Galatians: A Costly Welcome

A reflection on Galatians 6:1-18 by Andrew Stephens-Rennie, originally preached at St. Brigids Vancouver on July 3, 2016.

What if those words were true?

What if the words we sang to open tonight’s service were more than just a song.

What would happen if those words were not just some fanciful notion, but the cries of every heart, the vision that unites us, the unfinished work of each of our lives?

For everyone born, a place at the table,
For everyone born, clean water and bread,
A shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,
For everyone born, a star overhead

For everyone born. Everyone. Everyone born. Every last one.

And yet I can’t believe the news today. I can’t close my eyes and make it go away. How long, how long must we sing this song?

Orlando, yes. And now Turkey, Baghdad, and more and more each and every day.

How long must we sing this song until its words are true? Until its words take root in our hearts, our lives, our communities. How long until these words, having taken root in this community, bear fruit in the many communities of which we are also a part?

How long until these words are planted deeply in our hearts, til seedlings grow into Sequoias? How long til these words transform our ecosystems and ecology of relationships, even amongst those of us who love Jesus a little. Even amongst those of us who love Jesus a whole lot.

And I’ll be the first to admit. I’ll be the first to admit that there are plenty of days, that I find myself in the first category.

There are plenty of days when all I can eke out, all I can offer is a little faith, and a little love. There are days I’ve nearly given up hope.

There are days, days, plenty of days, in the face of this world and its seemingly ceaseless ability to inflict trauma, division and discord, that I find myself closed to the steadfast love of our God.

Yes, even the love of our God, the God we gather here to worship week in and week out. Yes, there are moments, and days, and even seasons when I find it hard to accept the free gift of a love that never ceases, a love that will not let me go, a love made known in mercies made new each and every morning.

Mercies that I pray will be born with and to and amongst us yet again this evening.

There are days, my friends, when my own openness to Jesus is about as spectacular as Great Britain’s openness to the European Union. There are days when my own stance towards God’s kingdom mirrors a dystopian film in which a blow-hard businessman builds a wall between the United States and Canada.

This darkness is within me. This darkness is around me.
This darkness is within us. This darkness is around us.

Deliver me. Deliver us. From evil.

And so we pray. Sometimes in the midst of all of this. In the midst of anger and fear. In the midst of a desire to control the world or, at very least, to keep our fears at bay, we push one another away. We bristle at the unknown. And whether that takes place on the global stage, in our daily lives, or right here as we gather around this table. It happens. And then we are reminded:

This is Jesus’ table. And thank God for that. This is Jesus’ table.

For everyone born, a place at the table,
For everyone born, clean water and bread,
A shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,
For everyone born, a star overhead

And that, my friends, is precisely what Paul is saying in his letter to the Galatians. On the surface, of course, it all seems rather arcane:

“See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!” Paul writes, in the ancient world’s equivalent to typing in ALLCAPS.

He’s wrestled the pen out of his assistant’s hand, making sure that the church in Galatia hears the heart of his message.

“Listen to me. Hear me out. We’re coming to the end of this letter, I’m running out of ink, and if you’re going to take anything from this” – he seems to be saying – “then let it be this.”

“It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised.”

“There are members of our very movement” Paul is saying, “who don’t want to rock the boat, who don’t want to draw unwanted attention, who don’t want to come face to face with undue social and government scrutiny, who are calling on you to do this very thing so that they can maintain their own special protections under the law.”

Don’t listen to them.

Paul’s proposal puts all of this in danger. Which is why there’s such a backlash. Which is why his Judaizing adversaries within the Jesus-following community at Galatia are pushing back and demanding that these gentiles get chopped.

“Wouldn’t it be easier on all of us,” they seem to be saying, “If these people started to look like us, to talk like us, too? Wouldn’t it be better if they just blended in, conformed to our norms, becoming like us, submitting to the rules and rulers of the land?”

The moment is politically and spiritually charged.

Yet Paul the animated activist is uncompromising.

May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he treasonously declares, “by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

Let go of the world’s markers of success. Don’t let the rulers of your land scare you, shame you, or cause you to shy away from the cosmic implications of the gospel.

You can imagine, if Paul was writing his letter today, that he might pick up another issue current in the here and now. You can imagine how Paul would respond if the government of the land stated that the Prevention of Poverty is not a valid or recognizable charitable aim.

And you might very well imagine that the apostle Paul, if he were here, would have us know: It may not be a charitable aim under current government regulations, but it makes it no less a part of our identity and vocation in Christ.

“Are you in this for political lobbying points, or are you in this for Jesus?” Paul might ask.

“Are you in this for your own protection, or are you in this to extend the self-sacrificing, reconciling love you received in Christ to one and all?

Is Christ’s welcome for everyone, or not? Who is welcome to join the movement? And at what cost?”

In such a situation, of course, the government would be right. Paul is advocating a political stance. It is political to say that all have inherent dignity. It is political to say that it is a higher and better aim to prevent poverty, than to stop at offering temporary relief to those we choose to keep enslaved there.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul is taking the community upstream. He’s relativizing and calling into question the legitimacy of the ruling powers, and he is reminding the Galatian community of who they are and who they are called to be.

And when Paul goes upstream, he does so understanding that what he’s suggesting will disrupt the power flows and privileges of the elite. He does so knowing that he’s asking a lot of a community with a precarious place within an ever-changing society.

Paul knows about being elite. He started the letter reminding us. Remember that here, in the letter to the Galatians, the man who made such a big fuss about his own credentials at the very beginning of the letter is closing the rhetorical loop. “May I never boast in anything,” he says:

Not my position or possessions
Not my ancestry, lineage or race
Not my gender, identity, or orientation
Not my ability, class, or age

“May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Paul relativizes every marker of status and power in the ancient world when he authoritatively declares, in the face of the worst that Rome can throw at him, that he will boast in nothing – not the empire or the emperor – he will boast in nothing but the humiliating, victorious cross of Jesus Christ.

He bears the wounds and bruises to prove it.

As quickly as it started, it’s over. As if satisfied that he’s gotten his breathless point across, Paul reminds us of the seeds he’s planted throughout the letter, most prominently in the fifth chapter when he provocatively suggests:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through [self-sacrificing] love. (Galatians 5:6)

And now he concludes, bringing us back to the hope we meet in Genesis: back to Creator, back to the very beginning of Israel’s story, but this time with a twist:

For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! (Galatians 6:15)

A new creation is everything. A new creation is here. And God’s new creation is happening, when Holy Spirit blows near.

And I have no doubt, if Paul were here with us today, he’d offer no hesitation in singing these words with great passion, and you can bet that he’d be the first to implore us to live in their spirit:

and God will delight when we are creators
of justice and joy, (justice and joy)
yes, God will delight when we are creators
of justice and joy, compassion and peace

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Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

Andrew serves on staff at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC as Director of Ministry Innovation, with primary responsibility for St. Brigids, an emerging Christian community where questions are honoured, faith is nurtured, and discipleship pursued.
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