Summary: Christ changes our lives and this world. If that were not true, then his death would be for nothing!
A rather well-known story is told of Margaret Thatcher. The story recalls a time during her tenure as Prime Minister of Britain. It seems Mrs. Thatcher was visiting an old people’s home, going from room to room and meeting citizens who had lived there a long time. One old lady showed no sign of realizing that she was shaking hands with a world-famous politician. “Do you know who I am?” asked Mrs. Thatcher.
“No, dear,” replied the old lady, “but I would ask the nurse if I were you. She usually knows.”
It seems a rather strange idea for most of us, but for some a very necessary one; that is, this idea that you might start from scratch to learn who you are. Yet, that is precisely what people who have suffered severe memory loss need to do. It is what people who have suffered other kinds of loss also need to do, too: the refugee without home, country, or family is just one example. And, as it turns out, it is precisely this sort of exercise, of losing one identity and reconstructing another, that Paul is explaining in this dense and complex passage.
As we continue in our journey through Galatians this morning, we come to the point at which Paul really starts to address the underlying issues between himself and the “troublemakers” who stand in opposition to his work. Except now Paul’s argument has gotten much broader. For the last two weeks, we studied Paul’s opening of this letter to the Galatians and listened as he defended himself against attacks from the Jewish Christians in Galatia. Where we pick up today, Paul has begun to defend the whole church against what he perceives as attacks by Peter and those who follow Peter. Just prior to this passage we heard this morning, Paul has described a specific situation that occurred in Antioch, where Paul confronted Peter. It seems that Peter was living like a Gentile even as he was preaching that Gentiles must become Jews in order to be Christians. Needless to say, Paul was pretty angry.
So what we heard this morning, essentially, is Paul’s rant against Peter’s rather deplorable hypocrisy. And for Paul, this isn’t a matter of a few twists and turns in the interpretation of the gospel, or even the Jewish law. This isn’t even simply about one style of missionary policy against another. This is a matter of who you are in the Messiah. It’s as basic as that. Paul’s head-on clash with Peter in Antioch was about Christian identity. His passionate appeal to the Galatians is about their Christian identity. And what we need to be thinking about ourselves as we wade through Paul’s words is our Christian identity.
At the heart of Paul’s argument is that single great, climatic statement that may be familiar to many of us, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me.” For Paul, this is it; this is the core of the gospel message. We must lose everything, including even the memory of who we were before; and we must accept, and learn to live by, a new identity with a new foundation. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
This is a matter of opening ourselves up to God so much that we are no longer our “old” selves. What Paul is describing is the great mystery of being caught up in God’s transformation of the world in such a way that our very core is claimed and changed by the power of the living God! And here’s the thing: Paul isn’t speaking of some sort of momentary, mystical “high.” He’s talking about the ongoing experience of living and embodying “the faithfulness of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” For Paul, living this way completely changed his life. Suddenly, he was living a very “high-risk” lifestyle. He gave up the comfort of his upbringing and ethnic identity, he left behind the securities of the Jewish law, and he travelled thousands of miles proclaiming a message that most people didn’t like. He did things that he never would have dreamed of doing before his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus—things like establishing Christian churches and sharing meals with people considered “unclean” by Jewish standards.
And here’s the thing; we have to expect that our lives will be changed, too, when we truly live in faithfulness to Christ. We are the Messiah’s people with his life now at work in us. And, since the central thing about Jesus is his loving faithfulness, then the central thing about us, the only thing in fact that defines us, should be our own loving faithfulness. Through his death and resurrection, Christ comes to dwell in the human heart and to produce a community based not on social distinctions, but on love alone. Otherwise, Paul says, Christ died for nothing. But Christ died for us, and we should respond gladly and joyfully in faith to the God who graciously sent his son for us.