One of the things that makes preaching on Paul’s letters difficult is that for centuries they have been pressed into service as raw material for doctrinal debate.
This may be even more true of Galatians than other letters due to its heavy use of language concerning justification. To help recover some of the pastoral concern of the letter for 21st-century readers, I propose the following thought experiment: read the argument about “justification” as an argument over what it means to belong to the people of God. Replace the words “justify” and “justification” with “belong” and “belonging.” In the following commentary, I attempt such an experiment.
How do people know they belong? How do we know we belong to God? And if we do belong to God, how do others know?
Groups of people need boundary markers both to identify themselves as a group and to identify that some people do not belong. The church I serve has a Sunday school class named “TTF.” The letters stand for “twenties, thirties, and forties,” and people over 49 years of age know not to ask to attend. Members of the class painted an accent wall in a classroom of the education wing. They bought an area rug. They invested in folding chairs that are distinct from the chairs in every other room. It looks nice. More to the point, as our band of TTFers made the room their own, they became a group. They belong — to the class and to one another.
Paul writes to the Galatians because teachers who have followed him there are preaching that belonging is chiefly a matter of observing the Jewish law. While present-day Christians cannot imagine being asked to become Jewish as part of becoming Christian, this is what seems to be being asked of the Galatians by their new teachers.
It makes sense on one level. Jesus was Jewish, and the first apostles to preach about him declared him to be the Messiah, a thoroughly Jewish designation. To some, following Jesus was actually the most faithful way of being Jewish. It made sense, then, that ways of publicly identifying as Jewish (circumcision and other law observance) would be part of how one identified as belonging to Christ.
Whether the teachers whom Paul opposes taught that law-observance was what forged a place of belonging among God’s people, or they taught only that law-observance clarified for others the belonging that was in the first place a gift of God; for them, keeping the law was directly related to belonging to God and bearing witness to that belonging.
Keeping the law is how you know you belong. It is also how other people will know you belong. Boundary markers used by Jews throughout the centuries drew the lines of belonging that gave shape to the community. The most public of which would be dietary laws and, in a culture known for public baths and naked athletics in gymnasia, male circumcision.
Paul imagines belonging very differently. Paul preaches that Christ is the source of belonging for all — whether they are Jews as he and Peter are, or non-Jews as most of Paul’s readers are.
Paul begins by remembering with the Galatians that he loved the law more than just about anyone. Once upon a time, he was even more enthralled with its observance as a sign of belonging than those other teachers are. But after God revealed God’s Son to him (Galatians 1:15), everything changed. He stopped persecuting the church and began preaching to the Gentiles.
Next, Paul recounts a conversation he had with Peter in Antioch. The argument was over who had a place at the table and what kind of food would be served (Galatians 2:15-16). Did Peter belong at a table with Gentiles? Did they belong at a meal with him? When Peter waffled on answers to these questions, Paul called him out as a hypocrite. Surely Peter knew better! Paraphrasing Paul, the conversation went something like this: “Look, Peter, we are Jews. We love the law and even we know that keeping it doesn’t create belonging with God for anybody!”
Paul goes on to contrast “works of the law” with pistis Christou (Galatians 2:16). While the New Revised Standard Version translates that phrase as “faith in Christ,” it is also, grammatically, the way one would speak of the faith or trust that Christ had in God throughout his life, even when trusting meant dying. Belonging is not a matter of law-observance. Belonging is a matter of the trust that connects us to Christ and the fidelity that connected Christ to God. If Paul belongs to God, and he trusts that he does, it is because Christ belongs to God and was faithful to that relationship no matter what. Describing Christ’s faithfulness, Paul says, he “loved me and gave himself for me.”
The difference between Paul “before” and Paul “after” Christ’s self-giving love was revealed to him is so great that Paul describes it in terms of death and resurrection. “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”
In Galatians 5 and 6, Paul offers a constructive proposal for how others will know that Christ lives in those who have been joined to his death and resurrection. (The answer does not have to do with Christians’ refraining from table fellowship with the non-kosher or submitting to circumcision, but with their bearing the fruit of the Spirit.) For now, Paul is content to clarify that Christ creates belonging by loving and by giving himself for others. For Paul, whatever else preachers and teachers of goodwill may disagree about, this revelation is non-negotiable.
Lord of justification,With great joy we receive the gift of salvation which is ours not because of our own efforts, but because of the saving work of Christ. Grant us full access to the glory of your salvation, an abundance that is more than enough for all humankind, for the sake of our redeeming Christ. Amen.
We walk by faith ELW 635, H82 209Leaning on the everlasting arms ELW 774, UMH 133
That priceless grace, John Helgen