Sermon for July 7th, 2013

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Galatians 6:1-16

1My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. 2Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. 3For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. 4All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbour’s work, will become a cause for pride. 5For all must carry their own loads. 6 Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher. 7 Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. 8If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 9So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. 10So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. 11 See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! 12It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. 14May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! 16As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.

Spinning Circles of Grace and Love

I want you to try something for me. I want you to try pointing your index fingers at each other so they are almost touching, like this. Now I want you to draw a circle with one of your fingers, and keep in going. Which ever direction that finger is rotating--clockwise, counterclockwise--I want you to start rotating your other finger in the opposite direction. Instead of following each other (going the same direction) your fingers should meet and cross paths at the top of the circle and then again at the bottom of the circle. Like this.

Not easy to do, is it? Now have them both go in the same direction. That's easier, isn't it? Ok, you can put your fingers down now. For any vehicle to move forward (or backward for that matter), all the wheels have to be going the same direction. Anyone know what happens when the wheels spin in opposite directions? (To make it more simple, imagine a two wheeled vehicle, like a wheelchair, a tank, or a Segway). If the wheels spin in opposite directions, the vehicle goes in circles. It doesn't move forward or backward; it just stays put and spins around and around. How many of you feel like sometimes the wheels in your life are moving in opposite directions, and you're just stuck, spinning around in circles? Don't worry. It happens to the very best of us--including the Apostle Paul and the churches in Galatia that he writes his letter to.

Counting today, we've spent the past six Sundays examining Paul and the Galatians, and now we're at the end--the last chapter of Galatians, and our last sermon in the series. By now, we should be familiar with some of the wheels that are spinning around and around in this situation, but just in case, here's a quick summary (there are at least three).

The first spinning wheel is the surface level context; the reason Paul is writing to the Galatians. It's about circumcision. That sounds odd to us today, probably because we just don't spend a lot of time thinking about or talking about circumcision. But I imagine that if we made slicing off part of your body a requirement for membership here at First Presbyterian Church, most people would at least weigh very carefully the decision of whether or not to join the church.

Circumcision was the primary outward and visible sign of God's promise and covenant with Ancient Israel (although sometimes I have my doubts about how well that worked as an outward and visible sign). So in the early church, after the message about Jesus begins to spread beyond the Jewish community to other peoples, some Jewish Christians naturally assumed that all these newcomers, these Gentiles, ought to be circumcised too, like them. Like Jesus. (They probably even showed the Gentiles their "What would Jesus do" bracelets when making this argument). When told what they had to do, the gentiles probably said, "Sure! What's circumcision?" Five seconds later, they probably said, "you've got to be kidding!" Could I maybe just follow Jesus without becoming Jewish?

What was originally meant as a sign, a way to bring together and unite a people with a common practice, had become a litmus test, a way to exclude people and keep them out. It had become legalistic, and Paul says (to those in Galatia who were arguing for circumcision) No! Actually, he says μη γενοιτο, which is more like, "Hell no!" in English (Remember that word when we get to the third wheel). Paul wants to move forward into the new covenant, the new sign (if you want to know what the sign of the new covenant is, pay close attention to the communion liturgy later on this morning!) Some of the Galatians want to move back toward the old sign and the old covenant. Wheels are spinning in opposite directions.

The second spinning wheel is just below the surface. It's the underlying principle in Paul's theology that just happens to manifest itself in the issue of circumcision. It's a wheel that Paul spins a lot, in most of his letters. It's the issue of grace. Paul argues in Galatians and elsewhere that we are not saved by our works, our good deeds, our words, or even our beliefs. We are saved by grace, which is something God does, not something we do. Circumcision is something we do. Dying on the cross is something God did. Which one, Paul asks, do you think is more effective? To which some of the Galatians reply, "We don't want to take any chances. Let's have both." Completely missing the point. And we're spinning around in circles again.

The third spinning wheel has to do with the tone of the whole situation between Paul and the Galatians. The letter to the Galatians is easily the most angry of all Paul's letters. He cuts short his usual friendly banter at the beginning of the letter and immediately accuses the Galatians of deserting him. He calls them "you foolish Galatians" and uses words like "accursed" and "Hell no!" throughout the letter. He says his work on them is "wasted" and, at one point, in 5:12, he actually tells his detractors to go castrate themselves. Paul is not what we might call a "happy camper." For their part, it's obvious that the Galatians have brutally attacked Paul too, calling into question his credentials, and accusing him of being a second-rate apostle. Wheels on both sides are revved up and they're not just spinning in opposite directions. This time they are grinding against each other, wearing each other down.

