Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:7-16)
The Epistle to the Galatians is a quick-read, if you ever want to study it closer. It consists of six chapters written in the style of a “letter” — complete with a greeting, salutation, a body, and a closing. As with most letters we read today, they are best read in its entirety in order to best understand its context. It would be like receiving a letter from an employer, but only seeing the line that reads, “your position is eliminated,” before reading that you were actually elevated in position with an increased salary. Another example would be receiving a note from your spouse, but only seeing the line that says, “the wedding gift from your mom is in the garage,” before reading that there was a flood in the basement and moving it to the garage necessary. Context, in such cases, though fictional, are important.
Although there are conflicting views as to if Paul wrote the letter, for the sake of offering you a reasonably timed sermon, we will just assume that Paul wrote the letter. Paul’s letter admonishes Galatian churches about regressing in their spiritual walk with Christ.
The text transports us to a time in history, when Paul writes to Paul writes to churches in Galatia (Gal 1:2), which is in modern Turkey. Most scholars agree the letter was written between 50-60 AD, almost 20-30 years after the assassination of Jesus Christ. Galatia, much like other regions during this time period, was noted by historians to be a transient location, having been invaded and conquered by different groups. At this point, Galatia was an amalgamation of indigenous, Celtic, Greek, and now Roman cultural influences-each with their own systems, institutions of laws, practices, language and spiritual beliefs, and of course pockets of people who resisted each or all regimes, holding their ideologies in a certain place and time. In this context, the Galatians are considered a mostly “Gentile” nation.
Now enters Paul, who identifies as one being “entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised,”(Gal 2:7), while Peter shared the gospel to the circumcised. Paul attempts to teach the “uncircumcised” communities that there is a way to follow Jesus Christ, without necessarily having to become Jewish or to perform ancient ritual practices, because according to what Jesus taught and exemplified, was how to live a loving, embracing life that honors God and neighbor regardless of differences — the love command.
According to Galatians, Paul’s teachings focused mostly on 4 points :
- Justification by faith through Jesus Christ and not by the works of the law (Gal 2:16), because according to Paul, if “justification came through law then Christ died for nothing.” (Gal 2:21)
- Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, offered freedom from the law that traditionally kept people bound. Paul used a lot of language around “dying to the law” in order to experience “freedom in Christ.”
- People were enslaved by antiquated beliefs that did not uphold the principles of Jesus Christ. Once converted from the old into the new, returning to former ways of thinking, being, and behaving is like returning into slavery, Paul writes, “If i build up everything I once tore down then I’m a transgressor.” (Gal 2:18)
- Circumcision, Special Day Observances, and Law/Covenant/Legalism- Paul is saying that Christ didn’t allow himself to be crucified so that we can bicker over these matters…
I’m reminded of a recent sermon preached by former Bishop Nathan Baxter, who said, “do not get so caught up in the working for God that we forget about God.” The people were forgetting about God in the midst of their focus on works, and by not opening their hearts to faith.
For Paul, born into the Jewish faith, and also having Roman citizenship, he wasn’t denouncing Judaism, but rather, he offered a way to live into the message that religious laws and practices intended for people to do. Living into covenant with God, offered evidence of healthier relationships with God and neighbor, and were not meant to punitive, isolating and oppressive. Paul implored the Galatians to not become so focused on commands that were given by another sect of Christ-followers, that they will lose the message of love, hope, and peace that was to be gained by following his proposal for reformed Mosaic Laws.
So by the time we reach Chapter 6:7-9 in the letter, Paul had had it. He was furious with the Galatian community of followers, because the church plants he mentored, had not only disregarded everything he taught them, but they began to practice “another gospel.” There was a in-fighting between Jewish followers of Jesus Christ in regard to how to proselytize and implement practices for the “new Jew” — new Christians. Paul’s ministry often found itself in places where religious pluralism was a reality, and he had to be creative in developing ways that would be welcoming to all communities: slaves and free; men and women; rich and poor. Also using his own life as a testimony: testifying to his conversion, his public humiliations, and his multiple imprisonments.
Christendom, is an amalgamation of various beliefs, values, and even religious observances. We are still living in a pluralistic society, where we are still learning how to live together, embracing our differences, while yet holding true to our values and traditions. Much like the Galatians, we too experience in-fighting, and disagree on ways to develop healthy relationships with God and one another.
The mockery Paul refers to is his concern for the misrepresentation of the Church, and following the life of God in Christ. For Paul, Christ died for nothing, if the community of new Christians were circumcised, but they were unable to change their hearts. What is the point of religious observances if people are not examining themselves and their lives?
For the modern church, what is the point of showing up to church every Sunday, participating in the sacraments, if we’re not living out our faith outside of these church walls? What is the point of observing laws and practices if they do not serve God and bring about respectful relationships within our communities?
Paul in his own way, encouraged Galatians to not lose the overall message of Jesus Christ through believing if they checked the boxes that that was all that needs to be done. These types of changes take time and are always evolving, because our demographics are always changing. Currently, there is a recognition that there were laws and practices in our country that were created by certain groups, in a certain time, that brought about certain benefits. While some of those laws are still appropriate, there is an acknowledgment that some laws have outgrown their season, because they do not benefit the social and religious pluralistic society that we now live in. We are no longer in the year 1619, we’re not even in 1919, this is 2019. We are centuries past colonial America, centuries past when our constitution was written it is time for changes.
People are advocating for education reform, prison reform. The United States of America has the highest prison population in the entire world. It is time for a change. Longer sentences and harsher sentencing do little to nothing to deter crime, but the certainty of being caught does.(Nagin, Daniel S., “Deterrence in the Twenty-First Century,” in Crime and Justice in America: 1975-2025, ed. M. Tonry, Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2013: 199-264.) One’s thoughts about criminal justice and imprisonment changes when you know people who are in there.
In our church, we face looking at our canon laws, and liturgical practices as well. There is conversation about the Book of Common Prayer, inclusive language, and overall review of how our “common prayers,” can continue to meet the needs of “common people” / communities. The first common prayer book was written in ca 1549, and underwent a number of revisions since then, but none of them included language about equality, mutuality, and justice until 1979. That was all the way back when the “disco era” was popular, M*A*S*H was still on television, and Jimmy Carter was president. It is time for some changes.
There are no clear answers, but there are responses that will either include and exclude people depending on our approach. The hope is to always approach with love, understanding, and empathy, because this is how the church ought to behave. Paul’s message still stands today. Although our laws and practices are important, they should not serve as a stumbling block between our relationship with God and one another.
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:9)
This sermon was preached by the Rev. Shayna Watson at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral on July 7, 2019, for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9C). The lessons for the day were:
- Isaiah 66:10-14
- Psalm 66:1-8
- Galatians 6:7-16
- Luke 10:1-11, 16-20