Monthly Archives: April 2009

Galatians 3:1-14

The Righteous Will Live by Faith: Galatians 3:1-14

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast April 26, 2009

Craig Atwood

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on this second Sunday in the season of Easter. I want to give a shout out to Katie Pfohl who is now 101 years old. I first met Katie when I was the chaplain at Salem College. She remembers how my great-grandfather used to bring milk and butter in his horse-drawn cart to Salem when she was a girl. It is hard to imagine the changes she has seen over the past century. Things are changing here at Home Church. We’re worshiping in the fellowship hall now while the sanctuary is being remodeled. I’ve never seen the fellowship hall look so nice. This will the last Sunday that Pastor Harris will be with us until October, and we wish him well on his sabbatical. Scott, Christy, and Carl will be preaching over the summer, and we wish them well, too. I hope it was a good week for you. A high point of the week was having lunch with Jimmy Carter. It was nice to hear him describe himself as a Sunday School teacher. I’ve been grading papers this week, and so I may not be as lucid today as normally. I think I’ve read over 500 pages of student work in the last two weeks. Thankfully, some of the papers were gems. One of my students did his senior project presentation on Thursday night. He has been working in a homeless shelter and decided to talk with the homeless about their understandings of God. It was amazing what some of those men have to teach us all about faith, love, and hope in the midst of hardships.

This week we are continuing our study of Galatians. We’ll be looking closely at the first part of chapter three.

Read 3:1-14

Before your eyes:                        Paul is clearly frustrated and angry with the Galatians. We will never know the whole story about the church in Galatia, but I think we can safely assume that these people were precious to him. If Paul did not care so much for them, I doubt he would have been so exasperated. That is one of the paradoxes of love. Sometimes we angry because we really do care about someone and their welfare. Paul had given a lot of attention to the building of the congregation in Galatia, and he had probably been proud of the way they had lived out the gospel, but now he feels that all of this work is threatened.

Paul simply can’t understand what has been going on in his absence, and he asks the Galatians if someone has bewitched them. This is the only time this word appears in the New Testament. It normally refers to someone giving the “evil eye” or casting a malevolent spell. Throughout the history of Christianity, there have been periods when fear of malevolent forces erupted in violence, such as the period of witch burnings in Europe. It is helpful to recognize that this in the only reference to bewitchment in the NT, and we should not magnify fears about witchcraft. Even more important, we should recognize that Paul is talking about the temptation to use religion to divide people. Rather than worrying about bewitchment, we should be concerned about how we use religious symbols and authority to hurt people.

Christi Crucified:                        Paul contrasts the evil eye with the way Christ was presented to the Galatians as one crucified. The word Paul uses is prographo, which can mean “written beforehand.” This may indicate that Paul had used the Psalms and prophets in the OT to explain the death of Jesus to the Galatians. Or the word could mean that he had preached on this theme so much that the Galatians could visualize the crucifixion for themselves. That Christ was crucified before their eyes. Many centuries later, Zinzendorf talked about the need for preachers to “paint” Christ before the congregation. It is possible that Paul was referring to a type of mystical experience in which the Galatians had seen Christ. Such visionary experiences are well-documented in the history of Christianity.

Though we do not know for sure what the Galatians had experienced through Paul’s preaching, it is clear that the image of Christ as crucified was central to their life as Christians. This does not diminish the importance of the resurrection in Paul’s theology, but it is interesting that he does not talk about the resurrection in Galatians. It was important for the Galatians to remember the cost of their redemption. He warns the Galatians that if they adopt the law, then Christ will have died in vain. In secular society we use similar language when we say that we do not want our soldiers to have died in vain. You’ve seen bumper stickers that say “If you value your freedom, thank a Veteran” which is a good sentiment. But more than gratitude is needed. We should also make sure that we do not give up the freedoms for which others died. Paul believed that the Galatians were in danger of giving up the spiritual freedom they had found in Christ and this would nullify his sacrifice.

Spirit:                        Paul is not content to talk only about the work of Christ; he reminds the Galatians that they also received the Holy Spirit through their faith in Jesus. Paul closely connects the work of Jesus Christ with the reception of the Spirit. In Paul’s writings, the Spirit is always associated with the Father and the Son, which is why we have the doctrine of the Trinity here. He is reminding the Galatians that they had already experienced God’s Spirit at work in their lives and in their church. Once again, Paul frustrates historians because he does not tell the Galatians what they already know. He merely asks them to remember what had happened when they believed in Christ.

It is possible that Paul is describing the gift of the Spirit in the waters of baptism. Or he may be talking about a Pentecostal event when the Spirit was poured out on the Galatians with signs and wonders. We have descriptions of such experiences in the Book of Acts and Paul’s other letters, and in verse 5 he mentions works of power or miracles. Whatever happened, we can safely assume that the reception of the Spirit was a life-changing experience that confirmed the faith of the individuals involved and united them in an intimate community of faith.

