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Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on January 22, 2006

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Third Sunday after Epiphany
Evensong

Sermon preached by

The Rev. Ethan Cole

January 22, 2006

The Epistle to the Galatians is perhaps St. Paul's fiercest writing. Even in the bitter exchange he has with the Corinthians over their libertine behavior he does not come across as heated in the defense of his own authority and the gospel he preaches as he does in his words to the Galatians. The Church in Galatia was planted by St. Paul, and would have consisted mostly of Gentiles. After the customary opening to a letter, Paul leaps to the heart of the matter: "I am astonished," he writes, "that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel-not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!"

It seems that after Paul left Galatia, having planted a Church there, to continue his ministry in other places, some teachers came to Galatia and were claiming that Paul was mistaken in the good news that he proclaimed. Paul taught the Galatians that in Christ there is no distinction among people-that in baptism, regardless of what one's background is, one puts on Christ and is made free. Paul reiterated what he taught the Galatians when he was among them when he writes, "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise."

As powerful as this teaching is, those teachers who came in after Paul must have been extremely compelling in offering another vision, because the Galatians fell away from what Paul taught. We do not know exactly what these others taught. Paul does not record it for us, and their own writings do not survive-but based on Paul's arguments in this letter we can attempt a reconstruction.

These teachers probably claimed that because Jesus was Jewish as were all his followers during his lifetime (which is true), and because God chose Israel out of all nations to be his special people (which is also true), that a Gentile must first convert to Judaism and be circumcised in order to be a follower of Christ, and that followers of Christ must also follow the laws and rituals of Judaism in order to be made righteous before God. It is a compelling argument, which is why the Galatians fell away, and why Paul had to fight against it so hotly. These teachers claimed that to be saved in Christ one must first through conversion and keeping of ritual become a member of Israel. Paul claims that the Gentiles are grafted into Israel and its salvation, not through any conversion or ritual but through the grace of Christ.

There was a crisis of authority in Galatia-who were they to believe? Paul spends the first chapters of this epistle shoring up his own authority as an apostle in order to convince the Galatians that he is right. I commend to you a careful reading of these chapters where Paul reports his own story of being called by God-an event that we at a Cathedral named after St. Paul regard as foundational. It is this story of Paul's transformation that we will be celebrating next Sunday.

Paul defends his authority so strongly to the Galatians because for him this is the center of the gospel. If salvation is something that we accomplish on our own behalf by keeping the law of Israel, then our faith in Christ is in vain-then there is no gospel. Paul says at the end of the second chapter of this letter, "if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing."

I have spent all these words just as a preface to the phrase that I want to look at tonight:

the freedom we have in Christ Jesus.

What is this freedom we have in Christ? By the power of God in Christ we are set free from and we are set free for. We are set free from all those things that draw us from the love of God. We all have our list of cherished sins that draw us away from the true self that God longs for us to be. In Christ, we have the liberty to turn away from them. The Christian life is a life of continual conversion, wherein we say "no" to the bondage we find ourselves in due to sin. Because of what God has done for us in Christ, we have the power to utter that "no" to those false idols that continue to try to enslave us. We are free to say "no" to greed, we are free to say "no" to our own egos when we find ourselves thinking more highly of ourselves when we ought, we are free to say "no" to the continuing call of the world to forget God and live as if we were our own master. We are free to say "no" to insert your own favorite sin here. In Christ Jesus we are set free from our dependence on things that are not God. However, as Paul makes clear in another place, God's "yes" is more important even than this "no" of which I have been speaking. In Christ we are free to "yes" to God's invitation to grow into Christ's likeness. We are freed from Sin, but more importantly, we are freed for God. In Christ we are free to love our fellow humanity so deeply that we can be generous and charitable in way that is the exact opposite of greed. We are free to rejoice in the glorious accomplishments of both others and ourselves in a way that is the exact opposite of aggrandizement of ego. We are free to laugh and be happy and play in a holy way that is miles removed from the urbane and mocking merriment that the world calls entertainment. The freedom we have in Christ Jesus is freedom to be in deep authentic relationship with God and with each other, which fulfills our humanity and draws us all closer to heaven.

But if all this is so, then why were the Galatians so ready to exchange the gospel of liberty in Christ for a false gospel that bound them to ritual? Perhaps we will never know exactly what motivated the Galatians, but I know why I shy away from liberty in Christ. Fear. Christian freedom requires daring and the bravery of faith. First I must dare to say "no" to all those sins that have become so comfortable. Sometimes I grow so fond of those chains that keep me from being free. Even if I know what Christ offers, sometimes I do not dare to reject greed or ego or whatever the god of my idolatry is. It requires daring to reject our familiar sins, even if they are dragging us into misery. Further, I must be brave enough to believe that God really does love me unconditionally-that God loves me so much that he wants to transform me into a little brother of Jesus. It takes bravery to believe that these gospel promises could possibly be true.

Those who taught the false gospel to the Galatians claimed that through circumcision and ritual they could secure their own salvation-a comforting thought, my salvation is in my own hands-if I go to Church enough, if I try to be a decent person, if I try not to do a wrong turn by anyone, as long as I'm not hurting anyone by my actions then I have secured my place in heaven-yes it is a comforting gospel, but if Paul is right, a false one. The truth is much scarier-my own salvation is completely out of my hands, I have no control over the living God-and neither do you. But if you desire it, if you dare, if you are brave enough, God will set you free. And because our salvation is new every day, if we fall into sin, if we find ourselves in bondage again and again as even most of the saints did, Christ will be waiting to set us free again. Amen.

 

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2006 St. Paul's Cathedral, Buffalo New York