Sunday’s sermon: Authentic Faith

Text used – Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21

  • In December 2011, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life put out a report entitled “Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population.”[1]
    • Produced as part of Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project – initiative jointly funded by Pew Charitable Trusts and John Templeton Foundation
    • Purpose: analyze religious change and its impact on societies around the world
    • Findings:
      • 2,184,060,000 Christians in the world → just under 1/3 of the global population
      • Of that 2 billion
        • 50% = Catholic
        • 37% = Protestant
        • 12% = Orthodox
        • Remaining 1% = other traditions (Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, etc.)
    • Working definition of “Christian” for this research = “very broad”: The intent is sociological rather than theological: We are attempting to count groups and individuals who self-identify as Christian. This includes people who hold beliefs that may be viewed as unorthodox or heretical by other Christians. It also includes Christians who seldom pray or go to church.[2] → gets at a really important point when it comes to Christianity = DIVERISTY
      • Catholic worship looks different than Lutheran worship looks different than Greek Orthodox worship looks different than Presbyterian worship looks different than Pentecostal worship
      • Worship practices in different congregations of the same denomination look different → Just here in our presbytery – our local geographical area – I can guarantee that worship at First Presbyterian in Rochester looks different than worship at Community Presbyterian Church in Plainview looks different than worship at House of Hope in St. Paul looks different than worship here at the Presbyterian Church of Oronocoand that was the case even before the pandemic!
      • Worship practices from the same denomination look different in different global settings
        • Catholic mass at a small, rural parish in South America looks different than Catholic mass at Our Lady of Mercy’s Church in the Bronx looks different than mass celebrated at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City
      • And we can only imagine how different worship looks in those nations around the world where it is dangerous to practice Christianity in any form – North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and Pakistan (just to name the top 5, according to Christianity Today[3])
    • All that vast and varied difference in the body of Christ!
      • Different languages
      • Different practices
      • Different worship elements
      • Different hymns
      • Different prayers
      • And yet, here we all are … part of the body of Christ. Here we all are, bearing the name “Christian.” Do we agree on everything? Definitely not. But instead of causing rifts and arguments between us, those differences should bolster our faith because it means that we’re practicing our faith in a way that is truthful and real – a way that is authentic to who we are, where we come from, the stories we carry with us, and the life that has formed us.
  • Assertion of importance of an authentic faith is what Paul is getting at in our Scripture reading this morning
    • Interesting Scripture when it follows what we read last week (Acts 15:1-18) because this passage from Gal is Paul’s account of that same encounter … and Paul’s account is a little different! – text: But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was wrong. He had been eating with the Gentiles before certain people came from James. But when they came, he began to back out and separate himself, because he was afraid of the people who promoted circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also joined him in this hypocrisy so that even Barnabas got carried away with them in their hypocrisy.[4] → From the Acts account that we read last week, it sounded like Peter and the other apostles came around to the decision to include the Gentiles without requiring circumcision pretty quickly. But from Paul’s account this morning, there was more to it than that.
      • Contention
      • Backpedaling
      • (To use Paul’s word) hypocrisy
    • And it’s this hypocrisy, this flip-flopping, this disingenuous way that others were living into their faith that really got under Paul’s skin.
      • Problem is not that Peter was a Jew eating with Gentiles or that Peter was a Jew eating with Jews → problem is that Peter was a Jew happy and content to be eating with the Gentiles until “certain people came from James” → after this relatively unnamed contingent shows up, Peter flip-flops and begins to separate himself from the Gentiles because he’s afraid of what the other Christians would think
        • John Frederick, lecturer of NT at Trinity College Queensland (Australia): By refusing to eat with Gentile Christians when a faction of Jewish Christians arrived, Peter was essentially saying that there are actually two classes of Christians divided by ethnic lines. To be a ‘real’ Christian, Peter was inferring, all disciples (whether Jew or Gentile) must live according to boundary markers of the Jewish Torah. Paul was not having any of that.[5]
    • Actually, that’s the whole purpose of Paul’s letter to the Galatians in the first place! – scholar: Paul’s angry, passionate letter to the churches of Galatia provides a glimpse of the controversy that surrounded the expansion of the Christian movement into Gentile communities in the ancient Mediterranean world. The identity of the newly established mission churches was up for grabs: Were they to be understood as branches on the tree of Judaism, or were they to be understood as belonging to a new and distinctive community, neither Jewish nor pagan? Were Gentile converts bound to accept Jewish practices and values? In what ways were they free to maintain their former ways of life?[6]