Some churches today place a great emphasis on dramatic displays of the Spirit, but many times those expressions of the Spirit lead to conflict and division rather than harmony. Other churches downplay the Spirit so much that it seems to be little more than the ghost of idea. In many historic Protestant churches, the Spirit is talked about, but rarely experienced, and we have trouble understanding Paul’s argument here. Richard Hays, in the Interpreters Bible, points out that modern churches may lose more than our appreciation for Paul. “Unless they have a living experience of the power of the Spirit, they are likely to be acutely susceptible to various non-gospels that seek to define their identity on the basis of race or nation or gender or economic class or some other marker of social status. For such communities, the text of Gal. 3:1-5 can only stand as a tantalizing glimpse of a living spiritual experience to which the gospel beckons them.” (p. 254)

Faith and Spirit:                        Paul knows that the Galatians received the Spirit and were transformed into a church of Jesus Christ. The question he asks them is not whether, but how. How did they receive the seal of the Spirit?  What transformed their lives? Was it by observing the Law or was it through faith in the crucified Messiah? The answer, Paul knew, was that they received the Spirit through the Gospel. The phrase he uses is very hard to translate and scholars disagree over whether he is focusing on the Galatians’ belief in the message or the message itself. We should not separate the message and its reception. The message of the cross is life changing only when people believe it and trust in it.

This leads up to Paul’s crucial point. Why would the Galatians start with Spirit and end in flesh? By flesh, he is making a pun on circumcision, which is lost in some translations. He accuses the Galatians of reversing the arc of the history of salvation. The OT prophets pointed to a day when the Spirit of God would be poured out on all flesh. Under the old covenant, obedience to the law of Moses might (hopefully) lead to the gift of the Spirit and the blessings of God, but the Galatians already have the blessings and the Spirit.  If they had received the Spirit without binding themselves through circumcision, why go back to an earlier understanding? It would be like Americans having won a revolution going back to a monarchy; or having written a Bill of Rights, allowing the government to violate those rights.

Suffering:            Verse 4 has posed difficulties for translators and interpreters. Paul uses the word Pascho, which means either experienced or suffered. The ancient commentators interpreted Paul as saying that the Galatians had suffered much because of their faith in Christ, but many modern translations say that they had experienced much. The question is whether Paul is talking about the experience of the Holy Spirit and accompanying acts of power or if he is introducing a new idea of suffering. I think he is probably talking about things the Galatians have suffered because of their faith in Jesus.

Paul doesn’t go into detail, but we can assume that the decision to believe in Jesus meant a radical change in the lives of the people he was writing to. Those who were Jews would have been expelled from the synagogue and treated as traitors to the covenant. Those who were pagans would have broken relations with friends and separated themselves from many aspects of their society. We are so accustomed to Christianity being the social norm that we forget that many people in the world today suffer because of baptism. Even if none of the Galatians had suffered physically, they experienced the suffering that comes whenever a person changes their identity and way of living. They also experienced in their own minds and spirits the suffering of Christ. But it was worth it because they also received the Spirit of Christ and experienced salvation. They experience new life. Paul begs them not to render their own suffering meaningless by going back to old ideas.

Abraham                          After this impassioned opening, Paul draws on his training as a Pharisee to try to persuade the Galatians from the Torah itself that his view of the law is correct. He makes an argument that he will refine further in his letter to the Romans. He writes like an ancient rabbi, playing texts against each other. He portrays Scripture itself speaking and pronouncing a blessing on Abraham. Paul shrewdly goes back to the beginning of Israel and the covenant; back to the father of the covenant people. There is little doubt that his opponents were using Abraham in their argument for circumcision since it was Abraham who was circumcised in Genesis 17. But Paul goes further back and quotes Gen. 15:6, which says: “Abraham believed the LORD and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

For Paul, Abraham is the father of the faith, not simply the father of a nation. Paul offered a radical reinterpretation of the story of Abraham and the covenant. The important things were not a promised land or progeny. The true meaning of God’s promise is found in Genesis 12:3 and 22:18 where God promises that all of the nations of the world will be blessed through Abraham. Paul wants the Galatians to know that by faith they are descendents of Abraham, too. They are not descendents through birth. Circumcision will not make them children by adoption. They are descendents of Abraham through faith in Jesus Christ. It is Christ who brought them into the new covenant of grace.

