Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing (Galatians 2:1-10)

Fourteen years after that first visit, Barnabas and I went up to Jerusalem and took Titus with us. I went to clarify with them what had been revealed to me. At that time I placed before them exactly what I was preaching to the non-Jews. I did this in private with the leaders, those held in esteem by the church, so that our concern would not become a controversial public issue, marred by ethnic tensions, exposing my years of work to denigration and endangering my present ministry.

Significantly, Titus, non-Jewish though he was, was not required to be circumcised. While we were in conference we were infiltrated by spies pretending to be Christians, who slipped in to find out just how free true Christians are. Their ulterior motive was to reduce us to their brand of servitude. We didn’t give them the time of day. We were determined to preserve the truth of the Message for you.

As for those who were considered important in the church, their reputation doesn’t concern me. God isn’t impressed with mere appearances, and neither am I. And of course these leaders were able to add nothing to the message I had been preaching. It was soon evident that God had entrusted me with the same message to the non-Jews as Peter had been preaching to the Jews.

Recognizing that my calling had been given by God, James, Peter, and John—the pillars of the church—shook hands with me and Barnabas, assigning us to a ministry to the non-Jews, while they continued to be responsible for reaching out to the Jews. The only additional thing they asked was that we remember the poor, and I was already eager to do that. (The Message)

The former devout Jew, Saul, had become the Christian apostle and missionary, Paul. His ministry was as radical and dramatic as his conversion to Christianity was.

The Struggle

Keep in mind that the earliest church was predominantly made up of Jewish Christians. They had to struggle with the relationship between their historic Judaism and their newfound Christianity. For many of them, Paul was doing the unthinkable; he not only purposely sought to reach Gentiles (non-Jewish people) with the message of Jesus Christ, but he also did not require them to be circumcised. For Paul, one did not have to first become Jewish before becoming Christian.

Paul doggedly sought to preserve the core essence and spirit of Christ’s message, that is, to proclaim the good news of forgiveness and new life through the person and work of Jesus – and not by means of retaining Jewish customs or laws, including circumcision.

The Main Thing

Christianity is more than set of beliefs and practices; it’s a way of life which can be summed up in three important words: faith, hope, and love. 

Both new believers in Jesus and veterans in the faith know from experience how difficult it can be to live the Christian life. One reason for this difficulty, even when we want to please the Lord, is due to the confusion that occurs between our inner feelings and our outer actions.

The Confusion

The confusion starts with the creation and fall of humanity. In the beginning, God created humans as persons with a divine/human relationship as central to daily life. (Genesis 1:26; 2:16-25) 

What’s more, God created people with the capacity to receive divine revelation through our ability to think and reason. (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10) 

Before disobedience entered the world, in the original state before humanity’s fall, all human functions were under complete control with an inner experience of unity and harmony with one another and God. (Genesis 1:31; 2:7, 16-25) 

It is imperative for us to recognize the distinction between our personal being and our personal functions. (Romans 1:21-32; 6:16-22; 1 Corinthians 9:27; Ephesians 4:21-32)

If we don’t grasp how cataclysmic the fall of humanity was, we are going to have big struggles with living the Christian life – illustrated in the way that Paul needed to fend off a bunch of professing Christians who still seemed spiritually stuck. 

The Disobedience

In Adam and Eve’s original disobedience to God, the authority for life was transferred from God to us so that our sinful bent is to call our own shots without God. The source of authority also got whacky, transferred from a holistic and synergistic approach of body, mind, emotions, and spirit to a one-dimensional approach of simply how we feel at any given moment.

If we fail to understand this dynamic, we will be continually frustrated with people because they do irrational things. For example, many church pastors are flabbergasted that parishioners do not simply take what they teach them and go and do it. Yet, if it were that simple, there would be no place for the Holy Spirit!

