10/13/19 “Amen to Grace”

Galatians 1:3-5, 6:14-18

A Methodist preacher from the old circuit-riding days trained his horse to move forward when the preacher said “Thank God” and to stop when the preacher said “Amen.”  One day, the preacher mounted his horse, said “Thank God,” and off the went. When the preacher wanted to stop for lunch, he said, “Amen,” and they stopped.  Afterwards, he got back on his horse, said “Thank God,” and continued on their way.  They were trotting along at a good clip when the preacher realized they were headed straight for a steep cliff. In a panic, the preacher cried, “Whoa! Whoa!” Then he remembered and said “Amen!” The horse stopped just before they would have plunged over the edge to certain doom. The preacher was so relieved and grateful that he looked up to heaven and said, “Thank God!”

Paul’s use of the word “amen” caught my attention as I was looking at Chapter 6 of his letter to the Galatians.  It’s the very last word of the letter, so in a way it, too, is a signal to stop.  But Paul also uses it at the very beginning of his letter. And, the way he uses it sums up all that he has to say about grace between the first “amen” and the last.

Over the past several weeks, as we’ve studied Paul’s Gospel of Grace, we’ve heard his anger at some new missionaries who taught that God’s grace wasn’t enough to secure a place for the Gentile Galatians in God’s covenant. We’ve felt his pain over the possibility that his Galatian churches might relinquish the gift of faith in God’s love for them, poured out through Jesus and made fully known on the cross. We’ve listened in as Paul explained that slavishly following specific religious practices such as circumcision doesn’t secure eternal life in God’s kingdom—that the Gentiles’ place in God’s kingdom had been promised long before the law existed, and that as adopted sons and daughters they were legitimate heirs to that kingdom with Christ. We’ve learned what it means to live the life of freedom that Jesus calls us to, guided by the Spirit, and made visible in the way we live. In Chapter 6, Paul concludes his letter with some parting advice and reminders about how to live grace-filled and grace-blessed lives together as God’s beloved community.

Paul explains that part of loving each other includes holding each other accountable and offering gentle correction to those who are in danger of falling away, as the Galatians were.  What a responsibility that would have been, since clearly some members of the Galatian church were edging towards the teachings of the new missionaries. As a community bound together by the Spirit, Paul encouraged them not to ignore those who are slipping away.

This responsibility is a hard one for us to accept in our day and age.  We have a very individualistic mindset. We feel that what someone else does is their business, not ours.  But Paul is not speaking here about the people you work with or go to school with or volunteer with or play on the same team with. He’s talking about family—brothers and sisters in the family of God.

Remaining faithful over the long haul, living by the Spirit’s leading rather than according to a clear-cut set of rules isn’t easy. Sometimes we get off track, just as some of the Galatians did.  We’re drawn to detailed instructions that are easy to follow.  We’re attracted to well-defined benchmarks that we can use to track our progress and make us feel confident that we’ve got a confirmed reservation to that dwelling place in heaven.  When we begin to lean in that direction in our faith, we need to hear again the good news from our brothers and sisters that rule-following is not what grants us entry into God’s kingdom.  We need to be reassured that God’s grace is enough to do that.

Paul describes this process of correction as “restoration.” The word he uses is the same one the Gospel writers use to describe the work of mending holes in a fishing net.  The members of God’s beloved community need to offer each other correction in order to mend the holes in their faith. The community helps to keep each believer’s faith whole, so that the community itself will remain whole. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to build up each believer as God’s grace sanctifies and perfects us in love.

But, Paul warns, this work of restoration must be done in an attitude of humility. We are all too willing to try to nudge God out of the judgment seat so we can sit there ourselves.  We can be tempted to think of ourselves as paragons of virtue as we point out someone else’s errors. But, Paul reminds us in verse 3 that “if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves.”

Instead, we are each called to self-examination. We are each called to make sure that our lives reflect the faith we claim to have.  Because, in the present, God knows what is in our hearts.  And in the end, there will be a time of judgment—a day when God will consider our hearts and the actions which spring from them.

Paul reminds us that “God is not mocked.”  God does not take our response to the gift of grace lightly. If we accept that grace—if we accept the love which produces it and the faith it bestows—then we need to show it. We need to do what Paul calls “sowing to the Spirit” and reject the ways that our sinful natures tempt us to.  “Hang in there,” Paul says, “and keep working for the good of all creation, as we look towards the future with hope. Don’t give up, for a life powered by grace and guided by the Spirit will produce a bountiful harvest.”

After these words of instruction and encouragement, Paul returns to the issue of the new missionaries and their false gospel. In his estimation, they want the Galatians as simply another notch in their belts. They want to boost the numbers of people they’ve signed on to their law-based message, even though they themselves ignore the law. They want to use the Galatians as a kind of human shield against persecution from other Jews who aren’t all that crazy about this new inclusive attitude towards outsiders.

The missionaries want to boast about human things, but Paul wants to boast about one thing only: that because of the cross, the world has been transformed.  That Jesus has taken ownership of the very law itself, transforming it so that it becomes the Law of Christ, a law lived out of love rather than out of fear. That because of the cross, worldly distinctions like ethnicity and gender and class and outward displays of religion are all irrelevant, because we are all made one in Christ. Paul wants to boast only of Jesus’ death on the cross, which has birthed a new creation.

