Thankfully, as I get older, the admonishments laid on me by my parents when I was just a kid, are fading. Age and time have distanced me from the disappointment and the astonishment I caused my parents over my wanton disobedience or my foolish, youthful testing of their less than perfect patience. But, there are occasions, and I’ve shared several here from this pulpit, when I knew I had overstepped and taken liberties that were not age appropriate or, in my family, not considered appropriate at all, no matter what age you were. Once grown and a parent myself, my kids tried to stretch the limits and now, on occasion, I see my grandkids try the same behavior with their parents. What can they get away with…that’s always the question? And, yes, they try it with me too.
When you’re a kid, there always comes a time when you think you know more than your parents know. You suspect that parents don’t really live in today’s world or understand what you understand. How could they? They come from different places and have had different experiences. They lived at another time, didn’t they? Your parents tested their parents and tried to stretch beyond those mindless rules, so why shouldn’t we all. Who really is in charge of us, if not us?
The question of authority and discipline is paramount in the passage we read today from Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia. Paul, parent to a lot of wayward, youthful churches is downright “astonished” at the leadership of the Galatian church community. They have turned their backs on all that he has taught them and reverted to a faith very unlike the one he is preaching and living. They have forgotten or as Paul put it, deserted “the one who called you in the grace of Christ”, turning instead to a different gospel, though Paul is quick to point out, there really is no other gospel but Christ’s alone. As so often happens when something new is introduced, there’s a rush to return to the familiar, the comfortable, the known. Paul reminds the faith community that in God’s grace alone lies their salvation and in Christ, their eternal life. There is no other gospel. God’s grace is a gift; it cannot be earned nor will some be found more worthy by the things they do. God’s grace, purely and simply, is a gift.
Like anyone fighting for a cause, Paul is very much on the defensive here. He has come late to the faith and has claimed an authority reserved for Christ’s apostles, those who knew Christ personally, walked with Christ, were taught directly by Christ. Paul claims this same authority though he is introduced to the faith in an “after Christ resurrection” moment of conversion. Yet, though sounding a bit defensive, the larger, and far more urgent concern for Paul is the attempt to pervert the gospel of Christ, to shut doors rather than open them, to close the Gentiles out or make them become as Jews before accepting them into the faith. This Paul cannot abide and he wastes no time with niceties to this wayward church. If one church community moves in the direction of reverting to the old ways, no church will survive for long and worse, the faith will not spread and grow. A lot is on the line here.
It seems, the universal Church lacks universal agreement on what to believe and how to live out our faith in Christ. We certainly haven’t learned the lessons Paul sought to teach to his first century churches. Too many people are being kept from experiencing the fullness of the gospel because they do not meet some arbitrary criteria our religious structures insist on. As one writer put it, our efforts to “negotiate our way across this Christological landscape, dotted with the land mines both of an easy pluralism and of an equally dangerous rigid fundamentalism” is making it difficult to draw any line that is true to the gospel and its meaning. We get so caught up in rules, laws, doctrine, and discipline that God’s redeeming act in Christ’s death and resurrection is lost.
Back in the early 1960’s, Karl Barth, an eminent theologian, concluded a lecture series at Princeton Seminary with an answer to an attending student’s question, “Is God revealed in other religions too?” by responding to the student in this way. “God is not revealed in any religion—including Christianity. God is revealed through his Son, Jesus Christ.” It is this message that we as today’s Christians would be wise to remember in all of our dealings. Rather than be quick to criticize the expressed faith of another, we might begin first with God’s love for all humanity and Christ, God’s action and life in the world. That is the Good News, the Gospel we seek to profess. Amen.