Sunday’s sermon: Somewhere Between Doing and Believing

Text used – Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29

  • At the college I went to – the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire – they have an event every year called the Viennese Ball – V Ball, for short.[1]
    • Spans 2 nights in early Apr.
    • Big fundraiser event → money raised goes to scholarships and awards for music, international study, etc.
    • Use the entire student center for various venues
      • Concerts (chance to showcase incredible talent of instrumental and vocal groups alike)
      • Drinks and refreshments
      • Silent auctions
      • 2 separate ballrooms for dancing
        • Viennese waltz (all night)
        • Swing dancing/polka (alternate every hour)
    • Kind of event that alumni return for every year long after graduation, even those who have to fly halfway across the country to attend
      • Been going on for more than 40 yrs.
    • Tickets go on sale in early Feb. (if memory serves correctly) → better get them quickly because they sell out fast!
    • When I was a student and Peter and I were dating, a choir that I sang with was performing, so I got one ticket for free. I lined up with everyone else and got a second ticket so we could go together, so with tickets in hand, there was only one more thing to do: we needed to learn how to dance. → friend of mine from InterVarsity (who was a trained and exceptionally gifted ballroom dancer) ran a day-long workshop for anyone who wanted to learn
      • Viennese waltz
      • Foxtrot
      • Swing
      • Salsa (just a little)
      • And let me tell you what … it was a day. Lots of very different dance steps. Lots to remember. Lots of people in a relatively small room with less-than-satisfactory air circulation. It was hot. It was tiring. It was a miracle my saint of a husband didn’t wash his hands of the whole thing by lunchtime! Do we remember much of it today – more than 15 yrs. later? Not really. A few steps here and there, enough to have fun and look just a little bit fancy at any wedding dance.
    • Thing about that day = we needed both the learning and the doing to make the day work, both the rules of it and the feel of it
      • Couldn’t do the dances without the instruction
      • Couldn’t complete the learning without the movement
      • By the end of the day, the rules that we learned at the beginning had found a sort of fulfillment as we made our way around the room with the other couples. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t elegant. There was certainly room for improvement! But the point is we were moving. We were dancing. Our movement was inspired and led by the music but informed by the instruction.
  • Today’s Scripture reading = this complex and challenging passage from Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia wrapped up in this idea of the rules vs. the feel, instruction vs. movement, Law vs. faith → Part of what makes it so complex and challenging is the way it’s been used throughout history.
    • One of many passages (many of which have been written by Paul) that have been used throughout history by the church to promote and cultivate anti-Semitism
      • History that began to be examined back in 1947 when it became clear after the end of WWII that anti-Semitism was still rampant → effort to quell that = gathering of 65 religious leaders – both Jews and Christians – from 19 different countries met in Seelisberg, Switzerland[2]
        • Based its work on a critique written by Jules Isaac, a Jew → spent years in hiding during the war studying hundreds of ancient church documents → traced Christian hostility toward Jews all the way back to the early church when Jesus’ followers were trying to differentiate themselves from their Jewish roots → Isaac’s critique: Christian [teaching], once started in this direction, never stopped. Utterly convinced of its rights, it has repeated and [spread] these mythical arguments tirelessly, with methodical thoroughness, through all the powerful means that were—and still are—at its disposal . . . The result is that the myths . . . have eventually taken on the shape and consistency of facts, of facts that have become incontestable. They have ended up by being accepted as though they were authentic history. They have become an integral part of Christian thinking; nay, of the thinking of all educated people living in a traditionally Christian civilization.[3]
      • And our text for today is part of that legacy – that legacy of the Church trying to set itself apart from and even above Judaism after the death of Christ. The arguments that spurred Paul to write this letter to the churches in Galatia in the first place were the beginnings of that legacy. Paul’s arguments in our text today are part of that legacy. And it’s important that we recognize that legacy and name it for what it is, how it’s been used, and the immeasurable harm that’s been done because of it.
    • Also have to recognize that there’s cultural and historical nuance here that we’re losing because we’re more than two millennia removed from Paul and these words → This text – and many of Paul’s other writings that have to do with Christians differentiating themselves from the Jews – speak about the Law in this way. – text: Before faith came, we were guarded under the Law, locked up until faith that was coming would be revealed, so that the Law became our custodian until Christ so that we might be made righteous by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian.[4] → It sounds like Paul is being pretty negative, doesn’t it? It sounds like Paul is saying the Law – the Jewish Law, the spiritual practices laid out in the Torah that included things like dietary laws, cleansing and purification rituals, laws about observing the Sabbath, and even circumcision … it sounds like Paul is saying the Law is unnecessary, obsolete, inferior. But that’s not true.
