May 23, 2016
The Proper 4C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 7:1-10 from the Lectionary Gospel; 1 Kings 18: 20-21, (22-29), 30-39 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 96 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Galatians 1:1-12 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Belgic Confession Article 7
Author: Scott Hoezee
The deeper you get into this brief story, the better the anonymous (and never-seen) centurion looks. First we hear this Roman higher-up has a sick servant, and just this far into the story you could read that as meaning that this man has a piece of property who is not performing well. To certain upper echelon types, this could be the equivalent of a backed-up drain or a sick ox. But then we find out that this centurion likes this servant—whether it’s because they have some kind of relationship that goes beyond master-servant or because the servant is particularly skilled, either way the centurion cannot shrug off the man’s severe illness. He wants him healed and restored.
So he orders a detachment of Jews to fetch this wonder-worker named Jesus he has heard tell of. Again, a foreigner ordering around some of his occupied subjects could be viewed dimly until those folks catch up with Jesus and speak so well of the centurion—and they sound sincere in doing so—that the reader begins to understand that despite the fact that this centurion represented an occupation by Rome that the Jews despised, this particular leader had earned respect, even affection, from the people. He even lent a hand in building up the local synagogue.
Jesus responds immediately but word travels faster than Jesus’ feet because well before he gets to the centurion’s residence, the centurion finds out Jesus is en route and so sends back word to stop him, using an analogy from his own military experience to tell Jesus he can do what needs doing for the sick servant by remote control and so need not enter the centurion’s house—something he considered to be too much of an honor for a man in his position in any event.
Again, if you wanted to take a cynical view of all this, you could suspect the centurion is playing politics here. Maybe some of the Roman higher-up folks who had gotten wind of his kind treatment of the Jews and his deference to their religion didn’t like hearing that kind of thing. Thus, if those same folks found out that this same soft-on-Jews centurion also played host to a Jewish Messianic wannabe who was causing a stir in Palestine . . . well, that would not sit very well at all. So maybe the centurion calculated that it would be safer to keep this Jesus person at bay.
That would certainly be a plausible way to think of this story were it not for Jesus’ own exceptionally positive reaction. Near as we can tell, he never does meet this man but from a distance praises the intensity of his trust and of his faith. Jesus marvels over the fact that even in Israel he seldom if ever ran across such belief, such willingness to be humble and hopeful, trusting and faith-full as this. (Granted, given the reception Jesus typically got among his own people that bar was not set particularly high but still . . .).
We are then told the servant got better just then and just like that. No words are recorded of Jesus to send forth this healing nor do we see Jesus praying to the Father that this be accomplished. Apparently it was all internal to Jesus himself (or he whispered a silent prayer to the Father in his heart).
What a curious little story this is. The potentially cynical or suspicious ways to view the story—fully plausible until events unfold a bit more—all evaporate in the end. Thus what we end up with are three people—Jesus, the centurion, the sick servant—who have a very significant “encounter” with one another—worthy of inclusion in the Gospel—and yet they never lay eyes on each other, never shake hands, never speak in person. Yes, all of this bears witness to Jesus’ amazing power and all of it points to his being the Messiah of God.
But reading this story 2,000 years later—and so roughly two full millennia since Jesus has been able to come in person to the bedside of any sick person—what strikes me most about this story is not just the revelation of divine potency or even per se of Jesus’ compassion. No, what strikes me is that there is something about the central dynamic of this story that reminds me of how we now live by faith in a Jesus who does his work in our lives and beams forth is caring compassion and healing for us and for those we love but who does all of that not in person but through others, through the Spirit, through emanations of divine power.
We don’t get to see Jesus with our waking eyes the way for a few brief years people in the Mediterranean Basin did way back then. Whether or not we, too, would feel unworthy to have Jesus come under the roofs of our houses, the fact is he doesn’t do that now in any event. A few weeks out from Ascension Day and Pentecost, this story can remind us that indeed we live in “the already and the not yet,” in that in-between time during which our Savior is not physically available to us. But perhaps among other things Luke 7 functions in Scripture as a reminder that Jesus can and will do his work anyway. It can happen because it did happen.
The key is faith. The key is trust. The Holy Spirit has graciously given us the gift of faith by grace alone already. As believers who serve the risen and ascended Lord Jesus, we lean into that gracious gift to give us comfort and assurance at all times and especially perhaps in those times when we, too, via our prayers need to send word to Jesus that someone we love is sick, is suffering, is sad, is lonely. Faith tells us the message will get through. Faith tells us Jesus is willing and able to help, even if for now in this still-messy world all things cannot turn out in every instance as we fervently may wish they would.
But Jesus is here for us even though we don’t see him or shake his hand. And when he sees faith in action, I have to think he marvels and delights over this now no less than on that long ago day near Capernaum.
Sometimes when someone in the congregation is ill—and often when it is a particularly dramatic illness or crisis such as anything involving a young child—congregations will organize round-the-clock prayer vigils. I confess that I sometimes wonder about this in terms of the practicalities of prayer and such. Wouldn’t anyone’s bedtime prayer to the effect “Please be with little Sara all through the night, dear God” cover Sara for the night? Can’t God “bank” our prayers and be mindful of them without needing “live” prayers going on and on and piling up before his throne?
Maybe. Maybe not. What I do know is that as a pastor I—like many of you pastors reading this probably—have heard some startling testimonies from parents. Sometimes they may not even have been aware that someone had been assigned to get up out of bed and pray for Sara between 2:00am and 3:30am that morning and yet mothers who sat in uncomfortable chairs at the bedsides of very sick children have told me, “I cannot explain it but I felt a calm all through the night, a presence as though Jesus was right in the room with me. Again, I can’t explain it, but I felt strengthened, buoyed up, despite my anxiety and weariness.”
Maybe when it comes to prayer vigils, what I need is not more pondering about the mechanics of prayer and a bit more faith (and wonder) that our God delights in prayer and has chosen by the Spirit to work through them powerfully and to bring Jesus close to those in need.
1 Kings 18:20-21 (22-29), 30-39
Author: Doug Bratt
It seems that some 21st century North Americans approach religion the way hungry people graze at a buffet. A little bit of this. A smidgeon of that. A little bit of Christianity. A dollop of Buddhism. A sprinkling of Hinduism.
Since God is the God of all truth, people can learn some things from a variety of religions and faiths. Finally, however, all people need to choose to whom and what we’ll give our hearts and lives.
That’s essentially Elijah’s message for I Kings 18’s Israelites. For more than two years God has sealed up the heavens so that no rain or dew has fallen on Israel or much of the rest of the Middle East. So whose fault is this terrible drought? King Ahab implies it’s Elijah’s fault. He, after all, refers to the prophet as Israel’s “troubler,” perhaps because he earlier announced that God would send this drought. Elijah, however, speaks of Ahab as Israel’s troubler because his unfaithfulness has incurred God’s wrath.
Elijah, however, isn’t interested in a theological debate. He wants a public confrontation that will provoke a religious decision. So the prophet challenges Ahab to invite Baal and Asherah’s prophets for a showdown on Mount Carmel.
Once everyone has finally gathered, Elijah first confronts the Israelites. In one sense, he does “trouble” them here. The prophet tries to shake Israel out of her moral and religious complacency. How long, Elijah thunders at them, will they waver, literally, “limp” between two opinions? How long, in other words, will the Israelites divide their religious loyalties between the living God and Baal?
By splitting their religious “tickets,” as it were, the children of Israel weren’t worshipping God in the way God desires. They were sinfully adopting the religious practices of the Canaanites among whom they lived. They were trying to graft the worship of Baal onto their worship of the living God.
Yahweh, however, is a jealous God who permits no competition. The Lord doesn’t want to be just one god among many. God wants to be the one and only object of love, worship and devotion.
In twenty-first century North America, it’s easy to forget that. You and I, after all, live in a society that claims to promote tolerance of various religious and other beliefs. Such tolerance is in many ways necessary in a pluralistic society like our own.
1 Kings 18’s preachers and teachers may want to use this text as an opportunity to explore what it means to be Christian in a religiously diverse society. What are the threats to a wholehearted love and worship of the one true God? How much of other religion’s wisdom can we graft into our own faith without compromising our devotion to the living God?
Perhaps the text’s Israelites find such questions as hard to answer as some of us do. They, after all, remain silent when Elijah asks them if they’ll quit “straddling” the religious “fence.” Yet by refusing to choose between God and Baal, they choose Baal by default. In the face of the Israelites, including the Baal’s four hundred fifty active prophets, Elijah seems to finally recognize he alone worships Yahweh with his whole heart, mind and soul.
For now, however, that doesn’t intimidate him. Elijah arranges a dramatic confrontation between Baal and the living God. Interestingly, however, he arranges this “on Baal’s turf,” as it were. Elijah’s challenge goes right to the heart of Baal’s supposed specialty. Its object, after all, is to light an altar fire.
Certainly Baal should be able to handle this assignment. Remember, after all, that he’s supposedly the god of, among other things, lightning. His followers believe that he’s a specialist at throwing down lightning from heaven. So while Baal may not be able to immediately send Israel rain, he certainly should be able to light an altar fire.
Notice, too, how Elijah stacks the odds stack against Yahweh right from the start. Baal has many allies “on the ground.” There are, after all, four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and four hundred prophets of Asherah. What’s more, Ahab and Jezebel are against him and the Israelites have divided loyalties.
On top of that, the prophet allows Baal’s prophets to go first. In this is a kind of “sudden death” showdown, if Baal somehow manages to light the altar, he wins. So if this were a kind of football playoff game, Yahweh might then never even get a chance to have the ball.
Yet even with all these advantages, Baal and his prophets prove to be impotent. While the prophets are frantic and hyperactive, their god remains placid. For hours the prophets beg Baal to throw down even just one bolt of lightning. The skies, however, remain clear and the altar remains unlit.
This leads Elijah to act almost like a kind of sore winner. He pokes fun of Baal’s frustrated prophets. “Shout louder!” he eggs them on. “Maybe your god’s distracted, busy or out for a walk. Perhaps he’s taking a nap,” or as the Bible literally hints, “he’s in the bathroom.”
Baal and his allies seem overwhelming from a human point of view. From God’s perspective, however, they’re laughable. Baal’s allies are also, however, from God’s point of view, exploitative and abusive. After all, they promote worship of a god who is no god at all. So Baal’s prophets lead their followers down a one-way path to death.
Elijah’s mockery only frustrates Baal’s allies even more. So they shout louder and mutilate themselves with swords and spears until they draw blood. By doing so, biblical scholars note, Baal’s prophets essentially mourn his death. After all, the Canaanites believed that the death god, Mot, once swallowed Baal and temporarily ended fertility. Mourning Baal’s death, the god El then cut himself much the way the prophets do here. So by mutilating themselves, Baal’s allies are mourning for Baal much like another god had once mourned his death.
There is, however, one God for whom no one need mourn: Yahweh. God now proves that God is very alive. Yet as if the odds weren’t already astronomical against him, Elijah publicly “ups the ante.” He virtually floods Yahweh’s altar with water. He also does nothing but pray to God to reveal himself as the living God. Then, unlike Baal’s prophets who frantically seek their god’s power, Elijah simply steps aside and lets God do the work.
And God, in gracious response to Elijah’s passionate prayer to show his power to his people, comes through. God sends lightning from an otherwise cloudless sky. Yahweh sends fire from heaven that leaves nothing standing – not the wood, not the sacrifice, not even the stones, dust or even the water that had once soaked all of it.
By devastating everything, Yahweh leaves no room for doubt that God is the living God. All of this profoundly rattles Israel. When Elijah invited the Israelites to choose between Yahweh, the god of life, and Baal, the god of death, they’d remained silent. Now, just as God’s fire fell, the Israelites fall and confess that Yahweh is the living God. They also seize and slaughter Baal’s remaining prophets.
This story is full of lessons about God’s faithfulness and obedient human response to it. Elijah was a kind of troubler to Israel and her king and queen. He, after all, challenged their infidelity to God. The prophet boldly confronted their syncretistic worship of many different gods. This caused Ahab and Jezebel to put a bounty on his head, to try to kill him.
Elijah’s modern descendants who hear and dare to speak “the word of the Lord,” including those who preach and teach 1 Kings 8, may be unpopular, especially with those, like Ahab, who are in power. People may reject and even persecute us for daring to speak God’s word to various situations. Or they may simply remain largely indifferent, silent in the face of our pleas to give their whole lives to the living God.
Some who worship the various Baals of our day are willing to persecute God’s “troublers.” Those who prefer to limp along rather than commit themselves wholeheartedly to the living God will also call us “troublemakers.” We may even experience rejection from those who claim to serve the Lord.
By the Holy Spirit, 1 Kings 18 gives Christians courage to speak and stand up for the word of the Lord. After all, while their allies may cause us trouble, all of the gods whom the world worships and serves are fully as impotent as Baal. Only one God truly lives: the God whom we worship in Jesus Christ.
From Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures, pp. 29-30:
“[On Mount Carmel Elijah] was like a magician getting ready to pull a rabbit out of a hat. First he had a trench dug around the altar and filled with water. Then he got a bucket brigade going to give the offering a good dowsing, too. Then as soon as they’d finished, he got them to do it again for good measure. By the time they’d finished a third go-round, the whole place was awash, and Elijah looked like he’d just finished swimming the channel. He then gave Yahweh the word to show his stuff and jumped back just in time. Lightning flashed. The water in the trench fizzed like spit on a hot stove. Nothing was left of the offering but a pile of ashes and a smell like the Fourth of July. The onlookers were beside themselves with enthusiasm and at a signal from Elijah, demolished the losing team down to the last prophet. Nobody could say whose victory had been greater, Yahweh’s or Elijah’s.
But the sequel to the event seems to have made this clear. Queen Jezebel was determined to get even with Elijah for what he had done to her spiritual advisers, and so to save his skin he went and hid on Mt. Horeb. Again, he gave Yahweh the word, not because he wanted anything set on fire this time but just to keep his hand in. Again the lightning flashed, and after that a wind came up that almost blew Elijah off his feet, and after that the earth gave such a shake that it almost knocked him silly. But there wasn’t so much as a peep out of Yahweh, and Elijah stood there like a ringmaster when the lion won’t jump through the hoop.
Only when the fireworks were finished and a terrible hush fell over the mountain did Elijah hear something, and what he heard was so much like silence that it was only through the ear of faith that he knew it was Yahweh. Nonetheless, the message came through loud and clear: that there was no longer any question who had been the star at Mount Carmel and that not even Elijah could make the Lord God of Hosts jump through a hoop like a lion or pop out like a rabbit from a hat.”
Author: Stan Mast
There are two very different ways to read this Psalm. If we focus on the Psalmist’s claim that Yahweh is Lord of all nations and the attendant claim that he is far above all the gods of the nations and the in-your-face assertion that, in fact, those gods are nothing but idols, we could call Psalm 96 “the Politically Incorrect Psalm.”
The other lectionary readings for today give credence to that reading of Psalm 96. Elijah (I Kings 18) proves that other gods are completely unable to do anything for their adherents. In the same vein, our reading from Luke 7 shows us that even officers of the pagan Roman army must come to Jesus Christ for healing and salvation. And in hard words to the Galatians Paul insists that there is no other gospel than the one he preaches, because his gospel came by revelation from Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:11, 12). In other words, we might read Psalm 96 as a condemnation of other religions, which, of course, is politically incorrect in our age of tolerance and interfaith dialogue.
Or we could read Psalm 96 as a warm hearted invitation to the nations to come to the God of Israel and find salvation. The Psalmist’s comparison of Yahweh with those other gods is not first of all about “superiority per se, neither the superiority of Israel’s God nor of Israel itself. Rather the point is justice!” (J. Clinton McCann) McCann and others focus not the other gods of verses 4 and 5, but on the promise of justice for all in verses 10-13.
James Luther Mays goes even further and shows how we can hear Psalm 96 as an evangelical Psalm. “In a world threatened by chaos, the vision evoked by Psalm 96 is indeed ‘good tidings.’” Given the world wide injustice that makes so many miserable, the nations need to hear the good news that the God of Israel is coming to “judge the earth… in righteousness and the peoples in his truth.” So, adds Theodore Mascarenhas, Psalm 96 is actually “missionary in character and… it imposes a missionary function upon Israel.”
So, is Psalm 96 a condemnation of other religions or an invitation to the nations to enjoy the salvation of God? Or is it neither or both? Let’s look more carefully at the whole Psalm. It is one of the 6 “Enthronement Psalms” (93, 95-99) that begin Book Four of the Psalter. Many scholars point out that the Psalms in Book Three focus on the Exile, in which Israel lost its land, its temple, and its king. Book Four insists that, contrary to appearances, Israel still has a King. Over and over again it cries, “The Lord reigns.” (verse 10) This is, in fact, the central claim of the entire Psalter, but it rings with special force and clarity in these enthronement Psalms. Mourning in lonely exile, Israel desperately needed the reminder.
What makes Psalm 96 (and some of the other enthronement Psalms) so remarkable is that it is addressed not to Israel, but to the nations. The very people who have carried Israel into Exile are here called to recognize that Yahweh reigns. Indeed, the call of Psalm 96 is not just to recognize, but to “sing, sing, sing, proclaim, declare, and ascribe to the Lord glory due his name.” That call goes out to “all the earth, the nations, all peoples, families of the earth.” No one is exempt from those imperatives. No one is left out; all are included in the call that was usually reserved for the covenant people of Israel.
There is a new song to sing—not a new melody with fresh lyrics, but a new work of God that has brought a new epoch in the history of Israel and the world. The nations are not called to sing a new tune, but to sing of a new time. “Proclaim his salvation day after day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.” It sounds as though this new thing that God will do for Israel will also benefit the whole world. That is, indeed, the claim in verses 10-13.
But there is also this business of the other gods that are worshiped by the nations of the world. The Psalmist will have no truck with them. The reason the nations are to praise Yahweh is that he is great and worthy of praise, contrary to those other gods. Yahweh is to be feared above all gods. That’s not just because he is bigger and better, though he is. That would be an offensive enough claim to the nations. But the Psalmist goes on to claim, with the entire Old and New Testaments, that those other gods are nothing at all. They are idols, mere creations of human minds and hands. There is nothing beyond the image—just vanity, emptiness, futility. As I Kings 18 says of Baal, “there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention,” because Baal and all other gods do not exist beyond the idol. Yahweh, on the hand, “made the heavens” where the gods are alleged to dwell.
So, does this denigration of the gods of the nations mean that the nations have no part in God’s salvation? Not all. But the nations must do what Israel has done. They must “fear” the Lord (verse 4); they must “tremble before him” (verse 9); and they must “come into his courts” (verse 8). The reigning Lord is coming to bring justice to an unjust world, but to enjoy the benefits of his righteous reign, all must come to him.
When the Lord came to the world in the person of Jesus, the Risen Christ sent his disciples to all nations to make them disciples of Jesus. At the heart of becoming a disciple of Christ is a believing response to the call to “turn to God from idols and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus who rescues us from the coming wrath.” (I Thess. 1:9 and 10)
Psalm 96 doesn’t talk about the wrath to come at the Final Judgment. The frequent use of the word “judge” and its corollaries doesn’t seem to be a threat here. This is probably not about the “Great White Throne Judgment” of Revelation. This proclamation of judgment is seen as promise, as good news. When God comes, he will “establish justice.” That’s the real meaning of the two Hebrew roots translated “judge.”
The Psalm claims that Yahweh reigns even now. That present reign of Yahweh has two consequences. First, “the world is firmly established, it cannot be moved.” That is, we can rely on the stability of nature because Yahweh is in charge. Chaos does not reign. The Lord does. Second, “he will judge the peoples with equity.” We can count on justice in the world. Those are the two great longings of every human heart—for a predictable and just existence. The heavens and the earth, the sea and the land, the fields and the trees sing for joy because of the present reign of the Lord..
But we humans often have a hard time joining the rest of creation in their song. That’s because Psalm 96 and other enthronement Psalms don’t seem to be true. It sure doesn’t look as though Yahweh reigns, because there is disorder and injustice everywhere. Thus, human hearts cry out in disappointment and frustration. That’s why Psalm 96 invites, even commands the nations to sing a new song. God is going to do a new thing. God will come to judge the earth. And when he does, the entire human race will join all nature in singing God’s praise.
He will establish justice on the (new) earth by putting all things right. No more abuse of power, no more moral corruption, no more arbitrary justice, no more exploitation. He will “judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth.” J. Clinton McCann puts it well. “In a world weary of old patterns of injustice and unrighteousness, the best possible news is that God is still at work, creating new possibilities for life that are properly welcomed, celebrated, and facilitated by the singing of a ‘new song.’”
But we can sing that new song only if we receive the coming King. The news that Yahweh is coming to judge the earth is not good news for anyone who is still bowing down to Baal and other false gods and perpetrating injustice. When Jesus announced that the Kingdom had indeed come, he always added, “Repent and believe the good news!”
James Luther Mays nicely combines the universal invitation of Psalm 96 with its hard words about other gods. “The audience of the Gospel (“The Lord reigns!”) is the nations and peoples of the earth. Its purpose is to turn them from their gods to the God whose reign means stability for the world and equity for the peoples.” Many scholars note the similarities between Psalm 96 and Isaiah 40-55. Isaiah 45:22 sums up the invitation of Psalm 96. “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.”
Is that politically incorrect? Yes, if it is used to justify unjust treatment of other religions. The benefit of inter-faith dialogue is that it humanizes “the other” and impresses on all participants the need to love those who are different. “They” are just like “us” in many ways. But the hard words of Psalm 96 and Isaiah 45 and John 3:16-18 remind us that real love means speaking the truth, even if our words are judged to be politically incorrect. If we believe that there is real benefit in serving the Lord Jesus today and, even more, if we are convinced that he is coming to judge the living and the dead, then love means calling people to turn away from dead idols to the risen and living God.
Psalm 96 gives us opportunity to preach a warm hearted, but uncompromising Gospel message about God’s rich offer of salvation to all who will say, “The Lord reigns! Jesus is Lord!”
The Supreme Court is often in the news, but even more so lately because of the untimely death of Justice Scalia. The subsequent controversy about the naming of a new justice shows just how important justice is, and how easily justice becomes a political thing. The “truth” of either party dominates the discussion. This gives poignancy and power to those last words of Psalm 96. When Yahweh comes to judge the earth, he will do so, not according to the Democratic or Republican version of the truth, but according to his truth. Thank God!
Author: Scott Hoezee
Good thing the Galatian Christians did not have access to Paul’s other letters. Because if they could read something like what we now call Philippians or Ephesians or almost any of the other dozen letters from Paul we have in the New Testament, surely they would be tempted to sing that song from Sesame Street: “One of these things is not like the others . . .” The opening to the Galatians is very definitely not like Paul’s other letters.
“Where is OUR thanksgiving section, Pastor Paul?” the Galatians would want to ask were they to compare their letter to the others. After the usual epistolary greetings and such in the first four verses—replete with a doxology to God—Paul launches directly into the letter without anything akin to “I thank God in all my remembrances of you as I have heard of your faithful service and partnership in the Gospel . . .” Oh no, not here. Not in Galatians. Instead Paul lunges out of the starting gate with a purple-faced tirade that amounts to his writing, “You IDIOTS! You fools! How in the world have you come to believe a false gospel so soon after I preached the real gospel to you!!!???”
In Paul Scott Wilson’s homiletics, students are taught to look for the “Trouble in the Text.” This is the “Wassup?” question about the biblical text that often helps locate some tension, some issue, some problem or question that gave rise to the text in the first place and that probably still relates to some similar—if not identical—Trouble that is in our lives yet today. Well, in the case of Galatians 1 the Trouble is clearly Paul’s pure pique at something going on in Galatia, and it does not require much more digging in the wider text of Galatians to figure out what that is.
And just to show you that the Troubles in the Text very often—if not almost all the time—still translate well into our current world, just consider this slogan that was emblazoned on a t-shirt I saw for sale in some junky Christian catalogue I got in the mail a while back: “Jesus Did His Best, You Do the Rest.”
That’s hogwash and heresy, of course, but it is also exactly the heresy that beset the Galatian church. False teachers—possibly under some Judaizing influence—swept into the church in Galatia after Paul left and scorned Paul’s “salvation by grace alone” message. Grace, they claimed, gets you a good ways down the road to salvation, true enough, but if you REALLY want to be saved, you have to do a lot of other stuff yourself to get across the Finish Line. Get circumcised, keep kosher, watch your step and follow the rules. No doubt about it: Jesus got the salvation ball rolling BUT you have to keep it rolling yourselves. Jesus did his best and as to the rest . . . that’s up to you.
Well, Paul was having none of it and he had no interest in having the Galatians think this way for one more minute if he could help it. To say that Paul does not mince words is a vast understatement. He curses, he damns, those who are pedaling this false message that humans have anything whatsoever to do with their own salvation. As Paul will make clear in subsequent parts of Galatians—and that will be Lectionary passages coming up in the next few weeks of the Year C Lectionary cycle—the very cross of Christ is drained of meaning when you think this way. If there had been some other way—any way whatsoever—to get salvation done, do you think God’s own Son would have had to go all the way to a gruesome death on an instrument of Roman humiliation and execution? Nobody who understands the cross would suggest anything else, and in a burst of hyperbole Paul says that this includes angels from heaven or he himself. Anybody who demeans Christ’s cross by suggesting that human beings could contribute anything to salvation is a false witness and worthy of being cursed.
But, of course, Paul knows full well that there were those in Galatia who had been and still were saying such things and so he slams them hard. First he says that if he wanted to be a people-pleaser, he’d preach a message like that too. No one likes to be told they are totally helpless, completely lost, sinful as can be right to the core. That’s off-putting. That offends. Far better to tell people “Well now . . . you aren’t so bad off. You’ve got stuff to offer. You have things YOU can still do under your own power to get yourself saved.” That’s what you’d say if you wanted to be nicer to people, Paul claims, but if you happen to think it’s more important to be nicer to God . . . then you tell the Gospel truth that sin’s effects on humanity are beyond devastating and you need God’s help 150% to get saved.
And just to make the point even more vividly, Paul adds that wherever it was these false teachers got THEIR ideas, Paul got his ideas from—eh-hem and drumroll please—Jesus Christ himself and directly from Jesus at that! Talk about being a name dropper! But there it is and as Paul makes clear elsewhere in Galatians and as he told people like the Philippians too, not only was this salvation by grace alone scheme not Paul’s own idea, it was the exact opposite of what he used to believe in his Pharisee days. But when Christ Jesus the Lord himself reveals to you something else, that settles the matter more than just a little bit.
Paul’s level of anger and even rage at the corrupting of the Gospel is an instructive thing for us preachers to read these days, especially in the American context where rags-to-riches stories of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps have long exercised a powerful tug on people’s imaginations. Modern people want to believe in themselves, want to be optimistic and embody a can-do spirit of opportunity and achievement. If downplaying our sinfulness is a way to get visitors into the church and if sunny promises of human-based rewards keeps them in the church once they get there, then that’s what we’ll preach. The main thing is that we still say mostly nice things about Jesus and find some place for the cross in our worship and preaching. That we maybe water it down a bit—stir in a little capitalist Horatio Alger sugar to make the gospel medicine go down—well what’s the harm?
Paul happened to believe that the “harm” in question is fatal. And if there is anything to Paul’s warnings about being cursed if you preach something else that waters down the centrality of Christ’s cross, then those of us who preach have more than a little cause to sit up straight, pay attention, and stack up our preaching against the Gospel Paul preached in Galatia and elsewhere.
At various points in her new book The Crucifixion, author and pastor Fleming Rutledge grapples with a question that has occurred to many of us at one time or another: would Christ’s death have the same atoning and saving significance if he had died some other way than being nailed to a cross? Could Christ’s peerless and sinless life have saved us if he had gotten run over by a Roman chariot? If he dropped dead of a heart attack? If Judas had just slipped a knife between Jesus’ ribs in the upper room instead of fleeing into the night to betray Jesus to the Romans? Is there anything about the cross itself that is peculiarly salvific and, in the grand scheme of things, necessary to achieve salvation?
Along with the shank of the Christian tradition, Rutledge answers this in the affirmative. The godlessness of the cross, the accursed nature of anyone who dies that way, the public spectacle and particular humiliation of a crucifixion: all these things were in accord with the nature of what had to happen for God to overcome sin and the power of death. The cross as public spectacle—and as a form of execution the Romans reserved for the lowest of the low class of people—was itself a sign and symbol and finally also the REALITY of what had to happen to God’s own Son for everything that was wrong with the universe to be set to right.
There is something about the very cross itself that tells us that what needed to happen for the atonement to be real is absolutely not something any human being could ever hope to achieve on his own. The cross itself—not as decoration, not as a piece of jewelry, not as some inspiring symbol of hope—tells us that if we think for one moment that we human beings have something to chip in to getting ourselves saved, we are deluded. And if we try to get other people to believe this same delusion, well, we come under the curse of God.
One wonders if even regular church-going folks today appreciate what that cross in the front of the sanctuary or that cross featured on the church’s sign out front really means.