Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Sermon: "Story, Gospel, Art, Mission: Introducing St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians" (Part 1/6 - St. Paul and the Very Foolish Galatians)

"Story, Gospel, Art, Mission: Introducing St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians"

Preached at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
2 June 2013
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Text: Galatians 1.1-24

Note: For the next six weeks, SWM will be using the lectionary's second lesson focus on Galatians as an opportunity to engage in a study of the epistle.  Because we are a new community, and a weekly Bible study is not possible at this time, I have modified the readings to include more of Galatians, and will be posting on this blog and in our SWM facebook group.  

The first in this series is longer, being an overall introduction to a basic hermeneutic of the epistle, basic historical background, and Luther's discerned theme of Gospel contra idolatry.  I've added artificial section headers to help guide intrepid readers.  Thanks to Saby Davis for transcribing this manuscript from the live audio (I had my hand smashed in a window and was unable to do further editing).  


-Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God our father, and from our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.

-That opening invocation that we use every week is actually the same wording that St. Paul uses either to open his letters or close his letters. Ah, St. Paul.  To some, an ass kicker.  To others, a major asshole.   

I. Why Paul? Letters as Story

-Now, since we’ve begun as a community, we’ve been focusing almost exclusively on Jesus -- his life, his death, and resurrection -- and now, post-Easter, he’s gone. And we’re kind of left, as the Church, trying to figure out what the heck to do. 

-And see, one of the main records we have of what the Church did -- and, unfortunately, what the church did wasn’t always great -- is through these letters, these epistles, of Paul.  I and the letters of Paul are really great, I think, but only when we read them, not as rulebooks, as they’re often cited, or as absolute statements of eternal doctrine, where, because he wrote this to one community, every community in every place and every time has to follow exactly what he’s saying. I don’t find that a very helpful approach. 

-Because, while Paul’s message is always constant about the gospel of Jesus Christ, he faces all these different situations between the Corinthians and the Romans and the Galatians and the Thessalonians and the Ephesians and the Colossians and all sorts of other people. And he has to tailor his message and responses to their particular issues, their particular gifts, and their particular questions.

-And so it’s helpful to see the Letters of Paul not so much as individual statements of theology, but as snapshots. As a whole, almost like a book written in letter form. If you’ve ever read Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther or Gilead by Marilyn Robinson, the Letters of Paul are written in a similar diary/letter form of storytelling. So you can think of them as stories within The Story. 

-Of course, it’s kind of frustrating because we only get the one side of the story. We get to see what Paul’s telling them -- well, basically, what they should do. But we don’t get to see what they wrote to him initially, and we don’t necessarily get to see what they wrote back to him.

-My favorite interpretation of this comes from a comedian named Eddie Izzard who does a schtick where the Corinthians write back to Paul and tell him to piss off. Because they’re so tired of him telling them what to do and giving them all these rules. It’s so arrogant, they say, that he thinks he should write to the entire town, and ‘who decided to be his penpal anyway?’ I would show you the video, but unfortunately the language prevents me from doing so. But you should definitely YouTube it. It’s really good -- and, I think, pretty accurate. 
-So the point is, Paul is not necessarily always a nice guy. Sometimes he gets really mad. In the Letter to the Galatians, especially, it’s kind of like you can envision Paul’s ‘angry dance’ like in the movie Footloose. This is his angry letter. He’s really mad. He calls them “foolish Galatians.” At one point, he says, “I wish that the people preaching you a different gospel would just castrate themselves. The ones trying to tell you to circumcise should just circumcise themselves.” Ouch all around.

-And it would very easy to see Paul as a big a-hole as a result. He says that “I wish you would become like me, and therefore follow the Gospel.” It sounds like he’s trying to promote himself and his way of seeing things. Certainly, lots of interpreters -- modern ones especially -- want to spin Paul as the creator of Christianity, where it’s really Paul imposing all this doctrine on top of Jesus. And maybe that’s kind of true. 

II. The Centrality of the Gospel
-But I think a charitable reading of Paul -- actually reading what Paul said and what Paul’s all about, especially when taking the letter as a whole -- yields a very different picture. Sure, Paul’s claiming divine revelation, as we heard today. He’s claiming that he didn’t learn this gospel from tradition. He’s like a hipster saying “I knew the gospel way back in the day, before I talked to Peter.” And then he goes to talk to Peter, James and John just to make sure they have the same story. He presents himself as if he’s got this original knowledge, this deep, fiery conviction that this is the truth

-But notice what the truth is that he proclaims, almost from the start of the letter: the good news of Jesus Christ, who was given as a sacrifice for our sins, and has redeemed us into a new creation.  All of reality is different -- it’s a new state of being. That’s what “gospel” meant in the ancient world: the gospel was this proclamation of good news. Like when the emperor conquered someplace, the herald would ride into town and say “Announcing the Gospel of Caesar: you are now under Roman control. Yaaaaay!” And everyone was (unenthused), like “Oh... yay.”
-So what Paul is essentially doing is being the herald for Jesus.  He walks right into Galatia, which is a big region in Northern Turkey, shouting “God has claimed you. The Kingdom of God is here. You are now under control of the Spirit. You are no longer slaves to the elemental powers of the world, to the Pagan deities, to yourselves, or to any other human authority. But you are slaves of Christ -- and therefore free before the world. You’ve been liberated. You’ve been liberated for a new life because of God’s action, because of what God has done for you.”

