Law and Grace

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost
Galatians 1:1-12

Over the next month or so, the lectionary is going to have us working our way through Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Tonight we heard the opening twelve verses of the letter, and if as you listened you thought Paul was sounding at first a bit defensive and then almost aggressive, you’d be right. Even before he offers his opening greeting of “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” he’s been careful to make a point about his personal credentials. The letter opens rather bluntly:

Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the members of God’s family who are with me; To the churches of Galatia.

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It is striking that Paul includes this in his very opening sentence; that he’s an apostle sent not through human authority “but through Jesus Christ and God the Father.” Bearing in mind that he’s sending this letter to a group of Galatian churches he himself has founded, why do you suppose he needs to make that point right off the top? As you read on, an answer begins to take shape. “I am astonished,” he writes, “that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.” Ah, there it is. Paul is writing to this circle of church communities, because he’s evidently been alerted to the fact that they’ve backed away from what he’d taught them—“deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ” is how he puts it—and putting stock in the teachings of some other teachers who—Paul says—“want to pervert the gospel of Christ.”

As he ramps up the force of his writing, he even curses those who “proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you;” he’s mad as a wet hen, in other words, and as the epistle continues his anger will flare up several times. Whatever else it might mean to be named a saint, in Paul’s case it clearly has nothing to do with his having somehow moved beyond such basic human emotions as anger and frustration. But frankly he doesn’t much care how the recipients of his letter read his tone; “am I trying to please people?” he asks rhetorically, and then adds, “If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Come hell or high water, he’s going to stand by the truth he received “through a revelation of Jesus Christ”…

Over the next five weeks as we work our way through pieces of this epistle, one of the things that will become abundantly clear is that Paul’s impassioned defense of himself is largely born of compassion for the people in those Galatian churches. He’s mad, not simply because other teachers have come through the area and effectively challenged the integrity of his teaching and proclamation, but because these others have loaded a burden on the shoulders of the Galatians that simply shouldn’t be there. That burden is sufficiently heavy that it is going to damage people; metaphorically speaking, if they keep carrying the burden it will begin to crush the vertebrae in the Body’s spinal column.

But again, he is freely expressing some real and very human frustration and anger here, and I take some comfort in recognizing that. His personality does come through in his writings; there’s no sense in which he feels it necessary to pull back the reins on his passion, nor that the Spirit of God is unable or unwilling to use his words in all of their emotional force.

For this week I won’t dig too much further into the epistle, other than to say that the issue at stake—the burden Paul thinks is being placed on the shoulders of that circle of churches—is all about the tension between law and grace. That question is of course tangled up in issues of Jew and Gentile, and specifically whether or not Gentiles Christians must also become torah-observant Jews. Paul’s answer is a definitive and resounding NO!, and here in this brief epistle of less than 150 verses, he will explain why he’s so definitive on this point.

With that in view, isn’t it fitting that the Gospel reading for the day tells of a healing that transcends the existing dividing lines of Jew and Gentile? And that it involves not simply any Gentile, but the slave of a Roman centurion, on officer in the hated occupying army. Other details in the narrative are also worth noting. “When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave.” Now there’s something interesting; the centurion sent Jewish elders to speak on his behalf; elders who are prepared to advocate for him. “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” So this centurion is not merely tolerant of the Jews whose land his army occupies, he’s in a kind of supportive relationship with them, and one that honours their religious practices; honours the thing that most makes them who they are.

And then another level is added to the narrative, for “when Jesus was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.’” “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof,” which may in part be a nod to the reputation Jesus has gained as a teacher and healer, but it might also be a respectful acknowledgement that for a Jew to enter the home of a Gentile is to breach the Jewish purity codes. It might indicate, in other words, that this centurion not only knows the cultural and religious practices of those whose land his army occupies, but he also respects them.

And then as part of the message he’s sent to Jesus, he adds something that sounds not unlike something Jesus might have himself said. Drawing on his everyday experience in terms that are almost parable-like, the centurion says “I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me.” What is explicitly said is this: I know what its like to give orders and have them obeyed. What he implies, though, is that just as he is “a man set under authority”, so too is Jesus. As a centurion his authority comes from his superiors. As a man of God and a source of truth and healing, Jesus clearly has authority, and it can only come from God.

It is quite a statement for anyone to make, much less a Roman centurion. Yet it is Jesus’ own reaction that is truly extraordinary. “When Jesus heard this he was amazed at the centurion, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’” As G.B. Caird notes in his commentary, “It must have given Luke great pleasure to record that the highest praise ever uttered by Jesus was addressed to a Gentile.” It must have pleased Luke, because Luke was very much on the same page with Paul on the full inclusion of the Gentiles.

And while the Letter to the Galatians was written a decade or more before Luke composed his Gospel account, I suspect Paul knew the story and that he took great delight in how it pre-figured the truth of the radical gospel inclusion to which he was so passionately committed. As Jesus had unburdened that centurion’s servant from the illness that threatened his life, so Paul desired to unburden the Galatian communities, and set them free to live fully the proclamation of grace; the very grace that Paul himself had encountered on the Damascus road, and which had set him free.

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