May 5, 2013 – 5th Sunday in Easter – Karen Koeder (Waverly)

PAUL’S WORLD
Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21
May 5, 2013
Waverly
By Karen Koeder

GRACE, MERCY AND PEACE TO YOU FROM GOD OUR HEAVENLY FATHER AND OUR LORD AND SAVIOR, JESUS CHRIST.  AMEN

Think for a moment about “snail mail”. Letters sent in a person’s own handwriting and sharing their own words delivered by the post person directly into your mail box. In this day of instant communications, abbreviated words and short, terse messages “snail mail” becomes even more special when it arrives.

I received an envelope in my mail box not long ago that set every “excitement bump” in my body to tingling. As I pulled it out of the box and looked at the return address I was so excited I could hardly believe it! A note from my 2G niece…Emerald, who I had met once and had never received an envelope with her name and address on before.

I could not even wait to get into the house before I had torn the envelop open to see what message, information I had longed for about this very special person, would be inside. I must report my amazement and delight when not only were there words written inside, but a picture of this beautiful 6 year old too! What a joyous day!

And so too this morning we here gathered inside Waverly Lutheran church have received an incredible letter, written many centuries ago by the Apostle Paul. AND we have received it in the very same way the churches in Galatia would have received it…Mary Lou read it to us, as someone did to those gathered on that Sabbath so long ago to hear the gospel, the good news about Jesus Christ.

There would have been excitement that morning too. A letter from Paul had arrived! What would it say? How is he? Is he coming back?

Anticipation would have been growing while waiting for someone to read the words Paul had written.

Remember that the letters were really written by Paul to a specific church for a specific reason. Generally, except for his letter to the Romans, he had visited the church or even been involved in starting it. He had lived in the community, plied his trade there, broken bread with them and had come to know them well, as they him.

A strong relationship or bond had developed among them. Even when Paul was in prison churches sent not only money, but people to help and provide for him. So a letter from Paul was very special and would cause quite a stir.

Most of Paul’s letters were in response to a letter or report he had received from or about a church. So it is important to remember we are hearing his response to something, but we do not know exactly what the original letter or report said.

And so it is with his letter to the Galatians, our first reading for today. Paul had helped form the churches in Galatia and had now received reports they were straying from the original message about Christ crucified. In his letter Paul is pulling no punches! Nor disguising his anger or concern.

The rift with the original apostles and leaders in Jerusalem had opened once again. We need to remember that this new religion, this new church did not come fully developed and well defined. When Paul wrote his letters there were not the four gospels written and referred to as resources for what it meant to follow Christ. The New Testament did not yet exist!

These folks were still trying to figure out what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. Keep in mind also that they were all Jews, brought up and trained in Jewish law and tradition.

That is what they knew and were struggling with in light of the teachings of Jesus. Even Paul tells of his early religious fervor in his letter to the Galatians.

“For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”

Paul, or Saul as he was known then, was a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish hierarchy known for their zeal in keeping all of the laws and traditions of the Jewish religion. He was from Tarsus, a cosmopolitan city and educated in Jerusalem.

Remember the stoning of Stephen? And who it was standing among the cloaks of those throwing the stones? None other than Saul. In fact he was on his way to Damascus to further persecute these new followers of Jesus when he encountered this same Jesus and his life was turned around.

Check our reading again when Paul reports “But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.”

Paul believed his calling was to share the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, with the Gentiles. With people not steeped in the history, laws and traditions of the Jewish religion. His message was simple…Jesus is Lord. It is through his life, death and resurrection that we are in a right relationship with God.

We also have to remember though that there were Jewish conclaves and synagogues in these same areas, so the question of adherence to Jewish laws and traditions kept coming up. Especially as related to circumcision and food laws. Basically…who could or could not be a follower.

This is evident in Paul’s encounter with Cephas, better known to us as Peter, as related in our reading today.

The leaders in Jerusalem were still debating whether keeping the Jewish laws of circumcision and food were to be a requirement for followers of Jesus or not. At this time they were and Paul was taking issue with Peter eating with Gentiles until representatives from Jerusalem came to town. Then he reverted back to following the Jewish food laws.

Paul thought that Peter has being hypocritical in his actions. He followed the food laws only when he thought the leaders were looking.

But for Paul it brought into focus the question of following the laws in light of the cross. And on to the overriding or basic question of salvation…is it a matter of works. Following the law or faith, a gift from God?

Is salvation a gift from God or something we have to earn? What is it that brings us into a right relationship with God and from where does it come? The same questions Martin Luther was struggling with when he came into contact with Paul’s letter to the Galatians and the same question we encounter in our lives today.

Sometimes, when reading scripture and especially some of Paul’s letters we get hung up in words and how concepts are stated. It may be helpful for us to remember that we do not speak in the same way as when Paul was writing. And too, Paul was explaining an entirely new concept…one of faith.

Christ dying on the cross, for us seems really simple and easy to understand. He lived, he died, he rose and our sins are forgiven. Or from John 3:16 for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

But Paul did not have those words from John to explain to the Galatians how salvation comes about. And not only the Galatians, but also the leaders of the evolving church. The law was, after all, handed down from God to Moses and then to the Israelites way back on Mt. Sinai. And it was the keeping of that law that was the cornerstone of the Jewish religion.

We gathered here today are blessed with Paul’s words so that we do not have to struggle with the question of who can belong to the followers of Jesus group, the church. Or from where comes our salvation. Paul has written it for us…

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

How often do we too get caught up in the “I have to do something” syndrome. And yet our salvation, our being in a right relationship with God is not up to us at all. It is God’s love for us. It is God’s grace that brings us to him, certainly not anything we do on our own.

I love Paul’s statement   “for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” It all comes down to that one incredible act of love…The Cross. And it is not our love of God, it is God’s love for us!

When we were dead in sin He called us to be his own by sending his Son to take all of our sins upon himself. Eternal life is the promise through the death and resurrection of his Son.

We are indeed blessed to have the whole Bible as a resource for our lives. We are indeed blessed that Paul wrote so that we too could share more fully in the gospel…the Good News of Christ Crucified. To know without a shadow of a doubt that our sins are forgiven and we too have the promise of eternal life with Jesus. That we truly are children of God!

And now may the peace that passes all understanding be in your hearts and minds forever.    AMEN