One in Christ

So many resources focus on the question of “faith vs. works” or “the Law as tutor or disciplinarian” in this passage that, for a change of pace, we’ll explore other homiletical avenues.

May 12, 2013

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Commentary on Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29

So many resources focus on the question of “faith vs. works” or “the Law as tutor or disciplinarian” in this passage that, for a change of pace, we’ll explore other homiletical avenues.

“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? … Did you experience so much for nothing?”

This comment shows Paul at his most raw (or perhaps that distinction belongs to the letter’s opening (1:8-9) or his wish that his opponents castrate themselves (5:12)). Everyone who has been deeply involved in congregational life has felt similar frustration. Fortunately, our reactions don’t usually become immortalized like Paul’s (although some blog entries or social media comments might come close).

But, also, fortunately his frustration is immortalized because the dynamics behind his words are so common. It should be made clear, though, that Paul is not reacting to disputes over petty things, such as the color of pew cushions or whether to have cushions at all. The conflict he’s addressing involves a deep disagreement over what matters most in life and in relationship to God.

A detailed analysis of Paul’s “faith vs. works” argument — important for his day — might stand as tempting grist for the exegetical mill. However, congregations might benefit more from an analysis of competing perspectives in our own day on what matters most as expressed in the main themes of scripture and in primary emphases of American culture.

It might be instructive, for example, for families to compare how much they spend on cell phone plans, Internet service, and cable (plus electronic equipment costs) with how much they give to ministries and charities. Or amount of time spent on television and the Internet compared with prayer, devotional study, or ministry beyond our living rooms. In our own day, who or what has bewitched us to the extent that we might experience so much grace and life for nothing?

God supplies you with the Spirit and works miracles among you

Even in this angry letter, Paul recognizes that more than shortcomings and errors characterizes the Galatians’ story. Paul does not only chastise them; he also calls to remembrance the best parts of their story, the Spirit-filled, miraculous moments. Just as any community can leave us shaking our heads in bewilderment, it can also leave us raising our hands in celebration, grateful when we find a person or community transformed “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). God has worked powerfully among them. Paul seeks to call forth their desire to have God work among them even more fully.

If Paul were speaking to us today, perhaps he would remind us that our identity does not lie in the number of people on our membership roll (whether large or small), the amount of money people have given to our church so far this year (whether we’re in surplus or deficit), the number of participants in our music or youth or other program (whether they’re vigorously vital or seriously struggling), the condition of our buildings (whether newly constructed and visually striking or worn down and shabby). He would not call us to focus on any baseline or criteria that we could mistake for our own achievement.

Paul would remind us, as he did the Galatians, that our identity starts and ends with this: “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith” (3:26). Membership, money, programs, and buildings are disposable means — and not even necessary means — to enduring ends (in the Synoptics, the disciples lack them all! See Luke 9:1-6).

This is not to say that if we have these things we are not called to be good stewards. It is to say that we are especially called to be good stewards of the Spirit, of the miraculous, and of our identity, first, as children of God. If those stand as our starting and ending points, we’ll learn what to do faithfully with the rest. Our perspective on what matters changes radically the more we clothe ourselves with Christ (3:27), a crucial work of faith.

As unity in Christ emerges, distinctions among us fade away

Galatians 3:28 stands as an enduring eliminator of barriers and hierarchies we erect among ourselves. When we use race, ethnicity, or status as an inherent reason to look down on others; when we think that some group among us deserves to be less free than another group; or when we think that anatomical, physiological, or genetic traits make some people deserving of more power, influence, or respect than others … this verse serves as a corrective.

Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female were thoroughly established differentiators in Paul’s day. Paul told the people of his own time — and he tells us now — that, actually, those distinctions exist only in the minds of humans, not in the mind of God. He states this insight in one of scripture’s most volatile sentences, with implications so radical that throughout the ages many have sought to show why it should not be taken literally (perhaps matched only by attempts to domesticate scripture’s statements about money, possessions, or God’s view of the poor).

Despite the antiquity of Paul’s insight, many societies, cultures, communities, and congregations reinforce — through legislation, peer pressure, willful ignorance, lies, gossip, and so on — our own versions of those differentiators today. Any group will find it dismayingly easy to generate its own list. Paul’s triumphal proclamation finds itself qualified, restricted, parsed to death, or “shown” to mean the opposite of what it says. Among things that matter, this sentence stands near the top.

And for those of us who want to call ourselves children of God through faith, letting all of that sentence’s implications find expression in our lives — more than we like to admit — takes openness to God’s relentless efforts to supply us with the Spirit and work miracles among us (3:5). Being one in Christ Jesus often scares us, even though it’s a beautiful gift of God, one of God’s promises that endures from Abraham to today (3:29) and into the age to come.