Curse of the Law?                        This leads into what one scholar calls “one of the most difficult passages anywhere in his letters” (Hays, 257).  There are two major difficulties for translators and interpreters alike. The first is that those who live by the law are cursed by the law, which seems to turn the teaching of the Bible upside down. Paul loves paradox and shocking language, but this passage has been particularly hard for people to accept. How can someone be cursed by observing the law? Martin Luther and others argued that Paul was claiming that the law reveals to us that we cannot observe the law. Our efforts to live righteously are doomed to failure because of human sin. Thus we feel we are cursed by God because we are unable to be righteous. Luther based his interpretation of Paul on his own experience of trying to live perfectly as a monk. The fact that the Mosaic law provides for forgiveness and atonement did not abolish the existential reality that we cannot fulfill the demands of the law any more than the sacrament of penance brought peace to Luther’s soul. However, many scholars think Luther overstated the case, and that he was harder on the law of Moses than Paul was. The phrase Paul uses to describe those living under probably refers to those who define themselves according to the law. Paul does not condemn the Law, but he does tell the Galatians that the Law itself includes a curse on those who fail to observe the law. Paul urges the Galatians to avoid the issue of blessings and curses based on the law entirely by relying on faith in Christ. We should not read this to say that the law itself is a curse or that Judaism is a curse. Paul is saying that the law pronounces a curse on those who do not follow it, and this is the curse that Christ saves us from.

The Righteous Shall Live by Faith                        Here in Galatians and again in Romans, Paul lifts out a line from the prophet Habakkuk to summarize his point. Since the law cannot justify people before God, the truly righteous will live by faith. Notice that Paul does not contrast righteousness and faith; it is by living in faith that we are made righteous before God. Paul unites the concepts of life, faith, and righteousness. It is our faith in God’s promises and the work of Christ that allows us to live fully and freely in the world. It is our faith in Christ and the experience of the Holy Spirit that allows us to become righteous and just. Faith is life-giving. Rather than seeking salvation through observance of the law, salvation comes through Christ.

Paul does not go into detail on this point. In fact, it appears that he is reminding the Galatians of what they already. Some scholars speculate that verses 13-14 are actually part of a very ancient Christian creed. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” In 2 Cor. 5:21 Paul went further and said that God “made him to be sin who knew no sin.” This line remains so shocking that every time Zinzendorf quoted it in his sermons, censors tried to remove it. I’ve quoted this verse in my writings, and every proof-reader thinks I’ve made a mistake. How could Jesus have been made a curse or sin?

Paul quotes from Deuteronomy again to indicate that the death of Jesus was cursed according to the law. It is possible that the opponents of Christianity had used this verse to condemn those who worshiped Jesus as the Messiah. It was not simply that Jesus had failed to reclaim the throne of David, but the way he died was evidence that he was abandoned by God in the eyes of many. Paul may have this argument in his former life, but now he takes it and uses it to shock the Galatians back to their senses. If they are going to embrace the law of Moses by being circumcised, then they will have to view Jesus as having been cursed because of his crucifixion.

Paul uses the scandal of the cross to shock us into a different way of understanding our lives. Yes, Jesus voluntarily became a curse according to the law of Moses precisely to fulfill that law and redeem us from the curse. He took on the curse of the law and in doing so made it possible for Gentiles and Jews alike to live in a new spirit; a new reality. Jesus is the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 who became the scapegoat for the sins of the nation, but his suffering and death make possible the messianic vision of the prophet Isaiah. Paul extends Isaiah’s vision to include all people in God’s saving work in Christ.

Conclusion:            Paul reminds the Galatians that they are part of this new covenant through faith in the crucified Messiah. They have received the Spirit of Christ and he warns them not to give up that new freedom and new way of life by reverting back to old forms of condemnation and curses. Perhaps one reason we do not experience the Spirit in our lives and congregations today is because we are trying to live by the law instead of living by faith in Christ. 

Justification by Faith

Justified in Christ – Galatians 2:15-21

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast April 19, 2009

Introduction:            Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on this first Sunday of Easter. It is a shame that we generally feel a spiritual letdown after Easter, although there are churches that observe the tradition of holy laughter on this day. It is certainly understandable that we are tired this week, especially those Moravians who spent every night in worship during Holy Week, but Easter is not supposed to be the ending climax of a divine drama. It is the beginning of a new life. We do not proclaim our Easter faith just with our songs on Sunday; we proclaim it with our lives every day. Easter is a yearly affirmation of the extraordinary notion that the future does not have to be determined by the injustice of the past. Easter calls us to live without fear of death or fear of failure. Rather than retreating to the comfort of our homes and jobs, Easter calls us to be engaged in the world around us.

There are several things I want to make you aware of in the life of the church and the community. Beginning today, worship at Home Church will be in the Fellowship Hall until the sanctuary renovation is complete. We are putting in a new heating and air conditioning system and refurbishing the pews and floors in the sanctuary. Many Home Church members are participating in special summer projects as part of our “Finding God in the Other Place” program. Pastor Harris will begin his sabbatical on May 1, and will be away for five months. Most of the Sunday School classes have been cancelled for the summer, but the Adult Bible Class will continue to meet. Next Friday and Saturday there will be a major meeting of the New Baptist Covenant at Wake Forest University featuring President Jimmy Carter and Maya Angelou. It is free and open to the public. Details are available on the WFU website. And the biggest news item is that my daughter Sarah now has her drivers license. She’ll be driving me to Raleigh after today’s lesson. We’re planning to join a group from Raleigh Moravian on mission trip to Costa Rica this summer.

