A staple feature of women’s magazine’s is the makeover. We get the “before” picture, with the disorganized closet, the unflattering haircut or the dated clothes. Then the experts take over, and we see the “after” picture of the functional closet, the arresting haircut, or the stylish new clothes. One magazine, bowing to reality, used to have three categories, before, after and “thirty days later,” which showed how the makeover actually worked out in real life, once the experts went home. It turns out that change is hard to sustain when you have to do it yourself.
In this letter to the Galatian church, Paul begins with his own before and after pictures. Once he was a dedicated Jew, involved in violent persecution of the followers of Jesus. Then, after God’s revelation to him, he became an evangelist for Jesus.
You can read Mary Hinkle Shore’s commentary for Working Preacher here.
Read the scripture here.
Paul is writing about how we decide who’s “in” and who’s “out” in the life of faith. Every religion has boundaries, and Paul argues for a different one. There is no requirement for the new converts, he insists. They are welcome as they are.
Paul has an acute sense of God’s stunning grace. Because of his own transformation, he knows that faith in Jesus is the only thing necessary to be made whole by God. Here he makes his case that the rules he followed all of his life, as a faithful Jew, aren’t necessary for new converts to the faith. “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,” he says. “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” We are made right with God through our faith in Jesus, and nothing needs to be added to that.
If we believe him, our church lives might be dramatically different.
In her commentary for Working Preacher, Mary Hinkle Shore suggests the following idea: “To help recover some of the pastoral concern of the letter for 21st-century readers, I propose the following thought experiment: read the argument about “justification” as an argument over what it means to belong to the people of God. Replace the words “justify” and “justification” with “belong” and “belonging”.”
The converts in the Galatian churches were being told that they needed to follow the rules of Jewish life to also follow Jesus. There was an entrance exam to the faith. We give people the same message, in other forms. You must serve on a committee, be a deacon, or attend 11:00 worship in nice clothes to be accepted by God. We don’t say that, of course, but manage to convey it to people so they know they need to work hard for the church, and give generously.
Paul’s passionate letter prompts us to wonder again what requirements we’re adding on to the simple, dramatic gift of grace, and whether we’re making faith more complicated than Paul found it to be. If Christ now lives in each of us, as Paul reminds us, how do our lives reflect that transformation? Is there enough of a “before” and “after” in us that people can see what God has done?
The sermon might explore:
- Paul is talking about the bigger question of who belongs in the faith community, and who doesn’t. In your faith community, how do people know they belong? The sermon might explore the practices that let people know they belong – or don’t – in your faith community.
- Do we believe Paul? Do we believe that faith in Jesus is enough for us? Or do we feel like we need to add just a little bit more to be sure? It sounds good, but maybe we need to work long hours at the church just to be sure, maybe we need a fancy title, maybe we need to lead a group…our add-ons can be endless. How do we live with this deep freedom Paul offers us?
- If we don’t give people a sense of obligation about participating in church life, would there still be a church as we know it? Or would we move toward different forms of church? Would we have a building, and committees, and programs?
- Paul’s life has a pronounced change from his original hatred of the Jesus followers to his tireless work as an evangelist among the Gentile converts. Do you see changes in your congregation, growing out of your faith in Jesus? Do you have a “before” and “after” story to tell?
Where are your thoughts taking you this week? We would love to continue the conversation in the comments section below.
Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church of Detroit, a diverse Presbyterian church. She has recently started taking Spinning classes, and finds them to be a lot like church – the language is mysterious, you watch the clock a lot, and just when you think it’s over, there’s one more thing. She blogs from time to time at Stained Glass in the City. The image above is a detail of Paul from mosaic of Peter and Paul meeting in Jerusalem, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46201
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