Unfortunately, there’s more. In humanity’s fall, we lost control of our capacity to function well. We are all now vulnerable to manipulation, too easily swayed by the surrounding culture, and, of course, Satan. (Ephesians 2:2-3; Galatians 5:16-21) 

As a result, our inner conscience has become confused. We are not always certain of right and wrong. We misunderstand what life is really supposed to be all about. 

We lose sight of the main thing. And, in that state, there’s no way we can keep the main thing the main thing.

Instead, we become obsessed with feeling comfortable and secure; so, we pursue false gods – leaving usdisappointed and with a lack of fulfillment in life.

The Good News

However, the good news is that through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, new life emerges; the bondage of sin is broken in our lives, and we are legally reinstated in a relationship with God in which the Lord is central in our daily life and the final authority. 

In this new relationship we can again receive truth through the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures. We regain control of our functions. 

Yet, unless we learn the Scriptures and growin a daily walk with Jesus, the practical experience of this relationship with all its freedom, joy, assurance,  power, and fruitfulness may be greatly limited. (Romans 7:14-25; 1 Corinthians 3:1-4)

Even though we have redemption and faith, it is still possible to regress and give in to our old ways of functioning. This is a big reason why Christians can experience conflict, doubt, fear, anxiety, frustration, disappointment, and confusion.

To live keeping the main thing the main thing means to grow in the experience and application Christ’s centrality and authority in our lives. 

The Awareness

We must, therefore, make daily decisions of faith, hope, and love based in who we are in Christ and recognize his authority in our lives. The following seven recognitions and awareness may be helpful for you in experiencing Christian freedom and unity:

  1. You are a person with the ability to function in faith, hope, and love as God’s beloved child in Christ (2 Corinthians 7:1; Romans 8:14-17)
  2. There is a difference between who you are and what you do (or don’t do).  Evil thoughts and emotions do not make you evil, anymore than fantasizing about being a unicorn makes you a unicorn.
  3. You can take charge of your actions and your life (Galatians 5:22-23)
  4. The key is the use of your will through living in harmony with revealed biblical truth. In other words, you really can make choices of faith, hope, and love, no matter the situation. (Romans 4:17-21; Psalm 56:3; Psalm 43:5-11)  
  5. Reject whatever is contrary to Scripture, reason, and conscience. Listen to your whole self. Unhealthy patterns of acting and speaking must be broken in Jesus’ name. (Ephesians 4:22; Colossians 3:5-9; Titus 2:11-12)
  6. Choose to obey the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures. Learn to think and act on the basis of truth. (Acts 27:25)
  7. Practicing the truth results in freedom, a re-patterning of thinking and functions, as well as the fruit of the Spirit. (John 8:32; Titus 2:11-14; Philippians 2:12-16)

The church is intended to be a supportive community of fellow redeemed people who worship and love Jesus together. 

Without sharing our collective learning of the Scriptures and daily struggles of faith, hope, and love, believers will inevitably be spiritually immature over the long haul. Instead, talk about your shared experiences of worship, Scripture reading, and Christian living. 

In doing so, God is glorified, the church is strengthened, and the cranky circumcisers are seen as the legalistic lunkheads they really are.

A Changed Life (Galatians 1:11-24)

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

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.

Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.

Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me. (New International Version)

I didn’t ask God for this

Saul wasn’t looking to change anything – except maybe to keep those confounded Christians, the group known as “The Way,” out of his beloved religion. He didn’t wake up one morning, sit on the edge of his bed and say, “Well, now, gee-whillikers, I think I’ll become the Apostle Paul, follow Jesus, and rankle a bunch of my fellow Jews with establishing churches all over the place.”

The only well-thought out plan Saul had was to ensure that Christians stayed away by any means possible. He had quite the turn around by actually joining the Christian movement. (Acts 9:1-19)

From the very get-go of his conversion, the new Paul faced skepticism, doubts, and opposition from both church and synagogue. Christians knew how Saul breathed all kinds of threats against them; so, understandably, they were reticent to receive him, perhaps wondering if it were some sort of ruse to topple the church. If it were not for the insight and encouragement of Barnabas, Paul may not have ever entered the ranks of the church. (Acts 9:26-27)

Paul’s fellow devout Jews were so upset with him for becoming a turncoat that they sought to kill him – which became a theme of Paul’s life – getting rocks thrown at him, whipped, beaten, and left for dead more than once. (Acts 9:23-24; 2 Corinthians 11:24-29)

Although Paul never asked for a dramatic conversion to Christianity, a missionary life, and continual suffering at the hands of others, he nevertheless embraced it with all the gusto of faith God gave him.

