(Proper 4C) Galatians 1: 1-12; Luke 7: 1-10
Good morning all, as we move now into a season “on the road”--here in the Hicks Memorial Chapel of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. I’ve had the opportunity to preach and preside at services here for the seminary community on a couple of occasions, so for me it’s not an unfamiliar space, though not since these recent renovations—and of course for several of our parishioners—Scott, Shana, Garrett, and others—it is something of a home away from home. It was suggested that perhaps during these weeks we might draw our readings from the Book of Exodus, when the Chosen People were themselves “on the road” during their 40 year ramble in the wilderness of Sinai—or perhaps from those books where the focus is on the long years of Babylonian exile. With thanks to everybody who has been working to make this sojourn as easy as it can be—and to Bill Ghrist, George Knight, Michelle Young, and others who have been taking photos, so that we can keep our imaginations full with the rich images of that Jerusalem to which we shall someday in the far, far distant future have a joyful homecoming. Which I think all Jews say at the Passover: next year in Jerusalem! Or in early August, back on Hampton Street . . . .
In looking ahead to this season in the lectionary and as we have begun to live for a while out of a suitcase I’ve been thinking about St. Paul’s letter to the Galatian Churches—as I said, these congregations scattered through the Roman Province of Asia, modern Turkey. \And perhaps a word especially relevant for us, with all the great things going on around life in the St. Andrew’s community. Capital campaign, construction and renovation, new outreach initiatives, chorister camp, children’s programs—all this amazing and exciting busyness of our life and ministry.
I want to begin by giving at least my take on the “take-away” message that Paul has for these new Christians. Paul as the founding evangelist and pastor, along perhaps his first and second missionary journeys, sharing with them in what was apparently a very effective way the heart of the gospel.
And then, as we read here right at the beginning of the letter, hearing news that in the years since his departure issues have arisen in those communities that he views as detrimental to that gospel, as a distortion of Christian life and teaching. Diluting of the message. Adding dangerous distractions.
Always important to be thinking about the difference between those things that enrich our lives as Christians and equip us for our ministry and those things that may even in very attractive and seductive ways undermine our priorities and distract us. And to summarize Paul’s message in a sentence, you really couldn’t do better than repeat the memorable line that is attributed to Steven Covey (Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) and repeated often in so many other contexts: The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.
The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. And the main thing for Paul is Jesus. The core message for us to hear of a relationship of trust in Jesus, in his death and resurrection, the Cross and the Empty Tomb, as God’s action of forgiveness of sin and release and healing. Where he makes it possible for us to get right with God and with one another.
What had happened in the Galatian congregations in historical context is that some Christians of a Jewish heritage had arrived on the scene and had begun to spread the word that while trust in Jesus was important, love of Jesus, acceptance of his freely offered gift of forgiveness and grace, made possible at the Cross--somehow this acceptance and trust was in itself not enough. They were saying instead that something more was required. Ritual practices and ceremonial observances, traditions, good works. In the historical moment these were Jewish Christians who wanted to emphasize the continuity of Jewish custom and ritual. Circumcision. Kosher kitchens. Temple prayers. Sabbath observance. The traditional holidays and festivals.
And Paul’s concern is that when the church begins to get fuzzy about its message and turns its attention from Jesus to all these additional concerns it begins to slide down a slippery slope and to eventual catastrophe. Christianity, for Paul, is not just another religion, at least with a careful definition of that word—not an organized system of philosophical and moral and spiritual ideas or ritual practices. It is instead a relationship—a relationship of trust in Christ, built on the reality of what Christ has done for us. That God was, in Jesus Christ, in his life, death, and resurrection, reconciling the world to himself. Remember the news I shared with you about Jesus, Paul writes. It’s not about what we do, but about what he did. Not about who we are, but about who he is. Remember that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.
The first verses of the first chapter of Galatians actually present in a compressed form the whole of the message. Paul summarizes the message in one key sentence, the message of the gospel, the Christian news. In verse 4, “The Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age . . . .” And he’s not talking about the First Century. The present age that dawned when our First Parents shared that Apple in the Garden. That’s the news I told you about, says Paul. The Gospel. “The Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, to set us free.”
We talk sometimes about a “spiritual journey,” the “journey of faith,” and so on, but when we do I think we often get it backwards. We’re not the ones who travel. He did all the travelling. We don’t find him. He finds us. I once was lost, but now am found, in the old hymn.
The message Paul certainly doesn’t want his Galatian congregations to lose sight of –as in chapter one verse six: “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.” Which is all we will go on to read a gospel that tries to be about us, about who we are, about what we do, rather than to be about him.
Think about the slave of the Roman soldier, in Luke 7. What did he do to earn his healing? Nothing at all. He wasn’t Jewish, wasn’t circumcised, didn’t go to church services, didn’t tithe, wasn’t on any committees. He didn't even go to ask Jesus personally. It was a gift, all love, before he even knew who Jesus was. Paul says in Romans, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Nothing left to say, but “thank you.” And then to follow him.
So I’ve been thinking that maybe it’s a good thing to have all these familiar patterns of church life and worship and activity disrupted even for a few weeks this summer. To remind myself and ourselves that no matter how much I and we love lovely old St. Andrew’s, and our familiar worship, and all the activities of our congregational life, and great as all that is in so many ways, it’s not the main thing. He is the main thing. Jesus. To have that in our minds and hearts this morning and this summer. What our concern might be as we gather our prayers and as we receive Holy Communion and as we go out from this place into the wide world of our lives. To let it all be thanksgiving, for what he has done for us. The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.