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Galatians 1:13-17New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.

Galatians 2:11-21New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified 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 be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. 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. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

Sermon for May 21, 2017 Authentically Yours

Anna V. Copeland, Preaching

Texts: Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21

How do we know that we authentically belong? A few years ago I traveled to an area of the country with little public access to walking trails. An early riser, I often pray on my morning walk, a task made more complicated in this unfamiliar place. I hit the quiet streets equipped with my thoughts, journal and pen, looking for a place to reflect. Through open gates ahead, I spotted a bench near a golf course and seeing no one around, sat down to write out something that had come to me in prayer. It took about three minutes for someone to confront me and ask me to move along. After requesting a moment to finish my thought, I left. It was clear that I didn’t belong.

Paul’s letter to the people of Galatia talks a great deal about justification, that is, what it means to belong to God. To be justified is to be made right with God, forgiven, included, now belonging to God through faith by what God does for us, not what we can ever do for ourselves.

From the earliest stories of the church, people of faith have argued about who’s in and who’s out. At first, the arguments were about whether or not club membership was based on being circumcised or not. Jewish men were circumcised as a sign of their commitment and covenant. Did every Gentile or non-Jew who converted have to become Jewish and be circumcised to follow Jesus? Did they have to follow the Jewish law and believe that Jesus was the expected Messiah in order to belong to God?

What were the boundary markers that determined who’s in and who’s out. Those who insisted that you were only justified, that is members in God’s new kingdom in Christ, if you bore the physical marks of Jewishness, pretty much left out most of the world, including all of the women.

How do people know that they belong? In Maine, you have to be born here to truly belong. It’s a state joke, but ask any Mainer and they’ll tell you it’s true. In Boston a word ending with “A” has to be pronounced as if it ends in “er”. My young son Micah was named Miker at a New England summer camp, a nickname that sticks to this day.

A green jacket at the Augusta National Golf Club is an exclusive sign of belonging to a group who has won a Master’s Championship there.

When I first joined the Greeley Rotary decades ago, they handed me my membership pin, a copy of the four-way test and a bill for my first year’s membership. Show up and pay up were two of the requirements for membership. Much more important was a willingness to follow The Four-Way Test, a moral code used by Rotarians world-wide for personal and business relationships. The test can be applied to almost any aspect of life: Is it the truth; Is it fair to all concerned; Will it build goodwill and better friendships; and Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

We all know of schools and clubs that identify members by secret hand-shakes, private rituals or clothing that delineates who’s in and who’s out. But how do we know we belong to God. This was Paul’s chief question in writing to the people of Galatia.

While many of the teachers who followed Paul believed that belonging was a matter of observing Jewish law, Paul imagines belonging very differently. In today’s reading he publicly opposes their view. “Paul preaches that Christ is the source of belonging for all -- whether they are Jews as he and Peter are, or non-Jews as most of Paul’s readers are.

“Paul recounts a conversation he had with Peter in Antioch. The argument was over who had a place at the table and what kind of food would be served (Galatians 2:15-16). Did Peter belong at a table with Gentiles? Did they belong at a meal with him? When Peter waffled on answers to these questions, Paul called him out as a hypocrite. Surely Peter knew better! Paraphrasing Paul, the conversation went something like this: ‘Look, Peter, we are Jews. We love the law and even WE know that keeping it doesn’t create belonging with God for anybody!’” Mary Kinkel Shore

Christians today get all bound up with false criteria for belonging to God as surely as did the earliest followers of Jesus who were trying to figure it out for the first time.

Some people have a test of words, “Have you been saved?” If the person doesn’t say “yes”, then some Christians believe the unsaved haven’t passed the membership test. They keep praying for them. Others look for signs like regular attendance at church or money pledged or participation in boards or committees. Others falsely imagine that belonging to God in Christ has anything to do with how you voted in the last election.  

We start to think that there’s a set of criteria for being a Christian in good standing. Like belonging to Rotary, some say, if you belong to God through Christ, you show up and pay up. You commit to following a moral code, the four-way test. I once had a friend, an attorney and former President of Rotary, who stole money from a trust fund. He had intended to pay the money back but got caught when he couldn’t. He was a good man who got himself sideways. He broke the law and went to jail to be sure, but he also betrayed the sacred trust of his fellow Rotarians when he violated the four-way test. He was out of Rotary, but he will never be outside the grace of God.

It’s not that these criteria are wrong. It’s just that they’re insufficient. Showing up, paying up, following the rules of the club and adopting the special language of insiders is not what justifies us before God. We might think of belonging to God in this way.