So, the gospel that the Apostle Paul proclaimed wasn’t something he sought; it was given to him. God graciously revealed the good news to Paul. For three years, he received it. Considering Paul’s background and former life, we can see why it might not be a good idea for him to hang out in Jerusalem and learn about Jesus.

Arabia is a desert. That is precisely where Paul needed to be in his early life as a Christian. Eventually, the churches and believers came around to seeing the authenticity of Paul’s faith and embraced him as a disciple. Paul is considered an Apostle because he had direct contact with Jesus himself in the Arabian desert.

God called me through the grace of Jesus

That phrase is Paul’s spiritual autobiography in a nutshell. It represents his dramatic transformation — from persecutor to preacher — and gives evidence of the hand of God at work in his life.

The fundamental conviction of being called by God, anchors Paul’s faith story. He tells that story in order to remind the Galatian Church of their own experience of being called by God’s grace.

Paul wrote his letter to the Church to help keep them on the track of grace; they were saved by grace, so therefore, they needed to also be sanctified by grace (and not law). He feared they were being led astray by believers who twisted the gospel for their own ends in order to avoid suffering. (Galatians 6:12)

The question Paul tackled head on was: Do the Gentiles have to become Jewish in order to be Christians? “Absolutely not!” Paul insisted. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love. (Galatians 5:6)

I connected with God, and you can, too

Paul was arguably the most influential Christian who ever lived. He shared his faith story in order to encourage the Galatians to examine their own experiences for signs of God’s call.

How has God called you?

It matters little whether it’s a dramatic call, like Paul’s, or whether it seems mundane, as if you don’t remember a time that you didn’t believe. And everything in between.

The important point is that we all need moments, events, and experiences of life transformation; and God’s grace must be the defining center of our personal and collective narratives.

Grace makes all the difference and is what leads to a changed life.

Once you were separated from God. The evil things you did showed your hostile attitude. But now Christ has brought you back to God by dying in his physical body. He did this so that you could come into God’s presence without sin, fault, or blame. (Colossians 1:21-22, GW)

Almighty God, transform us – not for our benefit, but for the benefit of the world. Do your work in changing us to be the new creation you have called us to be in Jesus Christ.  

Holy Spirit of God, do your sanctifying work in the church and help us to be the Body of Christ – engaged in mission, testifying to our faith, and bearing witness to the presence of our Savior, Jesus Christ. 

Lord Jesus, enable us to surrender the church back to you. It is yours, not ours. Help us lay aside our personal agendas and preferences so we can be fully committed to your calling for us. 

Blessed Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit – the God whom we serve: Do your work in our world and give to us a vision of transformed lives, renewed neighborhoods, and restored communities – bringing blessings and redemption for the glory of God. Amen.

A Reality Check (Hebrews 10:1-4)

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (New International Version)

Sometimes, we silly people confuse the sign for the real deal. It’s important to distinguish between the two. We discern the difference all the time when it comes to more mundane affairs.

People generally know that looking at a movie poster is not watching the actual film; that wearing a string of cheap pearls is only mimicking the real and expensive ones; or that sitting in a doctor’s waiting room isn’t the same thing as being in the appointment.

However, when it comes to our religion, we seem to blur the lines between sign and substance. Praying a “sinners prayer” or making a profession of faith isn’t the same as growing, maturing, following, and living a committed Christianity.

Knowing some Christian lingo and/or going with the flow of cultural Christianity doesn’t necessarily mean that Christ’s words and ways are being followed.

