Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

We continue with our sequential reading of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

Prophet Elijah on Mount Horeb
Volterra, Daniele da, ca. 1509-1566. Prophet Elijah on Mount Horeb, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source:

June 23, 2013

Second Reading
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Commentary on Galatians 3:23-29

We continue with our sequential reading of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

Last week’s reading (2:15-21) was strongly focused on faith/faithfulness (pistis) and the fact that people are brought into right relationship with God by trusting the One who was utterly faithful. This week we move to a consideration of how this happens, especially for Gentiles who had not even imagined themselves as called by God into relationship with God and each other. While the division that is so important to Paul — Jews and Greeks (Gentiles) — is not a source of major concern to us, this passage of the letter is still of great value for the bold preacher.

To start with a very basic reality, Paul, who nowhere ceases to style himself as a Jew, speaks to a distinction that remains lively among us, albeit usually in an unspoken way. Jews remain; they continue to understand themselves as called by God into covenant relationship. They still read Scripture and like Christians of all stripes ponder its meaning for their lives today. Jews still hope and trust that God’s promised shalom will be brought to fruition.

Again, like Christians, there is great variety among Jews about interpretation of Scripture, the ends for which they hope, their understanding of God, and the like. However, it needs to be said clearly that in spite of the worst kind of testing, there are devoted bible readers, children of God, who do not believe that Jesus was the Messiah. We live next door to them. The disagreements among us are more cordial, yet still quite real.

All of the above also holds true for the differences among those of us who call ourselves Christians. So the need to approach scripture with passion and humility continues to be part of our lives together on God’s earth. Preachers, how do you bring this important reality home in 2013 and beyond?

Paul is at work to describe the two different ways “we” (Jews) and you all (Gentiles, 2nd person plural in verse 26) that all have now been brought into right relationship with God out of faith. In verses 23-25, he uses “we” language repeatedly. This is in distinct contrast to the second half of this passage. Verse 23 is about a nearly personified form of pistis. Faith/faithfulness comes and is revealed. Since Paul speaks of God’s Messiah Jesus as “revealed” in Galatians (1:12, 16), and since Jesus embodies faithfulness, the two uses of pistis in verse 23 seem to refer to Jesus having come and been revealed as Messiah.

At the heart of verses 23 and 24 is Paul’s picture of his pre-Messiah life: all God’s people were held tight, guarded, and supervised by God’s word precisely so that they would be prepared to recognize God’s faithfulness/God’s faithful One at the proper time. Before Jesus, then, God’s people, for all the protection of the law, did not enjoy God’s rescue from the age of evil. By God’s help they endured.

In verses 26-29 Paul shifts to “you” in plural forms (two times each in verses 26, 27, 28b, and 29). In fact, he emphasizes the “you” plural forms by using the grammatically unnecessary pronouns to emphasize the 2nd person plural verbs in both the last verses. These verses are written directly to Gentile believers, Paul’s audience for this letter (4:8-9) and describe how they have become part of God’s holy people. They likewise are children of God through their trust in Christ (verse 26) and their baptism into Christ (verse 27). They have “put on” Christ. They have become as Christ — God’s own faithfulness come at last.

That both groups have experienced a radical change in their status thanks to God’s sending and raising of the Messiah, Jews and Gentiles are now one. The division is over. In fact, the most basic divisions of the Greco-Roman world, at least from a Jewish point of view, have ended, at least in terms of whom God loves and saves. Given the history of the church, it is very difficult to imagine that Paul refers to a complete change in the social and legal realities of the ancient world, granting women and slaves equal rights. But all, from the most deeply pagan to the most abject slaves to the most ignored women are welcome as children of God, the seed of Abraham and heirs of all that God has promised (verse 29).

This great point of equalization before God is of momentous impact to Paul. He will insist that the Lord’s Supper is enjoyed among all equally, that worship and prayer belong to all those claimed by God as heirs. This move is so subversive of normal Greco-Roman law that it hardly makes sense. But it is Paul’s claim about God, based on scripture and the lives of women and men claimed by the Holy Spirit.

Now, we might ask ourselves, how has that played in Peoria, so to speak? How does it now play? Are folk added to Christ’s body with customs that we cannot understand or cannot bear? How might our world continue to change if we take that promise seriously, if the veteran believers, the longtime believers continue to recognize new freedom given through the Holy Spirit at the hands and in the lives of the most surprising people? How might we encourage sisters and brothers to claim their freedom as heirs of God?

There is much to imagine here, much to cheer, and perhaps even much to fear. Perhaps the preacher will find a way to imagine hugely and begin with small steps, holding both before the congregation that continues to believe that faith has indeed come and God’s Holy Spirit is not yet finished with us.