A new parishioner came to see me once. I was eager to talk with her. She had come to service a few times, but I could tell she had a certain wariness. She told me her story, which included this incident. In the late 1980’s she started taking her pre-school age children to one of the local Protestant churches. It was nominally her family church, although she had attended very little growing up. Nevertheless, she wanted to give them a faith experience.
As is typical in a small church, she soon found herself teaching Sunday School. She surprised herself by enjoying it. About a year and a half later her marriage began to disintegrate and she left her husband, which in her case she believed was the right and even responsible thing to do.
She also did the responsible thing and made an appointment to see the pastor to let him know what was happening and why. She did not even get in the door of the parsonage. Through the screen door the pastor let her know that he already knew what had happened. He was sorry for it, but if she was going through with the divorce she was no longer able to teach Sunday School. She turned and walked off the porch and has never attended another church regularly.
The Letter to the Galatians is, I think, the most fascinating of all the New Testament writings. There are other major contenders for this honor, but I choose Galatians because I think it has never lost its obvious relevance to the present day.
Paul begins his letter to the Galatians in his usual way, with a greeting in which he names the parties who are to receive the letter, and he and his companions who are sending it. In every other letter Paul writes, he then goes into a second section giving thanks and blessings for the church to whom he is writing.
But not Galatians. Having greeted them, he gets right down to business.
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—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ…let them be accursed and let me say it again, let them be accursed.
Later on in the letter he will call the Galatians “foolish” and “bewitched” (3:1) and he will say that he wishes those who were confusing them would castrate themselves (5:12). He is not happy, and more than that, he clearly sees what is going on as a crisis.
So what was going on? I would say it was about belonging. How do you set the boundaries so that you know who may legitimately call themselves Christian and who may not?
Paul’s opponents fervently believed that following Christ involved following the Jewish law as he had done. First and foremost this meant the requirement of male circumcision as prescribed by the Law, going all the way back to the patriarch Abraham. Male circumcision was a distinctly Jewish mark of belonging, unknown (and even outlawed) in Greek and Roman culture where Christianity was spreading.
Paul makes clear in his letter, however, that this crisis is not simply over circumcision. It is about the very nature of the gospel. His bottom-line goes something like this:
You can be sure you are saved if you follow the Law as laid out in the Torah. In other words, your behavior saves you.
This way of thinking was what Paul called a “different gospel,” although he goes on to point out that it is actually no gospel at all. There is no “good news” in having to follow a law that no one can possibly follow.
Instead, the Gospel Paul proclaims is this:
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. (2:19b-20)
In other words, we are saved not by any work of ours, but by Christ’s work of sacrificial love. I do not know I am right with God by the things I do, but by the thing Christ did, which was ultimately not an act of judgment, but of love.
Paul goes on to make clear what the consequences are of these two different ways of believing:
If you believe you are saved by following the law, then you can belong only when you do so. Break the law and you are out. For those proclaiming this “different gospel” it made sense that you could be a descendent of Abraham only by doing what Abraham did.
But that is not the Gospel. The Gospel, Paul said, is that you are a descendant of Abraham if you have the faith Abraham had, that is, if you depend on God for your salvation, not your own good behavior.
And if that was true, then the circle of the followers of Abraham was one that only got wider and wider, so he will make what was then the most astonishing statement that
Having faith means we do not live under the thumb of judgment. You are all children of God through faith. In baptism (which was not a work, but a statement of faith) the seemingly natural separations that exist among us do not exist anymore—there is no longer Jew or Gentile, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female.
God is not the great accountant in the sky, keeping track of sins so that he can determine who is in and who is out. No, God is not in the accounting business, he is in the adoption business.
Live in freedom, Paul says, not fear. But remember that all God’s adopted children are free, and the only way that can work is if you live by this single commandment: “love your neighbor as yourself.” If you do not work at loving one another you will be overcome by conceit, competition and envy and you will end up back where you started.
This debate about whether right behavior or right love is what saves us and calls us together in community has gone on in the church ever since. In many ways the issue has never been settled.
In one last attempt to make it as simple as possible, it is the difference between being loved because our behavior has earned it, or being loving because we were loved first. To put it in the language of belonging, it is the difference between belonging because our behavior has earned it, or belonging because God recognizes us first as brothers and sisters of Jesus.
It is obvious by now that I believe my parishioner’s story is an example of how the church clings to the behavior-earning belonging model. Unfortunately, her story is not an aberration. I could tell you stories like hers all day long. And many of you could as well. No church—whether denomination or individual congregation—is free from this struggle.
It is the most natural thing in the world to want to draw a circle around ourselves with clear behavioral boundaries. In his letter to the Romans, Paul will actually use the word “unnatural” to describe the boundary-crossing life we are called to live as a church (Romans 11:24). It does seem something like unnatural to say that no one earns their way into the church, but it is the truth and we must proclaim it, and, even harder, practice it.
Holy living is first and foremost holy loving or it is meaningless, a “different gospel” that is no gospel at all.