Along with 1 Corinthians, Galatians is my favorite letter of Paul’s. I remember taking a New Testament class in college, and getting a professor who just loved Paul. Now, having grown up in Lutheran churches and having heard portions of Paul’s letters read in church, I thought Paul was pretty boring. But, this particular professor started out with Galatians and, taking us through it, showed how Paul was really angry when he wrote this letter. And suddenly, the Apostle Paul became a real human being to me. I think up until that point I had thought that the apostles were simply people who were extra special and who never did anything wrong. But, through this particular professor, I discovered that Paul was a human being just like me, and someone who could feel anger, along with other emotions. And so, I have a special spot in my heart for Galatians. Starting today, the lectionary takes us through Paul’s letter to the Galatians for several weeks, and so I’m going to preach on Galatians for those weeks, except for next week when I will be at Synod Assembly. This letter has been important for Christians throughout the centuries, including Martin Luther, who had a high regard for what Paul said here. And I think God still has vitally important things to say to the 21st century church through this letter, including our congregation, and so that is why I have chosen to preach through Galatians with you.
So I would like to start out today with an image from theologian N.T. Wright. In his commentary on Galatians, Wright gives us this story: Imagine that you are living in apartheid South Africa. You decide that you want to make a building where black people and white people can come and where they are treated equally. You begin working with the people, who buy into the concept and are really excited about this. You all get the foundation of the building done. Then, however, you are called away to another town. While you are in this other place, you hear word through the grapevine that more people who work for the same organization you do have come in and continued work on the building that you started. Only, the people who have continued the work have made two entrances: one for black people only, and one for white people only. They say that it is the only way the people can feel secure under the government, and at least they are still all together in one building. What would your reaction be? If you’re like me, you’d be pretty upset.
Well, this is what is happening in the letter to the Galatians. Paul has gone into this area, which is located in present-day Turkey, and has preached the Gospel to the Gentiles, that is, non-Jewish people. The gospel message that he proclaims is that the Galatians don’t need to do anything to become Christian, only to believe in the Lord Jesus. The Galatians accept the Gospel readily, and Paul moves on to the next town. Paul then receives word that more Christian missionaries have come in who have some kind of Jewish background, and say that Paul’s message was right, but that the Galatians still need to do one more thing: they need to become Jewish first before they can become Christian. Remember that in the first century church, this was still a disputed question that hadn’t been settled yet: whether Gentiles needed to become Jewish and follow Jewish laws and customs before they could follow Jesus, or if following Jesus was enough. And for men to become Jewish first meant they had to become circumcised. Well, when Paul hears how the Galatians are listening to these new missionaries and the males among them are allowing themselves to be circumcised, he is absolutely furious, and he writes the letter that we have in our Holy Scriptures today.
In the first chapter of Galatians that we heard today, we see how angry Paul is. In all of his other letters that we have in Scripture, Paul gives thanks for the community to whom he is writing. Not so in this case. He is so anxious to make his point, and so upset over what is going on with the Galatians, that he skips over giving thanks for them and goes right to the heart of the matter. He received the gospel message directly from Jesus Christ, and not from any human authority, and therefore, what he preached to the Galatians is correct. These other folks claiming that they really have the more correct message are only adding on unnecessary human traditions and making these traditions a requirement, he says. And then, to support what he is saying, Paul, in the rest of chapter 1, gives an account of his personal history: how God called him, and how he heard the message directly from God, and how only after a few years did he go up to Jerusalem to meet with the leaders of the church there. And, when he did go up, they did not correct his message, but only glorified God because they saw that Paul, who had once persecuted the church, was now proclaiming the faith he had once tried to destroy.
So, today I’d like for us to ask ourselves if we are putting any unnecessary requirements out there for people to become part of our congregation. At first glance, I think most of us would say that we don’t. Hope Lutheran is one of the most welcoming places I’ve seen, and I know that I don’t require people to attend new member classes before they join, and if someone requests baptism, I haven’t said “no” yet. But there still may be some unconscious barriers that we put up, and I’d like to illustrate that with a story. My paternal grandfather died in 2004, in Tennessee. The pastor at his church gave him a wonderful funeral, and the congregation gave us a huge meal and reception after my grandfather’s burial. What I remember was this: my father very lovingly and jokingly saying, “What—no Jell-O salad? What kind of Lutherans are you?”
