Second Sunday after Pentecost

If you have ever returned a rental car, you have driven over those spikes that are made to ensure that the rental cars are not stolen out of the lot.

The Song of Angels
He Qi, The Song of Angels, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source:

June 2, 2013

Second Reading
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Commentary on Galatians 1:1-12

If you have ever returned a rental car, you have driven over those spikes that are made to ensure that the rental cars are not stolen out of the lot.

The spikes collapse when you drive forward over them, but if you were to back up, the spikes would presumably stay upright and cause, as the sign says, “severe tire damage.” To read Galatians is to witness Paul trying to spare people the damage caused by backing up. The Galatians are easing the car into reverse, and Paul is waving his arms and shouting, “No!” In the first chapter of the letter, Paul tells his own story and hints at what is at stake for his readers.

First about Paul: even in his first line, Paul insists that his call to be an apostle is directly from Christ. His credentials and his gospel are not derivative. They are not in any way dependent on or mediated by people who were close to Jesus during his ministry or who might have proclaimed the gospel to Paul after Christ’s resurrection. Paul’s gospel and his authority to preach come directly from Jesus Christ and God the Father.

Paul needs neither preaching material nor marching orders from humans. Moreover, he says, he requires no stamp of approval after the fact. If he wanted human approval, he would certainly be doing something besides being a slave of Christ.

So begins Paul’s letter to the Galatians. If Paul sounds defensive here, it may be because he is being attacked. Readers of the letter theorize that teachers who had come to Galatia after Paul left are questioning Paul’s connection to Jesus. One imagines the new teachers talking about the former one: “Paul of Tarsus? Who is he? Paul was not with Jesus in Galilee. Why should you listen to him about what Jesus taught or expected of those who would follow him? You say he told you that you did not need to be circumcised or keep the law of Moses? Where did he get that? He was probably just trying to make things easy for you, to be popular. He sounds like a people pleaser.”

Today, some people imagine that Jesus was more compassionate and inclusive than Paul and so they question Paul’s influence in the shape Christianity took. The teachers who followed Paul to Galatia, however, have the opposite problem with Paul. The teachers are not claiming that Paul is too restrictive in his ethical demands on new converts, but that he is not restrictive enough!

The “new teaching” in Galatia is that gentiles who want to follow the Jewish messiah, Jesus, must become Jews. Jesus is, after all, the Jewish messiah. All are welcome into this covenant, the teachers would say, but all must enter into the promises of God as Abraham did, by a process that includes circumcision for males.

In subsequent chapters of the letter, Paul will argue that even Abraham was made right with God by faith and not by circumcision or any other work of the law. In the opening verses of the letter, Paul is more concerned to defend himself. He says he preaches as he does because of an apocalypseos Iesou Christou, a revelation of Jesus Christ (verse 12).

What should we make of this talk of revelation? For apocalyptic Jews like Jesus and Paul, who lived under Roman rule and who looked for God to intervene in history to bring about the redemption of God’s people, resurrection of the dead was a hallmark of the new age. In the spirit of the advice to “Go big or go home,” those who waited for God to intervene dared to hope even for the resurrection of the dead.

The scope of God’s power to be “doing a new thing” (cf. Isaiah 43:19) extended even so far as that! So when Jesus, whom Paul knew to have been crucified, appeared to Paul, Paul realized that this was it: the new age had broken into Paul’s present time and place. God had been and continued to be working in Jesus to fulfill all the promises made to Israel and to reveal God’s self to the Gentiles as well.

Another characteristic of the new age is that everyone would recognize the God of Israel as the one true God (cf. Isaiah 60, for example). There will no longer be any need for a distinction between God’s people (marked by circumcision) and “others” (uncircumcised), so there will be absolutely no need for anyone to change his status from one of those groups to the other. In fact, to attempt to do so would be the same as testifying that the old distinctions still defined reality and that the new age had not, in fact, begun.

That is why Paul addresses the Galatians so forcefully, and why he asserts so vociferously that the gospel he preaches is his “through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” If the resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of a whole new age, if creation has crossed over those spikes in the rental car lot, as it were, it is foolish and dangerous to try to back up.

The healing and life that Jesus proclaims, enacts, and inspires is precisely the same as the new age Paul knows his readers to be living in. While the centurion in the Gospel reading for this Sunday might not use Paul’s words to describe it, he sees the new age embodied in Jesus. The centurion is a Gentile, of course, though his status as a non-circumcised, non-Jew turns out not to matter for his faith at all. He makes this request of Jesus: “Only speak the word, and let my servant be healed” (Luke 7:7). Jesus recognizes someone stepping into the new age when he hears it, and he welcomes him. No one should attempt to back up from that welcome.