09/15/19 “Embracing Grace”

Galatians 2:1-10

From the 1940’s until the 1990’s, the laws in South Africa were the opposite of an embrace.  Rather than joining people together, the law separated people based on race. Although racism had existed in South Africa for centuries, as it has in the rest of the world, apartheid became the law of the land in 1948.

Over the next few years, inter-racial marriage would be outlawed. People identified as “non-white” would be forcibly removed from the cities and crammed into crowded, filthy areas called townships, in order to eliminate “black spots” in the more desirable, white-dominated cities. They would need a government pass to travel outside their township to work in the city, and they couldn’t be found outside their township at night or risk brutal treatment at the hands of the police. No matter what your color, even being friends with someone of a different race raised suspicions that could lead to arrest and possible torture. The evils of racism linger in South Africa, as they do in our own country, but South Africa’s legal system of apartheid ended in the 1990’s.

Midway between the South African cities of Pretoria and Johannesburg, there’s a town called Midrand. In that town, there’s a church called Calvary Methodist Church, home of the most diverse congregation in the nation. In front of that church, on a hill overlooking the communities below, is a stone cross.  It was erected in 1999, five years after South Africa’s first democratic government was elected by citizens of all races.

The cross was designed by South African artist Hans Wilreker and Methodist Pastor Alan Storey. According to the Rev. Storey, the left arm of the cross is raised higher and extends further than the right arm. It represents the extension of the heart, reminding us that Jesus’ heart was given in obedience to the Father in his work of boundless loving. The left arm is also the arm of the outcast, reminding us that Jesus came to raise the lowly and poor. The right arm is shorter.  It symbolizes the powerful who are humbled and brought low, as prophesied by Mary.  Storey writes, “This cross is shaped to express God’s loving embrace of the world in the death of Jesus.”

The cross reminds us that separation is not what God desires for us. The cross reaches up, to remind us of how God embraces us in gracious love.  And it reaches out, to remind us that we are to embrace others in Jesus’ name, in spite of the differences that threaten to divide us.  God’s loving embrace of the world through the unearned gift of salvation, offered to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is what Paul is writing about in his letter to the Galatians.  How God’s people can embrace each other is a focus of chapter 2.

We left Paul last week as he began to lay out his arguments for the Galatians about why they should not listen to the new teachers who had come among them.  These teachers were teaching a gospel that, in Paul’s words, was a different, and even a “perverted,” version of the gospel.  The gospel they were teaching was one that depended on following the law rather than on the gift of salvation given to us by God’s grace through faith in Jesus alone. It especially focused on outward signs of faith, such as circumcision, as a requirement for being included in God’s covenant.

This false gospel wasn’t being peddled by Jews in order to reclaim backsliders or to try to convert Gentiles to Judaism.  These new teachers were Jewish Christians, this as an intra-church debate. But their teachings insisted that following the Law was still a condition of salvation. Now, Paul fears that the Galatians will give up the wonderful gift of grace they’d accepted.  He’s afraid that they’ll fall back into depending on their own works and on outward displays of religion for assurance that they’re included in God’s covenant. He’s afraid that they will fall away from the saving grace of God.

Not only did Paul have to fight this false teaching, he also had to fight for his own credibility.  The new teachers were casting doubt on Paul’s authority, and so he had to argue, first, that the gospel had been revealed to him directly by God, the same God who had called him from birth.  And, he declared, it was God who had sent him to preach the good news to the Gentiles in Galatia, who had eagerly accepted that good news when Paul first proclaimed it to them.

In Chapter 1, Paul reminded the Galatians of his own story—how he had upheld the law in the strictest way—even to the point of inflicting violence on other Jews who were caught worshiping Jesus.  But, by the grace of God, he had been transformed into a messenger bearing the good news of Jesus.  So confident was he in the divine nature of the revelation he’d been given, he went immediately into Arabia and then to Damascus, where for three years he shared the good news with others.

in Chapter 2, Paul continues to recount his experiences before coming to preach in Galatia.  He describes how, after fourteen years of teaching and preaching, another revelation prompted him to go to Jerusalem.  What that revelation was, he doesn’t tell us. Maybe it was that what he was preaching was being questioned by the church leadership in Jerusalem. Maybe he’d already heard rumors, or had already encountered the same kind of false teaching that the Galatians were now hearing.  What is clear is that he in no way questioned the truth of the gospel of grace or his call to share it.

Whatever the revelation was, he acted on it and went to Jerusalem, where he met privately with the acknowledged leaders of the Church.  There were others there, too, but Paul says that he focused on those who were the established and respected leaders—apostles like himself. He laid out for these leaders what he was preaching to the Gentiles—that following the Jewish Law was not the litmus test for being included in God’s covenant of salvation, but rather faith in the resurrected Jesus.

In his letter to the Galatians, he explains his purpose for doing this: to make sure that his efforts weren’t in vain.  This seems kind of odd, given Paul’s certainty of the validity of his call and the gospel he’s preaching.  Was he starting to question the truth of what he was preaching?  No, far from it.  Paul believed that, through his work among the Gentiles, other Jews would see the beauty and truth of God’s grace-filled love, offered through the new covenant sealed in Jesus’ blood, and they would want it for themselves. He spoke with the Jerusalem church to see if his missionary work among the Gentiles was also having the desired effect back in Jerusalem.

It must have been a pretty tense meeting, given the impassioned, sputtering language of Paul’s description of it for the Galatians.  There were false teachers listening in, Paul says—false teacher just like the ones the Galatians are seeing now.  But, Paul assures them, he hadn’t submitted to those false teachers then, any more than he will submit to them now. The good news of God’s grace was true and, in Jerusalem, Paul had had evidence of that standing right next to him in the person of Titus, an uncircumcised Greek whose life had been transformed by God’s grace through his faith in Jesus, not by some outward sign like circumcision.

