Monday, May 30, 2016

Christ Has Set Us Free

Sermon for May 29, 2016
Psalm 96 and Galatians 1:1-12

"The Apostle Paul" via Wikimedia Commons
By now you may have heard that our sermon and teaching focus this summer is on that ugly e-word: Evangelism. Yes, it’s true. Presbyterians will actually gather in worship to ponder Christ’s Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”[i] Undoubtedly, if spreading the gospel is something that interests us, there is no better place to begin than with the writings of the Apostle Paul.  So over the next two months, we will explore Paul’s life and his passion for telling all the world about his love for Christ.

First, a little background. Before he became the Apostle Paul, Paul was known as Saul and he was a faithful Jew who was fixated on persecuting the first Christians. He was present at the stoning of Stephen and he continued to ravage the church by entering house after house, dragging both men and women off to prison. Finally, he asked the high priest for letters to the synagogues at Damascus—letters that gave him permission to bind and bring back to Jerusalem any followers of Christ. But Paul’s journey took a surprising turn when, on the road to Damascus, a light from heaven flashed around him and a voice said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul was dumbfounded. “Who are you, Lord?” Imagine Saul’s surprise when he heard, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what to do.”

Saul is led by the hand into the city because he is unable to see. Three days later Ananias shows up with words from the Lord. “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately, Saul’s sight is restored and he is baptized. God pierces the frozen shell of Saul’s heart and he is transformed. Christ gets into his heart. Love gets into his heart. The Gospel gets into his heart. It’s what Saul needs most. It is what we all need most. 

Thus Saul is transformed into Paul—an apostle, a missionary, a follower of Christ.  While he had been passionate about persecuting Christians, he becomes even more so about spreading the good news of Christ’s gospel. His letters fill the bulk of our New Testament canon. He is a great thinker, a great theologian, and he helps us understand things like grace and freedom—which brings us to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. This letter is different from Paul’s other letters. It’s different because it is the only Pauline letter in which the traditional prayer of thanksgiving is missing. There is no word of thanks—no words of praise. Instead, there is a brief greeting and then, “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…” Paul is aggravated. Paul is annoyed.

As one commentator notes, were this not an assigned reading in the lectionary, we might be tempted to avoid this text altogether. It would be easy enough to justify: We have simply intercepted mail that is not addressed to us. This is a matter between Paul and the Galatians—it’s personal. Except, the truth of the matter is: This is God’s word to us so it might behoove us to pay attention.[ii]

What has happened to lead the churches in Galatia astray? Although more details are provided later in the letter, for our purposes this morning it is important to know that some other Christian teachers have visited the Gentile Galatian congregations and have left their calling card behind. More than that, they have planted the seed in the people’s hearts and minds that Paul only preached part of the gospel. From their perspective, to fully participate in God’s salvation story, Gentiles must be circumcised and they must keep the Law of Moses.

When Paul hears that something has been added to the gospel, he has no recourse but to teach it again in his letter. Irritated and angry, in essence, his message is this: “The Law may make you aware of your sin but only Christ liberates you from it! Christ makes you a Christian. Christ justifies you. Christ makes you right with God. And Christ’s love is available for all people through faith. Nothing needs to be added. You don’t earn God’s love. You don’t earn anything. Through Christ, you have been set free. Live as free people!”

Born in Charlottesville, Virginia, Charles Cousar served as a New Testament Professor at Columbia Theological Seminary for many years. In his commentary on Galatians, he sheds light on the predicament the churches in Galatia find themselves. Cousar writes,

They are working at the wrong end of the relationship with God—what they can do to assure inclusion in God’s family; what they can do to cope with the power of the flesh; what they can do to fulfill the law. The answer lies at the other end—what God has done in Christ and how he has done it. “Grace,” a word occurring at six key points in the letter, is not a “thing,” even a “thing” God gives. Rather it describes the manner in which God gives himself, the personal relationship he establishes with his people. The word depicts the unmerited and unconditional way in which God has made and continues to make his move toward sinful humanity…. What is the appropriate human response to grace? It is, of course, faith—the sometimes quiet, sometimes reckless confidence in the goodness and faithfulness of God…this means that faith is not a way for humans to “get God on their side.” God is already for them.[iii]

