Paul’s letter to the Galatians – the opening of which we heard a short while ago – is the same letter that, in chapter five, offers what I think is one of the best gifts to those of us who seek to improve our conscious contact with God. That gift is what Paul calls the fruits of the spirit. But since we’re going to find that reading in the Sunday lection for Pride Sunday (quite fittingly I might add), we’ll hold off on discussing said fruits. No pun intended.
It’s not easy, at first, to get a sense of what is on Paul’s mind as we read today’s excerpt. But if you compare the first several verses to most of his other letters, you will notice the jarring absence of a prayer of thanksgiving directly after the initial greeting. Paul is astonished. He’s actually angry. He’s compelled to write this letter to the community in the region of Galatia because they have variously been set upon by factions that have sought to influence the formation of this new community of Christians. These factions have declared that non-Jews – far and away the more numerous among the new members made during Paul’s mission trips throughout the Aegean and Mediterranean – these Jewish factions declare that non-Jews must conform to all Jewish practices – and in particular circumcision – in order to be accepted as Christians. And while there may be a desire here to somehow affirm Jesus’ connection to the Law of Moses, Paul knows to stop short of living by the law as the absolute norm – he has come to believe that this amounts to a kind of slavery rather than the freedom with which God created us. This letter to the Galatians is, in great part, Paul’s effort to sketch a measure by which they might live: being empowered by God’s spirit, their lives shaped by Jesus’ own demonstrated patterns of faith and love.
We find ourselves in the midst of communication between Paul and a collection of communities struggling with their search for newness of life. It is not unlike the craving for newness of life that we experience in 21st century America. Just reflect upon the needy cries of the populace and the promises – some empty, some not – that those running for office offer in return. Like the communities in Galatia, we sometimes encounter enormous tension in and around the ways in which our faith holds keys to enacting God’s purposes in 1st century Galatia as well as 21st century America.
You see, as a result of Paul’s missionary journeys – which was a mammoth undertaking not unlike what we seem to be facing in this country today – non-Jews had relatively quickly become, according to most scholars, almost completely dominant in the new Christian movement. So the declarations on conformity being made by the Jewish factions arose, rather expectedly, from concerns springing up as to whether Jews were saved at all. Therein lies a great stumbling block and the prime subject for our reflection today. One of the most significant challenges in Christianity – yes, throughout all of its history – has to do with the unfortunate tendency – an affect of human nature I‘m sure – to create insiders and outsiders.
You see, at the outset, for most of the original followers of Jesus, being a follower of “the Way”, being “Christian”, meant a particular way of being Jewish. But Paul, in his travels, discovered among non-Jews an authentic and highly energized susceptibility to his teachings about Jesus. The communities that sprang up in his wake came together not feeling particularly united by secular life in the Roman Empire. It was the vision of a new life they craved. And they discerned this new life as available to them through talk of the teachings, the acts, the death and resurrection of this newly discovered and astounding font of Divine Love.
Paul was quite passionate in his proclamation of this new life made possible by Jesus’ life and teaching. He was passionate about his role, as given to him by the resurrected Christ. Throughout all his letters he forcefully affirms his connection to Jesus and the rightness of his mission because of that connection. Pause for a moment sometime, if you will, and in the quiet recesses of your heart, search for the extent to which your connection with Jesus informs your “mission” in the world, whatever that mission may be. It’s a very fruitful exercise I assure you, and one that may help you to walk with Paul.
That being said, however, it’s not hard to imagine that Paul may have been, not only a compelling speaker and evangelist, but that something about his passion made him a little hard to bear – a little easy to try and sidestep. It’s his passion (code language for obnoxiousness, it seems). That’s why he responds with anger – he feels he and his work – and ultimately God’s purpose – are being attacked, so he hits back.
Maybe it’s partly because he had been so devout a Jew that he feels particularly sensitive to what appears to be appropriation of the Christian movement by Jewish factions. The compassion and inclusiveness he exhibits are new and quite radical in terms of coming to know the one true God.