Review:                        We are studying the book of Galatians this spring, and we left off before Easter with Paul telling the Galatians about a time that he publicly opposed the apostle Peter in Antioch. Peter had endorsed Paul’s mission to the Gentiles and had even decided that most of the dietary laws of Judaism were no longer valid, but he wavered in his commitment to these principles. When followers of the apostle James came to Antioch, Peter decided to eat with them rather than eat with the Gentiles in the church. Paul recognized that this simple act was a rejection of the gospel itself, and he confronted Peter. It was a dramatic and defining moment in the early church, but it would have been forgotten by history if Paul had not included it in his letter to the Galatians. He mentions it because he believes that the Galatians are in danger of going back to a pre-Easter understanding of God. We’ll pick up the story at verse 14 of chapter 2.

Read: 2:14 to end.

Quotation Marks:                        For centuries, scholars have disagreed over where to put the quotation marks in Paul’s account of his confrontation with Peter. Ancient Greek did not have quotation marks, and it is not clear where Paul is talking to Peter and where he is talking to the Galatians. Some think this entire section was part of his speech to Peter in Antioch, but others think the quotation ended with verse 14. Naturally, there are many who put the ending quotation marks in the middle of the passage. I suspect that Paul would be surprised by the notion of quotation marks at all. He was not trying to record precisely what he said to Peter and distinguish that from what he was saying to the Galatians. He was remembering what he had said to the chief of the apostles as a way to communicate something vital to the Galatians. He is speaking to them throughout this passage, and confronting them the same way he confronted Peter.

It often shocks people to hear Paul call Gentiles “sinners” here. In fact, most English translations of this book put sinners in quotation marks to make it an ironic statement, but it is not clear that Paul was speaking ironically. He was talking from the perspective in which he grew up. Those who observed God’s law given to Moses were the righteous; those who did not were sinners. Gentiles, by definition were sinners because they stood outside of the law. It is quite likely that in Paul’s household growing up, the word “Gentile” was used as an insult. You may remember how David called Goliath “an uncircumcised dog.” Some of you may have grown up in households where certain racial terms were used as insults. Here in Galatians, Paul is recalling a time when he and Peter viewed Gentiles as sinners by definition.

Paul reminds Peter (and the people in Galatia) that he was born a Jew, and he addresses the ethnic question of whether there is a chosen race uniquely loved by God. Paul uses a phrase that is similar those we still use. People talk about being a “born Moravian” or a “cradle Episcopalian” to distinguish themselves from those who joined the church voluntarily. Typically such phrases indicate a sense of ownership that others do not share. Those who were born in the household of faith, so to speak, cannot fully understand some things. Indeed, there are songs and rituals we learn as children, such as jumping slightly on the last verse of “Jesus Makes My Heart Rejoice.” This gives a sense of shared ethos that newcomers might have difficulty with. The problem is when we assume that a certain upbringing or identity means that we are righteous and others are not.

Paul shares many of the assumptions of Peter, but he also recognizes that Christ has radically transformed the human relationship to God. He and Peter are not Gentile sinners, he says, but neither are they Jews in the way that they once were. Paul tells Peter that they both know that they have been justified to God through Christ, not through their observance of the law. Even though they are descendents of Abraham and sons of the covenant, it is not the covenant that has justified them before God. It is Christ, and this new reality must be lived out in the church.

Not Justified by the Law:                        This is the radical insight that Paul had after his mystical encounter with the risen Christ. It is a new world for Paul. Notice that he never says that the law of Moses is bad or wrong, but he does say that it is inadequate. Even if a person could observe the whole law, it would fail to justify a person to God. This was the idea that inspired Luther to leave the monastery, burn the law book of the Catholic Church, defy the pope, and take a stand 1500 years after Paul. These verses are the Magna Carta of Christian freedom, and they continue to speak to the church of the 21st century.  I hope you will ponder how these words apply in your life and in your church.

Unfortunately, Paul’s statements have often been used to justify anti-Semitism. Many preachers have claimed that Paul is rejecting Judaism here and asserting that Christianity is the only true religion. They preach that Jews have been rejected because of the law. What this does is turn Paul’s statement completely on its head. Many Christians claim to be righteous and that Jews are “sinners.” In the Middle Ages, Christian governments instituted laws that segregated Jews and Christians, requiring Jews to wear a yellow star. Jews in Spain were forced to convert to Christianity or leave the country in 1492. In the 1700s Zinzendorf publicly defended Jews from the common accusation that they were cursed by God and untrustworthy. I am sure that Paul would have been horrified to learn that his words in Galatians have been used to justify deadly persecution. It is important for us to recognize that Paul was not attacking Jews; he was expanding people’s understanding of God.