      • John Frederick, lecturer in NT at Trinity College Queensland (Australia) – same scholar that I read last week also wrote about this week’s text: Paul did not conceive of Christianity as the replacement of Judaism, but as the fulfillment of the promises of Judaism for the sake of the whole world through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.[5] … Central to the narrative of Galatians—and to the story of salvation throughout the entirety of Holy Scripture—is the truth that Judaism does not exist as a sub-par foil for a superior religion called ‘Christianity.’ Rather, Christianity exists as the gracious fulfillment of the already gracious Judaism. Christianity is the “climax of the covenant,” as N.T. Wright has said, not its cancellation.[6] → Remember, Paul himself was born a Jew and highly educated by Jews. Before his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, he was actually a Pharisee – one of those tasked with adhering to and interpreting the Law of Moses so that his fellow Jews could live lives that were honoring and pleasing to God. à This brings it back to the idea of fulfillment instead of replacement. – text: Understand that in the same way that Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness, those who believe are the children of Abraham. But when it saw ahead of time that God would make the Gentiles righteous on the basis of faith, scripture preached that gospel in advance to Abraham: All the Gentiles will be blessed in you. Therefore, those who believe are blessed together with Abraham who believed.[7]
        • Hear how Paul is honoring the covenant God made with Abraham
        • Hear how Paul is trying to include Gentiles in the fold even all the way back through Scripture – Paul refers to God’s blessing of Abraham and Sarah (Gen 17): I will bless [Sarah] so that she will become nations, and kings of people will come from her.[8] → Heb. “nations” = word that was specifically used for other peoples … pagan peoples … Gentile peoples → So Paul is trying to draw the Gentiles back into the fold using God’s own words of promise to Abraham, the first father of the people of Israel.
  • Central dilemma that Paul is trying to address in today’s text = those other Christians who had come to Galatia trying to convince the churches that their faith didn’t count unless and until the participated in Jewish rituals and followed Jewish Laws → I think we’ve made it clear that Paul’s main issue is not about the flavor of faith, if you will, that brought people to Christ. It’s about the idea that their actions could earn their faith. This is not an argument about Jews vs. Christians. It’s an argument about legalism and the efficacy of grace.
    • Unnamed Christian teachers to the churches in Galatia: “Your faith is only faith if it follows the Law. You can only be part of the fold if you follow the Law. Without the Law, you cannot be a Christian and cannot be saved.” → represents fundamental misunderstanding of the Law
      • Purpose of the Law = to help people of Israel lead lives that were pleasing and honoring to God → a way to put their faith into action, not a way to earn their place with God
        • Today’s text = Paul trying to help the Christians in Galatia understand that, while their faith can be informed by the Law, it cannot be earned by the Law → It’s sort of like that dance workshop Peter and I went to a million years ago. Our movement was inspired and led by the music but informed by the instruction.
      • Yet the Law was being wielding in this way by these unnamed Christians as they attempted to bend the early Galatian churches to their will. But in doing so, they completely negated the purpose of Christ’s coming in the first place: grace – undeserved, unearnable, unconditional grace. A grace that was available for anyone and everyone, regardless of who you are, where you come from, or what you bring with you.
    • Clear in Paul’s words at the end of today’s text: You are all God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus. All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothes yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Now if you belong to Christ, then indeed you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise.[9] → Paul is holding up three of the most stark lines that could be drawn between people in his time – cultural heritage (neither Jew nor Greek), indentured status (neither slave nor free), and gender (neither male nor female) … Paul is holding up these stark lines and saying, “None of these matter when you follow Christ. You are a child of God, a child of the promise. That’s what matters.”
      • John Frederick: Now, clothed in Christ, we are no longer meant to function as autonomous individuals separated along party lines, but as integrated co-communicants knit together in love by the Spirit who makes us one. Our identity is no longer informed and governed by the characteristics of our individual selves in separation from one another. Rather, we are transformed as persons in communion with one another, and we are guided by the characteristics of the Christ in whom we have been clothed. In a season of great national and global division, it is the call of the Church to live out this radical charter of unity in Christ through our union with Christ.[10] → And we get to live out that unity in Christ through our union with Christ not because we’ve earned it. Not because we deserve it. Not because we’ve checked the right boxes or dotted the right I’s or crossed the right T’s but because God’s grace through Christ Jesus has set us free – free to approach God with confidence, free to love one another with hope, free to follow the movement of the Holy Spirit in us and through us. Grace upon grace. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] https://www.uwec.edu/centers/viennese-ball/.

[2] https://www.facinghistory.org/holocaust-and-human-behavior/chapter-11/christian-churches-and-antisemitism-new-teachings.

[3] Jules Isaac. The Teaching of Contempt: Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964), 42.

[4] Gal 3:23-25.

[5] John Frederick. “Commentary on Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/one-in-christ-2/commentary-on-galatians-113-17-211-21-3. Accessed May 16, 2021.

[6] 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 16, 2021.

[7] Gal 3:6-9.

[8] Gen 17:16.

[9] Gal 3:26-29.

[10] John Frederick. “Commentary on Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/one-in-christ-2/commentary-on-galatians-113-17-211-21-3. Accessed May 16, 2021.

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