Paul ends with these final words: “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.” How easily we toss off that word “amen.” But it’s a little word that carries a lot of spiritual weight.  It’s not surprising that Paul would use it to both open and close his letter.

In Scripture, unless it’s Jesus who’s using it, the word “amen” most often comes at the end of a doxology—words of praise for the glory of God. We hear this in Paul’s opening lines: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”

But, “amen” can also be an affirmation. It can mean that what is said is surely true. Jesus often used it to introduce a new teaching, which alerted his listeners to that fact that what he was about to say was of solemn importance and deepest truth.

Perhaps Paul has this in mind as well.  Paul was writing to a group of people who may have been feeling some pangs of doubt about the sufficiency of God’s grace. They may have been wondering about what exactly Jesus had done for them that the law couldn’t do.  So, Paul’s “amen” signals to the Galatians that what he has said and what he is about to say is of solemn importance:  God’s grace is real.  It was conveyed in a visible way by Jesus, and by God’s grace we are freed from what was and are ushered into what is and will be. Grace and the peace it produces are already with the Galatians—and all believers.

In the Old Testament tradition, “amen” was a response by the people to what they had just heard or what had been said in their name. Since we think Paul intended his letter to be read in worship, it may be that Paul hoped that the Galatians would join in this “amen”.  He may have hoped that by joining their voices to his, they would be saying with him that God’s grace is indeed with them. This is an expression of absolute trust and confidence—an “amen” to God’s grace.

But, by the end of the letter, the Galatians needed to hear something else.  They needed to hear a blessing.  After the scolding Paul had given them, they needed to hear words of encouragement and care. Paul offers that blessing. “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.”

That final “amen” confirms the blessing he has just offered them. And, just as he would have hoped that they would join in his first “amen,” he would have wanted them to join in the last.  The concluding “amen” gives them the chance to say, “Yes! May this blessing be fulfilled! May we continue to live in the grace and peace that God has showered on us through the Spirit.” Looking to the present with confidence and to the future with hope, the Galatians can say with Paul, “Amen to God’s grace.”

Where in your life do you need to say “amen” to grace?  Maybe this is a time when you see evidence of God’s grace all around you, each and every day.  You can joyfully offer a doxology and an “amen”, affirming that God’s grace constantly surrounds you—drawing you close, enabling you to stand without fear before God, strengthening you as you try to live in ways that mark you as a follower of Christ, even as Paul’s body bore the marks of his witness. Maybe you’re having no trouble at all saying “amen” to grace right now.

But, maybe you’re feeling doubtful right now—doubtful that a right relationship with God is as freely given as you once thought. Maybe you have a sneaking suspicion that there really is some kind of test you have to pass, some level of goodness you have to achieve before God will smile on you. Maybe you’ve heard the voices of the world’s missionaries and have started to wonder if you do need to measure up to some standard to be included in God’s kingdom, just like you have to measure up to the world’s standards of how you should look, or how you should speak, or what you should own before you can be counted “acceptable.” Maybe you’ve even heard the voices of other Christians saying there’s only one faithful way to read Scripture, one faithful way to worship, one faithful way to live—and it’s always their way.  But that’s not the way of grace. That’s not the way of God’s gift, freely given through Jesus on the cross.

If that’s where you are, maybe you need the “amen” of a blessing—the “amen” of hope and trust that what God promised, God has delivered in Jesus. Maybe what you need is the blessing and the “amen” that fills you with confidence that, through God’s amazing grace, God has promised good to you and grace will lead you home.

If you’ve said “amen” to grace recently, how did you say it?  The rabbis of old who interpreted the Jewish Scriptures warned against saying it hurriedly, or irreverently, or unthinkingly when you really haven’t been paying attention to what it is you’re saying “amen” to.  Our “amens” to grace should indicate our awe and gratitude for the gift we’ve been given. They should acknowledge the mystery of grace—the mystery of Jesus giving up his life so that we might have ours—life lived in the freedom that comes with knowing we are loved unconditionally.

One of those rabbis even taught that our days will be lengthened and good if our “amens” are said with reverence.  He wasn’t suggesting that a reverent “amen” is a magic pill that we should add to our spiritual diet like a daily vitamin. He meant that, when we say our “amens” reverently, we affirm the goodness of God.  And affirming the goodness of God enriches our lives and makes each day good. Those ancient rabbis took their “amens” seriously, and we should, too.

We’ve come to the end of Paul’s letter to the Galatians and his Gospel of Grace.  His “amens” stand as a set of bookends, enclosing his carefully constructed argument, his stern scoldings, and even some outbursts of anger and dismay.  His “amens” securely anchor his letter in God’s undeserved love for us. His “amens” stand as a set of signposts—a signpost of welcome at the beginning of the journey and a signpost of travelling mercies as we continue along the grace-filled road that weaves through the entire letter. Paul’s “amens” invite us to affirm the truth of God’s grace in our lives and the hope it gives us for the future.

As Paul said to the Galatians, I say to you now: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever.” And God’s people said, “Amen.”

“May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters.” And the people of God said, “Amen.”

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young