Farewell: Galatians 6:11-18
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast June 14, 2009
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. We started class early this morning with a party, so if you hear more laughter than usual it may be because the class is filled with sugar cake and coffee. I want to publicly thank the people responsible. In case you haven’t heard, today is my last broadcast as the teacher of this class. I have been doing this for nearly four years, averaging about 45 lessons a year. All of them are now posted on-line at www.theflamingheretic.wordpress.com. I will leave them up for several months, but I doubt there will be anything new to add to the site. During the past four years, we have examined intently several important books of the Bible: Genesis, the Gospel of John, Ruth, I Samuel, and now Galatians.
I hope you have seen how modern and ancient biblical scholarship helps us understand the meaning of these texts more clearly, and that you have discovered that it is good to think about the Bible. The Bible should be a great resource for people of faith, but it is often treated as something scary and threatening. I’m afraid that it has become one of those “forgotten books of ancient lore” rather than a means of grace. As long as we use the Bible as a weapon against brothers and sisters in the church, we never be able to use it as a balm to heal wounds or as a guide toward building a just society.
Last Lecture: I am finding it hard to say good-bye, but it is not just me. I had written this entire lesson on Tuesday and then on Wednesday night my laptop computer went to sleep and never woke up. Apparently someone thought I should write a different lesson and think longer about my good-bye address. There is a program in American colleges and universities called the “Last Lecture Series.” Professors are asked to prepare a lecture as if it will be the last lecture they will ever give. What is it you want students to know above all else? It’s a tough assignment. Many professors find they have far too much to say. Others are shocked to discover how little they really have to say.
One of my political science professors at Carolina had a tradition of ending his class with a last lecture that dealt with profound themes rather than the syllabus. He told us about his days in the Navy, especially about a young Jewish sailor who tried to keep kosher and observe his religion. He was mocked and humiliated by the other sailors. The cooks went out of their way to violate his dietary laws. He was called all of the names that centuries of human hatred have devised to dehumanize and demoralize those who are different. My professor then told the class what it was like to walk into a room and find this young Jew hanging by the neck. He took his own life rather than face the constant hatred and alienation on the ship. My professor wanted us, a group of bright young men and women to know that words do kill and that what is in your heart is every bit as important as what you stuff into your head. My summer project is preparing the 13th edition of the Handbook of Denominations in the United States, and I am saddened by the fact that I have to discuss violence in churches, mosques, and synagogues as part of the reality of modern religion. Words and attitudes kill.
Farewell: In an hour or so in worship, Bill Leonard will announce that I will start working full-time on the staff of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University. I will also be an adjunct professor teaching whatever courses are needed that year. I’m looking forward to working for Wake Forest, but it will be odd to now longer work for the Moravian Church. Except for a couple of internships in seminary, I have served the Moravian Church my entire adult life. I started as chaplain of Moravian College, began the office of admissions at Moravian Seminary, pastured in Philadelphia, and served for eight years as chaplain and assistant professor of religion at Salem Academy and College. Seven years ago the Joint Boards of Home Church called me here to be Theologian in Residence. It is an unusual position in the Moravian Church, and I am grateful to Pastor Harris for his vision in creating it. He believed that it was important for church members to benefit from modern scholarship and theological reflection.
This church has blessed me in countless ways, tangible and intangible. Julie and I joined here shortly after we moved to Winston-Salem in 1994. I remember the first service we attended was an Aug. 13 lovefeast that was so crowded we had to squeeze into one of the front pews. I was amazed as how hot the coffee was. Before joining the staff Julie and I both volunteered in Sunday School and youth fellowship. I even served on the Board as a member rather than a pastor, and I have loved the many opportunities I have had to serve communion here. The original plan was for me to serve as Theo in Residence for two years, but the church found ways to stretch out to seven.
They have been very happy years for me. Thanks to your generosity I was able to complete work on a book about Moravian theology in the 18th century and write a book on the theology of the ancient Unity. I also was able to write several articles and various types of educational materials, such as a study guide for the Ground of the Unity. I edited the Hinge and was a resource person for the province. I even served as a tour guide on a couple of adventures through the Moravian heartland. And, of course, I became the teacher for this class, which is the most significant outreach ministry of Home Church. It saddens me to give all that up.
A group of dedicated people worked very hard to try to establish a permanent position shared between the Divinity School and Home Church, but the sea was so wide and our boat was so small. We fell short of our goal, but I am deeply grateful to the three dozen individuals who generously contributed to the Comenius Scholar program that provided my income for the past three years, especially to Gene and Carol Ann Adcock who chaired the fund-raising effort. I am also grateful to the work of Kathy Barnes who wrote the checks, balanced the books, and kept me supplied with hot coffee. I am going to miss her, Jane, Bonnie, and Carol who keep our offices running..
I have a special reason to love Home Church. The week I began my duties here, doctors discovered that I had a severely defective aortic valve. I thought I was depressed about Salem College, but I was simply not getting enough blood to my brain. Eight days after starting as Theologian in Residence I was lying at Baptist Hospital having my chest cut open. As many of you know, it takes a while to recover from heart surgery, and I am grateful that I was given time to heal. I did not waste my time at home. I was editing a book on Moravian history the night before my surgery, and I finished editing it while recuperating. The Women’s Fellowship was very generous in bringing us food, especially chicken pies. I want you to know that the first place I went after my surgery, other than a doctor’s office, was worship here at Home Church. I barely made it, but I wanted to be here. This is a remarkable congregation, and I think any pastor would feel blessed to have the privilege of serving here.