-So everything that Paul does, in fact, points back to Christ, and to this new creation, the destruction of the old Matrix of sin and death.  Of course, sometimes Paul gets in the way of his own revolution, because Paul can be a big personality. He’s charismatic, he’s obviously very fiery and sure of himself in that way that converts and zealous people often are. But he’s trying to use that, even in spite of himself, to point back to the reality of Jesus -- not to point back to himself. He even says, “if we preach a different gospel to you that’s different than that original message of salvation through Christ by the Cross, then you should not listen to us -- you shouldn’t even listen to an angel who says something different to you.” It’s pretty strong language. But Paul’s central concern is not the Gospel of Paul but the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

III. The Art of Law and Gospel

-One of the reasons that Martin Luther was so big on the Book of Galatians back in the day was that he thought it was one of the most useful books for learning to discern between what he called “law” and “gospel.” He said, “The whole art of reading scripture is really about discerning the law from the gospel -- finding the good news in every passage and distinguishing it from the law.” 

-We’ll get into a little bit more in the coming weeks, about what law and gospel actually are as we go through this.  But I want to say from the beginning that “law” is not necessarily rules. It can be, but it’s more a referral to the way we use things for ourselves - for our own selfish gain.  Or -- as a good Jew might say -- it’s another term for the dynamics of idolatry.  Saint Paul, as Luther observed, is more concerned about discovering the ways that we deceive each other in ourselves. By putting things -- whether it’s actions, beliefs, systems or objects -- and putting them in the place of God and making them all about ourselves: self-serving, self-promoting, self-justifying. 

-So Paul is very concerned that we see our human efforts to try to reach God, or to try to talk for God, or to try to somehow understand God on our own terms and understand that that will always end up as idolatry. Or -- as another Reformational guy that Lutherans don’t like very much, John Calvin, once said: “The heart is an idol factory.” It’s always finding things to use for its own aims, to stack the deck in its own favor, and then to use those same things to control other people in an effort to make safe its own delusions.   

-Calvin saw the Gospel as a set of spectacles that you put on to see creation rightly.  But see, Paul is trying to teach these Galatians the art of seeing rightly, sinking it deep into their flesh and bones, once and for all.  As if to say, "here is the Gospel. Learn how to recognize the truth -- the truth that will set you free, the truth that has liberated you, the truth of how things really are -- and distinguish the truth from these false teachings of these people who really just want to use you or try to get you to use yourself, to make yourself the center instead of Christ.  Oh, and its an art - not an equation."  

IV. Idol Jealousy

-Now, that’s kind of a tall order from some guy who for the most part spends the first chapter of his letter talking about himself, right? I mean, most of this chapter is a story, and it’s about Paul and how he got this original revelation. And -- again, like I said -- he has this tone of “even Peter and James, the original Apostles, agree with me!” And so it would be very easy to say, again, that Paul is a self-centered, arrogant jerk. But Paul is very intent on putting his story in the message because, for him, this is not just a theory. It’s not just some knowledge he picked up out of a book. It’s not something he bought at Barnes & Noble.  

-But it’s deeper than that.  Paul is in love with God.  He has zeal for God.  And see, “Zeal” in the Bible actually means jealousy. When God says “I am jealous for my people,” it means He’s passionately in love with them and doesn’t want anybody else to have a go at them.  Likewise, Paul wants to make sure that the name of God is glorified. And, as any good Jew knows, the most problematic thing in terms of trying to know God -- throughout the history of Judaism and the whole world -- is the temptation of idolatry. The temptation to set up other gods other than the one who the Israelites called YHWH - a name so holy you shouldn’t even dare to pronounce it.  

-But that’s the point: the creator, the one who claimed Israel and said “You are my people. Now tell everybody how I created the world. And how I intended good for the world, and how I am a god for all nations.” Versus, say, the Pagan gods, who often were not the creators and were very fickle and were arguing with each other and required all these sacrifices -- sometimes child sacrifices -- and required you to do all sorts of embarrassing things in order to maybe win their favor. Paul, in his letter later, calls them “the elemental powers of the world.” 

