Galatians 4:8-20 – It’s All About Grace

A mosaic of the Apostle Paul in St Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years!I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.

I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you. You did me no wrong. As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. Where, then, is your blessing of me now? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?

Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you. My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you! (New International Version)

Grace is the most wonderful spiritual reality of all. It is forgiveness, freedom, faith, acceptance, and love all rolled up in a package given specially to you and me.

Grace is also terribly hard for a lot of folks to wrap both their heads and their hearts around. It is scandalous, subversive, and stupefying.

It was hard for the Galatian Church. Having embraced the grace of God in Christ for their deliverance from guilt and a shameful past, they then set their lives on the law to work out their sanctification. In other words, the Galatian believers did a sort of half-repentance; they turned from useless ways and were saved by grace, then turned around and decided, like a dog returning to it’s vomit, to go back to the law for the governing rule of their Christian lives.

If grace was good enough for salvation (which it was) it’s also good enough for sanctification, to be the chief operating force of the Christian’s life and ministry (which it is).

“Grace fills empty spaces but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void.”

Simone Weil

A life filled with endless rules and regulations is unable to receive the life-flowing life-giving stream of grace. Grace is even so wondrously powerful that it is the force which breaks all other lesser forces and takes over.

This was the Apostle Paul’s experience. Having been the ultimate rule-keeper and law-abider, he was completely overtaken by a tsunami of grace. It stripped him of all the laws which kept him from Christ and the gospel. Grace changed his mind, his heart, and his life. He would never be the same again.

So, with the confidence of grace behind him, Paul could implore the Galatians to be just like him. I wonder if any of us could say the same.

Paul was a committed follower of Jesus – so much so that he ached and longed for others to embrace a life of grace, just as he had. It was actually painful for Paul to see others held by the cold grip of the law and not the warm embrace of grace. Like a mother about to give birth, he was laboring and working hard to give spiritual birth to those that would become like Jesus.

If you have experienced a transformed life in Jesus Christ, as if you have been born again by grace through the Spirit, then you likely feel and resonate with the travail of Paul. Knowing the elixir of grace, you want everyone to drink it in and be inebriated with its effects. You want it so bad that it hurts. You desire it to the point of exclaiming, “I beg you to be like me!”

You may spend many of your days with family, friends, neighbors, or co-worders who are strangers to grace. Either they are stuck in the clutches of the law and are fearful stick-in-the-muds because of it, or they simply do not know what they are missing. 

It is good to regularly ask ourselves, “What am I afraid of? Will this thing matter in the end? Is it worth holding on to?”

Grace will lead us into our fears and emptiness, and grace alone can fill them up, that is, if we are willing to stay in the void. We must become comfortable with asking questions for which we might never get answers.

People of deep faith develop a high tolerance for ambiguity and find less and less a need for the certainty of rules and regulations. Grace teaches us to swim in the river of mystery and find our home in faith.

Gracious God, may you weave your way into the lives of those who need you the most, so that mercy will be more than a theological idea. Work in me in such a way that I can stand with Paul and encourage others to be like me, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Acts 26:1-18 – Tell Your Story

Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.”

So, Paul motioned with his hand and began his defense: “King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defense against all the accusations of the Jews, and especially so because you are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies. Therefore, I beg you to listen to me patiently.

“The Jewish people all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that I conformed to the strictest sect of our religion, living as a Pharisee. And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our ancestors that I am on trial today. This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. King Agrippa, it is because of this hope that these Jews are accusing me. Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?

“I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests, I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities.

“On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. About noon, King Agrippa, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’

“Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’

“ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied.‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ (New International Version)

Trial of the Apostle Paul by Nikolai Bodarevsky (1850-1921)

Paul was a zealous missionary to Gentiles, indefatigable, and an intense type-A kind of dude. But it wasn’t those characteristics Paul was looking for others to see in him. Paul simply wanted others to see Christ in him. Having been arrested for preaching the gospel, Paul found himself before King Agrippa making a strong apologetic for Christian faith. 

The great apostle simply told his own personal story of faith in Christ. Never underestimate how powerful our stories can be.

My favorite football player of all time is the hall of fame quarterback Kurt Warner. There is much in his story of faith that I relate to. Like me, he grew up in Iowa. And he played football at Northern Iowa, which is also my alma mater. Here is what Kurt Warner has to say about his life in a nutshell:

“I was raised in the church, so faith and God were part of my life, but for me it was just kind of there only on Sundays. I always had God as a background, but I never truly accepted Jesus until I was about 25 years old. My arena league teammates (before being in the NFL), a pastor friend and my future wife were constantly asking questions about my beliefs, and I began to question where I was and whether I had really put my complete faith in God.

Their questions led me to the Truth – that faith is about a relationship, and it’s about Jesus. Up to that point, I had never really considered that. I struggled for so long and so many things went against me. I was swimming upstream.

When I finally gave my life over to God, it was then the joy and happiness came into my life. I realized my role here on Earth was not to throw touchdown passes and win football games, although that is the position and the platform I was given. I realize my goal is to win as many people to Jesus as possible. I have an open-door policy, where I’m able to talk about what is most important to me, and, for me, God is #1.”

