The Meeting Nobody Wants to Have

Photo credit: <a href="">Martin Fisch</a>

Galatians 1:6-9

I’m simply astounded that, just like that, you’re abandoning me, the one who brought you into Jesus’ good graces, to run off after someone else’s version of Jesus. Mind you, there really isn’t any other legitimate version, but certain people (whose names I won’t mention) are taking you in. They want to make Jesus’ story into something else.

Nevertheless, even if we ourselves, or even a messenger from heaven, ever tell you anything different than what we first told you – well, to hell with them. I’ll say it again: if anyone ever tells you something other than what we’ve told you, to hell with them.

We can cut Paul a little slack. He’s feeling betrayed. He’s feeling like he’s losing his grip, and certainly his influence over a project that he was involved in from the beginning. Emotions are running high.

This is the point at which the partners in a start-up business have to tell the lead partner, “You’ve made this project too much about you. You’re a great go-getter, and you love the product like nobody else we know, but you just don’t work well with others, and you’re too controlling of the rest of the team. We’re sorry, but you’re fired.” You expect him to get a little upset. You expect him to tell you to go to hell. You expect him to write an open letter to the employees, and publish it on Facebook.

The truth of the matter is, we owe Paul a great deal. If it hadn’t been for him, most of us probably never would have heard of Jesus. Christianity would have remained an obscure little enclave of disaffected Jews and a few curious folk from other ethnic backgrounds. Jesus would have remained an historical footnote. But Paul wasn’t perfect.

Paul’s version of Jesus was, at the time, not in sync with what most of the people who had known Jesus personally were saying about him. At the time, Christianity was a Jewish fringe movement. It was tied to a few people’s experience of a single man.

Paul’s experience, and his version of Jesus, was visionary. It had the advantage of not being tied to the human experience of Jesus. It wasn’t parochial, geographically or ethnically, in the way the Jerusalem group was. It could spread. But the down side was that without the anchor of the real person, Jesus, the man who started the movement, Paul was free to envision all kinds of things that just weren’t part of the story. Since he claimed his visions came from the risen Jesus, who could argue?

Except that at some point, common sense takes over, and you have to let the lead partner go. It’s not easy. Never is. But you’ve got to do it, before the whole thing falls apart.

What Hope Can You Offer?

girl looking out from behind door
Photo credit: <a href="">Roy Yap</a>

Galatians 1:1-5

A letter from Paul (and the rest of God’s family here with me), an Apostle whose authority is not connected with any human certification process or any human organization, but comes from Jesus himself, and from God who brought him back to life, to the gatherings in Galatia.

May God, who is our parent, and Jesus, who gave himself for our wrongdoing so that we could be free from the current mess the world is in, grant you grace and peace. That’s what God wanted. May God be forever acclaimed. Yes, may it be so.

As we look at Paul’s difficulties, perhaps one of the most fruitful possibilities is to learn from his mistakes.

Galatians is one of the earliest letters we have from Paul. (1 Thessalonians may be earlier, but it’s really a toss-up.) Perhaps what’s so astonishing about it is how things have gone so quickly sour. Already, it’s to the point that there is a broadly held misgiving among the churches throughout an entire region that Paul isn’t really a bona fide apostle. And who could blame them for being a little suspicious? After all, he wasn’t one of the twelve. To make matters worse, he wasn’t even in agreement with the twelve about a great many things.

Right at the beginning of this letter, Paul has to legitimate his claim to be an apostle, and the only legitimation he can give is that he has a vision straight from God. It was a hard sell then, and it’s still a hard sell now.

What buys Paul an audience, though, is his promise to make a case that Jesus can somehow get us out of the mess the world is in. If he can make a convincing case for that – well, maybe we’ll be able to believe the part about his direct line to God. It’s a hard case to make in just six short chapters.

So, what can we take away from this? An offer of hope trumps a claim to authority. Every time.

Instead of standing on ceremony, or insisting on credentials, or pulling rank, what hope can you offer the world today?

Abraham’s Promise Is Your Promise

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Photo credit: <a href="">pipitdapo</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

Galatians 3:23-29

Before there was faith, by law we were prisoners under guard. Until faith appeared, the rulebook was our master. But then Jesus came so we could do what is right implicitly. Now, living by faith we have no master. Instead, Jesus has made us God’s children. If you’ve been through Jesus’ baptism, you’ve taken on Jesus’ life. You’re not defined by your ethnicity. You’re not defined by your economic status. You’re not defined by your gender. You’re now all alike defined by the Jesus mission. And if you’re on the Jesus mission, the promise God gave to Abraham falls to you.

The Abrahamic promise (see Genesis 12:1-3) is three-fold:

  1. that you’ll become a great nation,
  2. that your name will be great, and
  3. that you’ll be blessed in order to bless others.

The audacity of Paul’s claim lies not in the part we moderns like to think, “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (though this is an extraordinary statement for its time). The real audacity is that Paul is taking what had been reserved for a single great mythological archetypical persona from the ancient past and applying it to everyone who is a part of the Jesus mission in the present. The responsibility to give rise to a great movement, to be great, and to be blessed in order to bless others falls to everyone and anyone who has, like Jesus, realized and accepted with joy who they really are.

If this is true, then the stakes really have gone up. Because you can’t hide behind all the other labels people tend to hide behind: ethnicity, economic status, gender. You’re either on the mission, or you aren’t. You have accepted who you really are, or you haven’t.

Time to fish or cut bait. Take hold of the promise and be great, be blessed, be a blessing to someone. Do something to leave in your wake even more people who know themselves truly and rejoice in who they really are – a great nation.

Paul’s Version of the Nativity

painting of Tiananmen Square image
Image credit: <a href="">Michael Mandiberg</a>

Galatians 4:4-7

But when the time was right, God sent God’s son, born of a woman, subject to the law, so that everyone subject to the law could be reclaimed and adopted into God’s family. And, since you’re family, your hearts share the spirit of God’s son, so you can call God, Daddy. You’re not slaves any more. You’re sons and daughters. You’re God’s children and heirs.

These short lines are as close as Paul comes to saying anything about the nativity. But unlike the gospel’s accounts, which go out of their way to elaborate on the extra-natural character of Jesus’ birth, Paul’s whole point is to show how much Jesus’ lot is the same as everyone else’s.

So there is no reference to virginity. Jesus is born of a woman (Greek: gunaikos), which is as much to say, at least so far as his earthly lot is concerned, he puts his pants on one leg at a time. He’s subject to the same law as the rest of us. And for Paul’s theology, this sameness is the essential link to get the rest of us back to God.

But even if you can’t swallow Paul’s theology, it’s still worth noting that, however you want to construct it, the whole Jesus enterprise is aimed at setting people free. And it’s accomplished by people who put their pants on one leg at a time. People like Jesus and like you and like me.

In that sense, it’s the ultimate democratic movement.