Summary: If we truly wrestle with these words from Galatians, we will find ourselves called to a life in which the only approval that matters is God’s. And when we follow God, when we build on Christ’s foundation, there is only one way to go.
Imagine for a moment that you are in South Africa in the 1970s. Apartheid is at its height, and you are there with a special mission. You are charged with a particularly risky project: to build a community center where everybody will be equally welcome, no matter the color of their skin, no matter their race. You’ve designed this building; you’ve laid the foundation in such a way that only the right sort of building can be built. Or so you think.
With the foundation laid, you are called away urgently to another part of the country. A little later, a letter arrives in the mail. A new group of builders are at work building on your foundation. Only, they have changed the design. The building will now have two meeting rooms, with two front doors, one for whites only and one for blacks only. The letter informs you that the local people are greatly relieved, some even celebrating around the construction site. They always thought such a building would be nothing but trouble, putting everyone together like that. But there are others who began to question the builders—why doesn’t the original idea work? The builder’s remarks were rather flippant, it seems; “Oh, that guy who laid the foundation just had some funny ideas. He didn’t really have permission to make that design. We’re from the real authorities, and the way we’ve built this building is the way it has to be!”
So it was for a man named Paul nearly 2,000 years before. Now Paul wasn’t an architect or a builder—at least not one who used bricks and mortar. But Paul’s project, he often said, was building—building with people. He lays the foundations for this building by telling people some good news, news so good it’s really shocking! We begin this morning a series that will take us through Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia. It is believed that this is one of Paul’s earliest letters, and it lays out in some of the clearest of terms Paul’s mission and the challenges he faced as he went throughout the Roman empire telling the story of Jesus Christ.
Whether in Galatia, or Thessalonica, or Rome, the good news Paul shares is that there is one God, the world’s creator, and this one God has now revealed his long-awaited plan for the world through a Jew called Jesus. Paul says this Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, a kind of “king-to-end-all-kings.” Jesus was executed by the Romans, but Paul says that the true God raised Jesus from the dead.
That’s the beginning of the good news, but it doesn’t stop there. Even at this point, though, this radical message was already causing trouble for Paul. He’s in competition with all the pagan cults in the area, which were also threatening to the small Jewish population scattered about. And so already feeling threatened and persecuted, the Jews in Galatia got nervous at the thought that someone was going around talking about a Jewish Messiah who was crucified but then raised from the dead. But that didn’t stop Paul. According to Paul, Jesus’ death and resurrection meant that this God was now building a new family, a SINGLE family, a family with no divisions, no separate races, no one table for Jews and another for Gentiles nonsense.
Jews believed that when the Messiah came, he would be Lord of all the world; so, Paul argued, he’d have to have just one family. And, though this family is the fulfillment of what God has promised to the Jews all along, the truly remarkable thing is that, because of Jesus, you don’t have to be a Jew to belong; there is no need to live under the covenant made with Abraham or Moses because Jesus has made a new covenant. The God of Israel wants to be known as “father” by the whole world, and Jesus has made that possible. So, with this good news, Paul has laid the foundation of a people-building in Galatia. Then he moved on.
And immediately, the people of Galatia begin to react to Paul’s work. Apparently, word quickly gets back to Paul where he is laying foundations in other parts of the world, and the news is not good. Other people-builders have moved in. It seems to be the Jewish Christians in the area. “Look,” they said, “Paul didn’t really know what he was doing. You could get in trouble for that kind of thing. Paul just has these funny ideas, but we know the real truth, from the real authorities.” What follows is the construction of a building which Paul had no intention of building. “Sure,” they say, “we all believe Jesus is the Messiah, but we cannot have Jewish believers and Gentile believers living as though they are part of the same family. If Gentile believers want to be part of the real inner circle, the family God promised to Abraham, then they will have to become Jews. The men must be circumcised, all must follow the law and do the things that keep Jews and Gentiles neatly separated. That’s the real good news,” they said, “You’re welcome into God’s family if you follow the law of Moses.”