Side tracked by good enough people
A sermon on Galatians 3:23-29 by Jill Friebel 24 June 2007
By way of an introduction in ‘99 I did a semester subject on
Galatians with an international scholar and author on Pauline theology
– Colin Kruse. It ended up being a course that changed my
life. It is impossible to do much justice to this short
book of only 6 chapters but huge in terms of consequences for us
all. Paul wrote most of his letters including this one on the run
and in response to a pastoral crisis somewhere. In fact it
appears that the only letter he wrote which was not in response to a
crisis was Romans when he had a 3 month Grecian holiday, and it is so
complicated it is still largely a mystery to scholars let alone
us. Paul’s letters are seldom read with quite the
right tone of voice – which is not a criticism to our readers
– for it would be hard to do when just reading a paragraph or
two. But Galatians and 1 Corinthians especially are written with
vibrant rather furious and frustrated tones and with a fair amount of
colourful language. He had established both these
little house churches and kept moving on to establish more.
So when he heard that a Jewish party from Jerusalem had visited the
Galatian chruch with a “different gospel” he was hopping
mad and putting together some of his phrases from Galatians it goes
something like, “Oh my God you stupid Galatians, how could
you get sucked in by these Judaizing impostors – if they
are so intent on circumcising you all and turning you into good Jews I
hope their knife slips when they do their own and they cut the whole
lot off. To hell with the lot of them!”
Good pastoral line don’t you think? I really like the lilt and strength and passion to it. But Paul saw something so clearly that not even any of the other apostles had really got or understood. If it weren’t for Paul new gentile Christians would have been expected to become Jewish first including us. He challenged the status quo. This little book is the mandate or charter on Christian freedom in the Spirit of God. It directly addresses spiritual abuse and indirectly every sort of abuse.
Paul was a powerful preacher and teacher. But there are so many pitfalls for us preachers. It is one of the reasons I come to it with a healthy amount of fear and trepidation.
Really when you think about it, it’s quite a weird concept these days. Paul’s era was into market preachers on every corner, philosophers drawing crowds with lots of rhetoric. But that’s not quite our style any more. I did a conservative calculation and worked out I have sat through over 1500 sermons. As a small child I must have been learning something but my early memory is that they were very long and boring. Nothing like Paul’s style. I just wriggled and watched the clock in Box Hill Church of Christ, seeing how long I could hold my breath with the second hand going round. I’m sure that’s where my ability to hold my breath for quite long periods of time came from and it’s been a boom for me with my swimming.
I have always had a childlike longing for God from my earliest memories which made me quite vulnerable to preachers. I didn’t and couldn’t have had the discernment to know what was right and what was wrong. Anyway it was never all one or the other and growing up I was pretty trusting. All my preachers were male and leant strongly towards the rational and logical presentation and the 3 point sermon style or alliteration where each point started with R or S or C. Mine were conservative in theology and mostly had a literal understanding of scripture. So this was the basis of my spiritual formation and all I knew. Added to that was an unhealthy naiveté and desire to do what was right which would only be fair to say came out of this deep desire and longing for God.
So exposing yourself to preaching definitely has its risks and it can be really frustrating as well. You don’t get a chance to publicly call out “rubbish” or “I’m bored” or “please give us a break” or whatever. I know you do later but that doesn’t give you the same satisfaction. Or it might be so bad, one day you just stop coming. So feel free to get yourselves a cup of tea while I finish!
The terrible truth is though, many of us have been vulnerable to spiritual abuse and mostly don’t know it. I am a surviving victim and the consequences are still ongoing. This may sound strong but listen to Paul, something made him react violently to the party of preachers that came from Jerusalem with a different gospel to the one he preached.
The little Galatian church had both Jews and Gentiles who had come to faith in Jesus through Paul’s preaching. He had stayed there for a couple of years establishing them in the faith. Both Jews and Gentiles were baptised and had experienced a pouring out of the Holy Spirit and were being transformed and liberated without any of the requirements of the Jewish law being imposed on the Gentiles. Paul was the first apostle who made the gospel freely available to anyone, regardless of race, sex or religion without any requirements at all. Nothing. Just faith and trust and obedience to Jesus.
