A Sermon for Covenant
“Did Christ Die for Nothing”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
June 16, 2013
Kyndall Rae Renfro
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
If you’ve ever been quoted out of context, you know how frustrating or hilarious that can be. If someone rips your words out from their original story, suddenly it can sound like you said something completely different from what you meant at the time.
I feel sorry for Bible-writers because this happens to them all the time. Scripture is always getting yanked outside its original context and plopped into new contexts with very little awareness on the part of the yankers and ploppers. Sometimes this causes skirmishes; sometimes this causes annoying debates; sometimes this causes wars. It can be a real problem.
This is sort of what happened to the book of Galatians and Martin Luther in the 1500s, and we’ve been quoting Galatians out-of-context ever since, going on 500 years now. It isn’t so much that Luther misused Scripture but that he used it for his own particular context in his own particular time, which was all well and good, but we’ve sort of been stuck in Luther’s context for half a century now. We always hear passages like the one I read today as if their primary objective was to distinguish between works-righteousness versus salvation by grace through faith. The reason we hear the text that way is because in the 1500s, Martin Luther heard the text that way because it so aptly fit his own situation. He used texts like this one to critique the corruption he saw at play in his own church and return the people of God to a reliance on faith and grace rather than a reliance on excessive penitence and indulgences. Martin Luther especially loved the book of Galatians. He once said, “The epistle to Galatians is my epistle. I have betrothed myself to it. It is my Katie.”
As children of the Reformation, we’ve been hearing and interpreting the book of Galatians through Martin Luther’s lens ever since—whether or not we even know much about him, it is Luther’s influence which continues to shape the way we read Galatians. Now, I have nothing against the Protestant Reformation; I think Martin Luther’s work was really important. But if we really want to the listen to the text itself, I’d rather try and discern what Paul was thinking when he wrote this letter rather than what Luther was thinking some 1500 years later. First and foremost what was Paul addressing and why? Is this is a text about works-righteousness or is there more to it than that? What was Paul’s context, and what does that mean for our context?
First of all, vv. 15-21 which I read today is only a snippet of a larger story. If you read all of chapter 2, Paul is recounting to us his controversy with Peter, and where we began today in v.15 picks up right in the middle of a speech Paul gave to Peter.
You see, when Paul first began preaching to the Gentiles, the other apostles supported his call and affirmed it, including Peter. We know Peter agreed with Paul in the beginning, because as you remember, Peter had his own revelation with God when he encountered Cornelius and saw the vision with the unclean animals when God said, “Take. Eat.”
But then Peter started getting a little self-conscious, a little afraid of peer pressure, and Peter started backing away from his communion with Gentile believers. He began to separate himself from them, no longer eat with them, etc.
This is the issue Paul is writing about in chapter two of Galatians. He is addressing a matter of table fellowship, of communion between Jews and Gentiles. There was a wall of hostility that Christ broke down but which well-meaning believers are trying to rebuild. The Gospel tore down those barriers, but in a moment of fearful retraction, silly Peter is raising the barricades back, and to Paul, such an action is a very abandonment of the Gospel itself!
What does this have to do with the Galatians? Why, they are Gentiles! The same type of people who have persuaded Peter to back away from the Gentiles are also persuading the Galatians that the grace of God and the inclusion of God isn’t enough. They need to become more “Jewish” in manner and in custom, particularly if they want to experience fellowship with the Jewish believers. But Paul doesn’t want to see his beloved new friends confused or ostracized in this way! Paul has it heard it straight from the Lord: the Gospel belongs to the Gentiles just as much as it does to the Jews.
The way Paul sees it, that wall of division between the Jews and Gentiles has been destroyed. To rebuild it would be the true transgression. The worst thing wouldn’t be to break Jewish laws, but to flout the grace of God that welcomes all!
When we read Paul through Martin Luther, we tend to assume that Jews thought it was laws that would earn them God’s grace, then Christ came along and showed us that grace is free. This isn’t actually a fair portrayal of the Jewish religion at all. The Jews also believed that grace was based in the mercy of God rather than human merit; their customs and rituals were just a way of connecting to that grace, not earning it. So the controversy between Paul and Peter, between the Galatians and these agitators, is really about whether both Jews and Gentiles could stand equal before God, whether or not a person needed to copy the behavior of his more “religious” peers in order to be on equal footing with God. From Paul’s perspective, if we don’t acknowledge one another’s equality before God, then we are nullifying the grace of God.
As you can see, this text has a slightly different nuance than getting caught up in personal legalism or works-righteousness. This has far more to do with the community and the mutual embrace and respect of one another.
