I wonder how your family or friends can tell that you are upset. Do you go quiet? Do you shout? The Christians in Galatia, who received this letter from Paul would have been in no doubt that Paul was upset. It is, in short, quite a grumpy letter. Paul is beside himself at the way in which the Christians in Galatia have got themselves side tracked by the Jewish religious rules
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel”
“You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?”
“I wish I were present with you now, and could change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.”
“I wish that those who unsettle you would castrate themselves”
Why is Paul so upset? It does seem that there is an element of personal hurt in it. Paul feels that his friends have come to doubt him and his ministry, and this is painful for him. But there is more than this. Paul is concerned that the people that he has helped lead to faith are being distracted, led astray, and are losing their focus on the key things that he had taught them about Jesus. He sees great danger for them, and so his warnings are loud and clear.
As we read through the letter, it becomes apparent that some people had come to Galatia, after Paul had left, and had begun to teach that Christians had to obey the Jewish law, particularly with regard to circumcision. Much of the thrust of Paul’s letter is that this is not the case, that Gentiles who come to believe in Jesus do not have to keep the Jewish law. In today’s reading we find three of the key things that Paul relies on in this argument. He argues that all Christians are:
Children of God
Clothed with Christ
One in Christ
I wonder if you look like someone in your family, or if you have similar traits or mannerisms. Family is important for many of us, but for the Jewish people, their understanding of themselves as descendants of Abraham was of supreme importance. Core to their identity was that they were heirs of the promises made to Abraham by God. They were the people of the promise, the children of Abraham. That was who they were.
This core understanding was challenged from the very beginning of the preaching of the good news of Jesus. Even before Jesus appeared on the scene, in Luke 3, we hear John the Baptist saying to those who came out to be baptised by him. “And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. “
This challenge continues in Jesus’ teaching. In John 8 we find Jesus in dispute with some of the Jews who had been listening to his teaching. In the middle of the dispute we read:
““Abraham is our father,” they answered. “If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did.”
For Jesus, spiritual inheritance much more than physical genealogy. The evidence of being part of the inheritance of Abraham was not bloodlines but faith. That is the family characteristic that reveals the true family of Abraham.
But, of course, it’s not just the family of Abraham that is being discussed here – it is the family of God. God doesn’t only “raise up children for Abraham”, God also includes us in God’s family. As Paul writes a little later on, in Chapter 4.
“God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba Father””
And this understanding flows from Jesus’ teaching, when he taught his followers to pray “Our Father…”
As followers of Jesus, we are children of God, with all the rights and responsibilities that brings with it.
We are also clothed with Christ. Now this seems to me to be a slightly strange illustration. The reason that I say it seems slightly strange is that for me clothing is something that changes everyday and which is external. And those aren’t things that I associate with a relationship with Jesus. Surely that is, or should be, a permanent change, that effects our deepest selves, not just the outward appearance? So what is Paul getting at? Well, perhaps a couple of other bits of his writing might throw some light on this. In his letter to the church in Ephesus, in chapter 4, he writes this:
“You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”
Clothing isn’t mentioned explicitly, but it’s the same kind of idea, Here again, we get this idea of putting something on, a new self, and a matching idea of putting something else off – our old selves.
We get a similar idea in the letter to the church in Colossae. Again Paul is writing to counter the arguments of those who want Gentile Christians to follow the Jewish law. Again we get this link between putting off the old self, circumcision replaced by baptism, and a sense of the way in which baptism brings us into Christ. Here, the idea is stronger than being clothed in Christ- is it about being buried with him in baptism, and raised in faith Paul writes, in chapter 2:
“11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.”
So, drawing these three passages together, what can we say? What is clear from all of them is that those who have been baptised are “in Christ”. That process involves putting off or away the things that separated us from God – our selfish inclinations and sinful behaviours. It also involved putting on something new – more permanent than a wardrobe change – a new Christlike self, created by God.
So, we are in the family of God, and we are clothed with Christ. So what?
Well, says Paul, if this is true for all believers, then all the divisions of the world no longer operate in our place before God. The threefold illustration here is one that sets aside common prejudices in the time and culture of the place. In the Jewish tradition and in the writings of the Greek and Roman philosophers it was common for sections of society to be grateful that they were not barbarians, slaves, or women, because each of these were thought to be of lesser value, and to have less access to God’s favour.
Paul is clearly not saying that in Christ there is no such thing as men or women, or slaves or free, or Jew or Greek. The factual differences between these groups of people remain. What he is saying is that everyone who is in Christ has equal access to the presence and favour of God – because they are one in Christ.
This teaching is seen throughout Jesus’ life – in which we repeatedly turns the expectations and prejudices of those around him on their heads. It is the Good Samaritan, not the priest or Levite he commends. It is the tax collector that he goes to dinner with. It is a woman that meets him first when he is raised to life, and to whom he entrusts the message of his resurrection.
In Paul’s writings, we get this repeated theme as well – the image of the one body, in which no one part can say to another part that they are not needed, is one that recurs.
In his letter to the church in Ephesus Paul writes:
“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.”
So, as we draw all these threads together we see the core of Paul’s argument, one that he feels is so important that he writes with passion and urgency. All those who have faith in Jesus are children of God, are clothed in Christ, and are one in Christ.
So, as we reflect on this, how does it apply to our lives, to our faith. These aren’t matters of indifference, they are matters of life and death.
Are we living as free children of God, knowing the Father’s love and care for us? Are we able to rest in the assurance that we are heirs of God’s kingdom, and are we fulfilling our responsibilities to the head of the family? Have we fully put off ourselves, or is there a tatty and comfortable cardigan or coat that we’re holding on to? Is there anyone, or a group of people, that we look down on, that in our most honest moments we know that we don’t include? Are there attitudes to others that God is challenging us to change, to see them as God sees them, one with us in Christ? Have we ever felt, or maybe even now feel, excluded from the family of God? Can we be encouraged by Paul’s assurance that all those who believe in and follow the way of Christ, are all members of God’s family, with full access to our Father, who loves us?