Someone else’s mail

Galatians 1.1-12
Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the members of God’s family who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
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— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ. For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

Gospel Reading: Luke 7.1-10
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

Aunt Maud received a letter one morning, and upon reading it burst into floods of tears.
“What’s the matter?” asked her companion.
“Oh dear,” sobbed Auntie, “It’s my favourite nephew. He’s got three feet.”
“Three feet?” exclaimed her friend. “Surely that’s not possible?”
“Well,” said Auntie, “his mother’s just written to tell me he’s grown another foot!”

Letters can lead to misunderstandings.

My best friend as a teenager was a young man called Evan, while our peers were interested in sports and study we were interested in Doctor Who and writing bizarre folk songs.  When he left school Evan went on to work for the Post Office.  His job was to open the letters that could not be delivered and see if there was a return address inside.

At Christmas there was a glut of undelivered and unreturnable Christmas Cards that led him and his colleagues to setting up an “Ugliest Jesus” competition, trying to find the strangest looking depiction of the Christ Child in the lost cards…

To me this job seemed like the most interesting and exotic thing ever – pouring over someone else’s mail, trying to reconnect people who had lost touch with each other (or at least lost each other’s address), and most fascinating of all – delving into other people’s secrets…

Evan shattered my illusions, he said that it was true that in the first week he read some letters, but he soon realised that most of what people said to each other was really quite dull and there was no time to search through the masses of paper for the interesting stuff…

Reading someone else’s letters is a strange thing and full of traps and potential for embarrassment and misunderstanding.

Letters are not like emails, you can’t scroll back to see what the previous message said (and then the one before that…) so you can fully understand the conversation.  When you read a letter the best you can hope for is half an understanding of what is going on.  If you don’t know the people involved you will understand less than half…

Why am I talking about letters?

A large chunk of the New Testament is made up of someone else’s letters.

Most of the letters (or “Epistles”) of the New Testament were written to deal with an immediate situation – they were a response to a particular crisis or question.  I’m sure they were written prayerfully and thoughtfully, but they were definitely not written to become timeless Scripture that would be read by many generations in many different circumstances.

St. Paul (and the other writers of the Epistles) were not thinking about us as they wrote, they were thinking about the Church in Corinth or Galatia, or Thessalonica or Phillipi or Rome.

That doesn’t decrease the value of the Epistles – it just gives them a context, and helps us understand the spirit in which we must read them.  All the great love songs of the world were written for just one person, but they live on and touch the hearts of millions of people.  James Taylor didn’t write “Fire and Rain” for Juliet and I, but yet for us it is “our song.”

So in our reading today when St. Paul writes “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” he is not addressing us directly, but to the Galatians.  But even so, something in the situation in the Church in Galatia may speak to our situation and the ancient letter could change our way of thinking today.

So what is the context?  St Paul is under attack.  Some of the Christians in Galatia have denied that he is a true Apostle and have denied his view on Jesus message.  (You may think that a first century theological debate has nothing to do with you and I, but if Paul had lost the argument Christianity would have become a Jewish Sect and we wouldn’t be here today!)

St. Paul believed the Gospel is for everyone and it is about love.  His opponents believed that the Gospel is for a select few and it is all about rules.

The specific rules that the Galatian Christians thought were important were the Jewish law.  Jesus had lived and died a Jew and the early Church had to work out its relationship with Judaism.  Was Christianity a movement to reform Judaism, or a whole new faith?  If a Gentile wanted to follow Jesus did he or she have to become a Jew first?  For the men the issue was circumcision – something that Gentile Christians did not greet with enthusiasm!

The earliest Christians were all Jewish and they went to the synagogue on Saturday and then met in each other’s houses for a shared meal of bread and wine on a Sunday.  As a pattern for spirituality that’s actually pretty hard to beat – a formal gathering with liturgy and teaching followed by informal discussion.  It’s something many Churches today try to replicate with “House Groups” – people have Church on Sunday and then meet for coffee and informal discussion midweek in someone’s house.  It’s something common in a lot of growing churches, and maybe worth considering for the Ascension… But I’m digressing – that’s not the subject of this Sunday’s sermon…

The early Christians were also practicing Jews and working out their relationship to the Jewish faith was complicated.  There were many of these earliest Christians who thought Christians had to obey the Jewish Law.

So how does this first century theological debate relate to us today?  No one, even in the craziest of today’s churches want us to convert to Judaism before becoming Christians.

The battle for the soul of Christianity started with the Apostles bickering and has rumbled down through the centuries until today.  The argument takes many forms, but the same one turns up over and over again…

Like St. Paul to we believe the Gospel is for everyone and it is about love.  Or do we (without even realising it) believe that the Gospel is for a select few and it is all about rules.

“You have to follow all the rules…” “You have to believe these doctrines…” “You must worship only in thus way”

While we do need rules to live by in the Church as in all areas of life, we must never see the rules as divinely instituted or as important in themselves.  The other rules are only there to help us follow Jesus only rule: to love God, love our neighbour’s and love ourselves.

Rules are easier, you know where you are with rules, to place love as our ideal is a lot more challenging.  But this love is not just an excuse to break the rules, this love is a deep soul-changing challenge.  As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

I finish with another quote, this time from Elizabeth Cady Stanton: “Love is the vital essence that pervades and permeates, from the center to the circumference, the graduating circles of all thought and action. Love is the talisman of human weal and woe –the open sesame to every soul.”

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