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.

2 Corinthians 13:5-10 – Examine Yourselves

Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test. Now we pray to God that you will not do anything wrong—not so that people will see that we have stood the test but so that you will do what is right even though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. 

We are glad whenever we are weak, but you are strong; and our prayer is that you may be fully restored. This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority—the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down. (New International Version)

God is in the restoration business. Sometimes, we might lose sight of that reality.

In the Gospels, whenever Jesus miraculously healed a person, it was for far more than taking away a disease or correcting a disability. The Lord sought to restore a person’s life by including them in the community. For example:

  • Leprosy put a person on the outside, both literally and relationally. Ceasing to be a leper meant that a person now had no obstacles to full participation in communal life.
  • Blindness reduced a person to being a beggar in order to survive. Having sight restored meant that the person can now work with others, make a living, and contribute to the needs of others.
  • Incarceration was (and still is) a complete removal of a person from society. Being in prison severs much human connection. Release from jail opens the way to reconnection and an opportunity to have a different way of being with others.
  • Poverty encumbers a person and weighs them down so heavily that it limits their ability function socially and relationally. Without poverty, a person is able to establish healthy patterns of giving and receiving within the community.

Those who are physically whole, mentally sharp, emotionally satisfied, and spiritually redeemed are free of obstacles and impediments to communal life.

So, it is a travesty whenever the people who enjoy full inclusion in the community, turn around and separate themselves, keeping relational distance from certain persons, and do not participate in the common good of all.

The type of examination of faith the Apostle Paul was talking about was not to obsess over whether one is a true believer, or not. He was referring to the person who claims faith yet maintains separation from others. In other words, to exclude others is the kind of behavior that unbelievers do, not Christians.

Yet, there are many sections of Christianity and entire Protestant denominations who pride themselves on such separation. They believe they’re being holy and keeping themselves from impurity. However, far too many of them are really putting a sanctified spin on their own sinful predilections to avoid people they don’t like.

Paul has no tolerance for calling exclusion of others “holiness” and naming the maintenance of an insider/outsider status as “sanctification.” The Apostle knew this was all poppycock and wanted nothing to do with it.

Christ didn’t die on a cruel cross, take away the obstacles to faith, open the way to know God, and create peace through his blood for a pack of so-called Christians to then erect imaginary concrete border walls to keep others out of Christian community and fellowship.

In God’s upside-down kingdom, the privileged insiders are really the outsiders; and the underprivileged outsiders are actually the insiders.

The so-called privileged believers are in just as much need for restoration as the leper, the blind, the poor, and the prisoner. The path to their inclusion is solidarity with the entire community of the redeemed – rather than picking and choosing who is in and who is out.

All this, of course, is another way of stating that Christianity is as beset with cliques as anywhere else – with individual believers, local churches, and particular traditions following their pet theologians and pastors and not associating with others who follow a different sort of folks.

The ancient Corinthian church was a train wreck of opposing groups and clique-ish behavior. The Apostle Paul had had enough of it and called the people to do some serious self-examination. And he was careful not to degrade or discourage them but to try and encourage the church to tap into the Christ which dwells within them.

Restoration, for Paul, meant specific behaviors which intentionally include people. To be inclusive means we actively work toward grafting people into community, as well as discourage behaviors that create division. Here are three ways of doing that:

  • Practice hospitality. The word hospitality literally means, “love of stranger.” A hospitable believer goes out of their way to invite another into their life, to give them the gift of relationship and fellowship.

Take care of God’s needy people and welcome strangers into your home. (Romans 12:13, CEV)

Above all, show sincere love to each other, because love brings about the forgiveness of many sins. Open your homes to each other without complaining. And serve each other according to the gift each person has received, as good managers of God’s diverse gifts. (1 Peter 4:8-10, CEB)

  • Nip bitterness in the bud. In an ideal world, everyone holds hands and sings kumbaya together. We live, however, in a fallen world. Harmony, unity, and peace take copious amounts of energy. Like an attentive gardener, we must do the work of identifying weeds and uprooting them, so they don’t take over the garden.

