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

Matthew 9:27-34 – How To Use Your Faith

Jesus healing two blind men, 11th century mosaic, Sicily

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!”

When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?”

“Yes, Lord,” they replied.

Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you”; and their sight was restored. Jesus warned them sternly, “See that no one knows about this.” But they went out and spread the news about him all over that region.

While they were going out, a man who was demon-possessed and could not talk was brought to Jesus. And when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke. The crowd was amazed and said, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.”

But the Pharisees said, “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.” (New International Version)

Every day the news is a steady stream of disease, death, war, and outright human suffering. It’s as if the phrase, “slow news cycle,” is a thing of the past.

As we stare into the face of trouble, I find myself uttering the ancient prayer of the Church: “Lord have mercy.  Christ, have mercy.  Lord have mercy and grant us your peace.” 

We collectively feel the weight of the world’s suffering, experience the heaviness of concern for family and friends, and perhaps wonder how much more people can take.

It’s in the topsy-turvy times that I come back again and again to the deep spiritual convictions which inform what I do each day. One of those underlying creeds and affirmations is this:

Jesus is trustworthy, no matter whether my faith or the faith of others is small or great.

In our Gospel lesson for today, two blind men were healed according to their faith in Jesus. The diverse healing accounts of Jesus in the New Testament, whether the faith was large or small in those healed, leads me to the conclusion that:

It isn’t faith itself that heals, saves, or transforms – it is Jesus.

All the healing accounts in the New Testament Gospels have something in common: They all directly point to Jesus as the object of faith. 

It isn’t about the level or amount of faith, but about where the faith is placed. 

For the Christian, faith itself doesn’t mean much if it isn’t in Jesus.

If I place a large and sincere faith in an inanimate object such as money; in a position of power; or, even in my own independence, my faith isn’t worth much. 

If I have a huge faith in a doctor or a psychiatrist to heal my body or my mind, I will quickly discover there are limits to their abilities. 

If I have a confident faith that my family will meet all my needs, my faith will eventually run into failure when they let me down. That’s because the ultimate object of faith is Jesus. 

If all my faith eggs are in the church basket, my faith will eventually face a crisis because it is a misplaced faith.  Furthermore, the answer I provide for others is not simply getting them to attend church or to adopt my moral code.

There should be a consistency that runs through us all. For Jesus doesn’t change—yesterday, today, tomorrow, he’s always totally himself.

Hebrews 13:8, MSG

We know with certainty that circumstances change, as everyday seems to bring new levels and permutations of unprecedented alterations to our lives – and through it all, Jesus remains as the ever-present Savior, seated at the right hand of God ceaselessly interceding on behalf of those who offer even the slightest mustard seed of faith.

“For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Jesus (Matthew 17:20-21, NRSV)

It says something about our modern Western society that whenever we hear the words of Jesus on faith that we interpret the mountain moving as an immediate event that happens almost instantaneous, like a snap of the finger. Yet, there is nothing in those words that says that. There is also nothing that says an individual necessarily does it.

The fact of the matter is this: Jesus heals, transforms, and delivers people from sickness, sin, trouble, and overwhelming circumstances in his own good time, not ours.

Just because we pray without ceasing for days, weeks, months, and even years for something doesn’t mean we lack faith if the prayer isn’t answered immediately. It could be that God wants others involved, maybe even across generations, for the impossible mountain to be moved.

It is misplaced faith which expects microwave results. Faith placed appropriately in Jesus as the object of belief discerns that faithful prayer is consistently prayed until there is an answer.

Healing and restoration will happen – just maybe not always how or when we think it will.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep me both outwardly in my body and inwardly in my soul, that I may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Galatians 3:15-22 – Law and Grace

Brothers and sisters, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.

Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator. A mediator, however, implies more than one party; but God is one.

Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe. (New International Version)

If the Apostle Paul were living in our day, I’m pretty sure he could have his own reality show, if he wanted. Paul is a terribly interesting man. Within church circles, his adventures are legendary. 

One of the most interesting things about Paul is his piercing intellect and flawless rhetoric. Today’s New Testament lesson has Paul taking on a Galatian heresy. Maybe we could call it “Law and Grace: SFU (Special Faith Unit).”  

The folks who were holding to the law were reminded by Paul that the promise to Abraham was a contract or covenant made by God that was binding, permanent, and divinely ratified. The law, on the other hand, was not – it was designed to be in effect for a specific amount of time, temporary, and only bound the people of God until the promise was fulfilled in Christ.

So, why in the world was there a law to begin with if it is no longer in effect? 

Paul said the law was added because of transgressions. It was as if God’s people were precocious and disobedient little children who needed some firm boundaries and rules in order to keep them safe and lead them to the time when they would grow to maturity. 

My friends, stop thinking like children. Think like mature people and be as innocent as tiny babies.

1 Corinthians 14:20, CEV

With the arrival of adulthood, there is no longer any need for the law.

The law was never designed to be permanent. So, when Christians cling to a rules-based faith, they are showing their immaturity. They need to grow up and embrace the permanent reality of living in the Spirit. 

Although you should have been teachers by now, you need someone to teach you an introduction to the basics about God’s message. You have come to the place where you need milk instead of solid food. Everyone who lives on milk is not used to the word of righteousness, because they are babies. But solid food is for the mature, whose senses are trained by practice to distinguish between good and evil. (Hebrews 5:12-14, CEB)

We must press on toward spiritual maturity, not being simpletons who embrace the law as if it were the actual faith itself. Instead, we need to pursue an adult faith – one which is thoroughly permeated and bathed in grace.

Grace is the permanent and pervasive reality that governs everything Christians are to do and say. Grace cannot be earned, only accepted, not achieved, but only given by God. 

Until we can grasp this fundamental truth of Christianity, the Christian life will never make sense. Only until we release our expectations of rules and let go of our orienting around law will we discover the liberation of a grace-filled existence.

Jesus said, “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” (Matthew 5:48, MSG)

We spread the message about Christ as we instruct and teach everyone with all the wisdom there is. We want to present everyone as mature Christian people.

Colossians 1:28, GW

The believer’s task is to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus. That happens not through the law but by grace – utilizing the God given gifts of faith, hope, and love.

Gracious God, you saved me through Christ alone by faith alone. Now help me to live by grace alone as the highest and greatest truth operative in the universe and in the kingdom of God. Amen.