Galatians 5:1-6; Luke 11:37-41
Our first lesson this evening is but a small portion of a letter Paul wrote to the churches at Galatia. I liken it to walking in on a serious conversation being had by two friends at a crucial moment and wondering how they arrived at that point. The phrase that gets my attention is: “You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” From the sound of Paul’s deliberate tone, this conversation is a difficult one. Scholars note that of all Paul’s letters, Galatians cuts to the chase straight out of the gate. What is going on in these churches that requires such urgent frankness?
It may help to know that the people who made up the churches at Galatia were not of Jewish origin. Unlike Paul they did not come to know Jesus within the context of Judaism, as the fulfillment of Jewish Law, but rather were converted from other religions through missionary endeavors of the apostles. A major controversy brewing among Jewish Christians stemmed from the question of whether Gentile converts to Jesus Christ should be indoctrinated back into the faith of the chosen people, becoming subject to Jewish law and custom thereby insuring their standing before God. There were many who held this view and insisted that these pagan converts change their diets, customs around hygiene, begin to observe the Sabbath, and even undergo the ritual of circumcision, a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham that would physically distinguish them as God’s chosen people.
I have to admit, I sympathize with these Jewish Christians. They were living the good news of Jesus the only way they knew how, through the lens of the tradition they had inherited. Jesus himself was of Jewish descent and considered a great rabbi (or teacher) by his followers. He could be found often in synagogues preaching and interpreting the scriptures. Crowds of people followed him where ever he went throughout all Judea. These early Jewish Christians had never imagined that the message of Jesus would or could be translated to people of origins and cultures other than their own. While this was a joyous prospect, how could they be unified with people who were outside the fold? It seemed clear that they would have to bequeath their context to these Gentiles if they were to be God’s chosen.
But Paul felt this notion was incongruous with the gospel message as he had come to experience it. Jesus had come as the fulfillment of the Law and a liberator from all that was superfluous. In other words, he felt nothing we could do in and of ourselves would insure or improve our standing before God. Paul’s message to the Galatians was that the gift of God’s grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus was sufficient and the only thing required of us to be identified as children of God is the willingness to say ‘yes’ to Jesus’ life, light, and love. And Paul knew this first hand. Paul was a Pharisaic Jew who was well acquainted with Jewish Law. Unlike Peter and James, he was not a companion of Jesus while he was on earth. In fact, Paul was a great persecutor of the early church and was relentless in his attempt to destroy it, going as far as to kill anyone who professed Jesus as Lord. Early in his letter he testifies to his dramatic change of heart. He writes: “But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.” Paul knew there was nothing he had done to deserve God’s grace and that the only thing to be done was to surrender to it with a resounding gratitude. He then left immediately to share this good news with others.
Our gospel reading this evening from Luke helps drive home Paul’s point. (As a brief aside, Luke has the distinction of being the only Gospel writer who was a Gentile). In the lesson we see Jesus being invited by a Pharisee to dine with him. The Pharisee is astonished when Jesus doesn’t wash. Scholar William Barclay helps illumine why the Pharisee is so offended. The act was not just about hygiene but ceremonial law. Every little detail was worked out. Water could only be used from certain vessels which were set aside specifically for washing. The amount of water to be used was enough to fill one and a half egg-shells. It had to be poured over the hands beginning at the tips of each fingers and running right up to the wrist. Then the palm of each hand must be washed by rubbing the fist of the other into it. Then water was poured over it again this time in the opposite order. This was done at the beginning of the meal as well as between courses. (1) Perceiving that the Pharisee was upset, Jesus points out the irony by saying that all the intentional washing cannot make one clean before God. He says, “So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you.”
There is a slogan known in the rooms of 12-step programs that summarizes this perfectly: “Let Go and Let God.” This phrase can be helpful to us today for at least a couple of reasons. First, we live in a culture that prides itself on being right. It doesn’t matter if you’re Republican or Democrat, Catholic or Protestant, capitalist or socialist….each of us lay claim to the truth and have our own litmus tests for deciding who in and who is out. As a result we have succumb to the illusion of self-sufficiency and the more we try to grasp control, the faster we lose it. The truth is we cannot say to each other ‘I have no need of you,’ as we are all different members of one body each with different jobs that help the body function. Earlier in Paul’s letter to the Galatians he says: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” This is a result of God’s grace, not by anything we have done.
Second, if you’re like me, you have come to the realization that our efforts to cling and to control often fail us. I’m very aware that in my own life the biggest messes I’ve endured were when I thought I was in control or was desperately trying to grasp for control. It reminds me of when I was a small boy, a friend of the family tried to teach me how to swim by taking me into a part of the pool where my feet couldn’t touch the bottom. He assumed wrongly that I could already tread water. I flailed and tried to grab onto his arm but water had gotten in my eyes and I couldn’t see. I kept going under water and couldn’t stay above long enough to voice my distress. I was eventually pulled out, severely traumatized and shaken and it wasn’t until I was a junior in high school that someone taught me to float in a shallow lap pool and slowly taught me to swim. This is how I think of God…..if we fight and flail for control we will certainly sink straight to the bottom. But if we learn lay back and let God’s light, life, and love sustain us, we’ll find His provision will be enough keep us afloat. As Paul says, “You who want to be justified by the law, (in other words, you who want to rely on your own efforts) have cut yourself off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” It is grace which keeps us afloat. So, Let Go and Let God. Let us pray: Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
- Barclay, William. The Gospel of Luke. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press. 1975. Print.
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