The Fifteenth Sunday After Trinity
Today our Epistle Lesson comes from the 6th Chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. The Epistle was composed around 47-49 AD after Paul’s first missionary journey, but before the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. This is one of the earliest Pauline letters, most important theologically, and one of the most widely distributed - “Galatians is quoted or alluded to in 1 Peter, Barnabas, 1 Clement, Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. Both Marcion’s and the Muratorian canon list it.” (D. Wallace)
This short letter was one of the most important to Martin Luther and the Reformation of the Church. Major themes like “Justification by faith and not works of the Law” were a major influence on Luther and his contemporaries, as they saw the Roman Catholics of their day as the Judaizers of St. Paul’s day - adding rules, requirements, and religious regulation to the “pure” Gospel that St. Paul was preaching. Much academic work, especially in Jewish backgrounds of the New Testament, has been done since the 16th Century and in some ways it has cast doubt on some interpretations of the reformers. Regardless of particular Jewish customs, beliefs, and practises, there still stands a bold premise in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians that speaks to every place and time: “Do not let anyone compel you to do anything except boast in the Cross of Christ.”
In Galatians 6:11 we read, “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.” Now, this might seem a bit of an odd way for our epistle to begin today, but, just as St. Paul defended his Apostleship in Chaps. 1-2 we now see Paul saying: “I’m writing this with my own hand….this is not an emanuences, this is not a follower of me, this is the genuine Paul your bishop - you can trust what I am about to say.” Paul then addresses a powerful group which I mentioned earlier - the Judaizers. He writes in Vs. 12-13, “Those who desire to make a good showing in the flesh try to compel you to be circumcised, simply so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.” The Judaizers were compelling Gentile converts to be circumcised before they could come into fellowship with the church. Once they were circumcised then gentiles were compelled to keep the Jewish Dietary Laws, Sabbaths, Feasts, therefore the were being saved by faith plus works of Torah or works of the Old Covenant Law. Simply, to become a Christian you first had to be a Jew and once you were a Christians you had to keep the Old Covenant. This is what put a fire in St. Paul! Jesus never indicated that one must be Jewish to be a Christian - No he fulfilled the act of circumcision with Holy Baptism, the food sacrifices of the Temple all culminated into the Holy Eucharist, and Confession to a priest no longer required an animal sacrifice, rather a humble and contrite heart. Jesus kept the law and in doing it fulfilled it.
Thus, not only does St. Paul accuse the Judaizers of not even keeping the Law they force upon Gentile converts, but he provides further indictment in V. 12 where he says the Judaizers force the Law on the Gentiles “simply so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.” In essence they don’t want to be persecuted by non-messianic Jews, so forcing new converts to become Jews granted them toleration rather than persecution. This is cowardice and it bends the Gospel of Jesus into something other than the Gospel: The Gospel plus Judaism.
Thus in Galatians 6:14-15 we see St. Paul proclaim: “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” St. Paul can boast in nothing but the Cross of Jesus - the pharisee of pharisees does not boast in his judaism par excellence, his circumcision on the 8th day, his academic career under Gamaliel, nor his zeal for Torah. No, he glories in Jesus’ Cross in which his entire world has been crucified - leaving nothing but the New Creation of Jesus Christ.
Paul then assures his readers with this Hope and challenges the claims of his opponents in V. 16, “and those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.” The “rule” here is the principle of Christ alone, without circumcision, which he just expounded upon - to those who follow the teaching of the Cross of Christ - Peace and Mercy will be upon them and upon the Israel of God. Now you might see the phrase “Israel of God” and think of Israel according to the flesh - but this is not what Paul is saying, rather he is saying “those who boast in Jesus Christ” are indeed the Israel of God, not those who have forsaken the Messiah by adding to the Gospel nor those who rejected the Messiah outright. St. Paul, is not worried about Jewish ethnicity or religion, rather, he claims those who are in Messiah Jesus are the true Israel.
Then in v.17 St. Paul lays down one further trump card against his opponents -those who try to force Christianity plus Judaism - “From now on let no one cause trouble for me, for I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus.” Former Bishop of Gloucester notes, “He will not dally with these vexatious attacks upon himself and his authority any more. He dismisses them with an appeal which ought to be final. He points to the scars of wounds which he had received in his Master's service. The branding-irons of Christ, he says, have imprinted these upon me. They show that I, like the slaves of a heathen temple, am devoted and consecrated to His service. They are my credentials, and I shall produce no others. My assailants must leave me in peace.” (C.J. Ellicott) While the Judaizers glory in their circumcision, St. Paul glories in his stigmata - his wounds he has received in the imitation of Christ.
In our Gospel today, we read, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” St. Paul is saying the same thing in Galatians. There are not multiple ways to God, there is only one way, through the cross of Jesus Christ. Therefore, don’t be anxious, nor persuaded by other philosophies, religions, world views, hold on to Jesus, and his grace and mercy will be upon you. Hold fast to Jesus, even in the face of persecution...he loves and died for you. He will see you through the darkest hour. As our blessed Lord commanded, “But seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” Amen.