This is the greeting Paul uses to begin his letter to the Galatians,
which we begin to read this morning, and continue reading over the next five weeks.
As we read these opening paragraphs – and, further into the letter, Paul’s words about law and freedom, circumcision and uncircumcision, Jews and gentiles – we might wonder what is going on for Paul and those long-ago followers of Jesus.
I thought it would be good to take a closer look at what this letter is all about,
and what is a stake here for Paul, the Galatians – and for us.
The first thing to note is that this is a letter.
Do you remember, back in your school days, learning about writing letters?
A saluation, the body of the letter, a closing, a signature.
And if it’s a formal letter, there are more expectations – the addresses of sender and receiver appear at the top of the letter, along with the date, and the greeting and closing are more formal.
There were similar expectations for letters written in the ancient world,
and Paul follows such forms.
First the sender identifying him or herself – so he starts with “Paul, an apostle . . .”
Then he identifies to whom he is writing – to the churches of Galatia.
The greeting follows – Grace and peace to you . . .
Typically, this is followed by a thanksgiving, and Paul is known for some prolonged and effusive thanksgivings in many of his letters.
To the Philippians: “ I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you
Or to the Corinthians: “ I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus
So the first indication that there is something significant going on here is that this letter skips the thanksgiving altogether – and in the place where the Galatians expect to hear words of appreciation, instead they hear:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel”
Uh oh. That doesn’t sound good.
It is clear that Paul is really upset with the Galatians.
He accuses them of abandoning the gospel he taught them in favor of what someone else is teaching.
But he’s not just mad that they are listening to someone else and he is not getting his way.
He is concerned for them – he truly believes that they are missing a fundamental point of faith, which, for him, makes a huge difference in their lives, as individuals and as a community of faith in Christ.
Here’s what is happening.
Paul visited Galatia, and preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and many came to believe.
A church formed there, and Paul continued on his travels to spread the word to new places – but stayed in touch with his spiritual friends in Galatia.
Now he has heard that new teachers have come to Galatia, and they are teaching the fledgling church that, in order to follow Jesus, they need to become Jews.
The men need to be circumcised, they need to keep the dietary laws and all the other Jewish law – in short, they must first make a full conversion to Judaism, before they can follow Christ.
And Paul isn’t having it.
Paul is convinced that the gospel of Jesus Christ is available to Jews and Gentiles –
in fact, his own mission is to preach to the Gentiles, to invite people who do not follow the laws and ways of Judaism into the Way of Jesus Christ.
He believes this is the reason Christ appeared to him,
the purpose for which he was called to preach the gospel.
So he introduces himself in this letter by saying “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 again, at the end of today’s reading, “For I want you to know . . . that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”
You will remember that unlike most of the apostles, such as Peter and John,
Paul never met Jesus in person –
Jesus appeared to him in a vision – knocked from his horse on the road to Damascus –
and sometimes, in his letters, he speaks of meeting the risen Christ “face to face.”
Jesus appeared to Saul, and on that day his life changed, along with his name,
and he gave his life entirely to proclamation of the gospel which had set him free –
free from his former life of fulfilling the law, being the perfect Pharisee,
from violence and fear of this new religion –
free for a new life of faith and purpose.
That is exactly what Paul believes is at stake here.
That is why Paul is so angry, and so passionate.
It’s not about circumcision.
It’s not because the Jewish faith is bad, or the law is wrong.
It’s because the new teachers have set an obstacle in front of the people of Galatia –
a hoop they must jump through before they can be followers of Jesus.
And Paul won’t accept that.
Paul lays out the theme of his letter in the opening lines:
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 at Galatia: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free”
Paul starts his argument right here, and continues it for four chapters.
Christ gave himself so that we might be free.
Our freedom is based only on what God has done in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In a few weeks we will read, from chapter two of the book of Galatians,
these beautiful words of Paul:
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Paul is telling the Gentile believers that they are full members of God’s household,
without any other condition or obligation on their part.
Paul is absolutely convinced that Christ is sufficient –
that nothing else is needed to become a part of the body of Christ.
In the first four chapters of Galatians, Paul lays out his arguments for our freedom,
based solely on our acceptance of what Jesus has done for us.
Then, he turns to a different theme -
for what are we set free?
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
You do not follow the law in order to be saved.
But once you have heard the gospel, once you have received the gift of salvation,
What comes next, Paul says, is to live like Christ.
To allow Christ to live in you, to care for one another,
to share God’s love with your neighbors.
So, here we are –
far from Galatia and centuries removed from Paul and the fledgling church.
What does this letter have to say to us today?
I think, everything.
Because we still struggle with setting obstacles to faith for one another, and for ourselves.
We still face limits on who is welcome in Christian community.
Many of us have faced such barriers in other places,
and found our way here to find welcome and community.
Yet we still struggle, as much as we try, to bring down all the human barriers we place between our neighbors and their full participation with us in this place.
We need to pay attention to the ways we send subtle messages about who is and is not welcome here, and continue to pull down all obstacles to people who are not yet here with us.
There are also the internal barriers we face.
Am I good enough?
I know Jesus loves all these people – but surely he can’t really accept me, like this,
with my mental illness, addiction, debts, lies, messed up family . . .
All that talk of freedom and grace – it’s beautiful, but it can’t mean me.
And that’s where Galatians comes in – with those beautiful words,
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus
There is no longer gay or straight or trans, no longer rich or poor, no longer democrat or republican – there is no longer insider and outsider,
because all are welcomed into God’s family.
Christ gave his life that we might be free.
We don’t have to conform to someone else’s idea of what a Christian looks like.
We don’t have to be good enough.
What we do have to do is accept the grace and freedom God offers us -
to accept love, and forgiveness, and the chance for new beginnings.
And then we take that love and give it to the world.
That is freedom.
Freedom to love, to give, to share who we are and what we have,
knowing we will never be perfect,
knowing we will never get it just right,
but doing it anyway, because we are set free in Christ.
And it is enough.
That is the gospel on which Paul, literally, stakes his life.
That is the good news he offers to change our lives, 2000 years later.
You are saved.
You are free – freed by love, freed for love.
Go out into the world to live your freedom in love for one another.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters.