I was in Richmond on Thursday, working at FUM on our weekly day of committee meetings- it’s widely known as the least productive day of the week. There’s always a devotional time on Thursday morning, and this week it featured Dan reading a lovely passage from Romans 12
Bless those who persecute you; bless, and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another.
Paul wrote his letter to the Romans at a much later point in his career, of course. The passage Kaity read comes from one of the earliest letters that we have from him, in which he’s happy heaping curses on pretty much anyone who disagrees with him.
Paul is writing here with less of the equanimity of an elder statesman and more like a spurned lover, except that instead of having fallen in love with a pretty guy or gal, Paul is in love with these Gentile churches that he planted in Galatia.
Here’s a quick review of where we’re at. This Jewish guy, Jesus, said that he was the Messiah that the Jews had been waiting on. Everybody colluded against him because Messiahs are troublesome, and he ended up dying on a Roman cross.
Rumor has it, though, that he didn’t stay in his tomb… that he defeated death and came back to finish the work of founding the Kingdom of God on earth. And the whole New Testament is a collection of various attempts to explore what it means to live in a world where death doesn’t get the final word.
One of these letters is Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia, which we’ll be exploring for the next few weeks. Galatia wasn’t a city, like Antioch or Corinth- it was a Roman province in the middle of the peninsula that we now call Turkey.
There are lots of cool things to know about the early churches in Galatia, but here’s the most relevant thing: these churches were almost entirely made up of Gentiles.
This doesn’t seem like a big deal to us, 2000 years after one of the most contentious battles in church history, but it was scandalous at the time.
Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, right? Most Jewish Christ-followers agreed that this mysterious gift of resurrection was for the whole world and everybody on it, not just for the Jews.
So the question wasn’t whether or not these people could follow Jesus… it was whether or not they could do so without first becoming Jews.
And what’s the most obvious mark of being Jewish, for men at least? Circumcision. So everything started to hinge on whether or not these believers in places like the province of Galatia needed to be circumcised.
Like I said earlier, from 2000 years in the future this seems like an arcane argument. And hopefully some of the issues that we see dividing the church today will seem similarly arcane in another 2000 years.
But for the Jewish Christ-followers who were seeing their ancient prophecies of liberation being brought to life, it was absolutely central.
Circumcision was the sign of the covenant that was given to Father Abraham, back when God said that his descendents would be like the stars in the sky. It had been the sign that defined the people of Israel in slavery, in Egypt, and in exile after their kingdom fell to the Babylonians.
It was a core piece of their communal identity, and one that was very difficult to lay aside.
This isn’t just some ancient superstition, you know. We have exactly these sorts of communal identity markers today, in our nation, and in our churches, and in our families, don’t we?
It’s not circumcision, probably- but we do have shorthand ways of determining who is allowed in, who is good enough, who is worthy of grace. Paul has a lot to say to us about that tendency, here in Galatians, but here’s the gist of this first section of the letter: exclusion ought to make us mad.
N. T. Wright, in his commentary on Galatians and Thessalonians, offers a thought experiment to help us understand Paul’s perspective here.
He writes, “Imagine you’re in South Africa in the 1970s. Apartheid is at its height.
You are embarked on a risky project: to build a community centre where everybody will be equally welcome, no matter what their colour or race.
You’ve designed it; you’ve laid the foundation in such a way that only the right sort of building can be built. Or so you think.”
But then, tragically, you get called away from the work. Then you get a letter, and you find out that some other set of contractors is working on your community center.
You designed a place where all are welcome without regard to colour or race, but these new contractors have tweaked the plan. There are two meeting rooms now, with two separate doors- and since apartheid is the air you breathe, you know exactly what the signs on those doors say.
Your letter says that some of the locals are thankful, really. I mean, a community center is a good thing, but why go stirring up all these racial issues, anyhow?
What would your response be, when you got that letter? I think I’d be tempted to be disappointed but just let it go. Having a community center at all is better than having none, right?
You shoot for the moon and you miss, but you’re still in the stars. That’s still pretty good. And maybe white and black people will accidentally meet in the hallway and strike up a conversation someday. Baby steps, right?
So Paul laid the foundations for radically inclusive communities, in Galatia, but new teachers have come along and changed the rules, and maybe Paul should just let it go.
But here’s the thing, though: social exclusion is a symptom of death. We exclude people because they don’t measure up, because we don’t want them to contaminate us, because we’re afraid.
And what are we afraid of? In the end, isn’t it always death?
And this whole story that we tell out of Scripture is one of coming to understand that death does not get the last word. Love gets the last word.
I said that was true of the New Testament, as a record of a community of people figuring out how to live in light of the Resurrection. But it’s actually true all the way back to the beginning.
We started this journey back in Genesis, in September, with a story that many Christians refer to as The Fall. In it, death is pictured as the natural consequence of human decisions to go our own ways and follow our own rules.
But death didn’t happen immediately. What happened immediately was alienation, isolation, exclusion. Adam pointed at Eve, and Eve pointed at the snake, and God pointed at the door.
And yes, Adam and Eve’s bodies gave out and died eventually. But all of this loneliness is just another form of death.
Jesus said once that hating was just as bad as murder. If you have to choose between them, go with hate- the legal outlook is better. But both hating and murder are ways of saying to another human being that you don’t care about their life.
Of course, rejecting doesn’t always feel like hate, right? Sometimes it feels like we’ve been called to police the boundary, to make sure that everything was proper.
I’m sure that’s what it felt like to those who visited the churches in Galatia, after Paul had moved on. Paul had given these poor Gentiles a fake promise, see, that they could be part of the people of God without being circumcised, without following the Jewish rules. They were just there to get these poor people back on track.
These Gentiles- they can’t really be part of God’s family as they are, just as they are without one plea. They’ve got to play by the rules, first.
It’s possible to both believe that the travelling ministers who came to Galatia after Paul left had the best of intentions, and also understand why this made Paul spitting mad.
If anyone offers you a gospel other than the one you received, let that person be accursed.
Words don’t get much stronger than that.
We might think that Paul is risking being seen as less than nice, but I think it’s really less of a risk than a plan. Paul isn’t trying to be nice. He’s trying to make a point.
Nice and kind aren’t synonyms, you know. You can be nice to someone while you stab them in the back, maybe with a hypocritical bless his heart, but to be kind really means to treat people as though they’re all the same kind of people as you, kin with you, part of the same family or type.
And if you’ve ever been part of a family, you know that treating people like family isn’t at all the same thing as being nice.
Paul fervently believes that these believers in Galatia are already part of God’s family. So the idea that someone came along and told them otherwise really sets him off.
Imagine that someone came into your family reunion, pointed at your uncle or your cousin or your granddaughter, and said you aren’t good enough to be here. Honestly, you don’t even have to like that family member to understand that as an insult to your family.
Let whoever says such a thing be accursed.
Injustice should make us impolite. Not unkind, but unwilling to get along in a world that invites some people in the front door and makes others come in the back.
When we hear that some people are being treated as less than, the insult there to that person and to the image of God within that person ought to make us spitting mad.
Paul goes all in, in this letter, when he hears that the Galatians have been told that they’re not good enough for the Gospel as they are.
He ends up telling his whole story, including a few juicy confessions, and going all the way back to Abraham for answers and developing an entire theology of who Christ was and what he did- all of this to back up his passionate sense that these Galatian Christians don’t have to answer to the old law.
Paul’s an apostle, and he says that they’re part of the family, and that’s that. There’s no room for excluding people here. We’re undoing the curse from back in the Garden, and that means that there’s no more time for making accusations and pointing fingers.
Paul thought it was the end of the world. Maybe it’s always the end of the world. In any case, death has been defeated and there’s no time for anything other than love.
Death has been defeated, and we live in Easter-time. Easter isn’t so much a holiday, or a doctrine, as it is a stance of defiance. The message of the Eden story, and of Easter, is that we live in a world that’s defined by death, but that a larger world envelops us which is defined by life.
Easter is looking death in the eye and choosing hope over despair, knowing that the living Spirit of God is luring us toward that choice.
So here’s a question that makes me uncomfortable, and maybe it makes you uncomfortable as well: when was the last time that you got good and angry about injustice?
When you see someone being excluded or being told that they aren’t good enough, do you see that as a slight against the whole family of God?
And how do we lay aside this comfortable tendency to make do and get along, when what we’re called to do is proclaim resurrection and be light in the darkness and share no other gospel but the gospel of freedom and life?