The 4th Sunday after Pentecost
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon, IL
Proper 9C Track 2: Isaiah 66:10-14; Psalm 66:1-8; Galatians 6:1-16; Luke 10:1-11,16-20
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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So, today is our last reading from Galatians for three years. It’s a short book which we don’t spend a lot of time reading on Sundays. But since it’s so foundational to Paul’s teaching, and to the Christian life, we really need to pay close attention to it. He talks about the distinction between law and grace which, to this day, some folks just don’t get. So at the risk of repeating things I’ve said already, I’m going to take one last kick at the can today as Paul pulls it all together at the end of his letter. But first, a story.
My grandfather came down from Canada to stay with us in Kentucky the winter that I was confirmed. And as we were able to spend a lot of time together, he drilled me on what I was learning in confirmation class which, of course, included memorizing the three things that were required of all candidates for confirmation back then—the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed. Being an old Presbyterian, he knew those first two, but he wasn’t quite as familiar with the creed. So as I was reciting it for him, when I got to the line, “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Catholic Church…” he spoke up and said, “Oh, so you’re gonna be a Micky, eh?” Do any of you know what a Micky is? It’s a term that earlier generations of British Protestants used to refer to Irish Roman Catholics. My grandfather had a lot of very good Irish Catholic friends with names like Brennan, Keenan, McSheffrey, Sweeney. But he was still very much an old-school Protestant.
I explained to him, as if he didn’t already know, that after my parents were married, my mother—his youngest daughter—joined the Anglican Church (because my father wouldn’t go to her family’s church), so she also had to memorize all this same stuff before confirmation. “Oh,” he said, “so she’s a Micky too!” Well, being from genteel, Episcopalian Louisville, Fr Davenport, who had never heard the term “Micky” before, got quite a kick out of this story. So on the flyleaf of my new confirmation Prayer Book, he wrote, “Congratulations to the new ‘Micky’.”
Why am I telling you all this? Because it sums up what our Book of Common Prayer is about. What it represents, and what it presents to us is the Catholic faith– the faith of Jesus Christ as the apostles received it from him and handed on to his Church, and which the Church continues to teach. It’s a Catholic book. What does that mean? It means that this book, when you study it and, more importantly, when you use it in worship, teaches you nothing other than what has always been believed and taught in the Church of Jesus Christ—the Catholic faith, the faith of the whole Church. Although it’s used primarily by Anglicans, aka Episcopalians in this country, it’s not a denominational book, because apart from the title page and a couple of other places, it doesn’t make reference to any particular denomination within the Church. It only speaks of the Catholic Church—not just the Church of Rome, but the whole Church, the universal Church, which is what the word catholic means. And the Catholic (universal) faith is defined by St Vincent of Lerins (5th c.) as “that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” That’s what is meant when we use the word Catholic by itself. When we refer to the largest group within the Church, we say Roman Catholic, to distinguish them from other Catholic Christians. But the word Catholic by itself refers to every member of the Church, regardless of their denomination.
Now none of this talk of the catholicity of the Church is intended to deny the fact that the one Church of Jesus Christ is divided. The Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics ultimately split in 1054; then the Lutherans, Anglicans and Presbyterians separated from Rome in the 1500s; and other groups began splitting away from those Reformation churches, beginning then and continuing right up to now. And on it goes, to the point that there are over ten thousand denominations around the world today. That’s a really big problem. And it’s one that Jesus anticipated, as we can see in his fervent prayer that all his followers may be one as he and the Father are one (John 17). Division is not just a problem, but a sin, one that has afflicted the Church almost from the beginning.
In today’s epistle we’re looking at the first cause of disunity in the young Church. It was brought on by the question of whether Gentile converts ought to be circumcised in order to avoid persecution. This is partly because the Roman Empire, as hard as it tried, could not force the Jews to worship Caesar or any pagan god. Jews are staunch monotheists– worshipers of only one God. So Caesar gave in and exempted them from that law. So as long as Christian males bore the mark of Jewish initiation they were included in the exemption as a subgroup of Judaism.
But the issue St Paul had to confront in Galatia was really over the much broader issue of how much of the whole law of Moses applied to the Church in light of God’s new and ultimate self-revelation in Jesus. In the end the leaders of the Church discerned through prayer, through the recollection of what Jesus had taught them and through study of the Old Testament Scriptures in light of what Jesus had taught them regarding how those Scriptures all point to him—the apostles discerned through all this that the ritual laws of Moses and the sacrificial system had been fulfilled in Jesus’ own sacrifice on the cross. But the moral law, they reckoned, which deals with human behavior, was to be retained as authoritative in the Church as it was in Israel.
What we see in today’s epistle is one scene in that struggle to come to terms with just how the continuity of God’s revelation of himself is maintained from the Old to the New Covenant– from the Temple and the synagogue to the Church. Paul works hard with his people to show the distinction between law and spirit, law and grace. Before Jesus, he says, the law was given to God’s people as a schoolmaster to teach us his ways and to prepare us for his greatest gift, which is his Son, who came to us in the flesh in order to die as the penalty for our sins and to rise again. In other words ritual laws, including circumcision, and laws regarding the offering of sacrifices had been given by God through Moses in order to train and prepare his people for the day when he would finally give them the real thing—his Son.