Like Kurt Warner, I grew up with God only in the background of my life. I remember going to church as a kid and being bored out of my skull. When I became a teenager, I dropped out of church – and faith – because I did not see any relevance for my life. My family and my school can give testimony that I was a weird, stubborn kid who did what he wanted to do. And it put me into a slimy pit, lost and far from God. 

In all my years of attending church as a kid, I never read my Bible. God, however, was gracious to me. I remembered all those sermons about Jesus, and I gained a newfound awareness of myself. I began to have a deep desire to read and know Holy Scripture. 

In short, God saved me from myself. My circumstances did not change much, but I did. My loneliness turned to joy; my aimlessness turned into purpose; and my selfishness became a deep concern for others. My heart had been black, and what God did to change it was nothing less than miraculous.

Our faith is not only personal. We also have a responsibility to bless others with our story of what God has done in our lives. The telling of stories – declaring what God has done – is a necessary part of building up the Body of Christ and helping others move forward.

Let’s not shelve the idea of giving testimony to others as if it were only for pastors, missionaries, or other very religious people. 

When a person decides to play hockey in twenty-degree below-zero weather, we might think that person is a little crazy; but if they love hockey that much, more power to them. We must not think about Christianity in the same way, that if a person is passionate about Jesus and desires to tell others about what God has done for them, more power to them; just don’t expect me to go out in the cold and do that because it isn’t my thing. 

Take this to heart: Christianity is neither a sport nor a hobby; it isn’t a means to looking respectable; it cannot be reduced to church attendance and putting money in an offering plate. Christianity is a life, a relationship with God through Jesus. Try looking at marriage as simply showing up for supper and paying the bills and see how far that gets you! 

New life comes not from a change of circumstances, but a change of heart. With a firm reliance upon and glad obedience to God, along with a readiness to give testimony to God’s actions, we are then living into God’s continuing narrative of changed lives.

Every Christian is a teacher of the faith because Christians represent Christ to the world through our words and actions. What we say and do testifies to our faith and beliefs. So, let us represent Jesus well, and with great compassion, to a lost and lonely world.

Merciful God, our witness is only as good as the love it conveys. Help us, your people, to share our stories of faith – and to find small ways to witness to your unfailing love in the midst of our uncertainty. Grant us the vision to see you at work in our world, healing our brokenness, and making us new. Give us wisdom to hear your voice through the noise that surrounds us. And grant us the courage to bring to fruition the world you are creating, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Philippians 3:17-20 – Follow a Good Example

Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ. (New International Version)

Who do you imitate? What examples do you follow? How are you influenced by others?

Good Examples Are Virtuous

Because we are social creatures, we mimic and then pass on things we learn from others. So, it’s imperative we learn from people who demonstrate the values and ideals we aspire to possess ourselves.

In the people we listen to, either virtually or in person, as well as the authors we read, we are to live according to an example of virtue, sacrifice, and commitment.

We must imitate those Christian leaders who have a proven character in persevering in faith in the face of pain and suffering and have done it with great humility.

This does not necessarily mean we emulate those who eruditely speak the Word of God, have superior gifts and abilities, and enjoy success in ministry. It does mean, however, we ought to imitate, and have as mentors, those persons who imitate Christ.

We can leave behind and ignore those who are self-promoting peacocks, concerned with pursuing admiration and praise. Let’s, instead, mimic those who have proved themselves in hardship.

A Christian leader who has not undergone fiery trials and been purged of sinful pride are more easily seduced by their own importance. However, leaders who have seen their share of hard circumstances, pain, and suffering, and have come through it loving God and serving others out of grace and humility, are leaders worth imitating. They will likely serve well as good models of faith and ministry.

Good Examples Are In Community

Please notice there is more in today’s New Testament lesson than individually following a good example; we are to join with others in doing so. Community is needed for proper spiritual mimicking to take place.

Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that.

Ephesians 5:1-2, MSG

This is why the Apostle Paul wrote a letter telling Titus to ensure that he was being an example within the church community – and why he gave detailed instructions on virtue to make sure the older saints of God were teaching and mentoring the younger generations with a good example to show them. (Titus 1:5, 2:1-4, 3:1-2)

Following an example doesn’t take place in isolation. Like a duckling, we need to be with other ducklings following Mama Duck. Otherwise, we are at risk of getting lost and losing our faith, maybe even our lives.

Be a Good Example

It is also good to consider the kind of example we ourselves are displaying for others. In all our words and behaviors, whether we recognize it or not, we are modeling what is genuinely important to us. And sometimes what we do not say, or choose not to do, says as much or more about our character, beliefs, and ethics.

Our character is revealed in the way we treat people. How we treat those who cannot give something back to us tells more about our character than how we treat people we think are important.

People who are honest, kind, and fair – only when there’s something to gain – shouldn’t be confused with people of real character who demonstrate virtuous qualities habitually, under every circumstance. Individuals and groups of people are never to be handled as things or mechanisms to get what we want and achieve our goals.

