June 12, 2016
“No Longer I“
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
We are now in our third week of working our way through the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul was an ardent Jew, more zealous for the traditions of his faith than the rest of his peers and he was given permission to try to wipe out this renegade group of Jews who claim that Jesus is the messiah that the Jewish people have been waiting for.
On his way to stamp out Christianity in Damascus, Paul has a revelation of Jesus. Paul, one of the most important early Christian leaders, never met Jesus in person, but this moment of revelation completely changed his life. The transformation of Paul (we talked about transformation last Sunday in the Sanctuary) reveals the power and wonder and grace of the gospel.
Paul talks in this letter and others about how God found him, set him apart, called him by grace, transformed him. There is very little evidence in Paul’s letters that he had any familiarity with the stories about Jesus that we know so well that we find in the biographical faith statements written about Jesus which we call the gospels: the story of his birth, his sermons and teachings.
The gospels were written many years after Paul started making these missionary journeys and founding churches, and many years after the letter to the Galatians which was likely written 20 to 25 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. I think we can catch a glimpse of the heart of Paul’s preaching in this second chapter of Galatians.
The reason Paul wrote this letter is because after he had taught and nurtured these little churches somewhere in the large Roman province of Galatia, Jewish Christian missionaries had come and preached about how the new Gentile Christians needed to adopt Jewish practices like circumcision, following the laws in the Torah, and observing Jewish holy days. This was an issue of significance in the first two decades of the life of the church – what was essential to the identity of the church.
Jews understood themselves as people of the covenant, set apart by God, a unique community. We’ve talked before about how the history of God with humanity have been a story of God drawing nearer and nearer to us. The covenant that God makes with the Israelites is part of this story.
God was not far away, fickle, changeable, difficult to find and understand – in this covenant which involved promises on both sides, God could be found in the tabernacle, God could be understood through the Torah, God could be heard through the priests and prophets.
The Covenant was a promise built on love and faithfulness on both sides, and the things the Israelites were supposed to do maintained the relationship with God and maintained their identity as God’s people. And when people could not hold up their end of the bargain, so great was the depth of God’s love for us that he stepped in and fulfilled our part of the promise, so that nothing now can separate us from God.
Paul is pretty passionate about this. He had been a Jew to beat all Jews but now he knows that God has done an entirely new thing in Jesus Christ. The rules have completely changed. The way we relate to God has completely changed because God so loved the world that he gave his son that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. For Paul that revelation changes the game entirely.
He has no problem with former Jews maintaining their traditions that they’ve known their whole lives, but he does take issue with imposing those unfamiliar practices on new Christians from outside the faith. In this passage you will hear Paul talk about a conflict he had with Peter (in the NRSV the version found in our pew Bible Peter is called Cephas) who in Paul’s opinion is being hypocritical – eating and welcoming these formerly pagan Gentiles, but then when Jewish Christians arrive he won’t eat with them anymore.
And Paul calls him out on this because it is completely contrary to the gospel – everyone belongs, not because of what they do or don’t do to be enough, but because Jesus Christ was, is, and will be enough.
So that was a long preamble and now hear God’s Word to us from Galatians 2:11-21.
11But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; 12for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. 13And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.
14But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” 15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.
And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. 17 But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18 But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor.
19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20 and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
I am an oldest child. And as an oldest child, I have some traits which fit the mold.
I can be perfectionistic. I can be competitive. Growing up I tried hard to win at everything – to win at grades, to win at being good at things, and, even though I have not always been the most agile and athletic, to win at sports. And when it came to my faith, I tried very hard to win at Jesus.
I say this flippantly but I came at it with a sincere heart – I wanted to be good, to be wise, and to do what was right. I honestly wanted to understand the Bible and know what it meant for me. I wanted to know what God wanted me to do, I wanted to know who God wanted me to be.
I felt like I had a good handle on what sin was, because no matter how hard I tried to be good and to be wise, the things I said or did hurt people, including me. As much as I tried to be confident and courageous, I was still afraid and cowardly. And as much as I tried so hard to achieve some kind of spiritual perfection, I always made mistakes.
As a teenager I really latched on to the book of James in the Bible. There was a lot in the Bible that I had great difficulty wrapping my mind around – but James felt concrete to me: be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry; don’t show favoritism, mercy triumphs over judgement, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (that is one of my favorites).
