Old Time Religion


Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, 12 June 2016. I Kings 21:1-21a, Psalm 5:1-8, Galatians 2:11-21 (we expanded the lesson a bit to give it context), Luke 7:36-8:3

Note: This sermon was preached at a summer Bluegrass Mass.

For many, our music today feels like old time church.

Granted, these songs aren’t that old. Really old church is Latin chant. But for some this feels like church when we were kids, visiting grandma and grandpa, with no air conditioning, waving funeral home fans.

But let’s go back even earlier to really old time church, the earliest church, Paul’s church. That’s old time religion.

And from today’s lesson we see that in the very first generation, those early Christians got themselves tangled up in a major church fight.

Note first that Paul didn’t gloss over it. Paul wrote about it and addressed it head on. Paul believed some things are worth fighting for.

Granted, Paul probably did not know he was writing Holy Scripture when he wrote this letter to the churches in Galatia. He thought he was writing the first century equivalent of my blog posts.  But the early Christians recognized wisdom in Paul that they wanted to preserve for future generations in the faith. So they saved his letters and included most of them in the New Testament, which is why we are reading today about his argument with Cephas.

When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face. He’s talking about Simon Peter, the rock on whom Jesus built the church. We read in Acts 10 the marvelous story of Peter’s realization that the gospel was for all people, not just for Jews. According to Paul, as a result of this and other spiritual experiences, Peter had started eating regularly with Gentiles, people who were not Jews. That seems normal to us, but in Peter’s day the Pharisees and others had made a big deal about who should eat with whom. One of the ways religious leaders proved their allegiance to God’s covenant was by eating only with those who shared that allegiance. But Peter had seen a vision that convinced him God did not draw distinctions between people. He had started eating with everyone. Then, according to Paul, when some folks came from James in Jerusalem to question him about it, he quit eating with Gentiles for fear of what the “circumcision faction” would think. These folks were Christians who believed that in order to follow Jesus, you had to become Jewish first and submit to the Jewish laws. The same group came to Galatia and convinced some of the Christians there, which was why Paul felt compelled to write this letter in the first place.

Paul’s comments about this church fight with Peter became important in a later church fight – the Protestant Reformation. You probably heard about Martin Luther in history class. He was tormented by a sneaky suspicion that he was not doing everything God expected him to do. He was nearly struck by lightning one day and in that near death experience he realized how worried he was about his eternal salvation. He became a monk in part because he hoped his religious vows would guarantee him a spot in heaven. But even after praying daily and living under his vows he still worried the he would not merit God’s favor. So he started studying the scriptures to figure out what he needed to do to be saved. And through passages like this one in Galatians he was set free. He equated the Law with the works required by the church of his time and realized Christ had set us free from all of that. Faith in Jesus was enough. You didn’t have to buy indulgences or say a certain number of prayers or even become a monk. You just had to put your faith in Jesus. He nailed 95 theses arguing his point to a door and began preaching his view of the gospel. He was kicked out of the Catholic Church, which launched the Protestant Reformation and led to the many different kinds of Christian churches we see around us today.

In his commentary on this passage of Galatians, Luther wrote, “With Paul we absolutely deny the possibility of self merit. God never yet gave to any person grace and everlasting life as a reward for merit. The opinions of the papists are the intellectual pipe-dreams of idle pates, that serve no other purpose but to draw men away from the true worship of God. The papacy is founded upon hallucinations.”

Strong words. I mention Luther’s church fight because it has shaped how we tend to hear Paul’s words in Galatians. In Luther’s time it was really important to make the point that we do nothing to earn our salvation. God gives away grace and hope and blessing for free. Testimony to the grace of God was absolutely worth fighting for. Paul’s words were useful in the fight that was going on in the church in Luther’s time.

But Paul and Peter were fighting a different fight. And today, while we do need Luther’s confidence in the grace of God, we also need to hear clearly what Paul was originally trying to say.

Paul was furious about people who were insisting that to become Christian you had to become Jewish first. But he wasn’t just arguing about faith and works. He was arguing about boundaries and welcome. The people who said you had to become Jewish first were limiting the reach of the gospel. They may have believed, sincerely, that the covenant established through Abraham was God’s way of saving the world. Keeping the law of Moses, which came later, showed you wanted to live under that covenant, so everyone needed to embrace that law. Maybe they had good reasons. But maybe they just wanted to perpetuate a sense of favoritism and privilege for themselves. Maybe they wanted a system with rules so that it would be easy to tell who was in and who was out.

But Paul knew that issue had already been decided. The message of Jesus was for everyone, not just for those who followed the Law of Moses.

Paul probably based this belief in Jesus on stories like the one we read in the gospel lesson today. The gospels had not even been written, but stories about Jesus were being told. According to the Law and to basic etiquette, this woman was way out of line. She crashed a party to which she was not invited. She uncovered her hair in front of strangers. She touched the feet of man. And everyone knew she had a bad reputation. According to the law, Jesus should not allow this woman to touch him. The fact that he did so proved to Simon that Jesus could not be a prophet. But Jesus praised her. He did not see her as a sinner. He saw her as God’s beloved, embraced by God’s covenant love. Jesus showed us love is for everyone.

So to Paul this whole argument about law and circumcision was not a minor thing. It went to the very heart of the gospel. Jesus did not draw distinctions between people. There was no in group or out group. Therefore, those who profess faith in Christ could not draw these kinds of distinctions. The gospel invites everyone in.

By his own witness, Paul did not figure this out on his own. Something had to die inside of him for him to see the barriers between people fall away.  That part of him was crucified with Christ. On the cross, all of the hatred, all of the divisions, even our separation from God, were put to death. And so that they would not rise up again in him, Paul said he was continually being crucified with Christ. The verb tense implies ongoing action. In his life with Christ, his old reliance on the Law, his old comfort with being part of what he thought of as God’s in group, his old world-view, all of that was dying daily.

That was worth fighting for, then and now.

At a gathering after services last week, people shared ways they hope St. Thomas will be a blessing to our community. One of the main themes was a desire to continue to be a place of welcome where distinctions fall away. Being a community of rich and poor, young and old, single and married, questioning and confident, straight, gay, non-binary, different races and backgrounds, different views on politics – together we are being crucified with Christ.

We saw an example last week. Erin worked hard to be sure that VBS would be a good experience for some children who learn and experience the world differently from others. She met with their parents before the week began to find out how to make their children more comfortable.VBS can be kind of loud and overwhelming, so she made sure these children had a buddy so they could take a break if needed.

At the end of the week, one mother spoke to me and said that churches and schools often spend a lot of time figuring out how to accommodate special needs. She said, “Your folks didn’t seem to be trying to check boxes on a list. They simply committed to caring for everyone who showed up. They assumed that whoever came was supposed to be there and welcomed everyone in.”

That was how Paul felt about the gospel. Whoever came was supposed to be there. There’s room for everyone. That’s the old time religion. It’s good enough for me. I hope we can live up to it. Amen.

© 2016 The Rev’d Dr. Grace Burton-Edwards

Photo: By Mark Finn (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons