Saturday, 19 June 2010
Putting on clothes that we know are too small may seem daft but it’s surprising how often, as Christians, we behave as if we have never grown up! Paul’s letter is not to any single church in Galatia but to a number of churches in that region. He is concerned that quite a few Christians are still trying to please God by sticking to a set of rules or laws which provided direction and restraint, but did not encourage FAITH. Faith is the mark of maturity which the law prescribed and in doing so the law kept Israel under restraint. The response of the people was by and large adolescent rebellion. Israel did not humble themselves the law exposed their sin and held them under restraint until God took away their blindness and gave them a heart to trust him (Jeremiah 24:7).
So Paul attempts to put the record straight. He tells the Galatians that God knows only too well that following a law would prove difficult to do all the time and although God made a covenant, a contract with Abraham it was only intended to be the start of the journey which reached its destination with the arrival of Jesus Christ.
In the time of the Romans a certain slave called a paidagogos, (a tutor/schoolmaster) would have the responsibility for supervising and correcting the children of the family. When the children grew older, they had learned how to behave and now dealt directly with their father and were responsible to him for their actions. A paidagosos did not have the power to make the child’s heart good, nor can he give the child his inheritance.
This is the idea that Paul was trying to get across to the Churches in Galatia. The law could act as a guide but it was only a start, a sort of teacher, which could go just so far in preparing anyone for a relationship with God the Father. Paul emphasised that it was only faith in Jesus which made a person acceptable to God. To say ‘I have faith in Jesus Christ’ and then continue to live according to the law was the same as a Roman person, having grown up and being told they were now free to develop a relationship with their father, ignoring that freedom and going back to the slave for guidance.
We have a similar choice to make, in the same way that we wouldn’t buy clothes that were intended for someone a lot younger or smaller than ourselves, neither should we say we want a relationship with God the Father, turn up for church on Sundays and then ignore the freedom that we have through Jesus to chat with God and ask for his help Monday to Saturday. If we try to live our lives by superstition, performing rituals or attempting to earn God’s favour by doing good things, we are ignoring what Jesus has done for us?
Just as we no longer make animal sacrifices, as was required under the law, nor are we expected to perform a complex ritual to get God’s attention. Jesus’ sacrifice meant that we can have a relationship with God, anywhere, anytime. Perhaps it is time to experience some of that freedom which faith in Jesus brings?
With this freedom though comes responsibility. It is not a freedom where we can do what we like and ignore the laws and rules which keep us safe from harm etc, it is a freedom that comes from God and is dependent on what we are towards the law-giver – God. If we have a heart to trust God and rely on his mercy, then the law will feel like a much needed dose of medicine from a wise and beloved doctor. ‘This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.’ (1 John 5: 3) For Israel abiding by the laws was a large burdensome job description for earning their favour with God because it did not meet with faith. For us Christians we abide by the law because we love Him.
Those of us that drive will have a some point before taking our test read and memorised as much as possible the highway code. We have become familiar with many of the signs although hardly anybody can say they know what every sign means. If we tried to live by the highway code, we would be stopping the car every few miles to refer to the book to find out what the sign meant. Most people who drive hardly ever refer to the highway code (although driving through London yesterday, perhaps some people need to!); they use their experience to get around safely. Although they know what most of the signs mean, they recognise that they are only a guide. To drive safely takes more than simply knowing what the signs mean.
Having faith in Jesus needs more than a reliance on the Bible. The Bible is an important document which helps us to understand what God did and how other people related to God, but it is a guide. A relationship with God is a living experience, one to be shared daily. A relationship that needs to nurtured even on the days when we don’t feel like it.
Having faith in Jesus unites us to him that all the benefits he can give become ours. God appears to us through Jesus and we are saved. We are saying yes to being his eternal child, to wearing his robes of righteousness, to accepting his love, mercy and forgiveness. As we honour and trust Him, God can not turn himself away or deny us. We are his and we are no longer under the law. We have freedom to be His children. It does not mean that ‘anything goes’ in terms of how we live. We do not have to strive to become good enough, we never could and we will certainly never be. But it does mean that we are the serve in God’s mission to respect, love, forgive and serve all God’s people, whoever they are.
