Proper 8 (13), Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year C
26 June 2022
1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Please note: This day we gathered for worship outdoors. Unfortunately, a video is not available for this service.
In Lutheran circles Galatians is often seen as a Lutheran letter even though is was written in the Middle East nearly 2000 years ago by a Jewish Christian to a group of Gentile Christians who lived in Asia Minor.
The reason for this misunderstanding of Galatians as a Lutheran letter lies in Paul’s rejection of the law, not any law but the Jewish law. For Luther the law was oppressive. Swedish Bishop Krister Stendahl later called this perspective the “Introspective Conscience of the West.”1 Luther felt unable to live up to God’s demands and that inability was crushing him.
However, for Jews the Law was and is good. It is not God’s crushing demand but God’s gift, and living according to the Law marks Jewish identity and prevents you from getting lost in the world.
And so the debate we find in Galatians is not about whether the Law is good or bad, after all Paul himself could say that he was blameless under the law (Philippians 3:6), but it was about membership in the church. The Galatians are gentiles. How could gentiles, i.e. non-Jews become part of the church? There have always been gentiles who became Jews and the way for them to become Jews was for males to be circumcised and for all converts to observe the marks of what it meant to be Jewish.
So the problem that Paul addresses is not so much one of the Law but whether one must become Jewish before one can become a follower of Jesus. And the reason that is a question is because at this time the church is not established and to many the church appears like a Jewish sect, of which there were many, and this makes some sense when you consider that the church’s scriptures are the Jewish scriptures and that what we call the New Testament is still being written.
So it’s helpful if we think of the debate Paul is engaged in, in terms of church membership. Do you remember when you joined Our Saviour? Were you asked to make particular commitments? And what were these commitments?
There are commitments we ask but the church will accept what you offer, so the bar is pretty low. In fact, our constitution considers you a somewhat active member as long as you commune or contribute once a year, you don’t even have to do both.
So the question Paul is asking is not so much about the Law or about circumcision but about what constitutes membership in the church.
And if we understand that this is about what it means to be part of Christ’s church, then we know that the freedom Paul talks about at the beginning of our reading is hardly the freedom of as few commitments as possible.
Our sister church to the south recently experienced what I can only describe as a disaster. The first trans-gender bishop, elected less than ago, was to be removed because of accusations of racism. The bishop pre-empted their removal by resigning.
An ELCA pastor I know wonders how the church can be surprised to discover racism in its ranks.
He writes, “we Lutherans applaud a passage like Ephesians 2:8-10, which articulates a … Gospel of Justification by Grace through Faith. But we … (do) not pay attention to what comes next. … what if the real Good News is what follows … What if the heart of the Gospel are the effects of grace in the world? Namely, in Ephesians 2:15, that God in the cross of Jesus Christ creates one new humanity in place of the two? If we … came to see God creating one new humanity as the heart and soul of the Gospel, wouldn’t being anti-racist be a core point of our identity and mission, instead of being seen as a side-issue that some people can claim and others not?”2
I will not give advice to our sister church, only pray for it. I also do not think that complex issues have simple answers. But in the context of the commitments church membership requires, we ask very little. And we ask very little in part because we get Paul and Luther mixed up, perhaps do not understand either of them, and perhaps we don’t really understand grace.
In light of such difficult conversations it would probably be easiest if we brought back pledge cards. We could then limit our conversations and commitments to money. But as we read on in Galatians we find that Paul spells out what he means when he says that for freedom Christ has set us free.
It is true that Paul speaks against the Law but he does not speak against the Law per se, he merely says that gentiles don’t need to become Jews in order to become followers of Jesus.
Circumcision would be too easy. If it were only about rules, it would be too easy because as soon as you’d fulfill certain requirements, you’d be off the hook. And if it were only about circumcision and the Law we would not get it either. Because if we’d only try to fulfill rules we’d never internalize the demands of the Gospel or the heart of Christ, while at the same time we wouldn’t be free enough to understand that different situations may require different responses. The latter seems to have been absent from the abortion debate for a long time, and in particular in the United States.
But don’t stay with that topic. Follow me for a little longer.
If Bishop Stendahl is right, and I think that he is, that we have been reading the Apostle Paul through the eyes of Luther and not just Luther, how then can we understand Paul as Paul?
One of the things we find throughout the letters of Paul is that when Paul proclaims grace he follows up that proclamation with a therefore.
And Paul does so in today’s reading. While he gives examples of what is not godly and what is, he does not give hard and fast rules but commends us to the care of the Holy Spirit: If we live by the Spirit, let us be guided by the Spirit. (5:25)
And that is the freedom of which Luther could speak, A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
This is neither the low bar of church attendance and giving once a year, nor is it a set of rules to describe our every moment. Rather the freedom of which both Paul and Luther speak here is the freedom to live our lives entirely committed to the mission of God in Jesus, in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
1 Krister Stendahl, The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West
2 Paul Nuechterlein on Facebook 7 June 2022: “For those who might not be aware: The ELCA Presiding Bishop initiated disciplinary actions yesterday against one of its synodical bishops for racist actions. Here’s what I posted on the ELCA Clergy FB page:
Racism has raised its ugly head in our church in such a way that we can’t ignore it. This time will we face the fact that there are deep flaws and holes in our Lutheran theology? Over-relying on our basic 16th century theology is like the U.S. believing its Constitution is so exceptional that it can’t be part of the problem of the racism which continues to plague it. (And so Mitch McConnell has made it his life’s mission to stack the court with judges who pretend that the original racist intentions of the Constitution’s authors are still what’s best to guide us now.)
Hard cold fact: The hideous Doctrine of Discovery was elaborated more than 50 years before Luther and his founding of our church and its theology, and opposing it was not at all a part of the Protest. I’m not saying that 16th century folks should have been ahead of their time in confronting such racism. But I am asking that we face the fact that not confronting it is at least partly due to serious flaws and weaknesses in that core Lutheran theology.
Example: we Lutherans applaud a passage like Eph 2:8-10, which focuses on grace and articulates a supposed Gospel of “Justification by Grace through Faith.” But what if the real Good News is what follows the “So then” in Eph 2:11? What if the heart of the Gospel are the effects of grace in the world? Namely, in Eph 2:15, God in the cross of Jesus Christ creating One New Humanity in place of the two? If we modern day Lutherans came to see God creating One New Humanity as the heart and soul of the Gospel, wouldn’t being anti-racist be a core point of our identity and mission? Instead of being seen as a side-issue that some people can claim and others not?