First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 4

William Loader

Pentecost 4: 12 June  Galatians 2:15-21

Our passage begins immediately after Paul has reported his conflict with other Christians in Antioch in 2:11-14 and must be read in the context of Paul's wider concerns in Galatians. Christian preachers had come into Galatia (in Asia Minor, present day Turkey) insisting that Gentiles who joined the faith must be circumcised. Paul had not taught that. Paul reports in Gal 2:1-10 that those whom he had somewhat reluctantly called the "pillars" of the church (2:9; 2:6), James and John and Cephas, had accepted that Gentiles need not be circumcised and had not insisted that Paul's companion, Titus be circumcised.

But then, later, Peter seems not to have understood the implications of that concession. Peter with other Jewish Christians had welcomed both Jewish and Gentile Christians as part of the church in Antioch in Syria and shared meals with them. James also seems to have understood the matters differently. People coming from James' church in Jerusalem had arrived in Antioch and insisted that the Christian Jews should not be eating together with the Gentile Christians. This outraged Paul who refused to recognise such a distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Paul was even more upset that Peter and even his companion Barnabas were persuaded to toe the Jerusalem line.

To us it looks like downright discrimination and we naturally tend to side with Paul. Most of us reading this material are probably Gentiles. How dare there be such a distinction!? Yet in some ways one could argue that those whom Paul scolds were taking a consistent position which was quite defensible. Paul is effectively associating the attitudes of those who were preaching circumcision in Galatia with the approach of those who had insisted on separation in Antioch. Peter and Barnabas (and to some extent, James, if he lurks behind the event) seem to be less sure of their own position and are open to the charge of inconsistency and hypocrisy (perhaps a bit harsh). Those, however, who upset the situation in Antioch and those who were now causing trouble in Galatia will have maintained a defensible and consistent stance: Christ came not to change scripture or its laws, the Word of God, but to add something. He was after all fulfilling the Jewish hope for a Messiah. The Messiah was not meant to demolish the Law but to make it victorious and effective.

This was a consistent position. Such people found it very difficult to understand why one should set aside what scripture commanded about circumcising Gentiles. Nothing within Genesis 17 suggests that the law was anything other than permanent. Those guilty of setting it aside laid themselves open to the charge of tampering with the Word of God - or, even worse, winning adherents through watering down scripture. The same would apply to food laws. Paul was confronted with the power of a first century fundamentalism, which insisted that scripture was inviolable and infallible.

On the other hand Paul was not jettisoning the scripture. He appeals to it regularly. His argument is that Jesus is the one who brings us into a right relationship with God (justifies us) and this offer of a right relationship stands in its own right. It is not dependent on our fulfilling the requirements of biblical law first or as well. It is a matter of accepting the offer of that relationship - believing it is offered and saying yes to the offer and so entering a new relationship with God. This applied whether one was a Jew or Gentile. Because this is the case, it is invalid to make distinctions between Jews and Gentiles. We are all sinners, that is, people needing such a relationship, including forgiveness. Therefore we must not discriminate against Gentiles. If God accepts them, we should, too. We should eat with them. We should not insist that they be circumcised. There is a note of sarcasm where Paul begins our passage in 2:16 declaring that he is among "the Jews" and not the Gentile "sinners" - he rejects such discrimination because we are, in fact, all sinners!

Paul has to meet the objection that his approach dismisses the biblical law and represents Christ as doing the same. It makes Christ into an enemy of the Bible, because it suggests Christ rejects what the Law requires. Christ seems like a servant not of goodness but of sin (2:17). The arguments must have been fierce. Many Christians found Paul's approach totally unacceptable. Paul counters by saying that if what he is saying is true, then any attempt to reintroduce the Law and its demands as the way to be right with God is to transgress God's will. Here we have charge and counter charge: "Paul, you make Christ a servant of sin" (2:17); "No, I don't" says Paul. "When you come with all your biblical demands, you are the ones who are transgressors!" (2:18). Is any reconciliation possible?