1. In those days it was common to send a child to school in the company of a household servant who was big and strong enough to keep the child safe while walking through town. The servant was called a custodian (paidagogos in Greek – literally “one who walks with”) The custodian would take the child to school and meet the child after, assuring the child’s safety. This would happen until the child was big enough and strong enough to fend for himself. Paul says this is what the law was like.
a. How does the law keep us safe?
b. How will we know when we are big enough and strong enough to make it on our own?
c. Using the example of the law as a custodian, if we live by grace and not the law, who watches out for us? Who is our custodian?
2. In vs 28 Paul makes an astounding statement in his time – that in Christ, there is no longer a difference between Jews and Gentiles, slaves or free, or men or women, but we are all equal in Christ! Rather, he says, we are all one, united in Christ. a. In a community that was split over the Gentile/Jew issue, how do you imagine this was received?
b. Paul wrote these words close to 2000 years ago. We did not start ordaining women as priest until 1973. Why do you think it took so long to put these words into practice?
3. What are the implications of us all being equal in Christ?
4. What does being one in Christ imply for your faith and your life?
We have today a very interesting and, indeed, very moving pair of readings. The letter to the Galatians is the first letter we possess from the hand of Paul, full of personal detail and autobiography. But in the passage set for today he throws himself into furious theological debate about the place of the Jewish ritual law in the newly born Christian faith. His conclusion could hardly be clearer – it has no place at all in helping us to please God. He concludes: “If righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing.”
His argument won the day, which is why we don’t attempt to please God by observing Jewish law and practice. His arguments in this particular passage will appear somewhat complicated to the untutored eye, but in the Gospel passage from Luke 7, which I have just read, we see it beautifully illustrated. It is the story of a Jewish holy man, named Simon, who (as a Pharisee) keeps all the rules and regulations, and believes he is living a life pleasing to God; and a woman who (it seems) is not too good at keeping any of them, but demonstrates other qualities. By the end we are in no doubt as to which one pleases God and gains a place in his kingdom through her relationship with Jesus. It’s a deeply moving story, told with masterful detail and simplicity. It teaches us so much about what pleases God and gains us a place in his kingdom.
To put yourself in the picture, you have to forget your average Camberley dinner party! It obviously wasn’t exactly a private dinner at all, or the woman would hardly have managed to gate-crash. Jesus wasn’t welcomed into some inner sanctum with all the normal greeting, washing and kissing. This meal was served in the courtyard of Simon’s house, and it was an accepted practice for passers by to wander in and out.
As in Roman practice, they were reclining on low couches, supporting themselves on their left elbow and eating with their right hand, while their legs were stretched out behind them.
So the woman can approach Jesus from behind without interrupting the meal or the conversation. Clearly she has heard him preach in public and teach about the kingdom of God, where all sinners would be welcome through the forgiveness of sins. She is so moved by what she has heard, and that even she might be accepted into God’s kingdom and her sins forgiven – (and undoubtedly not only by that radical message), but by Jesus’ stature and authority and the godliness of his very presence, that she has come with the plan of kneeling at his feet and anointing them with precious ointment.
But when the moment arrives, she is completely overcome. Instead of a dignified anointing, her tears simply start to flow uncontrollably on to his feet, and to dry them, she commits the huge social blunder of letting down her hair and using her loose hair to wipe his feet dry. That was little less than social scandal. In that society, a woman bound up her hair on her wedding day and would never appear again in public with it loose. Eventually, with her hair down and her tears flowing, she does what she has come for, and anoints his feet with the alabaster.
Simon is the one who really tries to live by God’s law and observes all the ritual rules which have been derived from it over the years. We have basically no reason to think that he is not a good man, a moral man with high standards, and perhaps a pillar of the community. He has every reason to believe that his life and behaviour please God – and no doubt from an ethical point of view – they do. And this is in no way to be derided. Being a Christian through faith in Christ does not mean you can do anything you like, as Paul makes clear again and again.
What, then, is it that differentiates the woman (who will enter God’s kingdom), and Simon, who (in his present state) will not? Jesus gives us the answer in two words – love and faith. These are the two things without which it is impossible to please God, however upright and moral our lives may be.
The woman has seen in Jesus, and heard in his teaching, something which appears to have passed Simon by completely. Simon seems to be conscious of no sin, apart from the odd misdemeanour, and therefore feels he is justified before God by his own life and behaviour. The woman knows herself to be a failure before God with no claim to self-justification, but has
somehow grasped that – through Jesus – she is forgiven and accepted, and therefore has been given the power to change. She can feel her whole life being renewed from within.
