Guest Post by Pastor Don Carlson

1 Kings 18:20-39 – Elijah revives the widow of Zarephath’s son.
Psalm 96 – O Lord you pulled me up from Sheol, you rescued me from those going down to the grave.
Galatians 1:1-12 – Paul’s gospel is not of human origin. Paul was set apart before he was born, then called by God’s grace, to proclaim Christ among the Gentiles.
Luke 7:1-10 – Jesus raises the widow’s son at Nain.

Just when you thought it was safe…

Some people were surprised to hear from me so soon after retirement. The truth is that Bishop Mike really got swamped in May and so I asked if there was some way that I could help. He said, “Yes,” and the rest is history. I’ll be writing one more post after this one.

When you take a look a the texts listed above you should know that there are alternatives for the first lesson and the Psalm. Check them out in the ELW, you may want to use them instead.

A Sermon Series

I’m going to focus on Galatians during these first two weeks of June, and then Bishop Mike will pick up the theme for the rest of June and the first Sunday in July. The second readings are:

  • June 2, Galatians 1:1-12
  • June 9, Galatians 1:11-24
  • June 16, Galatians 2:15-21
  • June 23, Galatians 3:23-29
  • June 30, Galatians 5:1, 13-25
  • July 7, Galatians 6:[1-6] 7-16

If I were going to preach this six Sunday series, I would perhaps drop the first reading and the Psalm and then read an entire chapter each Sunday. This would really help the continuity of Paul’s argument, which he did not dictate with our lectionary in mind. (I say “dictate” because when you get to 6:11 it is obvious that a scribe has been writing to that point. Paul’s eyesight may have been failing him; hence writing in “large letters.”)

About Paul’s Letters

First, Paul probably wrote Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians (which probably are an amalgamation of more than two letters), Galatians, I Thessalonians, Philippians, and Philemon. Letters often attributed to Paul were probably written by a Pauline school: Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, I and 2 Timothy, and Titus. For example, when you read Colossians and Ephesians the language sounds very “un-Pauline” when compared to the former letters listed above.

Second, when we read Paul’s letters we must remember that they are letters written to specific people in a particular context. They were addressing discipleship issues of early Christian communities. In some cases – 1 Corinthians – they were in response to letters that Paul had received. This means that they are not systematic theology. They are communal pastoral theology.

I can remember being taught that Romans was Paul’s theological apogee; his theological tour de force. Well, maybe. As his last extant letter it probably reflects his most mature thinking; as with most of us. (I sometimes read my early sermons and think, “How could they have suffered through this?”) But I believe they should be read with an eye towards the community addressed and not the 16th century. We often read Paul with Reformation issued lenses, which may be a bit myopic.

Third, I am convinced that Paul’s letters, while they had to do with the individual’s relationship to God, are really more about how our relationship with God ought to shape relationships within the community. For example, in Galatians the problem/question is about the Gentiles and how they should be received/accepted into the community. Circumcision was the had been the mark of the community, so Paul writes at the end of Chapter 3, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” It’s about the relationships between people.

I think a similar “Galatian-like” argument is going on in Romans. Paul starts out with his salutation in Romans 1:1-15 and ends it with his inclusive 1:16-17, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.'”

He then launches into 1:18-32. (Yes, I hate to revisit this; but I must.) And I believe that section was rhetoric. It was the common, often used, word on the street, stereotypical polemic that the Jewish community used about the “Gentile culture.” “Why should we not welcome the Gentiles? Here’s why, and we all know it!” If this is not the case, then Paul’s whole attack beginning at 2:1ff makes no rhetorical sense.

The synagogue in Trastevere today.

Paul then spends a long time in Romans going after the hypocrisy of the “Jewish Christians.” (The Trastevere section of Rome had been an enclave of the Jewish community since the end of the Republic.) It seems reasonable to believe that the Jewish-Christian reluctance to welcome non-Jews was at the core of the divisiveness. (See 9:6ff as an echo of Galatians.) However, around 11:13 he also gets in his shot at the Gentile-Christian hubris; “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles…”

And I think that 15:7 is the apex of his rather sustained rhetorical argument when he writes, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.”

All of this is to show that, even in Paul’s supposed “summa theologica,” the issue at hand is about grace filled relationships within the early – and every – Christian community. We like to personalize all of this and believe that “I am saved/justified/made righteous by grace through the faithfulness of Christ,”

but are we willing to believe that about those around us? What about the “other?” What does it mean to have a “Galatian like” community based on grace?