On Wednesday night, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA Elizabeth Eaton hosted her third panel discussion on racism via webcast. If you haven’t taken the time to watch this or her other webcasts, I encourage you to do so. They are very thoughtful and thought-provoking discussions about how, even while we say, “We’re not racists. We’re nice people,” we can unconsciously make assumptions about people based on their race or ethnicity. In Wednesday’s webcast, Bishop Eaton said that she was talking with a group of Lutherans and asked them, “What do you think of when you hear the word ‘Lutheran’?” Well, out came all the usual jokes: Scandinavian or German, lutefisk, lefse, hot dishes, Jell-O, and so on. And then one person chimed in and said, “Hey, I’m Lutheran, and I don’t fit any of those descriptions.” And sometimes I think, unconsciously, those are some of the barriers we might be putting up for people who may otherwise want to be part of us. We may look at them oddly if they don’t fit the Lutheran cultural stereotype, and expect them to become like us before they are truly Lutheran. And that’s not okay: being Lutheran should be about our theology, and what our theology can offer people, not about our nationality or our culture.
Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take pride in our heritage. On the contrary: there are good things that have resulted from all of those stereotypical Lutheran things. What I am saying, though, is that there is more than one cultural way to be Lutheran. We as Lutherans claim that it is by God’s grace, and God’s grace alone, that we are loved, forgiven, and adopted as God’s children. We don’t have to do anything: even our belief in Jesus is a gift given to us by the Holy Spirit. All of this comes straight from our Holy Scriptures, and this is what it means to be Lutheran. This is what we should be telling people that being Lutheran is all about, not the usual Scandinavian and Jell-O jokes.
It’s hard to know how to start crossing racial boundaries when the fact is, that there isn’t a whole lot of racial diversity here in Powell. But there is some of that diversity, and we need to begin opening our eyes to see it. For one thing, there is a Hispanic population in town. Someone told me this week that they thought the Hispanics go to the Roman Catholic Church. And so I told the person this story: When I was doing chaplaincy at the University of Virginia Medical Center, there was one night when I was on call. And it was one of those nights where my pager was beeping left and right, plus I had a new chaplain-in-training shadowing me. One of the calls that night was to come to the neonatal intensive care unit. When my trainee and I got there, we found that the woman who wanted to speak to a chaplain spoke Spanish, and we did not. So, I made the assumption: Oh, she’s Hispanic, she must be Roman Catholic. The Catholic chaplain on call speaks Spanish. Let’s call him and see if he will come. So, I called him and he came. When he got there and started speaking to the woman, we found out that, even though she was Hispanic, she was not Roman Catholic. And, she wanted to have her baby baptized. I felt so awful for making that assumption! The priest said that since the woman wasn’t Roman Catholic, either I or the person shadowing me could do the baptism. I told him that since we had called him out in the middle of the night, he should do the baptism if the woman was okay with that. He asked her, and she was okay. But that episode reminded me to not make assumptions about what a particular group of people is or is not.
All of that is to remind us that we are called to speak to our neighbors here in Powell, whether they are white, black, Hispanic, Scandinavian, or something else entirely. We are called to not make assumptions about what or how they believe, but we are instead called to speak the gospel of Jesus Christ to them in a loving and winsome way. We are called to witness to the difference that Jesus has made in our lives, and to invite them to come to worship with us and to experience the love of Jesus for themselves. We are called to say to everyone that there are no cultural barriers to becoming Lutheran or even Christian, for we are all loved by God and we are all his children. And, sometimes, we may be called by God to get angry, like Paul does, when barriers are placed in the way of hearing the gospel and living it out. When that happens, then we are called to advocate for those people who have barriers put in their way, and to do our utmost to break those barriers down.
So, this is what I would like to suggest as an assignment for us this week. Find ways to look for those people in Powell who are different from you. Find ways to strike up friendships with these people. Listen to them about what they are experiencing in life. Find ways to pray with them and for them. Invite them to come to worship here at Hope and experience the love of Jesus the way you have. Share with them the good news that, in Christ, there are no more cultural barriers between people, for we are all brothers and sisters and children of God. Amen.