Imagine that you’re the beloved child in a big family. Whether you’re the only son, or the only daughter or the youngest, or just the best behaved and the one who causes the least trouble, the peacemaker, you know that you have your parent’s favor. You can tell. You’ve done all the right things, said all the right things. You can even mess up a little from time. Your family position is golden and nothing can take that away from you.

It’s actually a little annoying to you that your parents are willing to pour so many resources down the tubes for that scoundrel of an older sister who’s a drug addict. All the family money goes to her rehab, again. And your parents adopted a younger brother who could not be more different from the rest of you. Everybody struggles hard as your parents patiently and consistently widen the family circle.

Belonging to the family isn’t just a matter of showing up on time for dinner and helping with chores on Saturday and being agreeable about it. These things don’t make you belong, but they ARE part of what is expected to support the family once you’re in. You belong to the family because your parents brought you into it and love you to pieces and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s not up to you to decide how many other kids will be born or who will be adopted. Though it’s clear enough that you are expected to do all that you can to love them and to include them when they come. When you forget how to do that, your older brother Jesus shows you the way.

God loves you unimaginably so and forgives whatever you’ve done or failed to do as part of the family. This frees you from living with the burden of what you woulda, shoulda, coulda done in the past. Belonging isn’t about who you are or what you do. Belonging is about who God is and what God has done in sending you Christ to show you the way.

It’s therefore NOT out of law or duty that we show up. When we KNOW we belong to God, we DO show up and we DO pay up and we DO love up everybody we meet because we can’t help ourselves, so grateful we are to be free to live our most authentic, belonging life.

In a world marked increasingly by inauthenticity, half-truth and the invention of a new term, fake news, this is freedom. God wants us to live authentically as Christians, speaking the truth in love while respecting our differences.

There’s an ad on television for a cash back credit card that demonstrates our yearning for authentic truth, even when it isn’t a message we want to hear.

You’ve seen the ad. A handsome man and gorgeous woman step out of a restaurant where they’ve shared a dinner. She begins their conversation like this:

“I’ve had a wonderful time tonight.”

“Me too.”

“Call me tomorrow?”

He hesitates and then the conversation continues.

“I’m going to send a vague text in a couple of days that leaves you confused about my level of interest.”

And she responds.

“I’ll wait a full two days before responding.”

He helps her into her taxi, saying: “We’re never going to see each other again are we?”

And she quickly replies: “No, no.”

The voiceover for the credit company comes on saying: “Wouldn’t it be great if everyone said what they meant?”

Jesus said what he meant when he welcomed everybody to the dinner table. We’re the ones who keep making up qualifications for membership. We forget we don’t own the club. If we’re lucky God lets us volunteer to work in the clubhouse, serving the guests God chooses to invite, which turns out to be everybody.

We get mixed up sometimes, measuring how we’re doing by how many people show up every week to set the table instead of focusing on who the club serves. We may have 150 people in church on Sunday, working in the clubhouse, but just this past week more than 750 people were served through this church at Table of Plenty and Bible studies, AA and Al-Anon, church school and scouts, the health ministry, two garden clubs and three funerals.

We sometimes get into arguments like Paul with Peter over what we have to believe or say or do to belong. Even St. Peter waffled over how to respond when people argued about who was right. Paul called St. Peter out as a hypocrite for trying to go along to get along instead of standing firmly in his faith. Apparently Peter forgot for a moment that belonging is God’s doing.

I think God wants us to get over ourselves. If you know you belong just show up and do something to welcome the next one in line behind you. Don’t stand there complaining about the service. Do what you can with what you’ve got to make somebody feel like a treasure. You belong to God as Paul belonged to God, not because of anything you’ve done. You belong to God because you belong to God. Period. You know you belong to God because the authentic and unconditional love of Christ revealed this truth to you. Whatever else we may say or do, agree or disagree about, this revelation is non-negotiable and there’s nothing we can do about it.

If you showed up today, welcome home. It doesn’t matter if you’ve come every Sunday for the past seventy years, or today for the very first time. It matters little if you’ve risked coming back after being away for some time, or stepped in tentatively wondering if you’ll be judged for who you are or embraced as a sister a brother in your uniqueness. “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.”

In closing, imagine Jesus speaking the words of Poet Shel Silverstein in his poem “INVITATION”.  “If you are a dreamer, come in.
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
a hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer . . .
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire,
For we have some flax golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in!”            Amen