The Jews had a certain amount of freedom to practice their religion under the Roman authority, but this new Christian sect quickly spreading among the Gentiles was becoming a threat and drawing persecution. The party or “Judaizers” that came from Jerusalem were fearful that unless these new Gentile Christians embraced the Jewish law and “looked Jewish” it would draw attention and persecution to them as well. So below the surface of their bad theology and grasp of the gospel was fear. This is a powerful mix, men who had authority coming from the mother church, who had misunderstood the role of the Jewish law in the Christian faith, and were driven by fear and were intent on bringing this new fledging church into line with the Jewish party policy.
It will help to understand that “keeping the law” wasn’t a burden for the Judaizers it was their culture to live like this. And it appears they were mostly concerned about circumcision and keeping the food laws and holy days rather than the whole of the law. For them it was their culture to do all those things, they were raised in it and it was how they lived. But for a gentile to take on the Jewish culture as well as faith in Christ is akin the recent paternalistic missionary endeavours of turning native cultures into Westerners along with the Gospel. It comes in one package, and has been abusive and destructive to cultures and people.
But there are also more delicate and subtle innuendos here, ones that have not diminished over time and much more is at stake, hence Paul’s violent reaction.
This was a gospel of slavery. It wasn’t for the Jew but it certainly was for the Gentile. It was driven by fear and fed on guilt. They claimed Paul had only preached half the gospel. They were not acceptable to God until they fulfilled these other requirements. This lobby from Jerusalem was so strong and powerful, that even the apostle Peter and Barnabas had been intimidated by them. They were happily eating with the Christian gentiles in Antioch but had been embarrassed by the accusations of this same lobby group and had withdrawn from eating with fellow Christian gentiles. The sharing of food was taboo between Jews and others as it wasn’t Kosher. The most basic form of hospitality was forbidden and banned and they were made to feel like dirty sinners again. The new Christians were left hurt and confused. Hadn’t they been good enough before, why this sudden feeling of judgement and rejection and exclusion.
In their naiveté and desire to please God the Galatians swallowed this hook line and sinker. They doubted the freedom they had received from Paul and the Spirit and pulled back from God. They felt guilty, and the guilt made them vulnerable and exposed them to being manipulated and controlled by authority figures. They didn’t trust their own experience of God. They HAD freedom and were dragged back into slavery because someone with power told them they had it wrong. No wonder Paul was so angry. He was mad with the Galatians, furious with Peter and Barnabas, furious with the mother church and livid with the Judaizers.
Guilt, this form of guilt dragged them back into slavery to the Jewish laws. We are just as susceptible to it as they were but with different rules. This type of guilt binds us up, paralyzes us and silences us. We cannot underestimate the power and force it has on us all. How many times a day do you feel guilty and end up acting out of the guilt instead of freedom? We can become slaves to guilt.
How much of your experience of God is tainted by guilt? Guilt from preachers who told you, you the faithful sheep to run faster, jump higher and grow more wool. Jesus told Peter to FEED not sheep, not to harass them.
We have all been affected by fear-driven theology from Church authority figures. I’ll bet I have given plenty of you a dose of my fear and you ended up feeling guilty. I can’t actually make you feel guilty, but I can sure give you plenty of reason to succumb to it. A clue to being exposed to guilty style preaching and teaching is when you are feeling irritated, uncomfortable or angry. Now you could feel all those things even if it is more balanced with some integrity. You may need to check it out with someone. But the fear one will make you want to run away and hide, or withdraw for some space. You feel restricted and separated, and you feel unworthy, dirty, insignificant and hopelessly cut off. Like God would be disappointed with you and you and therefore it is hard to pray. Or is just waiting for you to pray so He can tell you off a bit more. It feels so bad you just can’t bring yourself to do it because you feel angry and hurt and a failure. It can overwhelm you enough to give up walk out the door.
Or it can predispose you to listening to others and giving them more authority than they deserve. If you experience this sort of guilt a lot– the sort of paralysing guilt I have been describing and it is something that affects you a lot, take more notice of it. Try and stay with it, and ask what it is about. Talk about it with someone.
Paul spends a lot of time unpacking this topic because of its importance and significance. It is impossible to do justice to such a relevant and critical topic and will help to keep a conversation going. We will all have our own experiences and stories to share and you are not alone in it.