Circumcised...uncircumcised? Attack...against attack? Wheels spinning in circles, crashing and colliding, going nowhere. This is Galatians chapters 1-5. You might expect chapter six to be a summary of Paul's comments, or a final thrust of his argument. You'd be wrong. And quite possibly surprised. Listen to chapter six:

"My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ." Anyone hear a change in tone?

What about that strong argument against circumcision? Just one chapter earlier, in chapter five, Paul said, "Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. . .you have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace." Here's chapter six: "May I never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!"

What about Paul's strong argument against works as a means of salvation? Again, chapter six: "For you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up." It sounds like Paul is preaching Karma here--what goes around comes around, you get what you deserve. What happened to grace? What Paul??

Growing up, my father, Michael William Locke, was known to his four children for two things: His big heart, and his big temper. And they didn't necessarily manifest themselves in that order. He could be in the opposite end of the house, and if one of us were saying something rude or disrespectful to our mother, or doing something we had been told repeatedly not to do, he would come suddenly flying around the corner in a fit of rage, towering over you, but also with his face about two inches away from your face, looking like his head was about to explode. He would either be yelling, or visibly biting down on his tongue, perhaps to keep himself from saying what he was considering doing to you. He never once hurt any of us, but we never assumed that was a guarantee.

Being on the receiving end of that temper was brutal, but after about five minutes, he would storm off somewhere and slam a door. That was the end of it. Sort of. The next morning, you would probably wake up to the smell of Dad cooking your favorite breakfast, and he would go out of his way to talk to you about a book or a game, or some other subject he knew you were interested in. All this as cheerfully and pleasantly as if the day before had never happened. He never apologized for his temper, and he certainly never backed down on whatever had caused it in the first place. But somehow, though you knew you had been chastised, he made sure that you also knew you were loved.

I think Paul must have slammed a door and taken a nap between writing chapter five and chapter six of Galatians. I don't think he changed his mind about circumcision or grace, because those issues show up in later letters, and his views are consistent. But I do think he changed his tone. He didn't have to--God gets angry in the Old Testament, and Jesus gets angry in the Gospels. Paul had every right to be angry and frustrated at the Galatians. But this is also the man who said that the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I think he's trying (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) to actually practice what he preaches. Like spinning your fingers in opposite directions, that's usually easier said than done.

So what about those spinning wheels? We're at the end of Galatians, so I'm supposed to wrap things up nice and neat with a pretty bow on top. I'm supposed to tell you how Paul got it all figured out, got everyone spinning in the right direction, and how they all went riding off into the sunset on their Segways. The problem is, we don't know that. All we have is Paul's letter to the Galatians, not their response. I suspect things got better, or else there might have been a 1st and 2nd Galatians, like there was with the Corinthians and the Thessalonians.

The wheels in our lives often keep spinning, despite our best efforts to move forward. Sometimes, like Paul did, you can stop one. But you also can't control other people's spinning wheels, and even for Paul, two out of this three needed to keep spinning, even if it meant going in circles for awhile, to keep from going back.

As crazy as it may sound, there is a hopefulness to this spinning of wheels and going in circles. But only if we have listened carefully to Paul's message in Galatians 1-5, and his method in chapter 6. His message is grace. No matter how you got stuck in your circle, no matter how long your wheels have been spinning, it is God's grace (and not your own futile efforts) that has the power to eventually get you unstuck and moving forward. Yes, there are still consequences to our actions, as Paul acknowledges. But God's mercy is abundant, and his patience with us is infinite. The message is grace. And the method, which Paul demonstrates in chapter 6, is love.

When people spin their wheels against you, wearing you down, love them. You don't have to agree with them, or start spinning their way. Just love them. It helps to try to understand them, and to acknowledge their point of view, as Paul does. Love them. Bear one another's burdens. I like that. If you think the finger thing was hard, try walking in circles around each other going in the opposite direction...while carrying each other!

This is what Paul and Galatians teach us: that it is better to wait on God's grace, and to spin our wheels in circles of love, than to move forward without either.