God is already for us! God is already on our side! Through Jesus, the love of God embraces all the world.  Each one of us bears Christ’s image.  We all belong to one human family. We all breathe the same air and drink the same water.  Every person is God's "offspring." Thanks be to God! What wonderful news we have to share! We are the church, after all, and we are called to share the gospel. But what is the gospel? The word “gospel” summarizes the Christian faith story. What is the gospel? God raised his own Son from the dead, thereby proclaiming for all the world to hear, “Death has lost its sting—death, itself, has been destroyed.” What is the gospel? Through Jesus’ sacrifice, our sins have been fully forgiven. What is the gospel? Christ loved the world so much he came to set us free—free to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and free to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Indeed, we are free people but it turns out that living as free people can be hard work. We are anxious about our freedom. Surely we have to do something. Surely God’s grace is not sufficient. So we add stuff to the gospel. For the churches in Galatia—it was Christ AND circumcision. Over time, it became Christ AND believing right doctrines. Sometimes it is Christ AND my particular denomination. Often it is Christ AND my political party.

One day in a doctoral class at Columbia Theological Seminary, a young woman said with a certain degree of frustration, “You can’t be a Presbyterian Church without being a “social-justice” church.” To me her remark felt a little like Christ AND social justice. Of course, I believe the church needs to be about justice in the world but I also believe that God is not into cookie-cutter churches. God gives some churches the spiritual gifts and resources to work specifically in the area of social justice. God gives other churches the spiritual gifts and resources to focus on mission work—both near and far. Other churches, God equips to attend to ministries like feeding the hungry and meeting the needs of the poor, the downtrodden, and the forgotten. Still other churches, God has blessed to provide care for the world in numerous creative ways.  

Photo in Public Domain via Pixabay
No, God is not into cookie-cutter churches but each church has work to do. Ultimately though, aren't there some things we are ALL called to do? For instance, aren’t we ALL called to further the gospel to the ends of the lands…starting in our own neighborhood?  If so, as a denomination, Presbyterians are falling behind because we have a reputation for shying away from evangelism. That’s something those churches down the street do. Not us. Furthermore, for decades we have relied on those people “out there” to come “in here” to worship with us. Sure, occasionally we have invited friends and neighbors to join us and that’s wonderful. But maybe it’s time for us to do more. Maybe it’s time for us to go beyond these four walls with the gospel in hand. Otherwise, how will the unchurched in our neighborhood hear the good news that has transformed our lives?

Let’s face it! On any given Sunday morning, the unchurched are more prone to worship at St. Panera, St. Starbucks, St. Mattress, or the St. James River than to enter the doors of a church. The question is: Is there anything we can do about it? That is what we will explore together this summer as we consider ways to share the love of Christ with our neighbors. To help us get started, we will engage in our second Christ Walk experience beginning today through July 31st. Our goal is to cover 6900 miles—approximately the number of miles Paul covered by land and sea during his first three missionary trips. We will accrue miles through exercise, prayer and meditation, and service. This time, though, we will also accumulate miles by sharing our love of Christ with others and inviting people to church.

We will explore evangelism in other ways, too. For example, Session has asked the Professor of Evangelism at Union Seminary, John Vest, to preach July 10th. After worship we will have a covered dish luncheon with a Q&A so you can ask Dr. Vest questions about evangelism. Also, two of our new classes will actually meet in the community—the Book Club at the library and the Faith Formation Class at Panera Bread. And finally, the Online Bible Study, set to begin later this summer, will initially study the Acts of the Apostles, which tells the story of the birth of the church and the early spread of the gospel.

Evangelism. Yes, it’s that ugly e-word. But maybe it is time for us to embrace it rather than run from it.  Maybe it’s time for us to open the doors of the church and truly enter the mission field with the message of Christ’s love on our lips. Maybe it’s time for us to tell the world that Christ has set us free. Christ AND Christ alone!

[i] Matthew 28:19-20a.
[ii] Heidi Husted Armstrong, Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 3, 86.
[iii] Charles B. Cousar: Interpretation Commentary: Galatians, 9-10. 

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