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The Only Gospel

Sermon - 5/30/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Galatians 1:1-10

I want to start a mini-series today on Galatians. We'll go through the month of June. So I would invite you, in the weeks ahead, to read the letter -- not just once, but several times. And not just the passage for Sunday. It's not a very long letter, so it's not a difficult assignment.

As a brief word of introduction, this is one of seven letters that pretty much all biblical scholars agree is one of the authentic letters of the Apostle Paul. Written in the mid-50s, probably at least a decade before the first Gospel was written. And unlike most of the other letters of Paul that are sent to specific communities or an individual (in the case of Philemon), this letter is sent to a collection of churches in the area Galatia which roughly correlates to modern-day Turkey.

The occasion for writing this letter is a dispute. There are some within this new community of all the followers of Jesus who insist that to be a follower of Jesus, you must adhere to Jewish customs and practices just as Jesus did. And for Paul, this challenges the very basis of the Gospel that he has proclaimed, and his authority as an Apostle. And so the principles that he articulates in this letter become the basis for the emergence of Christianity as a world-wide religion. It is, therefore, a hugely significant letter that has a tremendous impact on Christian faith. So let's dig-in, beginning with the first ten verses:
 

Paul an apostleósent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the deadó 2and all the members of Godís family who are with me,

To the churches of Galatia:

3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

6 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 gospeló 7not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8But 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! 9As 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!

10 Am I now seeking human approval, or Godís approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.

 

This letter starts kind of like a Kentucky Derby. You know, the gate opens and Paul is out of the chute at full speed. Making his argument from the very get-go. "Paul an Apostle sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities but through Jesus Christ and God the Father". So Paul's first line of defense is to assert its credentials as an apostle selected not by a nominating committee, voted on not by a popular vote, selected like American Idol, appointed not by some high authority, but called by God and therefore accountable only to God.

And I wonder -- does such a claim still work today? Martin Luther King made similar kinds of claims, but so did David Koresh, or Jim Jones, or even Osama Bin Laden. How do we know which claims are valid and which are not? The graveyards of history are literally filled with the millions of victims from those certain that they knew and were following God's will. Be it by drowning witches, or flying planes into buildings.

So we're a little suspicious of those who make such claims, even when it is for lesser things. Save, of course, for the divine favor of our favorite sports team :). I've been participating in a retreat series at Menucha, the retreat center on the Columbia Gorge, that is following the work of Parker Palmer, who is heavily influenced by Quaker spirituality. And Palmer believes that we each have an inner teacher that is known in our faith traditions by various names. We might call it the soul. I think of it as the lure of God. This teacher, Palmer says, is rather shy. It takes some effort, some intentional work of listening and learning to hear the voice, of coaxing it out, so to speak.

One of the techniques that we are learning and using is called the 'clearness committee'. Which is simply a very intense discernment process similar to what Eric described that the faith leaders have used. In which one person shares an issue, a problem, a question they are struggling with in their life. And then the four or five members of their clearness committee ask open and honest questions after listening to their story.

Now, that's harder than you might think. An open and honest question is a question to which you do not know the answer, and you have no idea what the answer may be. Better yet, you do not intend a certain answer. You know, those leading questions that we ask that you try to get our children to make a decision for themselves, but we really know what that decision should be? We try to lead them that way. It's not that kind of question at all -- indeed, that's probably the worst kind of question you can ask, because that's using your spirit to director theirs, rather than to allow that inner teacher to come out so they can find their own soul.

As time time wears on, and in this process that took the 90 minutes, the teacher comes out through the answers given by that focus person. And when that happens, that person finds their soul in the process. And sometimes hears that voice for the very first time. It is an incredibly powerful thing to witness.

I cannot share the content of those committees because of the confidentiality, but I can share with you that if you've ever had doubts about the existence of the soul, an experience of a clearness committee will shatter any such doubt to pieces.

Paul has no doubt of his calling by God. Because he's had that kind of overpowering experience that erased all doubt from his mind. And so he is quite bold in his claim, and certain of his authority.

His second line of defense is to assert that the only gospel is the one the Galatians first heard from him, and that there is no other requirement, save faith in Christ. We sometimes call this 'justification by faith'. And it is often falsely portrayed as faith vs works. But as the letter of James so brilliantly shows, such is a false dichotomy. A better way to portray it 'faith works' vs 'law works'. For if faith is not revealed in some outward action, it is not true faith.

I think we saw a wonderful illustration of that this morning, of that faith in action, when, in our breakfast -- we had how many, roughly 40 guests -- went incredibly well and smooth, it was just a wonderful sharing. Several of those folks stayed for our first service, as we created that kind of welcoming environment. Putting our faith into action in very concrete ways. Thank you Phyllis and all of those volunteers are stepping forward to do that.