As we come to understand Paul’s context, it is a little more possible to ask ourselves, how to re-appropriate this text for our context? It has less to do with legalism and more to do with the walls we build between one another. Obviously, as non-Jews, our prejudices are not exactly the same as Peter’s. But we don’t have to look far at all before we start noticing other types of walls. I could make suggestions to us about where those hostilities lie, but truthfully it may be different for each of us. We can mutually confess that even still we do not love our neighbors, but the specifics may vary from person to person. That may even be how you choose to use the writing space in your worship guide this morning, to name a neighbor you do not know how to love: “I have built a wall between me and fill-in-the-blank.”
But once we see and acknowledge that even after all our encounters with the magnanimous grace of God, even still we are a closed off people who keep raising up walls to shut out our neighbors, how do we navigate our way back towards a grace-filled life? Where and how do we rub shoulders with people who are different than us, and how do we learn to love them, really love them, and how do we position ourselves to wade in the deep waters of God’s abundant Gospel-grace rather than flirt around in shallows and thereby miss out on the real thing?
It is very unlike me to give you three points, but there are few things I’d like to say about this, and there just so happens to be three of them.
First, I think you look right inside yourself. You do the hard long work of desegregating your inner life. We’re so compartmentalized all the time; it’s no wonder we treat people the same way we treat ourselves. There are parts of our inner life we accept and parts we refuse to pay attention to, the parts of ourselves we buddy up to and the parts we are ashamed of. But the spiritual journey requires an integrating, a re-membering, a unifying and healing process. How do I let the pain and the anger and the suffering and the joy and the laughter, the faith and the doubt, the energy and the exhaustion all be a part of who I am and how I live in the world? This is our first and most challenging task, but it often goes overlooked and we race out into the broken world with souls that are barely intact. In our scurry to change the world, or at least keep it running, we don’t slow down enough to change ourselves. Consequently, nothing significant really ever changes at all.
Second, I think you look right in front of your face. Sometimes it the person right in front of you who is the biggest mystery of all; between yourself and them, you’ve erected a wall. If you’ve ever been a part of a family, well, you know exactly what I mean. There are people we love whom we just cannot understand. There’s nothing you can do to magically fix it, but you do choose one day at time, whether to add a brick to the wall or remove a brick. This is family and friendship: the navigation of learning how to see one another. Even when the wall is wide and tall, we at least look to chisel out holes for small windows, trying, trying, trying to get a glimpse of understanding. This is the slow and tedious work by which we begin to learn reverence for our fellow human beings.
So, look right inside yourself. Look right in front of your face. And third, I think you look right in front of your feet. I think you enter the wider world and you simply pay attention to the people who cross your path. I think of the story of the Good Samaritan. That Samaritan wasn’t on a mission trip. He wasn’t out to evangelize. He was just walking with his eyes open. I bet you the Levite was on his way to do some great service for God and the priest was getting ready to leave the country for a missions tour, and consequently, they had their eyes closed. In all our angst to do and to accomplish, we forget to pay attention to what God sends our way. So often it is right under our noses! The very person we are meant to love and care for is lying on the road or standing in front of us at the office, and we do not see them because we’d rather do something big and fancy and spectacular if we’re going to work for God.
In other words, it boils down to this: looking. If we don’t do this work of radical desegregation, of looking the Other right in the eye, then we are walking away from the grace of God. Of course this a process, always an ongoing process. Like Peter, we can choose to get nervous about what people will think, and we can begin to pull away from the excessiveness of God’s extravagance. Or, like Paul, we can look for ways to keep leaning in, to keep having our prejudices shattered, to keep embracing our neighbor as beloved child of God. We can add bricks to the walls, or we chisel the bricks out, one at a time. The work is laborious and slow, but it is a righteous and meaningful work, and every once in awhile the Spirit of God arrives like dynamite and there’s a holy demolition, also known as a party, or, a real expression of church, or, a taste of heaven. And once you’ve been witness to that, you don’t want to go back to building walls, not ever. That would be the true transgression, to shut down the celebration, to limit the love of God, to shun your neighbor.
This, essentially is what Paul is saying to Peter: So what if we mix with Gentiles? If we find ourselves dining with sinners, does that mean Christ, our servant, is waiting on sin? That like a waiter serving a table, Christ is subjected to fellowship he doesn’t approve of, Christ is forced to serve those he doesn’t like? Of course not! That’s a plain silly way to think of Christ who loves us all. Don’t you remember how he washed your feet, Peter? This is not a love to be hoarded, but a love to be shared and passed around the table, like a giant-platter of food, family-style, enough for everyone. Everybody’s welcome at this table. Everybody, everybody, everybody’s welcome, and yep, it is embarrassing, down-right humiliating at times, to the righteous, to the well-kept, to the clean-cut, to the well-mannered and well-spoken, to share our meals with them, but if you’re not willing to be scandalized by the Gospel, Christ died for nothing, my friend. Christ died for nothing if it wasn’t to mess you up forever. Amen.