Faith in the Gospel

This is the gospel; this is grace, and this is glory...

Proper 4c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!

Starting today and for the next five weeks we will read portions of the Letter of Saint Paul to the Galatians. Over these weeks Bill and I are going to take advantage of this semi-continuous reading, to walk with you through this Letter, and to reflect on what it tells us about both Saint Paul and those to whom he wrote it; what it meant for them, and what it still means for us today. And after our worship, we’ll continue our reflections down in the study room, for anyone who wants to continue the discussion in Bible study.

The first thing to notice is that Saint Paul is mad — so mad that he barely finishes writing his return address at the start of the letter before he has launched into a defense and an attack. This is especially striking if you compare the opening verses of this letter with those of his other letters: he usually observes the standard form of first identifying himself, and then briefly stating to whom the letter is addressed, followed by a short prayer or a blessing. But here, just after identifying who the letter is from as “Paul, an apostle” — and before getting to the address and the greeting, he adds a quick parenthetical note in self-defense to assert his authority: that he is an apostle, and moreover one sent neither by human commission or from human authorities, but directly from God; I’m tempted to add, “so there!”

Right from the start, this Letter tells us something about Paul and something about the Galatians. Somebody in Galatia is challenging Paul’s authority; some are saying something along the lines of, “Who is this Paul anyway? Where does he come off calling himself an apostle? He wasn’t one of the twelve, was he? And didn’t he persecute Christians, arresting them and sending them to prison, and even taking part in their execution?”

So right from the start Paul is asserting that he is indeed an apostle and that he is moreover and apostle whose authority comes from God through supernatural agency — and he will tell his story in the passage that we will hear next week about just how this came to be.

But for now, he wants to get right to the point: someone has challenged him, and more importantly, challenged his gospel. Someone or ones are preaching a different gospel contrary to what Paul has been preaching. He will get to the details of this false gospel soon, but right here he sets the stage: there is no other true gospel than the one he has preached, and he even summarizes it in these first verses. Just as he included his self-defense of his apostolic status in his return address, when he comes to the address to the Galatians and the greeting, he says, “To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ...” but then he rushes right from that into a summary form of the gospel that he has preached: “...the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (So there! again you might well say.)

This is Paul’s gospel, which he will expand upon later in the letter: that everyone, Jew or Greek, slave or free, man or woman, is saved through the sacrifice of Christ who gave himself for our sins even to death on the cross. This is the gospel he has been preaching throughout his ministry, about which his other letters bear testimony: we are not saved by ourselves, we are saved from ourselves, by God in Christ, by grace, through faith in him who died and was raised.

So why had this become a particular problem for the people of Galatia. Well, many if not most of them were Gentiles by ancestry. Someone had been telling them — and we will get the details later in the letter— that it wasn’t enough to accept Jesus Christ as your Savior, and to put your whole trust in his grace through faith; but that one had to earn salvation through the works of the law, in particular the law of Moses, which for men included circumcision.

As I say, we will get more details on this later in the epistle, but for now I want to highlight the fact that for Paul this entirely misses the point of grace, and it squarely contradicts his gospel, the gospel he has been preaching all that time. Salvation comes to us from God, and all we need do is turn to God in faith to receive it.

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We are helped to understand this by the other Scripture readings appointed for this day. We have a portion of King Solomon’s prayer to dedicate the temple he has constructed as a dwelling place for God in Jerusalem. This portion of the prayer asks for God’s grace upon all foreigners — all Gentiles — who turn their eyes and hearts and minds towards God and his dwelling and put their trust and faith in him, that God will hear their prayer, even though they are not followers of the Jewish law. Solomon understood God to be the God of the whole world, the Lord of everyone in it — King of kings and Lord of lords. And he beseeches God to hear the prayers of any foreigner, any Gentile, who turns towards God, and to answer that prayer with blessing.

Then, in the gospel, we hear the beautiful story of the faithful centurion — again, not a Jew but a Gentile, a Roman; one who has done much good for the Jewish community but who has not himself undergone the rite of circumcision required for any Gentile male to become a Jew. Here we have a specific example of a foreigner who has turned towards God — and in this case he has turned to God incarnate, Jesus Christ himself — making an appeal, not for himself, but for the sake of his sick servant, and doing so on the basis of trust and faith that the prayer will be answered, the request will be fulfilled. He recognizes his own unworthiness, but still he is not afraid to ask in faith, and knowing that Jesus has the power to grant his petition. Jesus gives the verdict on this astonishing case, “Not even in Israel have I seen such faith.”

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Such texts as these should have warmed the hearts of the Galatians — most of them Gentiles and foreigners to the Jewish way of life. These were a part of the promise that it is in turning towards God that they are saved, not by the works of the law. As will see in the coming weeks, a different gospel has been circulating among them, and people have been trying to undercut Paul’s authority by questioning both his pedigree and his gospel. But he will continue to press his case, both reasserting his authority and reaffirming the truth of the message that he has preached to the Galatians and will continue to preach throughout his ministry: that all are saved by grace through faith, by Christ who died and was raised — and not by the works of the law.

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And what about us? We who are, after all, all of us, Gentiles? We are here because we too have placed our trust and our faith in Jesus Christ our Lord, our Lord and our God. It is he who has saved us and not we ourselves. We too are assailed by “different” gospels — though they may not call themselves that. We are assailed by those who tell us that we will find happiness in the right car, the right video-game console, the right deodorant, the right restaurant, the right smart-phone, the right political party. We are told that we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, lose weight with the right pill, learn a new language with the right computer program, get luscious hair with the right shampoo; we can even increase our testosterone if it’s gotten too low — all of these instrumentalities and products, combined with our own initiative, will make us happier people. Such is the gospel promise of today’s secular evangelists.

But in the long run these are as contrary to Paul’s gospel as that preached by those Galatian troublemakers. All these various things may occupy our time, but they will never make us better people. They may bring passing relief, but cannot heal the wound of division that separates us from God. Only one is capable of doing that, and all we need do is accept him. For he has done it for us already, two thousand years ago. He has, indeed, given us a commandment, most importantly that new commandment that we should love each other as he has loved us. But that commandment isn’t what saves us; what saves us is him: Jesus Christ, his death on the cross, and his rising to life again.

He has invited us to turn towards him, as the foreigners of old turned towards the temple in Jerusalem, as the centurion turned toward Jesus in his need and sent to bid healing for his servant. Jesus invites us to turn towards him, to stretch out our hands and to receive his body and blood, to take and eat, to take and drink. And we could do worse than recall those words, first spoken by the centurion, as we do so, words said in devotion even as we take that bread and take that cup: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed.” This is the gospel; this is grace, and this is glory.+