It would be much harder to leave if I was not going to another remarkable community of faith at Wake Forest University. I am grateful that the Divinity School has a position for me and I look forward to devoting myself to the tasks that lie ahead. It is a wonderful Divinity School and a great asset to this community. Personally, I think it has become an even better place now that the students learn something about the Moravians! We’ve had a couple of converts already.
I know that you did not tune in this morning to hear me talk about myself, and I apologize for taking so much time this morning to say what is in my heart. I was afraid that I would cry if I tried to say these things in worship, plus I want the whole city to know what a special congregation this is. I hope that you will continue listening to this broadcast. The church has a variety of speakers lined up for the summer.
Paul’s Farewell: It is appropriate that our lesson today comes from the end of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. As far as we know, these are the last words that Paul wrote to his brothers and sisters in Galatians. He probably knew that this was his farewell or “last lecture,” and he took the opportunity to speak very personally to the Galatians. He even wrote the final instructions with his own hand instead of relying on a secretary. Literacy was a rare gift in the ancient world, and most people had to employ professional scribes to write letters and contracts. It was kind of like the days when only secretaries could type and executives had to dictate to them. The secretary would have been expected to polish up the grammar and spelling, so any errors in the Greek manuscript are the fault of Paul’s amanuensis.
There is another reason why people like Paul dictated instead of writing. The idea of composing while writing is fairly recent. Words were meant to be spoken out loud, not read silently. Orators were accustomed to thinking while talking, just the opposite of our practice today. One of the reasons for the lively and contradictory style of Paul’s letters is that he was probably thinking out loud while dictating. It was not unusual for an author to add a conclusion to a letter in his own hand to verify that he was really the author and had approved what had been written. It was like a signature or seal. Paul may have done this with all of his letters, but he highlights it in the letter to the Galatians. He draws attention to the fact that he is writing in a very large hand so that the Galatians will not doubt that it was Paul who wrote this.
For centuries there has been speculation about this statement that Paul is writing in large letters. Folks have argued that this is evidence that Paul continued to suffer from poor eyesight after his blinding vision on the road to Damascus. Others have thought he offer health problems that would make it difficult to write. I think Paul was like John Hancock signing the declaration in large enough letters for King George to read it without is glasses. Paul wants to make sure everyone knows that he is serious about what he has written. This is his last will and testament for the Galatian Church. He uses the remaining parchment to summarize the argument of his letter.
Read: Galatians 6:11-18
Avoiding Persecution: Paul makes the surprising claim that his opponents are encouraging circumcision as a way to avoid the kind of persecution Paul has endured. Circumcision would not keep the Romans from persecuting Christians since Greeks and Romans found the practice offensive. It seems likely that the ones who were persecuting uncircumcised Christians were zealous Jews like Paul had been. It is quite likely that synagogue officials would have been most hostile to Jewish Christians who mingled with the uncircumcised. Those who wanted to avoid trouble in the synagogue and in their neighbors might have encouraged Gentiles in the church to have a little surgical procedure. But in Paul’s mind, it was cowardly to adopt circumcision simply to please others, especially since this was creating sinful divisions and barriers in the church.
Boasting: Paul accuses his rivals of boasting about the number of people they convinced to get circumcised. He makes them sound like David bringing back Philistine foreskins to King Saul. Although we no longer brag about numbers of circumcisions, we do like to brag about our ability to win people to our side. In the 1980s and 90s the Southern Baptist Convention regularly bragged about the number of baptisms it had each year. This was evidence that their theology and practice was correct. They didn’t have as much to say when more than two million members left that denomination after it adopted a new statement of faith at the turn of the century.
Many churches claim to be “the fastest growing church.” Such claims are impossible to verify, and statistics can be deceiving. A church that grows from a dozen members to a hundred and fifty in a year would have a 1000% growth rate, which would make it the fastest growing church. It is interesting that church want to brag about growth at all. They do it to justify the theology and practice of the church, but Paul tells us that it is nothing more than boasting. It is no different from what his rivals were doing.
Christ: Paul tells the Galatians that the only thing a preacher should boast about is the cross of Christ. Redemption in Christ is one of the six essentials in Moravian theology. We did not create ourselves and we did not save ourselves and we do not make ourselves holy. That is the work of God, and we should rejoice and be glad in it. Rather than creating controversies over rites and observances, Paul says, pastors should preach Christ and let the people respond in faith, love, and hope. It is all so simple, but it is perhaps too simple for many of us.
New Creation: It comes as a bit of a surprise when Paul tells the Galatians that circumcision doesn’t really matter after all. For several chapters he has been making an impassioned plea begging them not to submit to persecution, and now he says it doesn’t matter. Such an outward ritual will not change your soul or make you more pleasing to God. What does matter is that you become a new creature through Christ. This is Paul’s last lecture: the whole point of our religion is the transformation of human beings into new creatures.
In his sermon on the New Creation, theologian Paul Tillich argued that everything in the life of the church must have this as its goal: preaching, sacraments, music, education, and fellowship must focus on the primary purpose of the church. That mission is to turn selfish, frightened, nasty, brutish, angry, bitter, resentful, greedy, lecherous creatures into new creations, into genuinely human beings, into people of faith. Paul wrote passionately to the Galatians because he feared they were ceasing to be a church by losing sight of what is most important. When denominations and congregations think that they exist to employ professional staff or to maintain a building or provide beautiful music or make any secondary thing primary, they cease to be churches.
Conclusion: A church is where the good new of Jesus Christ is proclaimed in such a way that people become a new creation. It is a place where the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is present and where strangers become brothers and sisters. A church is where everyone can be a dearly beloved child of God. Paul’s final word is my final word, too. “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.”