-In Galatia in particular, idolatry was a huge problem, because Galatia was a conquered province. The Galatians really wanted to show the Romans that they were cool, that they weren’t rebelling, that they were all-in. And so they worshipped the emperor hardcore there. Emperor worship was huge. Every time you went into the marketplace, you sprinkled a little incense by the statue of the emperor in order to gain entrance; all the coinage had the emperor’s picture on it; and you were pretty much required to give a pledge of allegiance to the Gospel of the Emperor. 

-So, to become a Christian in this environment, to oppose this kind of nationalistic idolatry, meant that you put yourself at risk. It meant that you identified as someone who not only couldn’t participate in the regular economy and commerce of the life and culture around you, but you were also seen as a threat. Because, as much as the emperor wants to seem like he loves everyone, he actually wants to kill anybody who doesn’t listen to him. So, when you say “Jesus is God and Caesar is not” it’s kind of like saying “I’m not gonna pay my taxes to the IRS. I’m not gonna listen to the mayor. I’m not going to pay into the power grid, like the Amish.” It was really setting yourself apart and setting yourself up -- not for happiness and prosperity, but for a lot of pain. And a lot of conflict. 

-And so, when this new faction comes along - these Judaizers, these Jewish Christians who want to teach people to get circumcised -- it was a pretty convenient thing for the people of Galatia. Because it meant that if they got circumcised, they got in on the Jewish exemption.  Because Jews were allowed to not worship the emperor - because the emperor kind of liked them. They were this kind of quirky, quaint little people on the margins. 

-So what’s really going on here is not this idea that ‘circumcision is really good’; instead, it’s actually more just a case of using doctrine in the service of another kind of idolatry and compromise. And Paul is saying to them: “Look, it might seem really easy.  But I birthed you” -- throughout the letter, Paul uses this very feminine language of childbirth and cultivating -- “I brought you up; I formed you; I created you.” You’d think Paul would want to protect them and say “Yeah, go ahead and get circumcized. I’m a good Jew. Be like me, and at the same time spare yourself from getting killed.” 

-But Paul is more concerned about defending and promoting and preaching the true Gospel -- even it costs him and his followers so much culturally. He’s concerned that they know this, because if you start worshipping the emperor, if you start believing that it’s your own action that somehow wins you favor with God, then it not only puts you in a tough bind -- because as soon as the emperor doesn’t like you anymore, then you’re dead; or, if you stop being obedient, then you’re in trouble. But also, if you follow one of these idols and you follow their ‘idol promises,’ you’re going to get let down. Because a piece of wood can’t keep its promise. And neither does an emperor. Paul wants you to follow the one true God, the one who created the world, who has the power to save you, and who has acted on your behalf through Jesus Christ -- very different gospels. One is completely capricious and dependent on human endeavor and human promises that can be broken. The other comes from God.

V. Broken Lives Trump Pretty Lies

-Paul uses his story to drive this home.  His story of having gone from being very zealous and very religious and very convicted -- he had everything right, in his eyes --  and using that power and that conviction to kill and destroy the Church.  As a good Jew, he sees somebody and says “He thinks he’s God; that’s no good; I’m gonna kill him.” But Paul tells the story of how he was wrong, how he got it wrong because he was more concerned with protecting traditions than discovering the revelation of the living God entering into his midst and liberating him. 

-And it’s striking to me that when Paul tells the story of trying to counteract idolatry, he tells the story of his biggest character flaw: “I murdered people; I systematically tried to destroy the Church; I was a bad dude. And that -- that transformation that God worked in me, that liberation from being a murderous person, that liberation from being a jerk -- that’s how God is using me to spread the Gospel.” 

-See, God destroys idolatry not by giving us a better theory or a new practice, but by transforming our lives by entering into our midst and destroying the idols that keep us from God. And by opening us up to this whole new way of being. And he does it, not by teaching us things that we can hold over other people, but by leveling us, so that we may no longer think that we are God or have any claim to set up idols in God’s place. 

-It’s kind of a raw deal, right? I mean, let’s say that becoming Christian means you don’t get to shop at the mall anymore, you get persecuted and potentially killed, and you have to have all of your self-delusions and self-importance and idols and everything else you care about destroyed too boot. That’s not exactly a promise of prosperity, power and hope! And yet, that’s the Gospel -- that’s why Paul is so convicted about it. That’s why he gets so angry. Because as our Message translation says, “They’re selling you a non-Gospel, an empty lie about God” -- the lie that God doesn’t demand everything of us, that God doesn’t want our whole being, our whole heart, mind, and soul; and that God’s okay when we kind of take time for ourselves and start acting more selfishly towards one another. Or when we start giving all of our time and attention to the Facebook gods or to the TV gods or to our own ideas of justice or of what being progressive or being conservative means to us. 