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. (Hebrews 12:14-15, NIV)

  • Seek to encourage and learn how to do it. Encouragement is both a gift and a skill to be developed. To encourage another is to come alongside and help someone with both affirming words and willing hands. It’s what Jesus did (and does) for us.

Christ died for us so that, whether we are dead or alive when he returns, we can live with him forever. So, encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing. (1 Thessalonians 5:10-11, NLT)

Hospitality, harmony, and help are all forms of love. And love is to be the guiding principle and practice of church and community.

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen. – A prayer of St. Francis of

Ephesians 2:11-22 – Included

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (New International Version)

There is perhaps no better explanation in the entire New Testament about what the Church truly is than here in today’s lesson.

The redemptive events of Jesus – especially the crucifixion of Christ – has completely changed everything. The cross is the mid-point of history, the fulcrum in which all things in heaven and on earth hinge.

The cross has totally transformed our status from being:

  • in Adam (fallen and separated from God) to being in Christ (now lifted and in union with God)
  • in the flesh (driven by our immoral and unethical impulses) to being in the Spirit (now driven by moral and ethical desires)
  • a Jew or a Gentile (defined by race, ethnicity, etc.) to being one people of God, a new egalitarian society, the community of the redeemed, the Church.

We were once far from God. Now we are brought near through the blood of Christ.

We are included, not excluded; graced and loved, not shamed and shunned.

And our status isn’t based on physical circumcision but on circumcision of the heart, that is, by faith.

There was a time when we were estranged from God, as if we were migrants from another country, or aliens from another world. We were strangers with no visible hope in anything or anyone.

But now, because of Christ’s cross, we have become near to God, gained an inheritance in Christ, and are seated in the heavens as royalty. Everything has mercifully changed. All is incredibly different – a good different.

Jesus Christ himself is our peace. He is the superglue who has bonded us to God and to one another as the one people of God. Because of this gracious union, there is no more anger and malice toward each other. There is, instead, peace.

The Lord Jesus has torn down the walls of separation between people, stripped the armor off of those who used it to keep a distance, and obliterated all obstacles to genuine relational connection – including the obstacle of the Law.

By his crucifixion, death, and resurrection, Christ Jesus fulfilled all the demands of the Law. Therefore, the Law of Moses is no longer needed. Those who love one another and carry one another’s burdens are the ones who fulfill the Law of Christ.

The reason for abolishing all the laws and layers of separation is so that Christ could create one new people from the disparate groups – thus making peace through the cross.

Just as two people come together in marriage and create an entirely new relationship – one new person from the two – so Christ has joined Jew and Gentile together and formed an entirely new society of unity and one-ness.

We are, then, on equal footing with one another. One group is no longer privileged over another. There is no such thing as an underprivileged people-group in God’s new society.

The Church is to be the one place on earth where all are privileged, all are included, and none are left behind.

There is reconciliation. The situation isn’t of people simply not fighting with each other, not at one another’s throats and sitting with a grumpy affect and arms folded. Quite the opposite. It is a restored relationship, harmonious interactions, and working together in loving fellowship.

Christianity is distinct from all other religions and all other ethical systems because everything is based, tethered, and moored in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. In Christianity, enmity, hate, and rage aren’t managed; they’re put to death – nailed to the cross and done away with.

Unfettered access to God, through Christ and the Spirit, means that we have an open channel to receiving the faith, hope, and love needed to address the darkness of this world and those still stuck in chaos, disconnection, and shame.

Christ himself is the cornerstone to the superstructure of peace and love which has been erected – the very things we have longed for throughout our personal lives and throughout history.

Jesus is the King who brought radical amnesty and hospitality to the entire country by making us all fellow citizens, enjoying all the rights and privileges thereof.

The Lord Jesus Christ is the Son who welcomed us into God’s family, embracing our adoption and making us full-blooded brothers and sisters, and giving us a prominent place at the Table.

All of these things about Christians and the Church aren’t ideals; they’re reality.

