First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 3

William Loader

Pentecost 3: 9 June  Galatians 1:11-24

Paul is mad about what had happened in Galatia. He abandons the standard elements which begin a letter. Instead of following the stylised greeting (1:1-5) with a word of thanksgiving to God for the addressees or blessing God for them, he turns on them sharply in confrontation. Thus in 1:6-9 he expresses his amazement that they had turned away from the gospel he had presented to them. It was not that they reverted to their pre-conversion beliefs. It was rather that they had been swept off their feet by a new set of preachers who were much more like fundamentalists than Paul. These newcomers upheld scripture to the letter and so insisted that the Galatians must be circumcised, as Genesis 17 requires. They saw Paul's mission which excused Gentiles from circumcision as a sell-out of the truth. Paul was making faith easy. No wonder he was successful - all those God-fearers sitting up the back of the synagogue holding out against being circumcised could all jump down and join. It was a coup for Paul's mission, but they saw it as a betrayal both of scripture and of Israel. To Paul their approach is anathema - a real curse, as it still is in Christianity today, though we are generally more polite.

So Paul finds himself somewhat with his back to the wall. These opponents probably also claimed better credentials than Paul had. They could probably "names-drop" leading apostles with whom they had been associated. As for Paul he had no such authority. There was much more at stake than Paul's ego (though that must have played a role). It was a matter of what lay at the heart of faith. Was it grace with freedom to remove barriers, including biblical ones if need be, or was it law enshrined in an attitude towards the bible (theirs at the time) which is so familiar to us from today's fundamentalisms? The problems confronted Paul everywhere he turned, dogging him throughout his ministry. His willingness not to lie down and submit, but to assert at great cost what he believed to be true has left us the rich legacy of his letters.

Our passage presents the first stage in his argument. The basis for his understanding of the faith does not depend on instruction from senior apostles. It is not human and derived. It is divinely inspired. Christ also met him and turned him around from being a leading persecutor to being an apostle to all the nations. His opponents might not have found this very convincing. Paul had to learn about the faith from somewhere. It didn't all happen on the road to Damascus. In reality he probably had a better grasp of the gospel when he was fighting it than many did (and do) who claim to be Christian. He must have sensed that what was at stake was not just sets of laws, but Law itself, the will and being of God. These Christians, whom he was hassling, were threatening to shift the focus from commandments to a more dynamic approach which set love at the centre and applied it freely to life's issues - some of them, anyway.

When Paul flipped, it was not to a set of unfamiliar beliefs. It was to a set of beliefs whose attraction had probably heightened his anxiety, fear, and anger, to the point where he broke down and began to be built anew. This could not be reduced to being given a package of instructions by senior apostles. It was a reflex and reflection of encounter with God, in which Paul now claimed he recovered what was God's purpose for his life from the very beginning. Contrary to the safely redrawn image of Paul in Acts, where Paul remained in Damascus for no more than "several days" before going to down Jerusalem (9:19-26), Paul tells us it was after three years that he made his way there and stayed only a fortnight, seeing only Cephas (Peter) and Jesus' brother, James. People would have disputed this, but Paul insists he is not lying.

He then set off for Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, also the home of the Galatians, who were a settlement of migrant celtic peoples as their name (Galatai) reflects. The churches of Judea didn't see him. They had only reliable hearsay to go by, as they gave thanks that one of their great persecutors had swapped sides. Why is Paul saying all this, interesting as it is for us as we seek more information about him? Because he wants to counter his opponents, who are trying to undermine his gospel of freedom by disputing his credentials and authority. In Christ's name they are wanting to impose an understanding of faith that is based on strict observance of biblical laws. Paul knows that this fails to reach the heart of the faith that Jesus lived and died for. He refuses to allow himself to to be drawn down into a debate about legal authorisation. So convinced is he that faith sets people free and that this has a transforming effect which goes far beyond what meticulous observance of laws, including biblical laws, can achieve, he will go on to speak of love not as a reason to keep rules, but as a fruit of the Spirit (5:1, 22-23).

Paul's understanding had many loose ends and left him vulnerable. It meant he had to grapple with the implications of his new faith and ward off the zealous Christian critics. Had he abandoned scripture, betrayed Israel, committed apostasy? How do you then approach scripture if you are not going to accept all of it? Won't abandoning rules lead to lax behaviour and moral disaster? What basis is there in the biblical tradition for arguing that only faith and grace matter? Paul will grapple with these questions not only in the rest of Galatians, but throughout his ministry, leaving us his best (though incomplete) answer in Romans. Next week we see that the problem was not only these preachers. It was also one that went to the heart of the movement and its chief players: Peter and James. How could they be so wrong? Were they?

Gospel: Pentecost 3: 9 June Luke 7:11-17
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