First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 2

William Loader

Pentecost 2: 29 May  Galatians 1:1-12

Paul's letter writing is marked by adherence to stylised beginnings and endings. Adapted to his own ends, he employs formal beginnings to all his letters, following the general structure: "A to B, Hi". The way he expands this structure tells us much about his intentions. Thus here his words, asserting himself as an apostle as, literally, "not from human beings nor through some human person, but through Jesus Christ", address right at the beginning the problem he faces. For some people in Galatia had come to doubt his legitimacy and question whether he was appropriately authorised. In particular, he had come to be at odds with the pillar apostles, Peter and James, so why should they listen to him! He claims that his authority is Jesus himself and God, who raised him from the dead. He explains this further in 1:11-12, claiming divine revelation and so divine authoroity, offering elaboration in 1:13-24, which become the focus in next week's epistle reading.

It may sound like a rather odd claim to say that he received the gospel he preached through revelation, as though it dropped out of the sky at his conversion, and was not likely to be very persuasive for those hearing his letter read to them. In reality he must have come to know the gospel through human beings, at least in the days when he opposed it. Otherwise he would have had no idea why he opposed it. Paul is not really making an ambit claim to independent revelation, but deriving his authority from who Christ is and who God is. When he later argues his case we can see that this is the basis for his claims. God is compassionate to all, offering a right relationshjip to all, Jew and Gentile, without discrimination. So Paul argues from the nature of God, from the heart of the gospel. He does so in contrast to the people we know who opposed him, who apparently claimed authority because they had letters of commendation or authorisation from key apostles. Paul did not despise such institutional authority, but he understood that real authority lay in understanding the nature of God, in theological understanding at the deepest level.

This is no academic exercise for Paul nor a personal power struggle. His issue with the Galatians goes right to heart of who he thinks God is and that has profound implications for them and for everyone. It has stirred his passion so much  that he abandons the usual srtylised pattern in his letters of following the words of greeting by a statement either of thanksgiving or of blessing in relation to the recipients. Instead in 1:6 he goes straight into confrontation, expressing his dismay at their having abandoned the gospel as he proclaimed it to them and at their following another. The other gospel which was winning their approval was insisting that they be circumcised and follow biblical law (5:2-12).

The new missionaries who came  to clean up the mess which they believed Paul had created insisted that if Gentiles were to join the people of God they must adhere to what scripture clearly required in Genesis 17 and be circumcised and follow other requirements set out in scripture for Gentiles. Their argument was plausible. They could turn on Paul, accusing him of picking and choosing which parts of scripture to believe. They could suggest that Paul engaged in cheap evangelism, winning converts by watering down what God required. They could accuse Paul of "seeking human approval" (1:10), literally, seeking to please human beings. Theirs was a kind of early fundamentalism which must have sounded convincing. A fundamentalism which declares the Bible the Word of God and insists on adhering to every word is bound to sound convincing, because, at least at first sight, it is consistent and does not mess about with setting priorities and making choices about what is or is not important. Jesus' opponents in many of the gospel stories appear to have approached scripture like this.

Paul was angry because he saw these preachers undermining what he saw as the heart of the gospel. Curse them! That's perhaps too strong, but one can see that is really important for Paul. Notice that he is not prepared to be bullied into submission by being told that their gospel has apostolic blessing or even angelic blessing (1:8-9). Those mechaisms do not count. Only truth, as he sees it at the heart of the gospel, counts. His letter will show that he had to take this stance even against Peter and James eventually, even though they initially accepted him. Paul was consistent. He refused to agree that Jews and Gentiles should have to eat separately, even though Peter and even his fellow missionary, Barnabas, succumbed to it (2:11-14). Paul, for his part, sought not human approval but God's approval (1:10).

So begins his letter. We owe it to Paul that he took an approach to faith and scripture which sought its heart and ultimately argued theologically from the nature of God as a God of grace and love towards all. Paul did not waiver from this. He argued it up and down the pages of his letters. He modelled a hermeneutic, a way of interpreting scripture, which made it possible to see what really mattered. It was an uphill struggle - and always is, because it calls for maturity and perspective and people find the retreat into infallible rules and fixed absolutes makes them feel more secure. Ultimately such fixedness has to dispense with Jesus or convert him to their cause against all that he lived and died for - and it has often done so very successfully. Each time people have rediscovered Paul, however, the church has revived.

Gospel: Pentecost 2: 29 May Luke 7:1-10
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