      • Clear in Paul’s words: When I saw that they weren’t acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of everyone, “If you, though you’re a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you require the Gentiles to live like Jews?” We are born Jews—we’re not Gentile sinners. However, we know that a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the Law but rather through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.[7] → It’s clear that Paul is upset by Peter trying to put on a face for other Christians – trying to play the part of the staunchly observant Jew when there were other staunchly observant Jews around but playing the part of the all-embracing, welcoming leader to all Christians – Jews and Gentiles alike – when he was in the company of Gentiles. At this point, Peter had already made it clear that he believed the Gentiles were welcoming into the Christian fold.
        • After his encounter with Cornelius, the Centurion, Peter: “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all!”[8]Those are Peter’s own words … and yet, according to Paul’s account in our Scripture this morning, Peter was acting like God did show partiality for the Jews over the Gentiles just because he was in the presence of those who “promoted circumcision.” It’s inauthentic. And as John Frederick said, Paul was not having any of that.
  • Interesting inclusion at the beginning of our text today – interesting choice by those who selected the verses for this lectionary passage
    • Begins with Paul explaining his own origins in faith: You heard about my previous life in Judaism, how severely I harassed God’s church and tried to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my peers, because I was much more militant about the traditions of my ancestors. But God had set me apart from birth and called me through his grace. He was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might preach about him to the Gentiles.[9] → Paul, who established this church in Galatia himself, is reminding them that he himself is far from perfect. He’s made mistakes. His faith journey has been a rocky one. But God still called him in the midst of that rocky journey.
    • See Paul’s conviction in that purpose in his words later, too – text: We know that a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the Law but rather through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. We ourselves believed in Christ Jesus so that we could be made righteous by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the Law—because no one will be made righteous by the works of the Law. … 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.[10] → For Paul, that’s it. That’s the point: “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.” That’s all of it!
  • Many of you have probably heard of Brené Brown.
    • Professor, researcher in field of social work, author, speaker → spent the last 2 decades of her career studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy[11]
      • TED talk “The Power of Vulnerability” is one of the top 5 most viewed TED talks ever → 50 million views worldwide
    • Big element in Brown’s work is authenticity: Authenticity is a daily practice. Choosing authenticity means: cultivating the courage to be emotionally honest, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable; exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle and connected to each other through a loving and resilient human spirit; nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we let go of what we are supposed to be and embrace who we are. Authenticity demands wholehearted living and loving – even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with the shame and fear of not being good enough.[12] → Friends, we spend too much of our lives comparing ourselves to others. We spend too much of our lives worrying about what others will think, especially when it comes to our faith. Our faith – like our faces, our homes, our Bibles, and our prayers – looks different. Your faith won’t look like my faith. Your prayer won’t sound like my prayer. Your walk with God will wander into places I’ll never even see. But in all that difference – in all that diversity that spreads across Christianity as it’s practiced in every corner of this world – in all that difference, what matters is that Christ died for you. Christ rose for you. Christ prays for you. And Christ loves you. What God wants from us is an authentic witness of our faith in this world – a witness that matches the unique, precious, beloved person that God created you to be. Amen.

[1] Conrad Hackett and Brian J. Grim. “Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population.” (Washington D.C.: Pew Research Center), 2011. https://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2011/12/Christianity-fullreport-web.pdf.

[2] Ibid, 7.

[3] “The 50 Countries Where It’s Most Dangerous to Follow Jesus in 2021” from Christianity Today. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2021/january/christian-persecution-2021-countries-open-doors-watch-list.html. Posted Jan. 13, 2021, accessed May 9, 2021.

[4] Gal 2:11-13.

[5] John Frederick. “Commentary on Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/living-by-faith/commentary-on-galatians-113-17-211-21-4. Accessed May 9, 2021.

[6] Richard B. Hays. “The Letter to the Galatians: Introduction” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 11. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), 183.

[7] Gal 2:14-16a.

[8] Acts 10:1-36

[9] Gal 1:13-16a.

[10] Gal 2:16, 20.

[11] https://brenebrown.com/about/

[12] https://brenebrown.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Authenticity_download-1.pdf

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