09/29/19 “Formed by Grace”

Galatians 4:1-7, 19-20

As we’ve made our way through Paul’s letter to the Galatians and his “Gospel of Grace,” we talked about how God’s grace clothes us, embraces us, and transforms us.  These are themes that the West Ohio Conference suggested when we were invited to participate in this conference-wide study.  So, when we got to this week, I was a little perplexed when I saw that the theme was how grace “forms” us. I wondered how that is different from grace that “transforms” us.

So, I went to the dictionary and found that there is a significant difference between “forming” and “transforming.”  When something is “transformed,” it’s changed—greatly changed, in fact. When something is “formed,” it’s given a recognizable shape and a visible structure.

When I think of “forming” something, I always think of Play-Doh. I’d venture to say that, if you didn’t play with Play-Doh yourself as a child, your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren all have—or will.  More than 950 billion pounds of it have been squished into shapes and rolled out into snakes that, legend has it, would circle the globe 300 times if all those snakes were squashed together.

Whenever I use Play-Doh, as I did with the preschoolers last week, I always think of myself as “forming” something—not building or assembling or creating. I couldn’t figure out why “formed” seemed to be the right word until I learned what the word’s definition. Now it makes more sense.  When Play-Doh is formed, it takes on a recognizable shape.

Paul knew that God’s grace completely transformed the world; it was no longer the same after the momentous event of God coming into the world in a human body, taking on the world’s sin, and vanquishing it on the cross.  Paul wanted the Galatians—and us—to be transformed by grace. But, he also yearned for grace to form something—or rather, someone—in us as well.  He wanted Christ to be formed in us.

Paul expresses this desire at the end of this part of his letter. He’s done repeating his credentials as an apostle. He’s finished recounting his past conversations with the leaders of the church in Jerusalem.  He has explained how God made a promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through his offspring, and how Abraham was deemed righteous because of his faithful trust in that promise. Paul has reminded the Galatians that it is by faith in Jesus alone—faith made possible by God’s grace—that they are incorporated into the promise made to Abraham.

He has answered questions about the Law—how it was a temporary measure that kept a lock on human sin until Jesus came and was never intended to be the source of life. He has assured the Gentiles that the promise of inclusion in God’s covenant applies to them in equal measure to the Jews.

In fact, they are more equal than they think—or than the Jews might think.  This is what Paul gets at in the first part of Chapter 4. Paul begins with a metaphor. He tells the Gentiles (and the Jewish Christians who might be listening in) that heirs to an estate, as long as they are under-aged, aren’t any better off than slaves. Even though they know they will one day be the owners of the property that has been promised to them, they’ll be under the care of guardians and trustees until the appointed time.

Before Christ came, Paul says, Jews and Gentiles alike were in this same position. They had been promised a share in God’s kingdom. But until the fullness of time as God had appointed it, both Jews and Gentiles were no better than slaves. The Gentiles had been enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world, worshiping things like earth, air, wind, and fire.  The Jews, slavishly observing the Law with all its rituals and feasts, were equally enslaved.  It wasn’t until “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,” that all might take their place as God’s children.

Jesus accomplished our adoption as sons and daughters in his death and resurrection. Jesus broke into the world and released us from the slavery we lived in.  As confirmation of this great act, the Spirit is poured into our hearts.  And it is by the power of the Spirit in our hearts that we can joyfully, gratefully, call out to God as our beloved Father.

After this joyous proclamation of the goodness of God, after celebrating the grace that makes it possible for us to be adopted as God’s children, after affirming the reality of being made full heirs with Jesus in God’s kingdom, after emphasizing the freedom that Jesus secures for us, Paul’s thoughts take a sudden turn toward the sorrowful.  It’s as though he is suddenly struck by the utter tragedy of potential loss—that the Galatians will abandon this great, unearned gift of freedom and adoption.

He asks them, “How can you possibly want to return to worshiping what cannot save you? How can you put any stock in special days, and months, and seasons, and years? How can you choose to become slaves again?”  His greatest fear is that these Christians, who have come to know God and to be known by God, will now refuse what they have been given, and that the work he did to bring them the Good News of life in Jesus Christ has been wasted.

This possibility so seizes Paul’s heart that he begins to beg them not to do this.  The bold debater, the assured leader, the scolding voice of authority speaks as a desperate parent. He begs them to use his life in faith as their model. He appeals to their memory of how they treated him in the early days of their relationship—how he had been sick when he came to them, and still they welcomed him as God’s messenger.

You can hear the anguish in his voice when he asks if they now see him as their enemy.  His heart breaks over what the new teachers are doing—making a big deal over the Galatians, making them want to be part of the teachers’ group, but keeping them out until they adhere to the teachers’ rules. And then he writes those poignant words that end our reading today: “My little children, I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.”

