Monday, May 23, 2016

Combatting Summer Doldrums

If you are worried that the summer doldrums might affect the preaching in your parish, you can rest easy--at least through the Fourth of July weekend. Starting this Sunday and lasting for six weeks, the Epistle lesson will focus on Galatians, and I think it's pretty difficult to read Galatians without feeling at least some measure of enthusiasm. Even the most worn-out preacher can be reinvigorated by this emotional text. And I can't think of a better time for us to focus on Paul's fiery message of grace.

Of all Paul's letters, Galatians is his most passionate plea for the gospel of grace. He gets angry in Galatians, and those raw emotions show through. He even resorts to name-calling. This letter was written early in his letter-writing career, and he hadn't yet learned how to hold anything back. This is practically unfiltered, unrestrained polemic against those who would dilute even the slightest bit the gospel of grace. And twenty-first-century Christianity needs a sharp, angry voice calling us back to the uncut truth of grace-alone.

Paul's letters usually follow a form that was widely used in his day. The author identifies himself, identifies the recipients, and then offers a word of greeting. Typically, in Paul's letters that greeting is followed by a thanksgiving, which is then followed by a quick summary of the author's intent before the body of the letter begins. That's not how Galatians works. Paul doesn't have time for that. This is serious. He can't wait.

As soon as he finishes his formalized greeting--"Grace to you and peace..."--he skips the thanksgiving and moves right into his argument:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
Could more timely words be written? Even if we came and told you a different gospel, you shouldn't believe it. Even if an angel came down from heaven and told you a different gospel, let that one be accursed! There is no other gospel. There is no other gospel except the gospel of grace. Apart from that, there is no good news at all. Period. The end.

In contemporary Christianity, I don't hear a lot of debate about circumcision or kosher dietary restrictions. Those were the issues in Paul's day, and we'll see more of them in the coming weeks. Should a Gentile convert become an observant Jew in order to follow Jesus? Paul's emphatic, unequivocal answer is NO! Jesus Christ has set us free from a system in which justification comes from any effort on our part. Only faith in what Jesus did can save us.

If he were writing a letter to the churches of today, what would Paul say? Well, what perversion of the gospel of grace has infected the church? What makes a person good? What gets a person into heaven? What qualifies someone to be a Christian? News flash: it isn't loving your neighbor as yourself. It isn't helping those in need. It isn't going to church. It isn't reading the bible. It isn't following the Ten Commandments. It isn't loving God with all your heart, strength, and mind. And, with apologies to devotees of the 1979 BCP and the Baptismal Covenant, it isn't respecting the dignity of every human being or any of the other responses to the "will-you" questions we rehearse at every baptism. All of those things are fruit of the redeemed life--they come after Jesus has saved us, after his blood has redeemed us, after his death and resurrection have justified us.

For any preacher to set any of those things up as an expectation for her or his congregation is to place a stumbling block in front of God's precious children. All of that is law, and it stands in the way of grace. If we are justified by faith, those things will come. But defining them from the pulpit as the marks of a Christian is no different than preaching the necessity of circumcision and of keeping kosher. Expectations are law. They always get in the way. They pervert the gospel of grace. Period. Try telling your four-year-old daughter that the hallmarks of a good child are to grow up and be happy and successful. See where that gets you. (Hint: a teenager) The parent's job isn't to create expectations. The parent's job is to love his child. And the same is true for the preacher of the gospel.

It's only Monday, and I'm already fired up, and I'm not even preaching this week. I can't wait to see what the next six weeks will bring!

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