Paul was incredibly advanced in his theology. Even though his writings can be so problematic, it’s apparent he has a clear vision of the new life that the people craved. It’s a life in which there will no longer be any need for a distinction to be drawn between God’s people as marked by circumcision, and all others. In Paul’s mind – or, rather, in the mind of the Christ Spirit that resides in his heart and works through Paul – there is absolutely no need for anyone to change their status from one of those groups to the other. To do so would be the same as testifying that the old distinctions still defined reality, and the life of this world, made new by Jesus, had not, in fact, begun.
Paul’s readers don’t get it so quickly. But a couple of decades later, the evangelists begin the task of picking up the thread of this new life and weaving it into the gospel stories.
While the centurion in the gospel reading today might not use Paul’s words to describe it, he sees the new life embodied in Jesus. The centurion is a Gentile, of course, though his status as a non-circumcised, non-Jew turns out not to matter for his faith at all. He makes his request certain of Jesus’ promise of new life – “Only speak the word and my servant shall be healed”, he says. Jesus recognizes someone stepping into newness of life when he hears this, and welcomes new life on behalf of the man’s certainty – on behalf of the man’s knowledge of his own connection with Jesus, even though, like Paul, they have never met in person and yet a revelation has opened up inside the heart of a centurion.
The nature of the Divine is to be love. And the great revelation – the revelation of which Paul speaks, is to let this love live in us. Through this revelation, the “logic” of our broken world – a logic so fascinated by power, might, prestige and especially differentiation-making – is destroyed.
In Galatia, and we’ll come to find in Corinth as well, Paul resisted teachers who declared particular practices as essential to this newness of life as it is available through Jesus. It’s not that Paul stands in the middle mediating between law and prophecy. He merely challenges the kind of piety that makes anything other than the grace of divine love a marker of the gospel.
Perhaps you know as well as I do how challenging this can be. Our centurion, for example, was brought to this place seemingly out of desperation. We, ourselves, may find we have to choose between our loyalty to the familiar patterns in our lives and the priorities that Jesus reveals in the gospels. And because that begins on the inside, this may be helpful.
I met with my spiritual director the other day. He’s a Roman Catholic priest and we’re pretty new to each other. We’re finding in our spiritual para-sailing together all kinds of new and different ways to notice God’s presence in us and around us – and all kinds of new and different ways to articulate that awareness. It’s joyful, challenging and deeply fulfilling. I shared some of what’s been on my heart about this subject we’re exploring today – this business of making insiders and outsiders that I find so removed from the real message in the gospels. He reminded me of the work of Rene Girard – we’re both great fans. Girard is a great thinker and prolific writer on the subjects of critical theory, anthropology, theology, psychology and philosophy, among other things. And the idea of Girard’s that Fr. Michael brought to my attention, while not necessarily a mechanism that makes everything easy, nonetheless can be helpful to those of us who may also be interested in putting down that spiritual barbell of criticism and differentiation making that we sometimes spend so much of our spiritual energies on. The notion is this, that when we adopt an attitude of regarding another as “the” other, as separate from us in terms of righteousness or eligibility for Divine love, we inadvertently remove Jesus from our own hearts and locate him in that very other person. That seems very clear to me somehow. It’s a challenge I find to be very helpful as I walk the path of newness of life and try my best not to fail as frequently today as I did yesterday.
And, finally, Pope Francis – from whom we can learn something about newness of life probably every day – while celebrating Eucharist last week, said that all people are redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice. Francis then invited his hearers to meet all people, whether they believe or not, at the place of doing good works. The fact that he included atheists among those redeemed by Christ and invited them to do good works shocked many in his faith tradition. And just like those many, perhaps we should be surprised, not that seemingly unlikely or unexpected people demonstrate Divine love or a faith known to God alone, but that we somehow consider them unlikely or unexpected in the first place.