And today’s New Testament lesson is a reminder, and not a guilt trip, that the law points to the actual substance of religious life – and is not life itself.

The laws surrounding the old system of animal sacrifice were never meant to be an end in itself. It pointed forward to the real deal and was, therefore, completely inadequate to bring deliverance from sin, death, and hell to anyone.

The very fact that sacrifices needed to be repeated year and after year demonstrated that they were ineffectual in saving a person. Rather, those sacrifices were designed to cause the worshiper to long for a sacrifice to end all sacrifices – to anticipate that the sin issue would be settled once and for all.

The only thing the sacrifices did was remind people they were sinners in need of a savior. Just as a slap on the hand is grossly inadequate for handling a murderer, so offering an animal was never going to do the trick in taking care of divine justice.

And besides, God has never been pleased with a bunch of sacrifices anyway. So, what is God really pleased with? The Lord is pleased with a heart devoted to obedience and fealty to Jesus Christ; God cares about inner attitudes and dispositions of the spirit which are inclined toward righteousness, holiness, mercy, humility, and justice for all.

Sacrifices, in and of themselves, have no power; they are like a toothless lion who couldn’t bite into you if he tried. The way to set things right is through the once for all mighty sacrifice of the Son – an offering to end all offerings.

God doesn’t want a checklist of daily sacrifices, any more than a spouse only wants supper on the table at night, or a paycheck every month. It’s nice but falls short of the full scope of marital interactions and relations. A marriage built on law won’t stand. It needs real flesh and blood relationship, complete with a devoted heart, sincere attitudes, and loving words and actions.

Since Christ has ably and permanently taken care of the sin issue, what sort of impact ought that to have on the Christian’s life? What kind of people are we to be?

To begin listing things to do is to go back to law and fail to grasp the gospel. And that’s where many churches and believers get tripped up and miss the grace of God altogether. Observing rules of cultural Christian activities or holding to some accepted Christian norms isn’t going to cut it.

Christ’s Sermon on the Mount by Jorge Cocco Santángelo

Jesus described the sort of people who go beyond ritual regulations and rules to embrace the true spirit and end of the law:

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of competing or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. (Matthew 5:3-10, MSG)

That describes folk who have embraced faith as the fulfillment of law. It’s a summary of the law’s intended purpose and end.

So, let’s worship Christ; and not some caricature of him. Maybe carefully reading through the entire book of Hebrews in one sitting will help.

Blessed God, purify your people by your abiding presence. Enlighten the minds of your people with the light of your good news. Bring wandering souls to an awareness and knowledge of Jesus Christ; and those who are walking in the way of life, keep them steadfast to the end. Guard those who are strong and prosperous from forgetting you. Increase in us your many gifts of grace and make us all fruitful in good works for the sake of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Good News for All (Acts 8:26-40)

11th century Byzantine depiction of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch

An angel from the Lord said to Philip, “Get up, and take the desert road that goes south from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So Philip went.

An Ethiopian man who had come to Jerusalem to worship was on his way home. The man was a eunuch, a high-ranking official in charge of all the treasures of Queen Candace of Ethiopia. As the official rode along in his carriage, he was reading the prophet Isaiah out loud.

The Spirit said to Philip, “Go to that carriage, and stay close to it.”

Philip ran to the carriage and could hear the official reading the prophet Isaiah out loud. Philip asked him, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”

The official answered, “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” So he invited Philip to sit with him in his carriage.

This was the part of the Scriptures that the official was reading:

“He was led like a lamb to the slaughter.
He was like a sheep that is silent
when its wool is cut off.
He didn’t open his mouth.
When he humbled himself,
he was not judged fairly.
Who from his generation
will talk about his life on earth being cut short?”

The official said to Philip, “I would like to know who the prophet is talking about. Is he talking about himself or someone else?” Then Philip spoke. Starting with that passage, Philip told the official the Good News about Jesus.

