May 29, 2016
“The Gospel Truth”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
1 Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2 and all the members of God’s family who are with me,
To the churches of Galatia: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,4 who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.
8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! 9 As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
10 Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ. 11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
You’ve probably had those God-touched moments in life where someone says the thing you need to hear, right when you need it the most. Many times you have done that for me.
Father Richard Rohr has been a spiritual mentor to me this week, not in person, but in his written reflections, saying the things that I needed to hear. His meditations this week (I get these by email) have been about the initiation rites of young men in cultures all around the world.
And here are the lessons those initiation rites instill in individuals:
- Life is hard
- You are not that important
- Your life is not about you
- You are not in control
- You are going to die
I had been reflecting on how hard life can be.
We have relationships we can’t fix, we feel like everyone else has their life all figured out, we feel alone, we have to make devastatingly hard decisions about the healthcare of our parents or our spouses, we worry endlessly about our children and their future, we are unhappy and unsatisfied with our chosen careers but we see no way out, financial pressures are weighing us down, we are dealing with chronic pain or illness, we are grieving and it is a bumpy, lonely road. We have mental illness or addictions which will not let us go.
We have ways of dealing with stress which only make us sicker.
Life can be hard.
And we are aware that for billions of people around the world, life is far harder – those who know violence daily, which drives them from their homelands seeking refuge, who know daily hunger, those who live in slavery, those who fear daily that what little they have will be taken away from them.
And yet, there is this perception, maybe we even call it an alternative gospel, that if we are faithful people, life shouldn’t be this hard – that if God is good and loving, that God should step in and spare us this pain – if we live our lives in a holy and God-fearing way, God should protect our loved ones, and give us blessings in our finances or in our health.
God, our savior, should save us from this suffering.
Sometimes we even hear another gospel which tells us that suffering is punishment from God, or at least what we deserve for what we have done; we should take suffering as a sign that we have strayed from God’s will for our lives.
If only we have enough faith, if only we are good enough and do the right things, we can avoid suffering altogether.
And there is yet another gospel which says that the point of faith in God and the goal of life is to just be happy.
In the landmark National Study of Youth and Religion, the researchers found that what was central to most teenagers interviewed, is not repentance from sin, salvation, holy living or God’s grace but rather “feeling good, happy, secure, at peace.”
And the study also found that in their faith, our teenagers are simply reflecting us, the adults in their lives.
Today in the Revised Common Lectionary we are beginning a several week journey through Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia. Dating this letter and locating the churches Paul was writing to is difficult.
The Roman province of Galatia was large and there is debate about whether Paul’s missionary journey was to the north or south of the province, and the timing is challenging because of the events Paul mentions in this letter and how they line up with Luke’s history in the book of Acts.
But, scholars estimate it was written roughly twenty to twenty five years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
All that is to say, this letter was written to a number of house churches that Paul had lovingly tended in the very early days of the church.
Christianity is brand new, churches are brand new, and Paul is moving from region to region sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ to people outside the Jewish faith (which is itself, a remarkable new thing), and the whole identity of the new church was completely up for grabs: were these new gentile Christians now somehow these new offshoots of the tree of Judaism?
Were they a new and separate community and how did they relate to Jewish converts?
Were they bound to accept Jewish practices, follow Jewish laws, observe Jewish holy days and circumcise their males?
(These are transition issues that I do not envy!)
In short, what did these new Christians have to do to be included, to be loved by God, to be assured of salvation?
Paul had told them that there was nothing they needed to do to earn salvation; nothing they needed to do to win grace. Paul had told then that what God had done in Jesus Christ had accomplished everything, and there was no going back.
Everything had changed, all the ruled had changed.
The Resurrection has ushered in an entirely new way of being faithful.
And then Paul leaves to continue his work elsewhere.
And then he hears that into the community have come missionaries teaching something else, telling these new non-Jewish Christians that they really needed to do more Jewish stuff – it was what Jesus would have wanted.
So, that is probably not what they said, and we don’t know exactly.
We only have this letter and so we read between the lines to try to figure out what Paul is so angry about.
But it looks like these new missionaries taught that men had to circumcised in order to belong to God, Jewish feast days and Sabbaths needed to be kept and those who kept them would find life, and it was essential to follow the laws of Moses.
Scholars make a big deal out of the fact that this letter has no opening thanksgiving as so many of Paul’s letter. They suggest that this means Paul wrote this letter hurriedly and with great passion, and he skipped over the introductory material of the letter and got right to the heart of the crisis.
You can hear that as you read it: “To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel”.
In the first few lines of this letter you can hear him pleading with these new believers to go back to what he taught them – which he makes clear is from God, through Jesus. This is the real stuff. Come back!
And yet grace with no strings attached can be very difficult to wrap our minds around – sometimes it just feels better to believe we can earn it through our hard work and goodness and self-righteousness.
Paul says to them, you are already free – don’t go back to that old way; you are no longer a slave, but a child of God.
Already the Galatians are enough, we are enough, because Jesus Christ is enough.
Let go of this alternative gospel that has wandered into your life.
We have these alternative gospels too, which cloud over the gospel, the good news in Jesus Christ, we have been given: life should be easy, God wants us to be happy, pain is the enemy.
And yet our gospel is unashamedly realistic about pain, about struggle in life, about the existence of evil in this world. If you remember Jesus telling the parable of the wise man and the foolish man – the wise and faithful man builds on a solid rock foundation, the foolish man builds on sand – and into both men’s lives come floods and fierce winds (Matt. 7:24-27).
“Life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” (Can anyone name the movie that quote comes from? The Princess Bride, a theological classic.)
We don’t follow Jesus Christ to avoid pain; we follow Jesus Christ because he is our absolute assurance that pain can be transformed and can transform us. It is not the enemy, and it is also not the end of the story.
Richard Rohr writes about how understanding that life is hard is essential to our gospel. I’m going to give you a paraphrase of his words.
Rohr writes that spirituality is all about what we do with our pain.
So the first lesson of a rite of passage is to teach a young person not to try to get rid of his pain until he has first learned whatever it has to teach him.
By trying to handle all our suffering through our willpower, or through denial, or medication, or even therapy, we have forgotten something that should be obvious: we do not handle suffering; suffering handles us, suffering changes us, in deep and mysterious ways that can become the most important stuff of life.
When life is hard we are primed to learn something absolutely central: Our wounds are God’s hiding place and hold our greatest gifts. According to Leonard Cohen’s song lyric, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Rohr writes, “It is no surprise that a dramatically wounded man became the central transformative symbol of Christianity. Once the killing of God becomes the redemption of the world, then forevermore the very worst things have the power to become the very best things. [Forevermore], nothing can be a dead end; everything is capable of new meaning.”
And we gaze upon the wounded Christ—and in so doing, discover a love for our own wounds and everyone else’s too (John 3:14, 12:32, 19:37). We can dare to be vulnerable with one another instead of trying to protect our fragile selves and impress each other.
Life is hard. Faith is not an insurance policy; faith in Jesus Christ means that even our deepest wounds, our suffering can be transformed. Amen.