Mission Statement: The Lutheran Church of Our Saviour desires to be a community of Christians whose faith is active in love.

Moving The Boundaries

May 9, 2021
Galatians 1:1-5; 2:11-21

Each November, our church treasurer and member of the property committee spends an hour or so pounding stakes along the edge of the church parking lot.

It’s a sure sign of an impending winter.

During the following months, as the snow flies, these stakes mark the boundaries for the people clearing the lot and sidewalks around the church. The stakes allow them … and the people parking during non-pandemic winters … to see and know where the boundaries between parking lot and grass lie.

Last week, we heard about how a council in Jerusalem debated with Paul, Peter and Barnabas over the issue of requiring Gentile converts to be circumcised in order to meet the requisites of the covenant.

Today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians underscores that this issue was one that lingered for years … cropping up in congregations across the region and not just in Antioch or Jerusalem.

Even though it was decided that Gentiles didn’t need to be circumcised, there were still some who disagreed with the decision and took it upon themselves to address the matter.

Teachers have shown up in the congregations and have begun to stress the need to follow tradition by being circumcised and stop sharing meals … which didn’t follow the dietary restrictions, by the way … with uncircumcised people.

Cephas … Peter … withdrew from sharing the table with Gentiles after representatives from Jerusalem showed up with their reminder of what the Law called for. Paul takes issue with Peter’s actions … and those of the other teachers … who he calls unprincipled because their actions are motivated by fear of persecution by those who wanted strict adherence to the Torah … to tradition.

For these teachers, faith only represented the first step for the Gentile converts … the next was adherence to the things they believed marked life in Jewish communities.

With his letter to the Galatians, Paul was aiming to stop a split in the congregations in that region – people were in the process of leaving and following the teachers who had arrived after Paul had left to plant congregations elsewhere.

These individuals were proclaiming that the people would only receive the Spirit through following the Law – through their actions – rather than through their faith that they have already received grace through Christ.

Luther has problems with this theology centuries after Paul wrote his letter.

In his sermon on today’s passage Luther wrote “Either we are not justified by Christ, or we are not justified by the Law. The fact is, we are justified by Christ.” 

… we are justified by Christ.

God’s grace is expansive … through Jesus’ death and resurrection … it has been given to all through faith.

The focus of Paul’s letter was to defend the inclusion of Gentiles into the church … to foster a sense of inclusion … of belonging. The letter serves as a reminder that God’s love … God’s grace … is present whether you follow traditional practices or not.

It is about allowing the Holy Spirit to do its work within us and not trying to place limitations upon it.

Pastor Mary Hinkle Shore suggests an experiment involving this week’s passage of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

She recommends changing the words “justify” and “justification” to “belong” and “belonging”

So, the passage:

We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.

Would become:

We know that a person belongs not by the works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might belong by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will belong by the works of the law.

Viewed this way, it means our place … our identity … within the community is more authentic … is more deeper … than if it was marked simply by following tradition or expectations by rote.

Changing the words in this passage, Shore says, leads us to ask:

How do people know they belong?

How do we know we belong to God?

And,

If we do belong to God, how do others know?

Again, to save you backing up the recording, the questions are:

How do people know they belong?

How do we know we belong to God?

And,

If we do belong to God, how do others know?

Justification through faith is about inclusion … it’s about widening the circle to bring more people into community … affirming their worth and valuing their presence.

Early last week, I came across a social media post from a pastor acquaintance out west. In the post, the pastor wondered if congregations value unity for unity’s sake and if congregations and denominations are hesitant to make statements about inclusion of LGBTQIA persons out of a concern for unity. The writer asked what are these congregations and denominations sacrificing for the sake of a sense of unity?

That’s a fair question … and one we are each invited to consider … are we living into the gospel promise by allowing exclusion through silence? Are we being radically welcoming and seeking out those who have been marginalized, victimized or oppressed and showing them that they belong? Or do we allow the status quo to remain in place because of concerns over someone’s reaction to such inclusion into the faith community.

Rev. Robb A. McCoy is a Methodist pastor. In a recent podcast on today’s passage he said,

“There is a need in a lot of institutions and a lot of places where when the holy spirit gets moving and change starts happening, and new people start showing up … that there is an automatic impulse to go back, to stop, to put on the brakes because diversity is hard and new ideas are scary.”

That is what the Galatian congregations were dealing with … and it’s what churches face today.

Paul shares his conversion experience with the congregations and shows that faith doesn’t necessarily call for people to give up their identities … but rather faith reorients life … to shed what hinders us from being in a right relationship with God. Faith calls people to live out the love that God has given through Christ.

The Galatians … Paul says … need to be open to the Spirit working in new ways … just as he was as he walked the road to Damascus. The same holds true for us today.

Like the markers along the edge of the parking lot … the Spirit and how it works in and through us … marks our identity and the identity of our faith communities.

These are the expansive, inclusive actions that truly mark us as children of God … and ones that call us to be with those who tradition and practice have served to exclude and show that they are welcome at the table as well.

AMEN

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