Anytime we are spiteful, ignorant, prejudiced, or unkind, we are not living in reality – we’re living in an old evil world that isn’t ours.

Therefore, we are called to fully live into God’s new society – a community of equals – loving and leading like Jesus, living into his words and ways, embracing our new status as children of God, offering radical mercy and grace because that’s exactly what our Lord did for us.

Creator God, who made us different from one another in myriad ways, yet all made in your image: Fill our hearts with your love and our minds with your wisdom so that we may truly become brothers and sisters of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 – The Sixth Sense of Spirituality

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (New International Version)

Although a lot of people are not religious, I believe every person on planet earth is spiritual. By that I mean we all intuitively know deep in our gut that there are bigger things going on in this world beyond our own existence – that there is a transcendent Someone who is higher than us whom we can connect to and helps us connect with one another as humans.

If our epistemology (the study of how we as humans know things) doesn’t allow for transcendent reality, then it is a deficient and truncated philosophy (the study of truth, knowledge, and conduct); it will not be able to accommodate spiritual realities.

There are times you have no explanation for what is happening – no words to describe the experience you went through. That’s because your five senses (taste, sight, touch, smell, and sound), although alert and reliable with taking-in all kinds of sensory data, are simply inadequate to explain the transcendent situation.

I was once talking with an agnostic (a person who denies that ultimate knowledge can be found, or that knowledge can be located ultimately with a god). This particular guy became a father for the first time. He was fresh off the incredible experience of being in the room with his wife when she gave birth to their son. 

Bill (not his real name) was flush with enthusiasm. He took in the sight of his newborn baby boy, held him and touched him for the first time, and joyfully listened to his very first screams of new life in this great big world.  Bill described it all to me with such awe and reverence. 

Then, Bill said something to me that I haven’t forgotten: “I don’t know how to explain it, Tim. Something spiritual happened when my son was born, something I can’t put into words. All I can say is that I experienced something that was not of this world.”

Something not of this world. That was Bill’s way of saying that he had no mental categories from which to draw from to give him any kind of sensory explanation to the awesome reality of being there at childbirth. 

Our five senses are vital, critical, and significant; yet they do not tell the whole story. As important as our ability to taste, see, touch, smell, and hear is, there are other ways of knowing and experiencing life.

Faith and spirituality are the sixth sense which enable us to discern and know things about ourselves, this world, and God – things that we would not know with only our five senses. 

There is a spiritual reality which transcends the physical. The soul, whether we acknowledge we have one or not, is the place of communion with this unseen reality. The inner person is where we meet-up with God and find a vast world of spiritual resources which boggle the five senses. Somehow, we know this is true, even if we have no language to explain it.

Jesus once said that it is the Spirit who gives life; human strength isn’t even a factor (John 6:63). In other words, God is Spirit, and the One who gives meaning, connection, relationship, and even physical life. Human abilities cannot ultimately do this. Yes, we do have biological explanations for human attraction, marriage, and where babies come from; yet this is not the whole story. 

There is a transcendent reality behind it all that gives life meaning and purpose. There are times, once-in-awhile, when the unique, the astonishing, and the beautiful grab us.

Our souls spring to life. We “see” the transcendent and get an awesome glimpse of this place where the physical and the spiritual “touch.”

We “taste” that the Lord is good, and “hear” the call to a deeper experience of recognizing the care and compassion of Christ. 

We take in a deep breath and “smell” the aroma of him who created us in his image and likeness.

Let your senses draw in all the wonderful information it can. And don’t stop there. Allow your soul to drink in the spiritual dimension of wisdom, and feed your inner person with Jesus Christ, who saves us from the sinful and the mundane, and lifts us to the world of the Spirit where there is life, hope, and infinite love.

Holy God, your knowledge of me exceeds what I grasp or see in any moment; you know me better than I know myself. Now, help me to trust in your mercy, to see myself in the light of your holiness, and grant me the grace that I may have true contrition, make an honest confession, and find in you forgiveness and perfect remission. Amen. – A prayer of St. Augustine