As they were going along the road, they came to some water. The official said to Philip, “Look, there’s some water. What can keep me from being baptized?”  The official ordered the carriage to stop. He and Philip stepped into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they had stepped out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away. The official joyfully continued on his way and didn’t see Philip again.

Philip found himself in the city of Azotus. He traveled through all the cities and spread the Good News until he came to the city of Caesarea. (God’s Word Translation)

We are in the Christian season of Epiphany – a time of celebrating that the light of the Lord has been given not only to Jews but to Gentiles, as well. The good news of mercy, forgiveness, salvation, and peace in Jesus Christ is for everyone, and not just some.

So, we have a very appropriate story in today’s New Testament lesson illustrating God’s grace for those who have been typically the “outsiders” when it comes to the worship of God.

God’s grace is really a merciful divine intervention into another’s life, providing something a person or group needs, yet cannot obtain on their own.

Philip, one of the original twelve disciples of Jesus, received instructions from the angel of the Lord. Take a certain road. That’s it. No other explanation. The command is, however, full of grace. Most of us don’t do all that well with multiple instructions given at once. We do much better with a single imperative at a time.

And so, the next piece of guidance came as Philip was taking the road from Jerusalem south to Gaza. Go hang out around a certain carriage. Philip needed no more direction after that; he took to what was happening.

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch by Herbert Boeckl

Maybe reading the story from our contemporary perspective hinders us from seeing just how scandalous and unthinkable the story was for people in the first century. Jews and Gentiles didn’t hang out with each other; and, if they did, there were all sorts of rules regulating how the interaction would go.

We really don’t have any of this with Philip. He simply emulates his Lord and ignores societal and cultural mores to meet the need of someone very different than himself.

An Ethiopian man was in Jerusalem and heading back home. He was an official in the Queen of Ethiopia’s court, and a eunuch (a castrated official). He was a person of color with a mutilated body and could have very well been of a different gender than Philip was used to. In other words, he was about as foreign from Philip as one can get.

Yet, what better way to communicate that the gospel is for everyone? Philip had learned from Jesus not to adopt the divisions of race, religion, and gender that others did. See, instead, with spiritual eyes to the heart of a person.

And this Ethiopian eunuch had a heart curious about God, a mind trying to understand God’s words, and a gut that told him this guy approaching me for whom I don’t know and isn’t from my country is perhaps God’s messenger to me.

That’s what I call a divine appointment.

Those divine encounters always result in changed lives. I believe both the Ethiopian and Philip were changed that day. The only way that any of us truly changes is through the interaction with others different from ourselves.

The good news of Jesus is for all. If, however, we remain in a closed system which is not open to others of differing cultures and communities, then we harden into believing the gospel is for us, and not them.

Christianity is not, therefore, an exclusive club made up of insiders who demonize outsiders as not looking, acting, or thinking like we do. We already have plenty of that insidious junk in the world. At its inception, Christianity was different. And, I believe, it needs to keep that edge of reaching out to all persons with a life-giving message of salvation and peace – not a death-dealing sermon of Christian cultural hegemony.

Good news for all people everywhere means that proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ needs to occur for all nations and ethnic peoples. It’s a message of grace, not judgment; of mercy, not threats; of open love, not closed hate.

Philip and the Ethiopian show us the way through their sensitivity to the divine, their open dialogue with one another, and their shared commitment to doing what is right and serving the Lord. Philip was a guide, not a conqueror. And the Ethiopian became a follower of Jesus, not Philip.

Let’s make sure to keep it straight; and to keep reaching out.

Lord God, thank you that in love and mercy, you reached out to us – and that when we were dead in our sins, you sent Jesus to make us alive. Thank you that you have a heart that seeks the lost. Thank you for saving us.

Give us hearts that care for the people who are in darkness and need the light of Christ. Teach us to care for them as you do. Grow us to care for the common good of all humanity. 

Help your Church everywhere to know and love you; and to invite others into your divine dance. May our conversations with others be seasoned with salt and full of grace; may our relationships show people the love of Jesus. May our hearts reflect your own heart, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.