Paul tells the about his past so they can relate it to their present. Paul tells them—and us—this history as if to say, “Look, I’ve been in this place before. The Church has been in this place before. People have misunderstood the Gospel and tried teaching a different version, not out of malice but out of a desire to please God, however misguided.  People have forgotten before that grace alone provides all that we need to be included in God’s life-giving covenant.  They’ve fallen back on familiar traditions and easy-to-understand rules as though they were magic spells that can get us into the kingdom. But the good news is that the Good News endures—that through the action of God’s grace alone, all people can eternally enjoy God’s embrace and be included in God’s kingdom.”

Sometimes we need to be reminded of that, too.  Grace is a hard thing for us to accept for ourselves, let alone extend to others.  We have a hard time believing that God can love us if we’re not measuring up somehow.  Maybe it’s because there’s nowhere else in our lives where we’re accepted so completely and loved unconditionally.  We certainly don’t find it at school or at work.  Social media users will let you know pretty fast if you haven’t measured up to their ideas of what’s good and what’s not. Advertisers are in the business of letting us know that being acceptable depends on our using their products.

We like to think we can find unconditional love in our families, but plenty of people know that’s not always the case.  We come to church hoping to find unconditional love from the people beside us in the pews but, sadly, plenty of people find that not to be the case, either.  So, it’s understandable that we have a hard time accepting God’s embrace, offered out of pure and unearned love, since we don’t find much of that in the world around us.

As hard as it is to accept God’s grace for ourselves, it’s even harder to accept that God offers it to other people, too (who, in our opinion, certainly don’t deserve it).  We’re uncomfortable with the prodigal son being welcomed home.  We’re annoyed when the workers who start their day at 5 in the afternoon get paid the same as the ones who started at daybreak.  We’re skeptical of the Zacchaeus’s of the world, coming down out of their trees to be saved after a lifetime of abusing others.  We think that if we don’t deserve God’s love (being the good people that we are), surely those people don’t.

If, in our hearts, we truly don’t think someone else deserves God’s love, we live as though they don’t deserve ours, either. If they don’t live like us, believe like us, and follow the same rules we follow, well, they’re just out of luck.  I’ve mentioned before that I like to read advice columns, and one pretty regular topic is the issue of thank you notes.  People write in to say that they gave someone a gift, and they didn’t respond with a thank-you note.  They ask, should I keep giving gifts to that person?  The answer is almost always “no,” because the lack of thanks means they don’t deserve a gift.  We forget that God’s grace is, by definition, a gift that none of us deserve.  And yet, our attitudes towards others preach the same false message the Galatians were hearing: you don’t deserve to be part of God’s kingdom of love if you’re not like us.

Paul tells the Galatians that his meeting in Jerusalem ended on a positive note. The Jerusalem leaders saw that Paul had been made an apostle just as Peter had been.  Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles was affirmed as being equal to Peter’s ministry to the Jews.  They agreed that following all the Jewish laws and customs were not a requirement for inclusion in the new covenant, which was made clear by the fact that Titus didn’t have to be circumcised.

The encounter ended in an embrace between these leaders of the early church. The leaders of the Jerusalem mission clasped hands with the Gentile mission—James and Peter and John joining hands in Christian fellowship with Paul and Barnabas.  I don’t know of a Greek word for “group hug,” but I can picture that.  Whether it was with a handshake or a hug, those apostles of Jesus Christ recognized, validated, and embraced each other’s ministries, in spite of their differences, because of what they shared—faith in the gracious love of God, poured out through Jesus.

I’d like to tell you that after the Jerusalem conference, everything was all rainbows and unicorns within the early church.  If you did your homework and read Chapter 2, you know that it wasn’t. Paul tells the Galatians that problems continued to crop up.  There was still that pull back towards the old displays of religion.  Even Peter and James struggled with it. There was still a desire to avoid conflict. There was still some vacillating on what behavior was appropriate, and for whom.

We still struggle with that today.  Churches still fight over petty things like what songs to sing and what people should wear and what color the sanctuary carpet should be.  And we disagree over big things, like how we should read and interpret scripture.  When we find ourselves in those situations, especially now as our denomination debates how to proceed in the years ahead, we can take some cues from the story Paul relates to the Galatians.

First, we can gather in holy conferencing, as Paul did in Jerusalem, to explain our own understandings and ways that we share the gospel with others. We can listen respectfully to each other.  We can recognize that by God’s grace, we are all called into ministry, commissioned to preach the gospel by our words and our deeds to the people God has placed in our paths. Then, we can affirm each other’s differing ways of being and ministering in the world, offering each other the right hand of fellowship—or better yet, a warm embrace that embodies the love that God has for us.

Then, we remember the poor.  We don’t allow our differences of opinion about theology or tradition or church structure to stand in the way of the work Jesus left for us to do: give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger and clothe the naked, care for the sick, and personal attention to those who are in prison, to teach all that Jesus taught, to baptize, and to make disciples. We remember the poor, not just in our thoughts and prayers but with our hands and our feet and our wallets. Paul and the leaders of the Jerusalem Church were united in this, and we must be, too. As important as it is for us to work out our theological differences, we must never let our differences distract us from our kingdom-building work of embracing the poor.

As we work out our differences, we keep before us the gospel of grace as Paul sums it up at the end of Chapter 2: “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law… I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

This is the divine embrace that God extends to us by grace alone. This is the embrace we are to offer to others.  This is the embrace we see in the arms of the cross, reaching out to gather us and all people to God, through faith in Jesus Christ. Amen.

~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young