I wonder if Jesus feels the same way about us when we begin to listen to a different gospel?   Jesus’ heart must break for us when we claim grace-given faith in him, but we fall back on rule-keeping as our litmus test for whether we are God’s children or not. Jesus must grieve over us when we relapse into thinking we have to buy God’s love by what we do rather than accept it as a gift that Jesus offers us so freely.  I imagine that Paul may have shed some tears over his letter as he wrote it. I imagine that Jesus sheds some tears over us, too.

There are a lot of voices offering a different gospel. Some of them come from the world. Those are the ones that come from the teachers sent by companies with products to sell, or political organizations with agendas to push, or employers with bottom lines to enhance.

But there are also voices that come from other Christians, and those might be the most enticing voices.  They are the voices that make us doubt our inclusion in God’s family because we don’t read Scripture the “right” way or don’t sing the “right” songs or follow the “right” doctrine. They are the voices that speak so loudly and insistently, that our voice gets drowned out when we say, “But, I have been adopted and made an heir with Christ!” Those teachers of a different gospel drown out the voice of the Spirit, as she whispers to us that we are God’s beloved children and cries out from the depths of our hearts, “Abba, Father!”

But, the good news is that, by God’s grace, our ears and hearts are continually being tuned to the Spirit’s voice. We are continually being empowered to resist the voices that teach a different gospel.  We are continually strengthened in our efforts to live in more Christlike ways. We are continually being sanctified. Christ is continually being formed in us, just as Paul hoped for the Galatians.

Certainly, Paul wanted each believer to experience the new birth that grace bestows. But the Greek words Paul chose for his letter tell us that he has something greater in mind.  He’s not speaking to the Galatians—and us—as individuals. He’s speaking to the Galatian believers—and us—as the community of faith. Paul writes of his desire that Christ would be formed not only in each believer, but that Christ will be formed among all believers.

When we go back to the definition of the word “formed,” we can see what Paul has in mind.  To an unbelieving world, the name of Jesus doesn’t have a recognizable shape.  Maybe he’s a good teacher and role model. Maybe he’s a charismatic leader who makes the fearful feel safer. Maybe he’s just a figment of human imagination that fills some psychic void in the minds of those who feel unloved and unlovable.

But when Christ is formed in the community of believers, he takes on a shape that those who don’t know him can recognize.  They see that he is a God of compassion, as the community cares for each other and for those who are still outside the community. They see that he is a God who is eager to adopt them—not just to add them to the membership list but to make them part of an eternal family. They see that he is a God who takes the distinctions the world values and makes them irrelevant, as we become one community, one Body.

As God’s grace sanctifies each believer, the community is sanctified.  As Christ is formed in each believer, Christ is formed among the community of believers. As Christ is formed among the community of believers, the kingdom of God is formed, too. The kingdom of God takes on a recognizable shape and visible structure.  This is God’s saving plan for the world—that what began with God’s in-breaking presence in the world in Jesus will be completed as Christ is formed in every community where the Spirit cries out with a single voice, “Abba, Father!”

As Christ’s beloved community, we have a special responsibility. We must take care not to become the teachers of a different gospel. Although we’ve been justified through God’s grace, we are still being perfected in love.  Although we’ve been given the power to resist sin, we are still capable of succumbing to it. So, we need to be on guard. We need to make sure that our words and actions and attitudes aren’t suggesting that something more than trust in Jesus is required for adoption as God’s children.

We need to make sure that we aren’t inadvertently teaching a perverted gospel—one that says God’s grace, poured out in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—isn’t enough.  We need to make sure that we aren’t suggesting by our words, our actions, and or attitudes that unless and until certain rules are followed, certain ways are adopted, certain doctrines are accepted, that there is no place for someone in the family of God. As those who say, “I belong to Christ,” we have a responsibility to teach the Gospel of Grace, and that gospel alone.

That’s a big responsibility, and we may wonder if our sinful hearts are capable of living as individuals and as a community where Christ is being formed in us.  But here is where another connection to Play-Doh crops up.  Play-Doh didn’t start out as a modeling clay. It began as wallpaper cleaner. Its first purpose was to remove the soot and grime released from coal furnaces.  By rubbing the dough across the wallpaper, the grime was removed, and the beauty of the wallpaper underneath was revealed.

The first thing that happens in us when we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior is that, by God’s justifying grace, Jesus cleanses us of our accumulated soot and grime. God’s sanctifying grace continues to cleanse us so that the beauty of Christ formed in us is made visible.  By God’s grace, Christ is formed in us, as individuals and as the community of believers, so that the world can see and recognize the shape of God’s kingdom.  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young