First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 7

William Loader

Pentecost 7: 7 July  Galatians 6:(1-6) 7-16

Only one thing matters for Paul. That is the cross of Christ (6:14). For Paul it represents the major change in his orientation. As a result of its message he ceased to be what he once was, and he changed to become a person living entirely from the generosity (grace) of God. Paul makes this claim in his closing comments in the letter. Notice what precedes and what follows. In 6:11 it looks like Paul has taken up the pen himself from the scribe who was taking his dictation. He draws the Galatians attention to his own large letters (possibly reflecting problems with sight) but then moves straight to the point of the letter: don't let yourselves be bothered by those who want you to circumcised! They are doing so, he alleges, because it protects them against Jews who would otherwise persecute them (6:12-13). This is an interesting observation. Paul clearly sees more operating here than simply different beliefs. These missionaries, he alleges, are really acting in their own interests. Their fundamentalist stance also has a social explanation - as it often has.

Thus Paul's enthusiasm and interest lies completely elsewhere. It is neither in self-preservation nor in fundamentalism, but in the gospel of the cross which declares that God's love reaches out to all people without discrimination and seeks to bring them to renewal. New creation is the goal. Paul will have been familiar with visionary hopes of a new heaven and a new earth at the climax of history when God is expected to bring history to its end. Here, as in 2 Cor 5:17, he focuses on that new creation happening already in people's lives. That is really all that matters. For that purpose it is irrelevant whether one is circumcised or not (6:15). Paul is claiming some parts of scripture are of greater importance than others, even to the extent that some parts can be set aside as no longer relevant. For Paul, God's focus is not rules but relationships. People matter most. As Jesus once said, according to Mark 2:27, "The sabbath was made for people not people for the sabbath".

In 6:16 Paul subtly repeats one of his major concerns. He wants peace both for Gentiles and for Israel. He wants their wholeness. He has not betrayed his people. Nor will he betray the Gentiles. The way to peace is love and this is an ongoing reality, a pattern or principle to live by. His concern about peace echoes his concern earlier in the letter where he expresses great frustration at the divisions which the Christian intruders have caused in his Galatian congregations.

If we move backwards into the passage - we started from the end deliberately - we find that Paul has a very grounded view about this peace. It is good to go right back to the bracketed verses. Things do go wrong in communities. When it happens, don't sweep it under the carpet or form cliques to gossip about it. Take action out of love for the person (6:1). Paul's gospel of love means that you deal with human beings in a loving and gentle manner. The goal is not to defend laws, but to restore people. It is not about arrogant self-assurance. We are all capable of doing wrong. Our approach is to be at the human level. That is why Paul reminds the Galatians to watch that they themselves are not  tempted into doing wrong (6:1). Paul does not believe that we are ever exempt from such possibilities. 6:2 emphasises this mutuality and labels it fulfilment of the law of Christ. Perhaps he is thinking of Jesus' words about loving one another. Perhaps he has no texts in mind, but is reflecting what he has been saying in the previous chapter: there is a new dynamic at work which produces goodness if you allow it to work. It is Christ's law, much more effective than the Law of commandments.

6:3-5 puts this emphasis in a different way. We can stop playing games with ourselves and others by trying to be one-up on them. Our value no longer depends on winning, being better than someone else, putting others down directly or indirectly. If we attend to our own integrity and wholeness then we won't live in a way that depends on criticising others. For Paul it is about accountability. We carry our own burdens. We take responsibility for ourselves. Only when we do so will we be of much use in sharing the burdens of others. Paul never imagined that conversion suddenly made people good. His letters always imply that the potential of God's goodness in our lives to bring renewal can be thwarted by our choices. It is not that he brings a set of commandments in by the back door as if first love comes and then a pile of oughts and obligations. That is not how Paul sees it. Rather he keeps drawing attention to God's love and keeps encouraging his hearers to let love complete its work by removing the things that block its dynamic in our lives. Here it means abandoning a very common human game. It must be named to be disempowered and exposed for what it is, but not to be replaced by new oughts. Rather the way of love itself helps expose its poverty and enables us to live differently as we allow it to heal our being.

Paul has no qualms in addressing issues of money. In 6:6 he follows the normal pattern which applied in early Christian communities. Communities need to support teachers and preachers (even though in Corinth Paul decided to support himself - and caused much offence and frowns from those who treated such guidelines as rules!). Paul is not beyond addressing greed and anal behaviour with possessions. Love is also about how we handle our resources. It is as though Paul finds the need to help people make new grooves which are compatible with where the Spirit will want to flow in their lives. That means tilting people out of old grooves and worn ways in which they could easily remain stuck. That affects Christian communities. It affects resources for doing good. It ultimately affects how we see the world order and we shall never understand terrorism unless we have some idea of the inequality of access to the world's resources.

In 6:6 Paul has used a verb which belongs to the word stem from which we get koinonia. 1n 2 Cor 8 and 9 Paul will use it to describe the collection of money which he making for the poor in Judea. Here, too, it has a financial context. Ultimately, for Paul, love gets to the detail and teaches us what to do with it. It tilts us out of old grooves, whether they are habits of greed or biblically-sanctioned requirements such as the law about circumcising Gentiles. Thus Paul's understanding of peace and love is radical and confronting and always focused on life and renewal.

Gospel: Pentecost 7: 7 July Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
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