Text: Galatians 1:11-24
The year was 1979. It was my junior year of high school. Life for me that year, as it had throughout all of my adolescent years, centered around school, sports and church. If I wasn’t in class, I was either on the basketball court or softball field. If I was not playing basketball or softball I was at church doing things with my youth group. For the most part, my social life and family life centered around church and youth group. This meant that I was at church a lot—a minimum of at least four days a week: Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, Wednesday nights and usually one night a weekend. For a number of reasons, Sunday night was my favorite church time. The services were a little less formal, meaning I could wear jeans. On Sunday evenings I got to sit with my friends instead of sitting with my parents. And it seemed to me that everyone else was just a little more relaxed as well. Maybe it was because the preacher typically didn’t wear a necktie on Sunday nights therefore seeming less uptight. Or maybe it was because evening hours are more favorable to unwinding and being still. I’m not sure exactly why, but things just seemed different at those Sunday night worship services which, in retrospect I think, gave the Spirit more room to move and speak. (Now I’m sounding a bit like an evangelist.)
Anyway, it was in one of those Sunday night services my junior year in high school that I first felt the nudge of some sort of spiritual calling. It was not dramatic nor life-altering in the moment—I didn’t hear the voice of God, and there were no bright lights or burning bushes. Of this nudging, I didn’t speak to anyone. At the time, I understood the feeling—the nudge—as a deeper, more profound longing of wanting to say “yes” to my earlier decision to “follow Jesus.” The realness of that nudging, though, stayed with me until eventually I spoke of it in terms of wanting to study religion in college. In my adult life I have looked back on that year as a significant moment in the unfolding of my spiritual autobiography. Not because I understand that moment as a “call into ministry” but rather because I recognized what was happening as God’s presence stirring in my life—a calling, if you will, to go deeper into God’s presence in my life. That year, 1979, marks a significant time in my spiritual autobiography.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is, in part, his spiritual autobiography. In six short chapters he reflects on his “call” which was much more dramatic than mine, and probably yours. Remember Paul went from Saul to Paul, persecutor to preacher, blinded to seeing again, all in one fell swoop. As Paul reflects on his “call” he grounds it in one conviction: that he has been “called by God through grace”—and with that understanding he anchors his entire faith story. In the book of Galatians, Paul recounts his story to the people as a reminder of their own experience of “the one who called them by grace” as well. Furthermore, his purpose in writing this letter is to dissuade the Galatians from turning away from the freedom of the gospel as he understands it. His fear is that the people of Galatia are being led astray by believers who have twisted the gospel for their own purposes.
Here’s the backdrop. Apparently, one group of Jesus-followers is telling another group of Jesus-followers that they are not fully members of the family of God unless they adhere to the same practices; in this case, circumcision for the men. The question at stake is: do the Gentile Christians have to become Jewish in order to be part of the family of God? To this issue Paul is again clear. He says, absolutely not. He writes: “For in Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.”
Now, while some of Paul’s writings hold great tension for some of us, his letter and message to the people of Galatia could not be more relevant and/or timely for Jesus-followers today. We live in a time when those of us who claim to follow Jesus—from all points on the spectrum, conservative to liberals and all those in between—have twisted the gospel for our own purposes. Think about it. There is the prosperity gospel. The social gospel. The evangelical gospel. The contemporary gospel. Just to name a few. Each of these gospels has its own purpose: if you are faithful to God, God will reward you financially; the gospel is only to be read in the context of social justice; the gospel is solely about saving people from their sin so they can go to heaven; and the gospel is convenient for those who want to be seen as “hip” followers of Jesus. Now I’m not judging these, although I do have my bias. The point is that we have, all of us, twisted the gospel to make it fit our needs, desires, comforts, contexts, lifestyles and privileges. Like the good people of Galatia, we have created litmus test after litmus test to say who’s in and who’s not. Jew/Gentile; circumcised/uncircumcised; inerrantist/non-inerrantist; married/divorced; male minister/female minister; teetotaler/enjoys a good glass of wine; gay/straight/bi/transgender/queer/whatever label you choose; even Catholic/Protestant. You name it. We have twisted the gospel for our own purposes.
Do you know what the word gospel actually means? It is derived from the Old English god-spell, meaning “good news” or “glad tidings” and it is a word-for-word translation of the Greek word euangelion meaning “good message.” And yet, we have made the gospel anything and everything other than good news to the people who are hurting and longing to hear a bit of good news.
The good news of the gospel is that everyone is welcome—not I’ll build a wall to keep you out. The good news of the gospel is that the stranger is one of us—not we’ll send you back to where you came from. The good news of the gospel is to love your neighbor as yourself—not let me get all I can get and then you can have the leftovers. The good news of the gospel is if you have two coats, share one; if you have two loafs of bread, give one away to the friend or stranger who comes knocking at your door—not let me stock pile what I need while others are cold and hungry. The good news of the gospel is there is enough for everyone—not let me get my share first. The good news of the gospel says that when you see someone hurting and in pain you show compassion—not kick them when they are down. Paul says the only thing that counts in the good news of the gospel is faith working through love. That is the good news, the glad tiding, the good message. There are no caveats. No litmus tests. No hoops to jump through. The good news is proclaimed whenever and wherever there is faith working through love—the faith that if we, as one humanity, work through love at all times, in all places, through all situations we will further the commonwealth of God here on earth. Faith working through love is saying yes every day to the one who has called us through grace. We are all, especially us Jesus-followers, called by God through grace to love at all cost. That is our calling and it is the freedom of the gospel that Paul pleads with us to uphold: the freedom to love extravagantly without litmus tests, without judgment, without prejudice, with reservation—the only thing that matters is faith working through love. It is a part of our spiritual biography—individually and communally.
I want to say that faith working through love casts a big net. I know that so much of the time I am preaching about faith working through love as a social justice movement. I preach that our faith works through love when we march and protest and write letters and get arrested for the morals and values and principles that I believe the good news calls us to. And I believe that with all my heart. And, I’m afraid that I haven’t cast the net wide enough. Faith working through love is also those moments and times when we sit with a friend who is dying and hold the sadness and fear and uncertainty with them. Faith working through love is also those moments and times when we have lunch with a friend and share in their excitement about what brings passion to their life. Faith working through love are those moments and times when we relax and enjoy being in each other’s company knowing that where two or three are gathered, God is present. What I am saying is that faith working through love is also about those moments and times in our lives when we take the time to build and nurture our relationships with one another. We have no better model of how to do this than the life and teachings of Jesus—the one who always took the time to sit with and listen to and share life with a friend. This, too, is the good news of the gospel. And, I believe, this is the good news that the world and humanity is desperately waiting to hear.
I don’t know of any better people to take this good news out into the world than the good people of Pullen Church. In this world so often filled with bad news, there is good news. May we be a people who believe it, who claim it as ours, and who seek to live it every day. May we be a people who uphold the freedom of the gospel—the freedom to love others without bounds.