As we'll see in the weeks ahead, Paul pulls out all the stops in his defense of his understanding of the gospel as it relates to this particular issue. And had he not succeeded in that task our faith today would look vastly different. We might think, then, of Galatians as the Declaration of Independence for Christian faith. It lays out the basic principles upon which our faith is built. And therefore it is important for us to not only read but to spend some with it. Seeking to understand it at a deeper level, listening to what God may be saying through it, to us, today.

As I spent time sitting with his text this week, pondering its meaning for us, it struck me that instead of trying to differentiate ourselves from the Jewish tradition (as those first century Christians were trying to do) we've come full circle -- and now look more and more for our common bonds that unite us rather than that which separate us. And not just with our Jewish brothers and sisters, but also brothers and sisters of other faiths.

Friday I had an opportunity to participate in an interfaith panel at Spencer Butte Middle School. It was their human rights day, and Principal B.J. Blake was promoting interfaith dialogue. We had a Muslim, a Jew, a Sikh, an atheist, and a Christian on this panel. In the first session, Wally Berman represented the Christian faith (one of our elders from the first service) and I did it in the second session. And it just so happened that the room that we were using was Chris Turner's room (our music leader from our first service). So all three of the Christians that were present were from this congregation. But as we like to say, were not the only Christians, just Christians only :).

It was a wonderful experience, and all five of us, from our different faith traditions, spoke the importance of respecting each other's tradition. After all, it was called 'The Day of Respect'. We received some great questions from these kids, and the one that really struck me was one of the young men asked if I had always known that you were of this particular faith, and especially when you were like 12 years old. In other words, their age. And of the five, the Jewish person said that she grew up Christian, and the Sikh person said she grew up Jewish! And it struck me how our culture has changed from the time when I was that age (one or two decades ago :). Growing up here in Oregon in comparison to today. In my public school education, just North of here, about the only faith encounter I had outside of my own tradition was Catholic. And of course that's part of the Christian tradition. Whereas these kids are getting all kinds of experiences. Our culture is vastly different.

And here we are hosting the interfaith service for our community each month with all of these religious traditions coming together.

Now, I have to honestly say I don't know what Paul might say in this context. What is clear is that Paul's issue is not a disagreement with people of a different religious tradition, rather the dispute was among those of the same tradition--Jewish Christians, as was Paul, as well as those opposed to his gospel message.

Given the many divisions and disputes within Christianity over the centuries, we might take heart in knowing it has never been otherwise. And that is perhaps why Jesus prays repeatedly in John 17 that his followers may all be one. We have been striving for that kind of unity from the very first day. Given the reality we face of the competing claims for the correct interpretation of the gospel, I take my clue from Paul. Who, in the face of similar competing claims, but different, asserted the understanding he was given not by any person but by God.

And so while teachers like John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, John Cobb, Rosemary Radford-Reuther, Diana Butler-Bass, and other leaders like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Sojourner Truth, and St. Francis, those names that I have mentioned on many occasions have all had their influence on me. Ultimately, the one who has had the greatest influence is none other than God. All those other voices are important to me only in that something stirs within me that I can only call my soul, or the lure of God, when I hear and read their words.

I take that to be that voice, like the voice that Jesus heard at his baptism, that says to me 'this is the voice of your Lord, listen to it'. And this is what I hear that voice saying to me over and over again in a thousand different ways: this is the only gospel you need.

My love, as revealed through the life, the teachings, and the death of Jesus for all humanity. This is the only gospel you need.

Respect for all my people, and the great traditions of faith that have withstood the test of time and also reveal and practice my love. This is the only gospel you need.

Respect for all creation and the earth, as taught in the native traditions and the stories of creation and the Psalms, and the wisdom traditions, and revealed through the natural sciences and evolution. This is the only gospel you need.

Feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit those in prison. And in doing so, not only do you do so for Me, but you show your faith in Me. This is the only gospel you need.

The way of nonviolence and the life of peace as shown by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., for only by living in peace can you live without war.  This is the only gospel you need.

The power of forgiveness to transform lives and overcome sin as taught by Jesus and demonstrated by the Bishop Tutu in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. This is the only gospel you need.

Acceptance of each person as a child of God regardless of race, creed, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical ability, political affiliation, or even your favorite college team (and you know how difficult that is for me :).

As it regards all these, your fellow human beings, the other faith traditions, the environment, war and peace, sin and forgiveness, diversity, others may proclaim a different gospel. And will tell you they know the truth. Do not be discouraged, and do not disparage them. They too are children of God seeking to be faithful to God's call as they understand it. So share with them you know, in your heart, to be true.

And listen to the truth they share from their heart. In your common ground, you will find me rejoicing. In your disagreements, you will find me working towards reconciliation.

In your heart, and theirs, you will find me.

This is the only gospel you need.

 


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