Reading back over James and the things I underlined so many years ago, I realized was looking for proverbs, wisdom sayings, guidelines, perhaps even a to-do list if I’m being honest.
I remember back then struggling deeply with Paul. The writings of Paul have not always connected with me. He comes from a faith tradition I don’t completely understand because I haven’t lived it. He interacts with a culture and context that I have no reference for.
We have his letters which are like listening to only one side of a phone conversation, and so we have to strain, and sometimes guess, to understand the whole story. And sometimes the words of Paul have been used in ways that I wonder if he ever intended them to be used.
I remember reading Paul write “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” in Galatians in the passage we read today, and in 1 Corinthians “but by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
And perhaps it was because I was a teenager just trying to figure out who I was, trying to figure my identity, and what made me me, but I couldn’t understand what Paul was trying to say.
Was he trying to say that somehow I was supposed to disappear in this relationship between God and I?
When I did something, was that me acting or God acting?
Was I making decisions or was God?
Should I take any credit, or conversely any blame, for my actions?
Was the whole point of faith to turn into a puppet moved by an unseen God?
Where did I begin and God end?
It strikes me, as we read through Galatians, that what is at stake has a lot to do with identity, with how we understand our place in God’s world.
Father Richard Rohr writes that, in his opinion, the defining characteristic of holy people is honesty – holy people have no need to pretend anymore; they don’t need to impress anyone or make themselves out to be better or more perfect than they really are (so in modern terms they wouldn’t post only their highlight reel on social media).
They can tell the truth because they know fully that God is good and they are not. That is a change in identity, and that is what Paul was telling people about, about who they are and can be in Jesus Christ.
I shared two weeks ago in the sanctuary Father Richard Rohr’s reflections on what initiation rites or practices teach young people in societies all around the world – two of things young people need to learn is that “you are not that important” and “your life is not about you”.
These are things we need to learn as well on our faith journeys and I think this what Paul is trying to get at when he says things like “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”
When we feel like our righteousness, our rightness with God, or God’s love for us depends on upholding certain standards, saying the right thing at the right time, observing the right holidays and not eating with the wrong people, then we are the important ones, we are central, we are in control.
Paul tells us that this is not the way, and he chastises Cephas (Peter) for waffling on this. Paul says, “And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.”
And here is the key to it all: it is important for us to know that there is some ambiguity in how this can be translated – it can also be translated “by the faith of Christ” or “by the faithfulness of Christ.” It is not the measure of our faith that matters here, it is the measure of Christ’s faithfulness.
It doesn’t matter how many times we mess up, how our faith fluctuates, how near or far God feels at any particular time in our lives, it is Christ’s faithfulness, it is Christ who is enough. We are simply not that important.
What grace there is to say that – we are not that important because Christ is enough. Richard Rohr writes that sacred cultures can tell people that they are not that important because they know that each person is of the utmost importance, each person is inherently important because each person is uniquely loved by God and Christ was faithful even unto death so that each person would be near to God.
We often read these words of Paul in Galatians and take it to mean that we who are faithful need to stop trying to save ourselves or earn salvation or beat ourselves up because we are not good enough or we make mistakes.
But I don’t think that is the complete story because of what Paul says, this thing that tripped me up as a teenager, about “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
Something fundamental has to shift inside us, displacing us from the throne we’ve set up in the middle of our lives for ourselves. The longer I am at this the more I am convinced that the path of spiritual growth is a journey into greater and greater humility, it is path further and further away from myself as I grow in awe of God and as I grow outwards in compassion towards the people around me.
We matter less, God matters more. We matter less, what God is doing in the world matters more.
The people around us matter more because we see they are of infinite value to God, and we discover that we too are of infinite value to God – because we see how important we are to God because of what God did for us in Jesus Christ – when we could not uphold out end of the covenant, the promise, God did it for us – that is how much we matter to God.
“No longer I” – what a challenging move that is for us, to find that we are not as important as we thought.
The only way we can grow to understand grace is to let go of any notion that we had any part in the getting of it, the earning of it, or being deserving of it. Grace is not because of us, no longer us, but Christ.
We mean far more to God than we ever thought but we mean far less to ourselves. How freeing that is if we can grab hold of that – true freedom. Amen.