Sermon for June 2nd, 2013

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Galatians 1:1-12

1Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2and all the members of God’s family who are with me, to the churches of Galatia: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! 9As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! 10 Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ. 11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

I, Paul, an apostle

I have a confession to make today--one that would make my seminary professors cringe. In fact, I waited until I was 2,000 miles and one whole year away from them before making this confession. Here it is: I recently spent four years at one of the top seminaries in the world, intensely studying 91.25% of the Bible...and intensely avoiding the other 7.75%. The parts that I avoided were the letters of the apostle Paul. The apostle Paul, who is either the author or subject of over half the New Testament. The apostle Paul, who was personally responsible for taking the gospel of Jesus Christ from a small, regional branch of Judaism into an international movement in its own right. The apostle Paul, who was so highly regarded by John Calvin that he is referred to in Calvin's commentaries simply as "The Apostle." Forget Peter, James and John! The apostle Paul, who in Christianity is considered second in influence only to Jesus himself (and I know some Lutheran pastors who might switch that order!). That apostle the one I have been avoiding until now.

So why have I been avoiding Paul? Well, I think it's verses like this one from Titus 1:9. "Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to answer back." Or 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. "Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. 35If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home." And 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. "Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God."

Paul seems to have some pretty harsh words, especially for some of the very same people that Jesus reached out to with kindness and compassion. Sometimes it's hard to like Paul. I suspect I'm not alone in that assessment. And I'm certainly not the first to come to this conclusion-- Two hundred years ago, American President Thomas Jefferson wrote that Paul was the "first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus." Jefferson's view is certainly on the extreme end of the spectrum. But in between those two extremes--Paul the evil corrupter and Paul the greatest thing since sliced bread--somewhere between those larger than life poles, I'm convinced we can find a real person: Paul, not THE apostle but AN apostle, a tentmaker (a guy with a real job), a man with strengths and weaknesses, who sometimes got it right, and sometimes got it wrong, but who genuinely tried to listen to God's voice, and who genuinely tried to follow Jesus as best as he knew how. We can avoid him, ignore him, or simply dismiss him, but first we might try to actually understand him.

So for the next few weeks, we'll be talking about the Apostle Paul, and in particular looking at his letter to the Galatians. I promise I will try to keep an open mind to what Paul has to say, and I hope you will too.

For starters, the letter to the Galatians is just that...a letter. There are two major genres of writing in the New Testament--gospels and letters, and they have different purposes and approaches. Gospels tell the story of Jesus; gospel means "good news" and the gospel writers have a vested interest in showing their subject in the very best light possible, to the broadest audience possible. Letters, on the other hand, are written to specific people or small groups of people, in specific situations. In the gospels, the author doesn't assume anything, and tells you the whole story from the very beginning, background and all. In a letter, the author assumes you're already familiar with the situation and refers to things you've spoken about outside the letter. This is critical--when we read the letters in the Bible, we need to remember that we are reading someone else's mail! We can't immediately assume that we know what's going on, or that the words apply to everyone everywhere in all times. Like all scripture, Paul's letters contain a timeless message that we can learn from, but they are also very specific, and we shouldn't be too quick to generalize them inappropriately. I doubt that Paul actually supported slavery, the subjugation of women or any other group -- but I know for a fact that his words have been used by Christians through the centuries to support all of those things, with disastrous consequences. There's a bumper sticker that reads "Jesus save me...from your followers." I think the same could be said of Paul.

With all that background, we're not going to get too far into Galatians today, but there are three things about the opening of this letter I want to point out during our remaining time. The first is the return address. We'll start with the first three words: Paul, an apostle. Apostle is the anglicized pronounciation of the Greek word ἀποστέλλειν -- στέλλειν is "to send" and ἀπο is the preposition "from". To send out from. So Paul, as an apostle, is a lot like his letters. He is "sent out from" one place to another, or from one person to others. The return address for the letter is Paul (he's the sender). But what's the return address for the apostle? Who's Paul's sender? Let's keep reading: Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2and all the members of God’s family who are with me. Paul is sent by God, through Jesus Christ, and by the members of God's family who are with him.

So that's the return address, for the letter and for the apostle. Now let's find out who the addressee is: In the case of the letter, that's easy enough. Right at the end of verse 2: "to the churches of Galatia, grace and peace to you... etc." But what about the apostle? As an apostle, Paul is "one sent out from" so we can presume he is also "sent out to" someone, but we don't see that, yet, in today's passage. It shows up in next weeks passage, but also in most of Paul's other letters, too--he usually refers to himself as, "Paul, an apostle to the gentiles." In other words, while there were other apostles whose ministry was specifically to tell Jews about the Messiah, Paul's special ministry is to everyone else--people who are not Jewish. And that is at the heart of why he is writing to the Galatians, and why he is so upset with them. Verse 6: "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel." Later in Galatians, we learn that the "different gospel" is from people who are telling Paul's followers that they have to become Jewish before they can truly follow Jesus. But we'll talk more about that situation in the weeks to come.

The last thing I want to point out in this introduction is a principle, and it has to do with Authority. Paul says at the beginning that he is not sent by human commission or human authority, but rather from God, and "all the members of God's family who are with me." Some of his authority does come from people, but note the difference in language between "commission" and "family." Notice also that even though Paul claims the authority of God (the highest authority a person can claim!), he still addresses them as equals--as brothers and sisters in verse 11. The very fact that he is writing to them so passionately, trying to persuade them to come back to the fold, all this is evidence of the relationship he has already established with them. And that's the principle: True authority doesn't come from committees, titles, or institutional power. True authority comes from God, and from relationships. It takes minutes to appoint a commission, but it takes years to build the relationships that make a family work.

There is a constant balancing act between those two sources of authority--God and relationships. I have known people who claim authority over others in the name of God, but have no relationships with the ones they claim authority over. These are the people who usually start their sentences with: "God came to me in a dream and told me to tell you..." Usually it's something they want you to change, or do, or support. But by claiming that it came from God, they believe it's somehow beyond argument. And, where there's no relationship, we usually ignore those people. If Paul had sent a letter like this one to the Galatians before he visited them, they probably would have put it in file 13 with all the other 1st century junk mail. On the other hand, Paul warns in verse 10, "If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ." Relationships grow and change over time, and drawing authority solely from relationships makes for a shifting, unstable, undependable authority. But God is constant and consistent, a solid rock to stand on when all other ground is sinking sand.

This authority principle--that true authority comes from God and from relationships--is evident nowhere more than at the Lord's table when we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion. The Lord's supper was instituted by the authority of God in Jesus Christ, when he shared the bread and cup with his disciples and asked them to do the same whenever they gathered. And the table that is so central to this practice is not an altar for sacrifice--it is a common table, around which a family gathers, as equals, in relationship with one another. The apostle Paul knew this table well, and the words of institution that are spoken at the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the cup are words he wrote in his letter to the Corinthians. All are welcome to this table--all are welcome to share in its authority, in its simplicity, in its love.