Justified                        Paul states emphatically that we are made right with God through Christ and not through any law. There have been lots of sermons and books written about Paul’s psychology and his failure to justify himself before God through observance of the law, but Paul never says that he found the law of Moses to be burdensome. In Galatians, he tells that the problem was that his zeal for the law had led him to persecute those who followed Jesus. He learned that even a good law can lead to injustice and violence.

Paul says that we are “justified by faith,” and this became one of the key slogans of the Reformation. Today, though, we use the word justification in a negative sense. You give a justification for something you’ve done, often something you shouldn’t have done. We ask people to justify their actions. That is not what Paul is talking about. Paul is talking about how we made right with God. Paul is talking about how we come into right relationship with God and the world. Paul reminded Peter and the Galatians that they were made right with God through the faithfulness of Jesus. In other words, our righteousness depends on God’s action for us.

Moravian Theology:            The old Moravians taught that a few things are essential in Christianity. First is that there is a creator. The second is that there is a redeemer or savior. And the third is that there is a spirit who blesses us and makes us holy. Creation, redemption, and sanctification are all the work of God, according to Luke of Prague. God creates, God redeems, and God blesses. Humans do not create themselves, save themselves, or make themselves holy. What is essential for humans to do is to respond to God’s work in faith, love, and hope. God no longer requires animal sacrifices or temple observances. The dietary rules and purity laws no longer apply to those who were made right with God through Christ. Incidentally, this includes the laws in Leviticus that are the source of controversy in our day. The old Moravians believed that Christ had set them free from the laws of fear and death.

This need not mean that they rejected the need for Christians to live morally or do good deeds. Unlike Martin Luther, they taught that faith must be completed in love. To be justified by faith in Christ means that we seek to live as Christ instructed and to be filled with the love of Christ. We misinterpret Paul here if we think he is condemning morality or works of love. What he is trying to do is to keep the Galatians focused on what is essential rather than binding themselves to an old covenant or creating new burdens. The problem is that those who believe they are justified by the law often use the law to create divisions and barriers.

Prophetic:                        Paul is writing in the tradition of Hebrew prophets, like Micah and Amos, who rejected the notion that observance of religious rituals absolves someone from the requirements of justice and righteousness. A few years ago we were observing our anniversary here at Home Church, but the assigned lesson for the day was Amos 5:21-24 which begins with God saying “I hate, I despise your feasts and take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” That’s not what you want to hear for an anniversary communion, and I’m afraid I read it with too much vigor, which scared people. The point Amos was trying to make was that God is far more interested in justice and righteousness than in religious festivals and sacrifices. That is a message we should listen to whenever we are in church.

Jesus repeatedly made the point that God requires justice and mercy, not strict adherence to purity laws. Jesus was not rejecting Judaism; he was teaching us to focus on what is essential rather fixating on outward expressions of rectitude. Paul was drawing on this prophetic tradition in his letter to the Galatians. It is clear from the corpus of his writings that he believed that Christians are obligated to be just, moral, and merciful. That was not in dispute. What he objected to was the tendency of people to set up legalistic religious rules and impose them on others. Such rules are used primarily to divide or oppress people. Paul objected to what sociologists call religiosity or what we might call the masks of piety.

Ultimately, Paul says, this type of legalistic religiosity would make the death of Jesus meaningless. If Gentiles can be justified to God through the Jewish law, then they should just become Jews and forget about Christ. Nothing would have been changed in the world if the old covenant could fulfill the promise given to Abraham that all nations will be blessed through him.

Living in Christ:                        Paul makes a very bold claim in this chapter. He says that he has been crucified with Christ. It is hard for us today to appreciate the shocking nature of that claim. We have grown so accustomed to the image of Christ hanging on the cross that we forget that crucifixion was a horrifying punishment intended to humiliate the victim. The crucifixion of Jesus was one of the most shocking aspects of the Christian story, but Paul identifies with the crucified Christ. He died to his old life of religious fanaticism and zealotry. Paul endured shame and rejection from his own people, just as Jesus. He put to death the need to exalt himself by abusing others. Paul found his freedom, and he wants to preserve freedom for others.

Paul then makes the even bolder claim that Christ now lives in him. This line in Galatians is so central to Moravian theology that we include it in our baptism liturgy. When we name persons as a beloved children child of God we remind them and ourselves that we should not live according to our distorted egos or the expectations of our society. Christ should live in us and the life that we live on this earth should be lived by faith in the Son of God. This is our true identity and our one true obligation. We do not have to meet anyone’s expectations other than those of our true Lord and Bridegroom. We are not justified by our jobs or where we live or who we know or what we wear. We are not justified by our degrees or our incomes or our style or what we eat or what we drive. We are justified by faith in Christ.

