Sermon for Communion Sunday, August 7, 2016
First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem PCUSA
Rev. Dr. Brett Hendrickson
So, a long time ago, the apostle Paul wrote a letter to a group of churches in a part of the Mediterranean world called Galatia. Like so many other churches throughout the region in the middle of the first century, Paul had been the one who had planted these congregations, taught them the gospel of Jesus Christ, and set them up to continue as churches even after he left them to set up new missions elsewhere.
It’s kind of hard for us to imagine this after two millennia of Christianity, but it’s likely that these baby churches just had the merest grasp of who and what Jesus was. In a way, the earliest Christians were all in the same boat all the way from Jerusalem to Rome: everyone loved Jesus and had been visited by the Holy Spirit of God, but no one knew exactly what this new religion would be like. The gospels hadn’t even been written yet. If you get early enough in the 1st century, like when Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians, it wasn’t even clear yet that Christians and Jews were different groups. They were just one big group with lots of different things going on.
That’s where the Galatians started to run into trouble, as far as Paul is concerned. Not long after he left them to go plant other churches, the Galatians were apparently visited by Christians who, unlike Paul, were convinced that Gentile converts to the faith would need to adopt all aspects of the Jewish laws, from circumcision for the males, to food laws, to taking on a Jewish identity. Paul, never shy with his opinions, writes to the Galatians:
“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.”
According to Paul, the Galatians have deserted the true gospel for the false gospel that is a perversion. For me, it’s pretty easy to forgive the Galatians for falling so fast for what Paul calls a perversion of the gospel—I mean, they had just gotten started as Christians. It’s a little harder to explain why we fall for false gospels so often. We’ve been Christians for two thousand years and ought to know what we’re doing by now.
What leads us astray? What, like the Galatians, leads us to desert the true gospel? Well, social conventions and pressures do: Things like gossiping, judging our neighbors, feeling superior. We do these things. And there are other things that we do, too. We distrust the poor. We don’t welcome the immigrant. We’re afraid of the different. And we harbor disgust for those we consider to be failures. The awful part is that we often frame all of these sinful positions in the form of a perverted gospel, in some sort of twisted good news: We’re number one, God bless America, God helps those who help themselves, my prosperity must be God’s blessing, which means your poverty must mean God’s punishment. Or to put this perverted gospel in a more liberal voice: Those people just need a lot of help, and thank God we’re in a position to help. We’ll be happy to go to their community on a mission trip and fix ‘em right up. It’s such a good feeling. It’s always so nice to get home after a mission trip—God bless those poor people who are just so giving and kind. I can’t understand how they keep such a positive attitude in those conditions they live in!
The perverted gospel caused the Galatians and it causes us to backslide, to desert the true gospel because, and there’s no surprise here, it’s harder to stay true to Jesus and his gospel than it is to follow other paths. Paul writes in verse 3 from our passage this morning that Jesus’ gospel is to “set us free from the present evil age.” And as we heard in the gospel reading from Luke, Jesus’ gospel brings miraculous healing to the suffering and enslaved. It brings freedom from sin, freedom from death, freedom to reach out with radical hospitality: that’s the true gospel of Christ, but it is not easy for those of us with so many other comforts and perceived freedoms to embrace the true freedom of Christ. The trouble is that those other perceived freedoms, while they seem great on the surface, are not-so-secretly based on keeping us set apart from the rest of God’s children. And to call it like it is, keeping ourselves apart from the rest of God’s children has a name and the name is “hate.”
Theologian Tom Williams writes, “We can’t find comfort in freedom if what we really seek is a place founded on the hypocrisy of the freedom to hate instead of the freedom to create a new community.” This is especially hard for those of us with lots of privileges because the new freedom means having to let go of some of the so-called freedoms we enjoy so much: relative wealth, relatively homogeneous communities, relatively little prejudice focused against us—all these privileges we have but rarely even notice. It’s hard to remember that we need to be set free by Jesus Christ because the sinful world has put us in enclaves where we have so many privileges. Maybe the Galatians already felt this at the very beginning of Christianity—they quickly deserted the true gospel that Paul preached for the false gospel of legalists and exclusionists and wall-builders because all of that maybe seemed like it protected them more than the wide open freedom of Jesus Christ. So, again, what is the true gospel?
Well, you honestly don’t need me to tell you what the true gospel of Jesus is, because, as I say, we’ve been Christians for two thousand years, and by God, we know what it is.
It’s self-giving love.
It’s radical hospitality to the stranger.
It’s recognition of our brokenness and our reliance on the mighty arms and heart of our Savior. It’s acknowledging that we live in the kingdom of God now and forever, and that that kingdom is not based on enclaves and walls and hateful separation of God’s people.
I’m a guest preacher, so I sort of had to guess where you all might be deserting the true gospel for this sermon to make sense and to have a point. If I got it right, great! But maybe I didn’t, maybe I don’t know you well enough to know where you are abandoning the true freedom given to us by Jesus. But I am willing to bet all of us here could do better about our faithfulness to the challenging true gospel of Jesus. So figure out where you are deserting Jesus and his message and move back towards the gospel. That’s what Paul wanted for the Galatians, and I want it for you. Can you do it on your own? Of course not. That’s why Paul followed up and admonished and encouraged. The Galatians maybe didn’t know this, but we do: being a Christian means that you never have to do it alone. You’re going to get back on track with Jesus’ true gospel of love and welcome with the help of the Holy Spirit, with the power of prayer, with the guidance of your worship, and the fellowship and care you offer one another. I’ll end with Paul’s old, old words: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”