This is part one in a three-week mini series on Galatians from the Narrative Lectionary. The text is Galatians 1:13-17, 2:11-21 where Paul establishes that salvation is not dependent upon the Works of the Law, but on the faith of Jesus Christ.
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A couple weeks ago I had the privilege to meet the Confirmation students for the first time.
It was their last night of confirmation for the year and my first night of Confirmation at Easter, so we spent the time playing games and getting to know each other.
I told some of my story, which included the fact that I was born in a suburb of Detroit, MI and lived in the Detroit area until I was a sophomore in high school.
I opened it up for questions at the end, and one girl raised her hand. She gave me this really intense look and I was worried about what her question might be. She stared at me, as if the answer to this question would determine whether she would be willing to accept me as her pastor or not.
With brows deeply furrowed, she asked,
“Are you a Tigers fan?”
I was so relieved, because I could honestly say, with all my heart, that I am not a Detroit Tigers fan.
She smiled and was satisfied that I’d be OK.
Of course, what kind of fan should I be, according to her?
A Twins fan, of course.
Isn’t it interesting how we get so passionate about sports teams.
Sometimes the jersey we wear can either unite us or divide us from people. There are the good guys, and everybody else.
Why do we do this? I think it stems from one of the core human questions.
How do I know that I belong?
It doesn’t matter how old you are, when you go to a new place, you ask yourself if you will fit in.
During the Easter season, we have been studying the book of Acts with the Theme Do Something.
I think there has been a sub-theme that has emerged through the study. It has to do with this question about belonging.
The early church started with Jewish people who were all pretty similar to each other. Soon, however, the church started to spread to non-Jewish people, referred to as “The Gentiles” by Jewish people. This made a lot of Jewish people very uncomfortable.
Today, we continue the series by jumping from the book of Acts into the Apostle Paul’s letter to the churches in a region called Galatia.
We know it as the book of the Bible called Galatians.
There is something you need to know about me.
I am an artist and a visual thinker. I have to draw things in order to understand them, so quite often I will have drawings as part of my sermon. I hope you don’t mind.
This is a picture that summarizes the first chapter of Galatians.
Paul is kind of frustrated with the churches in Galatia.
Many of them are Gentiles and have no connection to Judaism at all. Yet, there was a group of teachers who were going around to the churches that Paul started and trying to the convince the Gentile followers of Jesus that they had to become Jewish before they could truly belong to the church.
Paul was not pleased.
He spends a little time in this chapter explaining his story and how he met Jesus and was taught directly by the Holy Spirit, so his voice has authority.
Then, he tells the story of how he stood up to the Apostle Peter when Peter started being a jerk toward the Gentile believers.
The heart of this passage is found in chapter 2, verses 15-16.
You’ll see here that there is a key word that is repeated three times.
This is one of those words that has been used and misused and debated for so long that it can be confusing and intimidating.
What does it mean when Paul says, “we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”
Mary Hinkle Shore is a Bible professor, and she suggests that we find a better translation of this word that might be more helpful.
She says we should replace the word with Belongs.
Let’s read this passage together with this word.
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person belongs not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might belong by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will belong by the works of the law.
You see, this passage is all about that important question,
“How do I know when I belong?”
I want to explore Paul’s answer to this question by borrowing an idea from a missionary scholar named Paul Hiebert.
He uses an analogy from Mathematics and Set Theory to describe two ways that people can know if they belong.
Here we see a bunch of different people of all shapes and colors. This represents the diversity of humanity.
One way that people can know they belong is if they are exactly the same as everyone else in the group. They share the same moral and cultural codes, and draw a hard, rigid boundary around themselves.
This helps to determine, very clearly, who is “in” the group and who is “out” of the group.
This is called a bounded set.
That’s what had happened to some Jewish people in Paul’s day.
Many Jewish people believed that the way you knew you belonged to God was if you followed “the Works of the Law”
These were cultural practices that clearly marked you as different from the Greeks and Romans. The two most important works of the Law were circumcision and rules about food—what you could and could not eat.
Paul reminded the Galatians that he was raised this way. He was so convinced that the only people who were “in” with God were the Jewish people who practiced the works of the Law, that he was willing to imprison and kill people who broke outside of these boundaries.
Then Paul encountered Jesus and everything changed.
Here’s what I think Paul is suggesting.
Another way to talk about knowing how you belong to a group is to talk about what is at the center.
The only determining factor is whether you are oriented toward the center or away from it. Cultural differences mean very little in this situation. People from radically different cultures can all belong to the same center.
and the boundaries of this set are porous and permeable and always moving.
This is known as a centered set.
I think this is the picture of the church and what Paul was pressing for in this letter.
To belong to the church is not to abandon your culture and become a different culture, but is to reorient your life from within your culture to follow the ways of Jesus and experience the love and grace of God through him.
This is why Paul says, “through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.”
Let’s read this next part together.
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.
this reminds us of what Jesus said in the Gospel of John,
For God so love the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to comdemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
and then, he said, John chapter 10,
the thief come only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
The message of Jesus throughout the Gospel of Luke, and the message of the book of Acts and the message of the letter to the Galatians is that God’s love is expansive and it embraces the whole world.
People don’t know that you’re a Christian because of the t-shirt you wear or a list of rules you obey.
They know you by the one you follow and the love you share.
Jesus’ life and teaching offers us a centering point,
and the power of God’s Spirit works, even with those who resist and patiently invites and nudges.
That is why our challenge this week is to remember that our salvation is a gift from God that sets us free.
God does not call us to live in fear and to follow a list of oppressive rules. God invites us to focus on the example of Jesus, to live in freedom so that you can love God with your whole heart and love your neighbor.
This week, I encourage you to Do Something to Embrace Life.
Talk to a neighbor and share this amazing gift of God’s love and forgiveness with someone who needs to hear the good news.