Such accusations plagued Paul's life. He kept insisting: we are set right by God's initiative in Christ, not on any other basis, biblical or otherwise. It meant however that he had to explain how he could set scripture aside and yet claim to be taking it seriously. 2:19 indicates his direction, which he will expand in chapter 3. He is not rejecting the Bible, he argues. Rather its commandments performed an important function. They exposed his need to be restored into a right relationship with God. Through the Law, as it operated in this way, Paul was brought to the point where he needed to be rescued and where he was rescued through God's offer in Christ.

Paul will employ other arguments as well, including the claim that scripture, itself, points forward to something which goes beyond the Law. This is not the place to rehearse all his arguments or to look at how he reworked and modified them on reflection in Romans. They are quite varied. Some are stronger than others. But the common ground which Paul will not surrender is that in God's eyes all people matter and the offer of a right relationship is without discrimination and unconditional except that one says yes and enters the relationship and lives within it. This does not mean that Paul is unconcerned with good living. On the contrary, he believes that the new relationship will have the result that people will begin to behave the way God behaves as the Spirit of God fills their lives. That includes generating the fruit of goodness and love (5:22-23). Paul will even claim that such fruit more than fulfil what the Law seeks to bring about by commands (5:13-14). Of course, Paul is thinking in this context only of the commands he values, namely the ethical laws, not those concerned with such things as food and circumcision which had taken over centre stage in the disputes among Christians of his day (in a way which grossly distorted Jewish tradition).

Paul's argument is that an existential change generates the newness, not the observance of biblical commandments. In 2:19 he declares that he is crucified with Christ. This very odd statement belongs closely with what he says earlier in the verse: "I, through the Law, died to the Law". At one level it means that he identifies himself with Christ in such a way that Christ's death became like an event in his own life. Paul understands Jesus' death as a death to deal with sins. Christ died for us, so in a sense he died in our place or in him we died. The Law (those parts of it that mattered for Paul) qualified Paul for condemnation or death, but Christ faced that consequence on our behalf. So Paul can say: when Christ died, I died. Later in 2:20 he writes of the son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. This is Paul's explanation of the basis on which God offers a right relationship with himself to all.

Paul understood coming to faith, therefore, as like joining oneself to Christ - in his death to receive the benefits of what he believed he achieved; and also in his coming to life: to share his risen life which is available to all through the Spirit of God.  Elsewhere Paul uses the act of immersion in baptism and of rising from the waters as a way of representing this event and the way we join with it and make it our own. Behind this complex understanding is the confidence that through Christ God freely offers a right relationship to all and that in this relationship new life and goodness is generated which achieves all that the proponents of biblical commands seek to create. To espouse his opponents' position would, for Paul, mean denying this new initiative of God. It would, as he says in 2:21, mean nullifying the grace of God. If this is not the effect of Christ's death, then, he argues, that death has no real value. The approach of Peter and the rest is therefore a betrayal of the gospel as Paul understands it.

Not everyone will find Paul's particular understanding of the achievement of Christ's death to be the best way to speak about the good news, but there can be no denying that with it he upholds what many would see as a central tenet of Christian faith: God offers a relationship of ongoing love to all without discrimination and that neither entry into this relationship nor continuing in it is dependent on qualifications based on race, gender, or levels of adherence even to biblical law (the latter puts him in conflict with most Jewish Christians and Jews of his time). Paul makes this so central that it relativises all else, including scripture itself, although he argues that it is not inconsistent with underlying values of scripture. Anything which conflicts with the central insight of love in right relationship has to be set aside, even if it is biblical, because, he would argue, the more fundamental biblical insight must always overrule what appears on the surface of its pages. Circumcision discriminates; God does not; it must go. Food laws discriminate; God does not; they must go; and more.

Others would find ways of retaining a meaning for circumcision and for food and other laws. Paul's approach is more radical. What he saw in Antioch and is now hearing about from Galatia must, to his mind, undermine the thoroughgoing compassion and inclusiveness of the gospel. It was perhaps more dramatically obvious in Antioch than it was in Galatia, but Paul knows that in both instances it is inspired by a spirituality which places greater emphasis on issues of authority and correctness than on what achieves loving and right relationships. The issue is an ongoing one in the church's life today.

Gospel: Pentecost 4: 12 June Luke 7:36 - 8:3
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