But now that Jesus has come and done his work on the cross, and emptied the tomb, and returned to the Father’s side to prepare a place there for us, the schoolmaster has been retired. God has sent his Spirit to fulfil that role in a way that the law was never able to do on its own. No longer do we need visible marks on our bodies to identify us as God’s chosen people. The Holy Spirit has written his law on our hearts. We still need the law, Paul says, but no longer is adherence to it an unbearable burden. It is now a joyful pursuit, because God has sent his Spirit into our hearts to fill us with love for him above all, and for our neighbors as ourselves. And those two loves—God first, and our neighbors as an outworking of God’s love—constitute the whole law. “On these two commandments,” Jesus says, “hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt 22.40). The whole law of God, in other words, is summarized in these two commandments.
Paul had a hard time impressing this new idea on some of the churches in his care, especially in Galatia. There were agitators among them who didn’t quite get it. While Paul was travelling the empire making new converts and planting new churches, these people were attempting to persuade the Gentile converts at home that they couldn’t really be good Christians unless they became good Jews first. For the men and boys that included circumcision, the physical mark of the old covenant. But what the Church does instead is to baptize. And to show that this is the initiation into the new covenant that God has made through Jesus, the priest dips his finger in the oil of chrism, and marks a cross on the person’s forehead. It’s the cross of Christ that is marked indelibly on our souls at baptism, because it was on the cross of Calvary where God initiated that new covenant with his own blood.
So there are outward, visible signs of the new covenant that Jesus has ordained for us all to receive– we call them sacraments (or ordinances). Be baptized, he said; Take and eat, he said. But these signs are only visible through the eyes of faith, not as physical scars. And that’s what the agitators in Galatia had such a hard time with. They insisted that true believers had to show some visible or tangible token of their righteousness. In this case it was so that the visible marks of Jewish identity might protect them from being persecuted as Christians.
That issue was actually settled at the Council of Jerusalem about twenty years earlier, (Acts 15). In spite of that, however, the notion of a visible or tangible token of righteousness has continued to trouble the Church in various ways. A prime example of this was the subject of a Time magazine cover story some years ago, and I was reminded of it when I saw a picture of that cover online the other day. It featured a Rolls Royce with a cross as the hood ornament, and the headline, “Does God Want You to Be Rich?” It was all about how the prosperity gospel, the notion that if you are faithful, if you are a true believer, and are willing to tell God what you want, then he won’t wait to bless you with treasures in heaven, but will give you material prosperity here and now. The prosperity gospel teaches that the wealthier you are, the more righteous you are reckoned to be. What’s wrong with that, you may be wondering? Well, it’s a perversion of the Gospel of the worst kind, because it flies in the face of God’s two greatest commandments, by encouraging you to love yourself above all, and to turn your back on your neighbor, or to climb over the back of your neighbor to get what you want.
On the other hand, what we get from Jesus and his apostles, and from two thousand years of faithful teaching is the sacramental view. When we look at the Old Testament through Jesus, we see that it all points to him, it all looks forward to him and to what he promises, which is not “treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal” (Mt 6.19). Neither does it promise worldly, physical security. Instead what Christ embraced in his own earthly life was humility and poverty. And what he promises to the faithful is treasure in heaven for those who in this life are humble and poor in spirit, just as he was.
Through Christ we can see that the land flowing with milk and honey that God led the Israelites into is not an end in itself. It is instead a foreshadowing of the heavenly country into which his Son will lead whoever follows him in humility and repentance, and who bear on their souls the mark of the new covenant, which is the cross. The cross was the most shameful and the most debasing way that a person could have ended his life in the days when Jesus laid down on it himself. But by doing that, he turned it into a sign of victory and of life.
And that brings us back to the problem in Galatia. The agitators who insisted that Gentiles had to bear the visible mark of Judaism before they could become Christians, were unable to grasp the idea that the freedom and prosperity that the Son of God offers in this life is of a spiritual, rather than of a material, nature because it’s animated by a great hope in what he has in store for us beyond this life, in things that are eternal, not in things that are disposable.
Circumcision and all the sacrifices of the old covenant were only temporary ordinances that pointed to, and were fulfilled in, what Jesus did on the cross. Now that his work there has been accomplished, those older rites are redundant. Through baptism, the mark of the new covenant, we have died with Christ, and have died to the world. We have been born again and are thereby freed from the marks, the trappings, and the values of fallen humanity, because we have been made members of Christ, children of God by adoption and grace, citizens of his kingdom. And we’re encouraged by God’s promise that the kingdoms and rulers of this world will all give way to it, and will disappear, and God’s new creation will be revealed in all its glory. That is the Catholic faith, in light of which, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, nor any other worldly marks of status mean anything. “But a new creation is everything!” Paul says. So, may we never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to us, and we to the world. “As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel [=the people] of God. In the Name of…
Ian C. Wetmore+