God is also giving us a Tony Stark heart, which is actually Christ, the lover, coming to live in our hearts. And so we’re free to use this power in faith, clinging to God and depending on Christ. Sailboat analogy to close.
-My work here is done. Now it’s up to you to figure out what it means in your own life. I’ve gotta get back to the blue box before, what did the Doctor say. before all of space and time collapses...
-Um, ok, but, you know, could you maybe come back next week? It’s kind of a doosy - you talk about how there’s neither male nor female, slave for free, Greek nor Jew...it’s kind of intimidating.
-Believe it or not, this is supposed to BE next week. But he landed us wrong. If I come again, like I said, space and time collapsing and all.
-Sure, I get it. Well, Paul, er, St. Paul...thanks. This is all pretty confusing to me still. I know it’s meant to be as simple as clinging to Jesus. And I appreciate hearing just how much Jesus is offering us and all. I guess it’s us who complicate things.
-Yeah. It’s really as simple as keeping the focus on Christ. Not listening to idols or any voice other than the one that is dwelling in you and making you new. It’s the other voices - especially our own - that make it complicated. But all of them, they’re just trying to justify themselves too. And we already know how that ends.
-Right. Sure you can’t stay for Open Space?
-Bye Paul. And thanks.
(Paul exits, wooshing sound re-commences).