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.”
With such “under-handed” talk going on in Galatia, it’s no wonder Paul reacted the way he did in opening his letter to the young churches of Galatia. He has been attacked on many levels. First, there is the implication that he is not a true apostle as he claims to be, and so he is speaking on no authority but his own. Then, there is this question about the “good news.” The Jewish Christians in Galatia are saying that what Paul is teaching isn’t really good news at all. Good news, they say, is keeping Jews and Gentiles separate so that God’s chosen people truly are a “special” race.
So, Paul, as we see, wastes no time in getting to the issues. And he says a lot in these few opening lines of his letter, all in an effort to addresses the charges that have been leveled against him. What Paul says here lays the groundwork for the rest of the letter, and it also leaves almost no room for any further questioning of his ministry and teachings.
Paul’s harsh words here ought to be as difficult for us to “swallow” today as they were for the Galatians who first read them. We comfortable, educated Christians in Western culture have become wary of any sort of ultimatums, or “absolute” truths. We don’t like to be told how things must be, nor do we like to throw down ultimatums on others. Mindful of the harm that is done by overzealous religious fanatics, we tend to prefer tolerance, and dialogue, and compromise. We value many perspectives, and we believe we can be enriched by the witness of others whose experience of God seems different from our own. And certainly, this is important; so much so that in other letters, Paul even takes time to build Christian community across the various boundaries of his day. But this letter to Galatians is different. It stands in the New Testament as an urgent reminder that some versions of the gospel are perversions. The opening verses of the letter throw down the gauntlet and call all readers to reaffirm their allegiance to the singular gospel of Jesus Christ and to reject all others.
We need to be clear about what is happening here as Paul opens his letter to the Galatians, because it is something quite different from what we are accustomed to. Paul is saying without question that believing whatever you want, as long as you are sincere, is not enough. Sometimes a line has to be drawn, and there can be nothing but pure, unquestioning allegiance to the gospel of Jesus Christ and none other. Just think of all the times in history Christians have been led astray by the misguided teachings of other Christians. When Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg church in 1517, protesting the sale of indulgences as expiation for sin, he was confronting a distortion of the truth by Christian leaders who had lost sight of the good news of God’s free, unmerited grace. In 1934, theologian Karl Barth and other members of the Confessing Church in German drafted what is known as the Barmen Declaration; they said no to a Nazis takeover of the church. In this way, they defined the truth of the gospel against a false gospel of nationalism and ethnicity. These are just two example of many, where groups or individuals have followed Paul’s example and pronounced a curse on the dangerous perversion of the true gospel message. And the simple fact of the matter is that if the church is going to bear witness to the gospel with integrity in the “present evil age,” then we must also have the courage to make discernments about where the gospel message is being warped and speak prophetically against such destructive teachings that deny the grace of God.
That means we have to look, even, at every aspect of our own belief and practice as individuals and as a part of this church. Paul wasn’t addressing problems outside of the Christian church, far from it. Paul was warning Christian believers against a danger presented by those who spoke the language of the Christian faith. So the question for us today becomes, where have we gone astray from the true good news of Jesus Christ? Maybe we’re not advocating for ethnic cleansing or teaching about salvation through works alone, but there are certainly places where cultural norms have overshadowed Christian values. Perhaps the problem is that we have come to think of church as a place where we are provided certain “goods and services” that meet our particular needs, instead of understanding church to be the place we go to worship God alone. Or maybe we have subdued the call to be a slave to Christ and justified it by proclaiming that it is too uncomfortable, or too dangerous, or just too difficult. Maybe we’ve opted to be a Christian only when it’s convenient because we don’t want to have to give up every Sunday morning, or surrender a tenth of our income, or love our enemies, or whatever. And yet, we tell the world we are Christians, and the result is that the world comes to have a very different and warped understanding of the “good news” of Jesus Christ.
But we are Christians, disciples of the risen Lord; and we, like Paul, are accountable to proclaim this message and no other. Because we are slaves to Christ, we are accountable to one master only, and human approval means NOTHING. There is no compromise here. We cannot build a different building on a foundation that has already been laid. There is one way, and one way only; the line has been drawn, and Paul calls us to choose our side. We can either follow the gospel way of Christ, or we can follow the way of the world. 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.
Thanks be to God in Christ Jesus; the Way, the Truth, and the Life!