The following is a sermon I preached at Southside Anglican Church almost a year ago. The text ran as a post on Mockingbird (click here for the post). Instead of just retweeting/re-posting a link to the Mockingbird post, I wanted to put the full text here (with proper acknowledgment that it ran on Mockingbird first, of course!).
I also wanted to explain why I’m posting it. As I pursue answers to theological questions in my academic pursuits and interactions, I’m bound to run up against (and should run up against) answers that challenge some of my beliefs. This encounter with conflict is good and I accept it and even promote it; from the conflict I grow. I know this because I experienced growth out of intense conflict as I worked through my stm and my stm thesis with an advisor that disagreed with many of the concepts I brought to the table. The conflict(s!) forced me to go back to my drawing table and reformulate answers (to argue better), to re-examine what I held to be true, to acknowledge the weakness of my position and to admit the critique, not to mention to be formed and molded as a better scholar. Had my advisor not challenged me in conflict, I’d be a weaker thinker. But hindsight is 20/20 (as the saying goes); I know now that the conflict was good, but during the conflict there was plenty of doubt bordering on despair: have I been believing a lie? Not an easy question for a theologian to ask herself.
Over the past week, I found myself in a similar conflict. Some concepts that I’ve held closely have come under fire, but the fire hit too close to the source of my hope; I was working and fighting and resisting the black-hole of despair that was eager to devour me as I felt my hope crumbling to the ground. (Despair being a state of hopelessness.) To be honest, being tired of fighting so hard I wanted to give in and let my whole being be consumed. The original conflict and challenge lead to an uncontrollable flow of questions and subsequent doubts and more questions and more doubts; I was losing the ability to keep my head above the water. But I have a friend, Sarah, and she refuses to preach anything but the Gospel. She heard all my questions, my doubts, and my looming despair. But she doesn’t just tell me that Jesus loves me (though this is very true), she quotes from Galatians. It’s what I needed to hear because I was something she said made me remember what it was that plucked me out of my trajectory leading to certain death and placed me on the path to life: Jesus Christ who died for our sins and was raised for our justification (Romans 4:25). Her words also reminded of a sermon I wrote nearly a year ago on Gal 1:1-12. While the sermon is about our fickle hearts, I think the gist applies to our deep and sincere moments of doubt and despair; I was reminded of where my hope resides: in Christ, in his word, in the Gospel (the doctrine of the justification of the sinner (Jüngel)). So, I thought I’d share.
We’re fickle. Human beings are fickle. You and I both know it and we’re free to confess it. Our hearts and minds easily change orientation and preferences by the mere shifting of the wind, our hearts and minds have a difficulty staying the course, being constant in our loyalty and affections.
I do want to be clear that I don’t think all moments of changing our mind are bad; sometimes our propensity toward changing our mind isn’t necessarily a bad thing; there are times receiving new information and incorporating it into our database of knowledge is good, in fact it’s an aspect of being wise. For instance, learning that the earth is not square but round, that it’s okay and quite acceptable to overly love, snuggle, hug and kiss your baby, and that all human beings should be treated with dignity (etc.) are wonderful pieces of information to know and to have. So, our ability to change our minds, our views, and our opinions by the influence of new information isn’t always bad. In fact, it’s quite laudable.
However, we’re not always changing our mind because of the presentment of new and good information. As I said just a moment ago, we’re fickle. Our hearts and minds do not have the metal constitution we would like to think they do. A soft breeze can easily challenge our deepest held conviction. I wish I could tell you that I am NOT fickle; I wish I could say that I’m the epitome of mental, emotional, and spiritual constancy and loyalty. There are times that I can appear content with how things are in and out of the house and then my husband, upon returning home, will ask, “Honey, why is the wall to wall carpet on the sidewalk?” or, “Where’d those bushes go?” Or He’ll ask, “Why is your hair a different color?….again…” While these moments where I’ve given in to my fickleness are comical to most, I have to be honest and say that my fickleness runs a bit deeper than carpet, evergreen bushes, and hair color. It runs painfully deep in my mind and heart and soul. The serpent of old slithers his way to me, and asks, once again, that deadly question: “Did God really say…?” (Gen 3:1). Did God really say that you are saved only by faith in Christ? Did God actually say He loves you? Did God truly say _you’re_ saved, Lauren? Did God really say…?
And no matter how many academic accolades I have hanging from weak nails on my walls, no matter how many volumes of theological works I have on flimsy wooden bookshelves, it is nearly impossible for me to refute those doubts once they’re planted. In these moments, I’m powerless and voiceless to argue back.
“How fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes
I struggle to find any truth in your lies
And now my heart stumbles on things I don’t know
My weakness I feel I must finally show” (Mumford and Sons “Awake My Soul”).
And I’m not alone; I know you’ve heard the same questions and have had the same doubts, too.
“Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brothers who are with me” (Gal 1:1-2).
Enter Paul and the Galatians. It doesn’t take more than the first two words of the opening line of the epistle for Paul to begin to deal with the fickleness of the Galatian Christians and contends with the false teachers directly. Pau/loj avpo,stoloj (Paul (an) Apostle). It’s two small words but these two words pack a significant punch: Paul is an apostle and those other teachers, those other guys, aren’t. Paul was an apostle he was not sent by the apostles. And to back up that title (Paul, an apostle) he adds this: “not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father,” Paul pokes holes in the claim to authority the false teachers had (they were sent by humans, Paul was not), and affirms his apostolic status by declaring he was called and sent by Christ Himself (Acts 9:15ff).
And with the added clarifying addend modifying God the Father, “who raised him from the dead,” Paul affirms the original message he brought to them, the message they heard first from Paul: righteousness comes by faith and not by works of the law. And any teacher who is proclaiming another message from the message of Paul is not only against Paul, but against the Father and the Son. Luther writes in Galatians,
“Thus at the very outset Paul explodes with the entire issue he intends to set forth in this epistle. He refers to the resurrection of Christ, who rose against for our justification (Rom. 4:25). His victory is a victory over the Law, sin, our flesh, the world, the devil, death, hell, and all evils; and this victory of His He has given to us” (21-2).
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (Gal 1:3-5)
As if the first verse wasn’t enough to establish the Gospel tenor of the entire letter, Paul, using his standard greeting (yet a greeting un-standard in the world in which Paul is writing), takes another moment to proclaim the foundations of the Gospel message. Paul proclaims Grace and Peace, both words that contain within them the power to calm the troubled conscience, troubled mind and soul; Grace forgives sins and Peace quiets the mind and the two are inextricably linked: no peace without grace because grace silences the Law by forgiving sins. And the peace we have as a result of grace’s effectiveness in forgiving sin/s is the peace that Jesus gives, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).
How is this grace and peace (from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ) given to us? Jesus, God of very God/of the same substance of the Father, who was crucified for our sins and was raised for our justification, and by His word and breath (by the power of the Holy Spirit/triune affair) He gives us HIS peace. Luther refers to these words of Paul in v. 4, “These words are a veritable thunderbolt from heaven against every kind of righteousness, as is the statement (John 1:29): ‘Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” (32). Grace and peace are ours by faith in Christ because Christ himself laid down his life to forever dethrone and overthrow the tyrant named sin and set all the captives free from its slavish yolk by his resurrection; we, like Adam before us, are helpless to remedy our problem, we are “dead in our trespasses” (Eph 2:5 and Col 2:13) and God intervened on our behalf to do what it is that we couldn’t do like he did all those many years back in the Garden (Gen 2:18ff).
Far from being a restatement of the law or another Moses, Jesus is the new word, the word that grants grace to forgive sins and gives us peace even in this “evil age” (from which we are delivered). Therefore, to quote Luther,
“…grasp the true definition of Him, namely, that Christ, the Son of God and of the Virgin, is not One who terrifies, troubles, condemns us sinners or calls us to account for our evil past but One who has taken away the sins of the whole world, nailing them to the cross (Co. 2:14) and driving them all the way out by Himself” (37-8).
By faith in Christ we are justified and in being justified we are Christ’s own in union with Him, and in this unity with Christ have been ushered to the Father. Any message that does not carry with it the proclamation of this grace and this peace is not a faithful message of the gospel. And that’s pretty much what Paul is setting up here in the first few introductory remarks to the Galatians. And I could stop here, but I won’t because Paul doesn’t and it just gets better…
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:6-12)
Someone in Galatia used their quiet time to painstakingly write and painstakingly mail a letter to Paul: Something is happening, Paul…these new teachers are saying x, y, and z, and the people are falling for it. Help! For all intents and purposes, Paul’s response is: “Dearest Children what are you doing, to whom are you listening, and to for what message are you falling? If it’s anything but Jesus Christ died for your sins and was raised for your justification, it’s an errant message and those are errant teachers. Run.”
And here we move from being on the side-line looking in at the Galatians, to being addressed. We like the Galatians are fickle and with fickleness comes troubled minds, hearts, and souls. We are flesh and we are easily ensnared by lies, we, like the Galatians before us, are prone to fall for the lies of the “evil present age,” for the lies that drip from the lips of those who would rather bring glory to themselves than to God (ref. Gal 1:5 glory goes to God alone), we are prone to doubt when that age old question presents itself to us in the thick of night, “Did God really say….” It’s not that we seek or even want to be misled, but that we are easily mislead. Just as it takes one minuscule tick left or right from true north to cause directional mayhem in a walk in the wilderness, so it takes one morsel of doubt to undo sound teaching.
Listen to what Paul declares in these verses:
- You have been misled
- You have strayed from He who has called you
- You have wondered to another message
- You are now troubled by this other (distorted) message/Gospel
- There is only one Gospel message
- Accursed is anyone—anyone—who proclaims to you another Gospel
- The message you received from me is to be believed
- I am not sent by nor am I seeking the approval of men but God.
- I did not receive this message from man but from revelation from Jesus/Christ God
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 8,
“For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (vv. 5-6).
There is one God and there is one Gospel proclamation; Paul was sent and commissioned by the One God and given the One Gospel; any other message that contradicts this faithful servant and this faithful message is no Gospel and is an attempt to extinguish the one Gospel message. There is only the one word of the Gospel which brings grace and peace to the fickle heart and troubled mind of human beings; any other word added to this One word or any other word in place of this One Word and our fickleness looms and a troubled mind ensues.
We are wounded and doubting creatures and need to be told things repeatedly: This God, this very God, the creator of heaven and Earth, loves you so much. But not only that, but also this: He will never leave you, nor forsake you no matter how dirty your past and how wounded or skeptical you are of Him. Thus the importance of the preacher proclaiming this very message every Sunday; to do otherwise is to starve the congregation, the hearers (both old and new) of this word of life. Luther writes,
“For if we lose the doctrine of justification, we lose simply everything. Hence the most necessary and important thing is that we teach and repeat this doctrine daily…For it cannot be grasped or held enough or too much. In fact, though we may urge and inculcate it vigorously, no one grasps it perfectly or believes it with all his heart. So frail is our flesh and so disobedient to the spirit” (26)
So, we need to constantly hear, over and over and over again, the single word of the Gospel. We need to hear, over and over and over again that Christ Jesus, this man who is my God, willingly climbed up on the sturdy, old rugged cross, and with strong nails in his hands and feet died for our sins, and was raised for our justification.
We are so prone to disbelieve the activity of God toward us in Christ, in the Cross, that we need to be perpetually told that God truly, and unconditionally loves us–that we are truly justified by faith apart from works.
Did God say…?
Yes, and always yes He did in fact say and THIS is what He said…Hear and be comforted:
“Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” (Matt 11:28)
“So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
Hear also what Saint Paul saith.
“This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (1 Tim. 1:15)
Hear also what Saint John saith.
“If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the Propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 2: 1, 2)
 “This is what happened to Paul, the chosen instrument of Christ (Acts 9:15). With great toil and trouble he had gained the churches of Galatia; but in a short time after his departure the false apostle overthrew them, as this and all his other epistles testify. So weak and miserable is this present life, and so beset are we by the snares of Satan, that one fanatic can often destroy and completely undo in a short time what it took faithful ministers the hard labor of many years day and night to build up” (Luther Galatians 45).