The church I serve is full of delightful people with a love for the world, and they find great solace in policies. Binders. Manuals. Rules. What makes me itch makes them feel secure. Looking back two thousand years, I can imagine that the churches in Galatia, once Paul left them, wanted the security of a rule. They wanted to know exactly what they should do to follow Jesus.
As the pendulum moved from Paul’s impassioned preaching to the reality of everyday life as followers of the Way, they must have argued about how to be faithful. Judaism offers the precision of actions that reflect a deep faith, and we understand the allure of that. Having a rule offers security, for new believers. Or long-timers, for that matter.
Read the scripture here.
Read the Working Preacher commentary here.
In a move that would get him in trouble with any modern Committee on Ministry, Paul swoops back in to this place he left, and corrects their practice with this furious letter. He didn’t come to teach about rules, he says, he came to impart a lesson about the fullness of God’s grace through Jesus. He offers his own transformation from enthusiastic persecutor to passionate defender as an example of how far God’s reach extends, and then reminds them that rules can never save them. Only grace can.
Paul’s argument is so familiar to us that we lose the impact of it. It would be like a modern boss saying that you can show up for work, or not, and get the same pay. It’s like vaccines for everyone, regardless of health insurance or immigration status. It’s like immigration amnesty, no matter how someone arrived here, or when. It’s hard for us to take in how those things could possibly work, and we quickly think, “well, that’s not fair.” We can well imagine that was the Galatian churches’ first reaction to Paul’s letter.
We have the same impulse as the Galatian believers, to divide people up and sort them out. A town with First Presbyterian Church a few miles from Westminster Presbyterian Church, or Grace United Methodist a short drive from St. Paul’s United Methodist, just a mile from New St. Paul Baptist Church and New Vine Baptist Church, bears witness to our own disunion. Our fractured denominational life, and the growing number of people who don’t care about church at all, reveal that we haven’t solved the problem that Paul wrote to address.
What is an overwhelming experience of God’s grace like? In my own life, it feels easier to take in small graces than the huge ones. How do we learn to accept grace that overpowers our lives?
And how do we live in response to grace, received through our faith in Jesus? Paul has a dramatic conversion experience, and ours may be equally dramatic, or smaller. Does anyone have a changed life, in response to God?
In an earlier commentary for Working Preacher, Mary Hinkle Shore suggested 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 sermon might explore our ideas of who belongs and who does not.
Where are your thoughts taking you this week? We would love to hear, and to continue the conversation, in the comments section below.
Mary Austin is the Senior Pastor of Gaithersburg Presbyterian Church, where the members come from over 30 countries. She has many policies on her desk. The image above is from Pexels, by Joshua Miranda.
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