We cannot devise a list of rules and laws that will mark as righteous and good; we have to be transformed from the inside of out. We have to let Christ remake us in his image, and in doing so we will find our true destiny. If we are crucified with Christ, if we nail to the cross all of the oppressive weight of the obligations that we let others place on us and all of the shame and guilt we place on ourselves, we can be free. If we are crucified with Christ, we can let go of our selfish ambition, our need for affirmation, our desire for attention, and our craving for security. We can die to all of the masks and false images of ourselves that others create for us, and we can live as free servants of Christ. We can know the joy of being a beloved child of God.  Paul is inviting you to let the spirit of Christ dwell within you.

A New Society:            Think of the thousands of ways we build barriers between people and try to justify our sinful divisions. Many of you remember what it was like to go shopping here in Winston-Salem and see separate water fountains. Many of you remember what it was like to have separate neighborhoods for different ethnic groups. Violations of the social rules that separated rich and poor were met with stern rebukes.

Paul tells us that Christ has died so that we can be united in faith, love, and hope. There are so many rules and restrictions we devise that keep us from living into the fullness of God’s love, but Paul says that Christ abolished the laws of fear and shame. We are not justified by the purity of our lives, by our asceticism, by our observation of fast days, by our public prayers or private fears, by our lovefeasts or hymns, by our condemnation of others or our commendation of ourselves. We are justified by faith in Christ whose death and resurrection is the fulcrum by which we can move the world toward justice and peace. This is the heart of the gospel.

We are out of time, but we will continue to examine Paul’s letter to the Galatians next week. 

Peter and Paul

Galatians 2:1-14: Paul Rebukes Peter, Mary not present

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast April 5, 2009

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction:                       Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on this beautiful Palm Sunday. I hope it was a good week for you and those you love. Watching the people in North Dakota laboring for their neighbors has been inspiring. I am happy to report that the Home Church Art Show was a huge success. Thousands of dollars were raised for Sunnyside Ministry. Today begins Holy Week, and you are all invited to services each night at 7:00 in the sanctuary. Next Sunday morning at 6:30 we’ll have our sunrise service in which we remember our brothers and sisters who have gone before us and profess our faith in God’s grace. There is so much senseless violence and destruction in our world, it is easy to despair, but we can gather to proclaim the Good news and lift our eyes to a brighter future.

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for my family. I want to thank all of the people who came to the funeral, sent notes, and gave words of encouragement after the death of my nephew, Erik. I want to thank Dr. Moore for doing the lesson last week on such short notice. My whole family would like to give a word of thanks to Rev. David Merritt, the pastor of Hope Church for helping us endure an ordeal we never thought we would face. When I was a young minister, I assisted in an Episcopalian funeral. At the end of the service, the priest leaned over and whispered, “liturgy works.” It is true. There is something powerful about having rituals already prepared for those times when grief overthrows your mind. There must have been 70 people playing in the band for Erik, and the music brought us some comfort. One of my students recently presented his Senior Project on the theme of God and humanity suffering. He used 20th century German theologians and American pop music to discuss the role that music plays in helping us face suffering, despair, and death. Shortly before 3 p.m. this Friday in the sanctuary at Home Church we will read those Jesus words of dereliction: Eloi, eloi, lama sabbathani and wait until Sunday for the answering reply: The Lord is Risen!

Peter and Paul:        Today we are continuing our study of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. I’ll be reading from the first part of chapter 2, which includes one of the few times in the New Testament that we see conflict between the apostles. The argument between Paul and Peter presented in this chapter has disturbed Christian theologians for centuries. Sts. Jerome and Augustine disagreed strongly over how to interpret this conflict with one of them arguing that Peter and Paul were play-acting rather than really fighting and the other asserting that this was a genuine disagreement. This was just one of many things that the two saints fought about. Medieval theologians spent a great deal of intellectual energy trying to prove that Jerome and Augustine were play-acting, and that Peter and Paul were play-acting. You’d think that the church was a dramatics society.

I think we are all disturbed when our authorities, our fathers and mothers, our saints, and teachers are revealed to be imperfect humans. We want them to be perfect, but the fact is that even apostles and saints sometimes make bad decisions. Rather than being disturbed by this, we can take comfort from these ancient disagreements as we struggle to make sense of the gospel in our time. We, imperfect humans, will be the authorities and saints for those who come after us. We have to do the best we can with the information we have, but we will make mistakes. Hopefully we will learn from them.

