Sunday, June 2, 2013

The One Where Paul is Pissed



There is often discussion these days around how difficult it is to read people’s tone on email or text messages.  Was that comment serious or sarcastic? Did they mean that question or were they being facetious?
Just yesterday I had to clarify in a text message that the little colon bracket smiley face I had typed was meant to be a WRY smile, not an genuine smile, placed at the end of a statement which was factually incorrect on purpose, because it had been said as a joke to make a point, rather than being a cheerfully misinformed incorrect statement said accidentally.  Geesh. You couldn’t tell that?

Well, Paul gives them nothing to guess about in this letter.
Not only is he angry and defensive right out of the gate – but this is the only letter we have of Paul’s in which he doesn’t offer any thanksgiving whatsoever for those he is writing to – he jumps right into his point, and minces no words.

I am ASTONISHED that you would so quickly abandon the gospel. And if anyone tells you something other than the gospel you’ve heard from us, politely translated, it might as well say “then God damn them.”
Yikes.

What’s the story here?
Paul is writing to these new baby Christians in Galatia – a completely Gentile community – who had become followers of The Way, members of the Body of Christ from pagan religions, and not through Judiasm, as the majority of believers at that time still had.  Shortly after Paul had left them, a group of Christian missionaries who were Jewish came to town. 

These missionaries were apparently astonished to discover that the faith of these Galatians didn’t involve any of the Jewish customs and practices that had gone hand in hand with their Christian faith.  After all, this is the God of Israel, who had delivered the people from slavery in the land of Egypt, the God of Moses and the Ten Commandments, who had given the people clear instructions to be circumcised as a mark of their belonging to the chosen people, the God who had given them the law and spoken through the prophets and guided them through the age of King David and Solomon and the temple and had now come to them in Jesus Christ.  This all means something – it surely meant something to them. 

But these Galatians they came to seemed woefully ignorant of all the nuances and details of the faith they were now following, so these missionaries had set about not just filling out the story but trying to implement Jewish customs – circumcision, dietary practices, holidays, to help them get it right. You’ve got a good start, folks, but here is what you need to know to REALLY be followers of Jesus Christ.  Here is how you are truly part of the family of God.

When Paul catches wind of this, he writes them this letter. As one Biblical scholar puts it, this letter is Paul’s WTF; Paul is MAD, and he is not hiding it. 
Paul says what is happening here is not only a misunderstanding of the gospel, or a slight diversion that needs a minor course correction. No, this message they are getting is utterly opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, a misstep of massive proportions.  Paul is FREAKING OUT about this, because this matters A LOT.

This is SO important, and this is SO much of a slippery slope, he says – that even if I myself come back and tell you something different than what you’ve been given, even if an angel comes down from heaven and says, here are some more things you need to do in order to be acceptable to God, let, politely said, let that person be cursed! 
This is an utter reversal of the message of the gospel, Paul roars on parchment, a complete lie about God.

The message is this:
Jesus Christ has set you free to be in relationship with God.
And Paul is about to spend the rest of the letter saying- and we will spend the next six weeks hearing – that Jesus has set us free- free from sin and death and all the things that would bind us and keep us from being who God made us to be, free to come unrestricted into the presence of God.  That in Jesus Christ God has come near, God has thrown open way, the truth, and the life, God has taken all of humanity into the heart of God and entered fully into life alongside us so that nothing, NOTHING can separate us from God, LEAST of all, these things that once were tools to get closer to God.

Because here’s the irony- all these things that the people were being told to do – the law, the customs, the dietary practices, circumcision, the holidays – all of these things at one time helped the people be in relationship to God. They were designed to facilitate connection, to bring people into closer relationship to God. But now, in this place with these people, they are functioning in the exact opposite way. They have become barriers, hoops imposed on them that they must go through in order to truly reach God.  The practices themselves are not wrong or evil by any means.  But to use anything, ANYTHING, to put a hurdle between you and God, is the exact opposite of the entire gospel of Jesus Christ!

A big part of my identity and life in the world is as a mom.  And as a mom I am given the incredible privilege sharing life with my kids, being in this relationship that changes me and shapes them, and makes us all more fully and beautifully ourselves as we live alongside and for one another. 

But being a mom also means I spend a lot of time on the internet reading articles about what I’m doing wrong and how to get it right.  What milestones are they missing completely? What if I never get them potty trained, or sleeping through the night? What if they never learn to walk, or lose that lisp?  What if I missed the tummy time memo and never used a single flash card or pneumonic device, and neglect nearly every single field trip and regularly forget to pack their lunches? And sometimes I lose my temper and yell and sometimes I get sick of them and want to hide, so the books stack up and the techniques build up, and before long, I’m raising my spirited child God’s way with love and logic and the guidance of Almighty Sears or Ferber and I’ve lost all sense of myself and of them and our bond, and I am working to earn what I already have, and squandering the mysterious and holy thing of being human alongside each other in love and vulnerability in the gift of this precious relationship.

As Christians we are called into the love of God, and into community with and for each other as Jesus Christ is with and for us. We are set free from all that prevents us from having true relationship, and we are empowered to boldly, honestly love and serve God in the world without fear. 
But over and over again we place shackles on ourselves and each other, litmus tests and burdens and hoops and barriers – layers of rules – spoken and unspoken- imposed overtop of it all that smother the air out of the life we have been given. 
Yes, you love God, but are you doing it right?  How can I tell if you have true faith?  Do you know the right answers? Do you have the correct doctrine?  The best practices?  What kind of Christian are you, exactly? Because you may not be getting it right.  What kind of Christian am I, exactly? Because surely I must be failing.

At the end of a lecture he had given at Princeton in the early 1960s, Karl Barth was asked if God was revealed in other religions too, or only in Christianity. Barth replied, “God is not revealed in any religion – including Christianity. God is revealed through his Son, Jesus Christ.”

By the grace of God made flesh in Jesus Christ we are brought into the love of God.  By trust in this grace alone, not by anything we do or don’t do, anything we believe or don’t believe, and not prevented by anything we do wrong and especially not permitted by anything we get right. And is someone tells you otherwise, they are a liar.

I am part of a clergy group that meets monthly, and part of what we do is storytelling.  The stories are centered around a single theme, such as waiting, resurrection, or regret.  Each month one of us puts together a cd of songs connected to the theme, and that person functions as a spiritual DJ of sorts, a musical chaplain, playing songs between the stories that illuminate the sentiment in the message.  There is a song by Harry Chapin, something of a parable, that I suspect if Paul were calm and centered enough to sit down and put together a cd related to what is happening here with the Galatians, he might choose to include in his collection.  It goes like this:

The little boy went first day of school
He got some crayons and started to draw
He put colors all over the paper
For colors was what he saw
And the teacher said.. What you doin' young man
I'm paintin' flowers he said
She said... It's not the time for art, young man
And anyway flowers are green and red
There's a time for everything, young man
And a way it should be done
You've got to show concern for everyone else
For you're not the only one

And she said...
Flowers are red, young man
Green leaves are green
There's no need to see flowers any other way
Than the way they always have been seen

But the little boy said...
There are so many colors in the rainbow
So many colors in the morning sun
So many colors in the flower and I see every one

Well the teacher said.. You're sassy
There's ways that things should be
And you'll paint flowers the way they are
So repeat after me.....

And she said...
Flowers are red young man
Green leaves are green
There's no need to see flowers any other way
Than the way they always have been seen

But the little boy said...
There are so many colors in the rainbow
So many colors in the morning sun
So many colors in the flower and I see every one

The teacher put him in a corner
She said.. It's for your own good..
And you won't come out 'til you get it right
And all responding like you should
Well finally he got lonely
Frightened thoughts filled his head
And he went up to the teacher
And this is what he said.. and he said

Flowers are red, green leaves are green
There's no need to see flowers any other way
Than the way they always have been seen

Time went by like it always does
And they moved to another town
And the little boy went to another school
And this is what he found
The teacher there was smilin'
She said...Painting should be fun
And there are so many colors in a flower
So let's use every one

But that little boy painted flowers
In neat rows of green and red
And when the teacher asked him why
This is what he said.. and he said

Flowers are red, green leaves are green
There's no need to see flowers any other way
Than the way they always have been seen.

In Jesus Christ we have been set free, paintbrush in hand, invited to join in, to live fully alive and with joy, without barrier to the grace of God. 
We get to live into the identity we have in Christ- as beloved children of God, chosen and forgiven and given to each other again and again in precious and vulnerable relationships of true humanity. 
We are called and empowered to join in the love of God that is already within and among us, without fear and with full trust in the God who reaches out to us in Jesus Christ.

And if anyone, ANYONE – if I myself stand up here at the pulpit, or an angel from heaven blasts into your kitchen- and ever tells you otherwise, then, in the unpolished words and unmistakable tone of the Apostle Paul, they are God damned liars.

 Amen.

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