Character is also revealed in the way we deal with the pressures and temptations which come our way. If we are one way whenever situations are going well, and then another way when things go sideways, it reveals something of our inner self.

Doing the right thing, whether someone is watching, or not, is always a hallmark of a good example.

It takes a lot of confidence in our way of life to say to another, like the Apostle Paul did, “follow my example.” If we have learned with humility and curiosity the words and ways of Jesus, and lovingly put them into practice, then we can be emboldened to mentor others in the faith and demonstrate for them what laboring for justice, righteousness, holiness, and godliness looks like in this fallen world.

Good Examples Together

More than ever, we need a cadre of solidly committed folks who have been mentored well in the ways of grace to serve as a beacon of light in the darkness of this world’s besetting sins of structural racism, hedonistic consumerism, discriminatory ageism, oppressive patriarchalism, biased hierarchism, disparity classism, religious anarchism, and a hundred other “isms” which keep people from flourishing in this life as God intended.

It is vital we learn from and emulate others who have a proven track record of promoting the common good of all persons. And it is equally important we become part of the ranks of those who are good examples of citizens in God’s benevolent and ethical kingdom.

Lord God, help me as your disciple to follow you in every thought, word, and deed. Give me a heart of faith and obedience so that I will live with confidence in the example and in the way of Jesus. Enable me to recognize your good and perfect will, even when it may seem nonsensical to me. I want to follow you all the days of my life. Please give me the strength to do so in the strength of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

1 Corinthians 15:20-34 – That’s Weird

“Nonsense” by Wanidaem, 2016

But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.

Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

And why are we putting ourselves in danger every hour? I die every day! That is as certain, brothers and sisters, as my boasting of you—a boast that I make in Christ Jesus our Lord. If with merely human hopes I fought with wild animals at Ephesus, what would I have gained by it? If the dead are not raised,

“Let us eat and drink,
    for tomorrow we die.”

Do not be deceived:

“Bad company ruins good morals.”

Come to a sober and right mind, and sin no more; for some people have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame. (New Revised Standard Version)

There was a lot of goofiness going on with the Corinthian church.

That’s why the Apostle Paul’s first letter is long and filled with addressing a variety of problems. Some of those issues we can understand and relate to, and some we don’t have much of a clue what’s really going on. I tend to think that because the Corinthian believers tended to keep some bad company, a lot of weird stuff pops up, like vicarious baptisms for the dead. Where the heck did that come from?

“Weird Blue Painting” by Matthew Freese

Well, what we do know is that when Jesus told good old Peter the fisherman to leave his nets behind and become a fisher of people, catching them was only half the work. Cleaning them takes a lot of work, too.

I have done my share of fishing in life (both real fish and real people), and I can say that cleaning fish is a messy affair. Just as a fish gets gutted, so a person, caught for Jesus, needs to be eviscerated of all the worldly entrails of sin. And that didn’t completely happen with the Corinthians.

Rather than hanging out with the goofy weird dudes who are saying and doing only God knows what, Paul brought the Corinthians back to the center of the gospel. He reeled them into Christ’s resurrection.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ from death is the penultimate event of securing victory from sin’s guilt and shame, as well as death’s sting. It’s the resurrection which enables every Christian to realize the power of cutting out the weird and goofy stuff of worldly sin for the meat of Christ’s words and ways.

Because Christ arose with a real physical body, we, too, will experience a bodily resurrection. This means, as believers in Jesus, we are not to have a goofy approach that resurrection is all spiritual with nothing physical going on, as if the body were just some weird container for the soul that we have to put up with here on earth.

Whenever that weird thinking takes place, people do goofy things, believing they can do whatever the heck they want, since the body is like a paper plate that we’ll just toss in the garbage when we’re done with it. Christ’s kingdom ethics and physical morality ends up taking a back seat to ethereal philosophical musings. Leave it to the Greek Corinthians to do mental gymnastics in order to live however they want. Sometimes, when I read Paul’s letter, it feels like I’m watching an old “Leave It to Beaver” episode where Beaver is having all kinds of goofy thinking and doing weird stuff because of Whitey and Larry’s bad advice.

Jerry Mathers as the Beaver

Coming back again and again to the redemptive events of Jesus helps preserve us from the esoteric bunny trails of theological goofiness. Yet, if we continue to keep company with a bunch of folks who are into power and control through the ungodly means of mistreating the body (and other people), making comparisons between the physical and the spiritual, (as if they were two completing separate identities), obsessing over their weird and unintelligible philosophies, and refusing to take responsibility for their physical actions – then, we’re going to turn goofy, just like them.

Come to your senses, Paul would say, and get your head screwed on straight. Fill the space between your two ears with proper knowledge of Christ’s resurrection, and pay attention to your hands and feet, because they are the tangible means of putting the will of God into practice.

There’s a goofy and weird “ha, ha,” and then there’s a goofy and weird “uh, oh.” Keep the “ha, ha,” avoid the “uh, oh,” and you’ll be just fine.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy on us, your people, and grant us your wisdom and peace. Amen.