JANUARY 4, 2015

Rev. Dr. Richard Meyer


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           There's a "first" for everything! For example, the first child born in the new American colonies was a female, Virginia Dare.  She was born on August 18,1587 on what is now Roanoke Island, North Carolina.  The first president to be inaugurated in Washington, D.C. was Thomas Jefferson.  The first president born west of the Mississippi was Herbert Hoover. The first American president to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize was Theodore Roosevelt, which I find somewhat odd given the fact that hes known for his philosophy of speaking softly but carrying a big stick.  He won it for mediating an end the Russo-Japanese War. 

            In 1961 John Glenn was the first American astronaut to orbit the earth and in 1969 Neil Armstrong the first person to walk on the moon. Carlos Santana was the first Hispanic to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Colin Powell was the first black Secretary of State.  And the first written book of the New Testament was not what we might think. It was not one of the gospels, rather it was one of Pauls letters, his letter to the Galatians, mostly likely penned in 49 A.D. roughly fifteen years after Jesus death and resurrection. 

            This morning we embark on a twelve week sermon series on this letter.  The series will end a week before Holy Week.  So take out your pew bible and lets start unpacking the very first New Testament document.  And by the way, Paul would probably be very surprised that this letter became a part of scripture.  Of course, we could say that about all of Pauls letters.  When he wrote them, he did so to a particular group of people to address a particular situation in that congregation.  When he wrote his letters to his churches, he had no idea the place his words would occupy in history.  He doubted they would be in existence for the next generation, let alone his words survive in 2015.

            Lets begin reading.  Chapter one.  Verse one.


            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 Gods family who are with me, To the churches in Galatia: (Galatia being in modern Turkey today) ...


            Note the first underlying issue Paul addresses people questioning his authority. Specifically, some critics claimed that Paul was no apostle at all, and they had grounds upon which to stand.  Now, recall that the Book of Acts was not in existence at the time Paul wrote this letter, but the story of how the early church had found a replacement for Judas was circulating in Christian circles.  The story that after Judas suicidal demise, the early church gathered in an Upper Room in Jerusalem, possibly the same room where they met with Jesus the night before his crucifixion, and while together, Peter suggested that they choose another person to be an apostle, to take Judas place, and Peter gave two prerequisites for the position. 

            Think of employers who post a job opportunity.  They usually have requirements, prerequisites for the job.  For example the company says the applicant must have a high school diploma and must be proficient in Microsoft Word and Excel and must have had three years of sales experience.  Well, Peter outlined something similar. According to Peter, which Luke would later record in the first chapter of the Book of Acts, to be an apostle the person first must have travelled with Jesus during his entire earthly ministry and second, the person must have witnessed the Resurrection. Paul did not those requirements. 

            So knowing the criteria used to choose Judas' replacement, some in the region of Galatia had begun questioning Pauls apostleship, and in the very first verse of this letter, Paul addresses that, and he will continue to address this issue through the first two chapters of his letter.  Here, in our verses for today, he says that Jesus the Son and God the Father had appointed him to be an apostle, not some church council, not some group gathered in the Upper Room, no God the Father and God the Son appointed him to be an apostle, so take it up with them.  Listen to his words once again ...


            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 Gods family who are with me, To the churches in Galatia:


            Lets continue reading ...  


            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 glory forever and ever.  


            Now, being familiar with Pauls other letters we know what comes next.  We expect a prayer of thanksgiving for the saints to whom he is writing to come next.  Thats what he does in his other letters.  He greets his readers and then he gives thanks for them and then he proceeds to deal with the theological and relational issues facing the church.  After all, he does this in his letters to the churches in Rome and Ephesus and Corinth and Thessalonica and Philippi, but he does not do that here.  He omits his prayer of thanksgiving and immediately cuts to the chase.  Which means one of two things.  One, since this is his very first letter, he hadn't developed the pattern of writing he would later use, or more likely, two,  the situation in the churches in Galatia was grave.  There is no reason to pretend that things are better than they are.  There is no reason to give thanks.  Listen to what has the Apostle Paul so concerned. Verse 6.


            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 what you received, let that one be accursed!

            Am I now seeking human approval, or Gods approval?  Or am I trying to please people?  If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.


            I want to unpack two words here gospel and grace. These two words will give us insight into the source of Pauls astonishment.

            First, lets unpack the word gospel.  Paul uses that word five times here.  What does that word mean?   While one of the most frequently used phrases in Christian circles, amazingly few adults know what the term gospel means. Generally, the word refers to one of two things.  One, the term refers to its literal translation, "good news. The gospel is simply good news. Or, two, the term refers to the perspective that salvation is available only through the sacrificial death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus Christ and a persons acceptance of Christ as their savior and nothing else.  Sacrificial death.  Resurrection.  Acceptance of Christ as their savior.  No, Jesus and   No Jesus and the law No Jesus and works.  No Jesus and reformed theology.  Just a belief in Jesus.  Thats the good news.

            Unfortunately, according to the Barna Research Group, only sixty-percent of all Christians can correctly identify at least one of the two meanings of the term gospel.

            So in the region of Galatia someone, or someones, were distorting the gospel, the good news. They were distorting what Paul had communicated to them that Jesus Christ died for our sins, was resurrected and all they needed to do to gain a ticket to heaven was to embrace that.  Thats the heart of the gospel.  We dont have to earn it.  We just have to accept it.        

            The other word to unpack is the word grace.  Paul uses this word twice in verse 3 Grace to you, and in verse 6 You are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ.  The Greek word for grace is charis and it literally means gift.  It refers to Gods gift of salvation to us, it refers to Gods unmerited favor, and Paul often wrote of "grace" in his letters, but it was much more than part of a standard opening or closing line. Grace was God's undeserved favor that transformed his own life and was freely available to all.

            I think of the a time actress and author Jeanette Clift was flying on a commercial airline.  Seated in the adjoining row was a young mother holding a little girl, certainly not yet two years old, wearing a beautiful dress. It didnt take long to figure out that these two were on their way to meet Daddy, who would welcome them at the end of the flight.

            At first, all went well.  The little girl was adorable.  She cooed and laughed and the other passengers gladly interacted with her. It was, however, a long flight.  She became fussy.  Occasionally her mother gave her a healthy sip of orange juice. Then the flight became bumpy. After a while the orange juice made a dramatic and colorful reappearance, covering both her dress and her mother.

            Everyone sighed with relief when the plane touched down. Then came the moment of truth. As the passengers looked out on the tarmac, they could see a young man holding a bouquet of flowers.  He was dressed completely in his Navy whites. Instantaneously everyone seemed to know this must be Daddy.

            He handed the flowers to his wife, who was only too ready to hand over their little bundle of joy, who smelled of regurgitated orange juice. Without hesitation the father embraced her and held her tightly to himself. And as they walked away the other passengers could hear him saying, again and again, Daddys got his little girl.  Daddys got his little girl.

            Jeanette Clift reflects that what we learn from Scripture is that God is like a daddy in a clean white suit. It doesnt matter how gross we look or how gross we feel or how gross we really are.

            Thats the good news Paul had brought to the Galatians.  The news that we dont have to clean up to be loved by God.  We dont need to do anything else other than trust and accept Gods love.

            It astonished Paul that the Galatians had stopped believing that.  He was astonished that they had bought into another gospel  what gospel?  Well unpack that in the weeks to come.

            For now remember the good news and enjoy Gods grace.