Read 2:1-14

Jerusalem Council?             Paul must have been a Moravian at heart because he addresses a doctrinal controversy by telling a story. He tells the Galatians about going to Jerusalem to meet with the pillars of the early church: Peter, James, and John. These were the chief among the apostles and had known Jesus, but Paul tells us that he was not awed by their authority but he wanted to come to an agreement with them. By the time he met with them, he had been preaching about the resurrection of Jesus for fourteen years, and his work among the Gentiles was generating controversy. Paul took along two co-workers, one of whom (Barnabas) was a Jew who traced his ancestry back to Levi. The other (Titus) was a Gentile who had been baptized in Jesus.

Scholars debate whether this meeting Paul is talking about is the famous “Jerusalem Council” described in Acts 15 or perhaps an earlier meeting discussed in Acts 11. Paul’s description of the meeting sounds similar to the Jerusalem Council, which was called specifically to address concerns over Paul’s evangelism. But there are some key differences in the two accounts. The meeting in Acts 15 sounds like a church council, but Paul says he met in private with Peter, James, and John. It is possible that he did meet privately with them and reached an agreement that was then discussed with others in the Jerusalem Church. That still happens, by the way. A committee has been meeting privately to discuss ways to improve our church’s administrative structure. They have agreed on a plan, which we will then discuss at synod. Fourteen years later, there may be different versions about what happened.

There is another difference between Paul’s account of the meeting in Jerusalem and that described in Acts. The Acts account says that the Gentiles agreed to some dietary restrictions, namely that they would not eat blood or meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Paul doesn’t say anything about such an agreement. I think that is because that wasn’t central to his argument. He wanted the Galatians to know that the pillars of the church approved of what he was preaching in Galatia and that they recognized his work as a fruit of the Holy Spirit. The pillars of the church accepted Titus as a brother in Christ even though he was not circumcised. 

Circumcision                        It is very hard for modern Christians to get excited about the topic of circumcision, especially on Palm Sunday. Paul won this argument in the early church and it did not become an issue for Christians again until the 20th century when American physicians decided that circumcision would improve the health of male babies. There continues to be a huge medical debate about this, which you can read on the Internet if you are interested. I’ve got nothing to say about that. The modern debate about possible hygienic benefits or psychological damage of circumcision have nothing to do with the controversy Paul is talking about.

Paul is specifically addressing circumcision as a feature of Judaism, but circumcision has been practiced by many other peoples. Anthropologists look at circumcision as a form of tribal marking, much like tattooing. For the most part circumcision is a religious ritual that marks a boy or man as a member of a tribe. In many tribes, it is a puberty rite, but in others it is associated with marriage. What we need to understand when reading Galatians is that the Greeks and Romans viewed circumcision as a barbaric practice. If you look at classical sculptures, you’ll notice that the classical male ideal meant that the body was whole and unscarred. Circumcision was a Jewish practice that was unacceptable to most Gentiles, even those who were attracted to Judaism. Gentiles who worshiped the one God and tried to live according to his teaching, but who were not circumcised were called often called “God-fearers.” Titus had probably been such a God-fearer before he became a Christian.

Throughout the Old Testament, circumcision was seen as a sign of the covenant, a way to identify who belonged to God and who did not. According to Genesis, God instructed Abraham to circumcise all of the men in his household, especially his sons Ishmael and Isaac, as a way to seal the covenant God was making with Abraham and his descendents. Circumcision was a sign that a boy was in the covenant with God; that he was part of the Chosen People; and that he would be raised according to the Torah. It was a mark that could not be removed (except through rather painful surgery – ouch) and it would remind him that he belonged to the Lord God. All of his actions should reflect a right relationship with God. By the time of Paul, circumcision was a powerful symbol of Jewishness and obedience to the Law of God.

Paul knew all of this. As a Pharisee, he would have known stories of Jews who had been martyred because of their obedience to the Torah, especially the rite of circumcision. Remember, Paul tells us that he had been zealous for the law. Before his encounter with the resurrected Christ, I am sure that Paul would have insisted that circumcision was essential to pleasing God. Two decades after his conversion, Paul still identified circumcision as the sign and seal of the old covenant. Those who chose to be circumcised were obliged to observe the law, but Paul will argue that Christians are living under a new covenant.

Titus               The big question that was disrupting the unity of the church in Paul’s day was whether Gentiles who wanted to be in the church of Christ should be circumcised. Before you say, “no,” think for a minute about the arguments Paul’s opponents probably made. Keep in mind that all of the first Christians were Jewish and they believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. Jesus’ heavenly Father was the Lord God who had made a covenant with Abraham. Jesus’ teachings were grounded in the Jewish Scriptures. Doesn’t it make sense that the followers of Jesus should be Jews? Shouldn’t they take on the sign of the covenant decreed by God?

