On Monday I was a guest leader for an on-line summer bible study series on Paul’s letter, “Galatians,” to the churches in the region of Galatia (a part of present day Turkey).
As I prepared for the 90 minute class I remembered a UCC pastor at Eastgate Congregational UCC in Bellevue, Washington, Jim Fairbrook. I was then I was at my first church, Tolt Congregational UCC, in Carnation, Washington.
I thought of Jim because he had committed Paul’s entire letter to memory and “performed” it as a kind of one-man show. I invited him to Carnation to “perform” Galatians at our Sunday service sometime during my years there.
It wasn’t quite a one-man show. As a portion of Chapter 6 makes clear, Paul dictated his letter to a scribe. So while Jim roamed the chancel dressed a robe and something resembling a turban, I sat at a desk, stage left, and scribbled furiously with a quill (feather) pen.
Galatians is a very passionate letter and Jim conveyed Paul’s intensity. On the surface the issue is a group of false teachers moving in on the new Galatian Christians, who were Gentiles. The false teachers, also known as “Judaizers,” told the new Christians that they had to adopt and fulfill the Old Testament law in order to be okay (accepted, in), or redeemed. Including circumcision!
Paul had devoted his life to that law and to fulfilling it with a perfectionist zeal. There were two effects of this. One, he had quite a superiority complex. Two, he was very angry man determined to purge the world of those who didn’t measure up. That anger spilled out in the direction of the earliest followers of Jesus whom Paul dragged off to jail. He even took part in the stoning to death of the early church leader, Stephen (Acts 7).
Then Paul was famously knocked from his (high) horse on the Damascus Road, and blinded by a vision of Jesus Christ, who asked him, “Why are you persecuting me?” It was the beginning of a radical transformation.
If the surface issue was the demand that Christians be circumcised and keep the Jewish law, the deeper issue was replacing God’s free grace (gift) in Jesus Christ, with a system by which you achieve merit or justify yourself by your own actions. In such a system there is no grace, no mercy, no help, no redeemer needed. It’s a do-it-yourself operation.
So “the Law” that Paul inveighs against is not some sort of anti-Judaic obsession. It is any human system by which we justify (prove, certify) ourselves as superior to others because of our great smarts, virtue, performance, achievements. It results in a dividing of human beings into the us, the righteous, the winners, the cool kids; and the them, the unrighteous, the losers, the sinners.
Paul wanted none of it and argued passionately for the six chapters of Galatians against retreating from a new creation in Christ, based on God’s free grace and love, to the old system of merit, hierarchy and achievement as the basis of human value and belonging.
Some readers may recall my discussion of these issues in relation to Michael Sandel’s important 2020 book The Tyranny of Merit. Meritorious action or service is, of course, a good thing. A meritocracy is something else again. It is a system where entirely too much emphasis falls on the outward signs that you are among the meritorious elite and entitled — you’ve gone to one of the best universities (even if your parents rig the system to get you in), you live in a prestigious neighborhood (where those people don’t live), your offspring are at the top of the class and star athletes to boot, you vacation in only the coolest/ trendiest spots, etc. Sandel is right. Such a system becomes a tyranny. Something Paul understood 2,ooo years ago.
Should you be interested in seeing the video of the class session here’s a link. (Once you get to Jason’s site click on “Videos.” The recording should appear later this week as Episode 6 of the class. I am joined in leading the session by David King, a very gifted, young seminary student. It was a lot of fun to share the class with him.
At that first church in Carnation, I was challenged — confronted literally — by a group of people who had moved into that congregation during the interim period between pastors. They described themselves as “born-again Christians,” and had a kind of Moral Majority agenda (this was the late 1970’s). A couple weeks after I arrived they showed up at the church one day en masse demanding to see me. Since there were maybe 20 of them I came outside to meet with them. It was a warm August day, made warmer by their simmering anger.
Their spokesperson said, “What we want to know is, ‘Have you been born-again?'” In many ways, these folks were the equivalent of the Judaizers in Galatia. They believed that you had to have a certain kind of religious experience which you described in a particular kind of language in order to be “in,” or they would have said, “saved.” It was ironic. They had taken a story from the Gospel of John which speaks of being “born-again” and the free movement of grace, and distorted it into a demanding new law. “You must be born again — like us!”
I pondered their question for a few moments then said, “Well, I guess the proof”s in the pudding.” Meaning, if I am a faithful Christian it will be evident in my life and actions. It did occur to me it might also be wise to say something about Jesus, so I added, “Or as our Lord said, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.'”
We human beings are constantly wanting to capture the free and living God in a system or experience we can control (“I’ve been ‘born-again’ — have you?”), one that justifies us and separates us from others. Paul fought tooth and nail to preserve the gospel of grace. That battle rages on.