In his book, The Challenge of Diversity, David Rhoads shares this vision,

“An imaginary example of a contemporary community shaped by Paul’s vision for the church would be rooted thoroughly in the unconditional acceptance by God for all. Preaching, worship, and decision making would reinforce the proclamation of God’s grace and reflect the spontaneity and freedom of Paul’s gospel. Every week would be thanksgiving. The educational program would avoid moralizing and foster responsible relationships rooted in love. The community would be inclusive and organized for a ministry of mutuality. People would be accepting of one another, free to acknowledge weaknesses, eager to listen to each other, and able to encourage each other without recrimination. Visitors would experience not simply friendliness, but unconditional acceptance. The worship patterns, manner of decision making, structure, and educational program would reflect the strengths and needs of the diverse ethnic, racial, and gender groups that comprised the community. Conflicts and difficulties would be overcome in a positive way by seeking to restore an orientation to grace. The mission of the community would be to create righteousness [justice] in society, and it would include a strong commitment to overcome all forms of discrimination. The community might see itself as an experiment in grace where God’s vision for humanity was being lived now.”

(David Rhoads. Challenge of Diversity: The Witness of Paul and the Gospels (Kindle Locations 772-779). Kindle Edition.)

As I said last week, now we are done with systemic theological speculation and are finally talking about what all this means for us here on earth; not for God in heaven! This is the kind of interpretation that, IMHO, would make a sermon series on Galatians communally life giving, rather than just being more Lutheran navel gazing.

A look at Galatians 1:1-12

Paul’s formal greeting is terse; just take a look at his greetings in Romans and Philippians. He then gets right to it, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel- not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.”

In an initial sermon, it might be good to develop a rich vision of what this “gospel of Christ” is; because it is more multi-textured than “Jesus died for your sins.” That is not the issue in Paul’s chastisement of the Galatians. And it certainly doesn’t mean a “prosperity gospel.” What do we mean by “the gospel?” Better yet, what does the “gospel of Jesus” look like? How is it perverted?

Marcus Borg indicates that some of its perversion can be attributed to how ethereal our Christian vocabulary has become,

“How we hear righteousness and justice also affects what we think the gospel, the good news about Jesus, is. In the first chapter of Paul’s letter to Christians in Rome, the only letter Paul wrote to people he didn’t know in person, he crystallizes the gospel as “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith…. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith'” (1: 16- 17).

Once again, righteousness and righteous are better translated as justice and just. But does justice here mean punitive justice- that God will punish people? If so, how can that be good news? Only if justice means distributive justice can the gospel be good news- namely, that God offers grace equally to everybody. For Paul, this meant to Jews first, but also to Gentiles. God’s distributive justice- God’s offer of grace- is for everybody. As a saying attributed to Jesus puts it, God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and unjust (Matt. 5:45).

Thus righteousness as justice tells us not only what we should seek, but also reveals the character and passion of God. Is God’s character primarily punitive, and God’s passion punishment of wrongdoing? Or is God’s character primarily gracious and compassionate, and God’s passion that the world be fair? Is it the righteous- those who are morally correct- who live by faith? Or is it the just who live by faith?”

(Borg, Marcus J. (2011-04-12). Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power-And How They Can Be Restored (pp. 140-142). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)

[EXCURSES: With regard to the quote from Borg, think of all theophany debris that has been blown about in the wake of the Moore tornado. The punitive (Deuteronomic?) theology of the friends of Job is alive and well!]

“The Conversion of Saul” by Caravaggio

Paul then goes into the vindication of “his” gospel – which continues through 2:10. His point? That the gospel he proclaims has neither been watered down by anyone, nor compromised by trying to appease anyone. He points out that he didn’t meet with any of the leaders at Jerusalem for 14 years! “Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me.” This was an important line of reasoning for Paul in that it’s a faction from the church in Jerusalem that is the root of the conflict at Antioch. “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James [the church in Jerusalem], he used to eat with the Gentiles….”

Here again, a question for us might be, “What sort of ‘moderation’ of the radical nature of the gospel are we wont to do in order to appease the religious, social, or political ‘sensibilities’ of people; especially those in our own congregations?” Or another question, “What sort of things do we tend to add to the gospel that make it conditional?”

Paul would say that to add any condition is to turn the gospel back into law, and he has something to say to people that want to do that: “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (5:12) In other words, “If you’re so all fired up that other people need to cut stuff off before they’re acceptable, why don’t you first finish the job on yourself so that we aren’t bothered by your ‘offspring’ anymore!”

But I get ahead of myself. Until next week…

Yours in Christ,

Pastor Don Carlson