And as that realisation sweeps over her consciousness, what pours out of her heart is simply love. Love for the one who has made this possible and changed her life. And God’s heart goes out to her, and hers goes out to Jesus. She has been saved by faith in him, and her sins are all forgiven. There could be no more dramatic or moving illustration of what pleases God and who is welcome in his kingdom.
With that in our minds, back to Paul. He too was a Pharisee, and as he lists in his letter to the church at Philippi, he could tick every single box in the list of practices, rituals and actions which the Jewish religion believed pleased God. And then came the Damascus Road. Suddenly, as Paul was to repeat over and over again, he understood himself to be what he called the ‘chief of sinners’. He came to see himself in just the same light as the woman in Luke’s story. From God’s standpoint he did not have a leg to stand on in terms of self-justification. The only thing in the whole world which made him acceptable to God was his trust in Jesus and that, through Jesus’ death on the cross, he could receive the forgiveness of sins.
And he can be just as emotional about this realisation as the woman in the story. Listen to him as he speaks straight from the heart in verse 20:: “The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
If we ask ourselves, ‘what is it that pleases God?’, there is the only possible answer – faith and love. The great truth Simon needed to learn, and the woman and Paul knew from personal experience, is summed up in the hymn we have just sung:
All I once held dear, built my life upon,
All this world reveres and wars to own,
All I once thought gain, I have counted loss –
Spent and worthless now, compared to this;
Knowing you, Jesus, knowing you,
There is no greater thing;
You’re my all, my righteousness,
And I love you, Lord.
If that woman, or Paul, were here today, they would surely be singing that with all their heart.
Now we are not all people to whom tears flow naturally or find it easy to be emotional. But that doesn’t mean that the essential truth of this story can’t sink deep into our consciousness. No matter how good a life we think we are living, what God is longing for is our personal response. God showed us the depth of his love by the death of Jesus on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. He wants us to accept that – each one personally. What he looks for is an answer that comes from the heart – faith and love – that simply says ‘Thank you, Lord’ – now I am empowered to live a new life in which your love shines through, and by your grace, I enter your kingdom for all eternity.
1. If you re-read the passage from Galatians 2, after considering the story in Luke 7, do you find you can understand it better? Are there verses you don’t understand?
2. What strikes you most in the story in Luke 7? Can you explain why?
3. Can you share with the group the most important thing you have learned from these two passages?
Wednesday, 16 June 2010
Paul is writing to the members of the church he founded in Galatia. He is deeply upset. This is not because they are going back to Judaism, or abandoning the faith. Rather, they are being influenced by and are listening to people who are advocating a brand new faith: a synthesis of Judaism and the new cult of Jesus. He must defend both the message and the status of the messenger.
His first point is that the message is revealed by God. Paul has not dreamed it up, or invented it. He has most certainly not read it in a book or been told it by another man. Rather, Jesus himself revealed it to Paul. It is not a matter of what seems reasonable to us to believe; we accept the message of God’s love as a gift.
It was not Paul’s idea to pass the message on. Paul passes on three important tips for every Christian:
Every one of us is being called to follow Jesus, and to serve him. It is not our idea, or a whim or passing fancy. God knew you before you were born. He had a purpose in mind for you, if you would choose to fall into line with it.
It is a gift from God. There are many who are held back from serving God, because they have convinced themselves that they are not worthy enough or talented enough; “God could never use me”. The truth is, however, that God freely chooses whom he will; he forgives and cleanses. Then he equips. All the praise goes to him. We do not get the credit, but we are freed from worrying about our inadequacies.
This is not just to give us an enjoyable time. Jesus’ purpose was to use Paul to reach out his love to those outside the then accepted normal sphere. He has a purpose for each of us.
1. St Michael’s has five values: which one do you feel we are concentrating on this week, and why?
2. What are the similarities between us and Paul? What are the differences?
3. What are the things you feel called to? What excites you or fires your passion? Where might God be leading you? (Do not be afraid to think the unthinkable!)
1. Make a note of different people’s responses, aspirations, hopes, dreams. Are there any things that it might be helpful to speak to Bruce about?
2. Make time to pray for each other during the meeting, that we will each know our calling, and have grace to respond.