-Or even being a good Lutheran. God does not care about that as much as God cares about the heart. And God will continue to demolish idols and calls us to be people who are willing to demolish idols -- not with violence, not with force, not even with argument and convincing, but by looking within our own hearts, our own story. By talking about our own struggles and proclaiming and testifying to the ways that God has made us a new creation too. 

VI. So What?

-Now maybe some of us -- myself included -- have not yet fully lived into what it means to be a new creation. Maybe you’re here thinking “What’s all this Jesus-Gospel-exclusive stuff? I thought we were going to talk about God.” Or “I’m spiritual but not religious.” And that’s totally cool.  I’m responsible for what you hear, not what you believe.  

-But one of the things that I think Paul is concerned with, and one of the things that I want to be exploring during this time of studying Galatians, is how we can see where God might be trying to be break into our lives in our own stories -- sometimes in beautiful ways. Maybe there’s this moment of epiphany, where the world is gorgeous and you’re just so convicted of the presence of a God. And it leads you to ask the question, “Who is this God who has created me and is doing amazing things?” 

-Or, maybe you’ve been a Christian for a long time like me, and God has kind of become something you take for granted, a kind of rote tradition. And you’re wondering, “How can I go deeper into this story and make it my own and start living out of it? Maybe I can start taking some risks by withdrawing from some of the idols and cultural practices and things that ensnare me or lead me astray.” 

-Or maybe you just don’t know what to think. And you’re just going to fall on your knees and say, “God, show me my next step. I need a higher power because I can’t do this on my own.” But regardless, what gives me comfort in this scripture about Paul’s letters is not just that Paul is a badass and kind of an asshole who became a badass, but also that the very letter itself is included in the Bible -- the fact that the Bible includes these letters where Paul is wrestling and arguing with people... It’s not perfect. He doesn’t just say, “Let me tell you how perfect you are, and here’s all the good things you did,” which would put us sinners in quite a bind. 

-But the Bible itself is the testimony of people wrestling together, asking questions, making mistakes, seeking God -- sometimes compromising, sometimes doing a great job -- but always wrestling with this central gospel: this central claim that there is one God, that this God is the creator, and that -- to us -- God has acted in the person of Christ in order to liberate us, to liberate all people, and to bring us into a new creation where we can live fully and -- most importantly -- live as free children of God who are liberated to love one another. 

VII. Story, Art, Gospel, Mission

-So, over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to unpack that. We’re going to slow it down and go through some of the aspects of this story that I’ve spun out today. Again, we always take a little longer at the beginning to kind of set the table. 

-But, again and again, I think the point of studying and wrestling with scripture and with one another is less to come to some sort of rational knowledge of facts and doctrines. It’s more like listening to music.  Learning to know the sound and the style of the truth.  So much that we can recognize it being played, not just in Scripture, but in the world around us, in others’ stories, and in our own.  

-This art, this way of listening to the music of the Gospel, is to continually ask of the scripture and let the scripture teach us: what is really the Gospel? What are ways I’m using the world, using people -- maybe even using the Bible -- as an idol to justify myself? How do we discern God’s work in the world? How do we see where the Gospel is breaking through? How do we discover where God is happening? How can we tell the story of reality correctly - and our own stories too?  And how do we recognize where we and other people are ensnared in systems that say “Somehow, you need to do something to be valuable to God,” when in actuality God has already made you infinitely valuable, and has called you, claimed you, and is leading you into this mission that we share. 

-I was thinking that it would be good to do a study on mission or something, but what I realize with the South Wedge Mission is that, to be a mission, we need to understand who we are in God, who God is for us, and what God is calling us to do around the Gospel. The mission will follow. But for now, it’s enough to continue to ask ourselves, “Where is God happening? Where do we see idolatry? Where do we see signs of God exploding all of our preconceptions?”  

-Because mission, in the end, may just be this kind of learning - learning the art of seeing and hearing the Gospel in the world around us, and witnessing to what it's up to in the stories and lives and vocations and arts all around us.  

-And, if we follow humbly and with much trust and faith, we will find mystery and magic and adventure and mission -- and the unbreakable, undying eternal promise of God in Christ Jesus.  St. Paul would have been pleased with nothing less.   



  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this - looking forward to the rest of the series. I have battled with my own impression of Paul for quite some time. Incidentally, loved the reference to Eddie Izzard :) Amazing where sermon material can come from!

  2. Thanks so much for this. I was trying to find the reference for this quote:
    “The whole art of reading scripture is really about discerning the law from the gospel -- finding the good news in every passage and distinguishing it from the law.” I have searched Luther's commentary on Galatians but cannot find it. Can you help?