Paul begins his argument by telling the Galatians that this was not a new debate; it went back to the origins of the Gentile mission. Paul tells the Galatians about his friend and co-worker, Titus, who went with him to the Jerusalem Council. We don’t know a lot about Titus or any of Paul’s co-workers, but it is important to recognize that Paul had friends and companions. It is easy to forget that he did not create the early church on his own; it was a collaborative effort, and Paul readily gives credit to those who worked with him. Paul doesn’t tell us why he took Titus and Barnabas to Jerusalem, but it seems likely that it was because one was Jewish and the other Gentile. They went to discuss issues related to the presence of Gentiles in the church.

Titus was not Jewish. He was a Gentile who was a pagan before he became a Christian. Titus had to learn a whole new perspective on the world and his role in the world, and he was so enthusiastic about his way of life that he worked to convert others to the “Way.” We can assume that Titus was with Paul in Antioch, which was one of the most important centers of Christianity for the first six centuries of the church. It was in Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians,” and so it is likely that Titus was one of the first Gentiles to be called a Christian.

False Brethren:        Paul reports that there were “false brethren” in Jerusalem who were spreading stories about the Christians in Antioch. The term he uses indicates that these were members of the church who were not true to the brotherhood. They pretended to love their brothers and sisters when they were really looking for ways to hurt them. Paul accuses the false brethren of “spying” on them, which probably means exactly what it sounds like it meant.

There is something pathetic about religious zealots being so consumed by fear of impurity that they would spy on someone in the baths, but similar things still happen in churches. Behind the masks of piety and propriety, people spy on their brothers and sisters hoping to find evidence of sin or heresy. Sometimes they find what they are looking for, but more often they simply sow discord and suspicion where love and joy should prevail.

In this case, the spies learned the truth. Titus was not circumcised. Rather than bend to their will or hide the truth, Paul took Titus with him to discuss the Gentile mission with Peter, John, and James. Paul says that Titus was welcomed by the pillars of the church. For Paul, this was a decisive moment in the history of the church, and he reminds the Galatians that he did not back down on this critical issue. There are times when compromise is necessary, but there are also times when it is wrong. The pillars of the church agreed that Paul should continue to preach the gospel to Gentiles without forcing them to be Jewish.

Eating in Antioch                After Paul reminds the Galatians that the Gentile mission had been approved by those who were considered pillars of the church, he tells them about a particularly painful incident involving Peter. The Christians in Antioch ate together even though some were Jews and some were Gentiles. Table fellowship was one of the most important features of the early church, as Moravians well know. These meals were called the Agape, or love feast, and they were visible signs of the invisible grace of Christian love and unity. Rich and poor, male and female, slave and free ate together, breaking down the barriers that marred the secular world.

You may know that Judaism has special dietary rules, which grew much more elaborate over the years. We don’t know for sure what the rules were in Paul’s day, but there is evidence that particularly pious Jews believed that it was wrong to eat at the same table with Gentiles since they could not be sure how the food was prepared. The NT Agape meals appear to have been like our modern pot luck where everyone brings something to share, thus it would have been hard to keep kosher while breaking bread with Gentiles.

The Book of Acts says that Peter had a dream that showed him that all foods are clean, and so Peter began to eat with Gentiles. Paul agrees that Peter ate with the Gentile Christians in Antioch, but he changed his attitude when certain people arrived from Jerusalem and criticized him for not observing kosher laws. We do not know if James had sent them for this purpose. It is possible that they had simply never seen Jews and Gentiles eating together and were shocked at such behavior. In the 1950s some American evangelicals were sometimes shocked to see C. S. Lewis smoking and drinking wine. Today some Christians are shocked to hear rock music in worship. Paul tells us that nearly 2000 years ago these folks from Jerusalem were offended at what was going on in Antioch and refused to eat with Gentiles.

Peter and Paul:        It is possible that Peter and Barnabas were conflicted. Should they eat with the folks from Jerusalem or should they eat with the rest of the Antioch church? Perhaps Peter and Barnabas thought that hospitality required them to eat separately with the newcomers, but Paul saw this as an offense to the gospel itself. He tells us that he opposed Peter to his face and rebuked him for his behavior. He accused Peter of denying the gospel by his actions.

Just think about the significance of Paul’s actions here. Peter was one of the three most important disciples. According to one of the gospels, he was the head of the church, but Paul calls him a hypocrite. We should not dismiss this merely as an example of Paul’s arrogance and lack of self-control. He makes it clear that he only did this because something important was at stake. This scene is not reported in the Book of Acts, and the only reason we know it happened is because Paul uses it in this letter to the Galatians to illustrate his point that even apostles are not above criticism. Peter was a sinner prone to mistakes, just like any believer. Paul had the authority to rebuke him, not because of his high status in the church, but because the gospel was at stake.

Paul tells the Galatians about this painful incident because he believes that they were in danger of rejecting the gospel by their actions. When we return after Easter, we’ll look at Paul’s argument that Peter was being a hypocrite in his approach to the law.