Lesson 8 Faith: Trusting the Map (Galatians)

If scholars are right, Galatians is the second earliest book in the New Testament. It proclaims the heart of Paul’s message, justification by faith.

It pretty evident Paul never wrote thinking his letter would become part of our Bible. His emotions almost get the better of him as he defends his authority as an apostle, calling his opponents hypocrites, cursing them, and even wishing they might castrate themselves. This circumcision faction, who appears in almost all his letters, agreed Jesus welcomed Gentiles into the covenant community, but insisted they had to adopt Jewish traditions.  Many scholars think this involved all the ritual laws, such as diet and calendar. “Circumcision” just highlighted the most critical issue. Not only is adult circumcision painful, it also excludes women.

Paul comes down firmly, claiming there is no other way but his. If you are going to practice Hebrew tradition, then you must rely on its efficacy and it can not make good the promises you think are there. In this new Age of the Spirit God provides faith. Faith active in love is all that matters (Galatians 5:6). Galatians gives Martin Luther reason to add “alone” to Paul’s slogan “justification by grace through faith”. We’ll find Paul in later letters is more understanding towards those who feel a need to have concrete requirements, but not here.

Usually we try to explain justification by grace through faith by simply defining terms. A modern way to do that would be to speak of salvation (justification) being a gift (grace) that is made operative by trusting (having faith in) God’s promise. Let me try doing it by looking at Paul’s assumptions.

His version of the Gospel is: But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our* hearts, crying, ‘Abba!* Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.*  (Galatians 4: 4-7)

Salvation is being in a proper relationship with God. Later Paul will speak of it as righteousness or a right relationship. The good news or Gospel is that God establishes that right relationship by bringing us into his family. He adopts us as his children.

He emphasizes this by using “abba”, an Aramaic word that must have been the term Jesus used in addressing God. Now God grants us the right to use the same. God treats us as his children, and we should regard him as our father. As soon as we do that, everything changes. There is a mighty big difference between seeing God as king and our “daddy”. We are now in a loving rather than a legal relationship. We are now part of the loving relationship that God and Jesus enjoy. The Old Testament might offer a few places that speak of God as father, but for the most part one of Christianity’s big advances is the constant use of “Our Father”.

It is sort of silly to speak of earning the love of your father. Love lays out an entirely different program. It involves trust or faith rather than obedience to rules. So Paul can proclaim: “we know that a person is justified* not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.* ….I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God,* who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification* comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. (Galatians 2: 15-21)

The only way I understand these words is to put them in the context of “falling in love”. When I fall in love, I can describe myself as a completely new creation, a new person. I might say I no longer live for myself, but rather for my lover, just as Paul says he lives “in Christ”. I am so infatuated that all of my life revolves around the loved one. All I think about is the other. All I talk about is the other. I am ready to give my life for her or him. If my life had been focused on what I wanted to do, if I had goals and set my jaw pursuing them, once I was in love that changed. Now my future includes the loved one. You could say that my old self died or had been crucified. It is ridiculous to see this in terms of achievement, as if it is something earned. Instead, we speak of “falling in” love. Someone came along, offered me love, and I could not help myself. I did not make a decision. I “fell in” love. Everything else followed naturally, out of my control. I heard the Gospel and gave my life to Christ. Faith in Christ is always active in love.

Although we must be a little careful, we can begin to act for one another. In Galatians 4:14 Paul says his people accepted him as an angel of God or even as Christ Jesus himself. This led to one of the often misunderstood Lutheran concepts that we should operate as “little Christs”. I think Paul would have accepted Luther’s idea, as he certainly believed that Christian suffering complements and continues Jesus’ suffering for the world.

In the last lesson I spoke of my difficulty in translating Christian waiting for the Day of the Lord and our resurrection into terms that twenty-first people could really understand. Notice that has little or no part in Paul’s argument in Galatians. Here it is not so much that the Christian life is played out in the interim between Jesus’ and our resurrections.  Now the two ages overlap. Christians live now in both the old and the new age. We can begin to live as if the kingdom were here, as if Jesus does rule. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring,* heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3: 27-29)

Paul offers fast and furious arguments to back up his claim, a couple of them pretty weak. Perhaps the best two are the first which says “How can you deny my gospel; it worked for you” and the last which says, “I have a right to speak thus, because I bear the marks of Jesus”. He is referring not to the stigmata we associate with some mystics, but the scars from frequent whippings by the political and religious authorities. He also argues Jesus gave him this Gospel directly, apparently referring to the Damascus Road and maybe other similar experiences.

His most involved argument uses a prophetic perspective that gave priority to Abraham over Moses. Faith preceded law in history. Law was added later as a temporary measure until the Spirit made our relationship with God firm. That which we see happening around us is fulfilling God’s promise that he would bless  Abraham, so his people could bless the whole world.(Genesis 12:1-4 ) That covenant was based on Abraham’s faith being regarded as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)

In some fashion we might say that salvation is really built on God’s, not our faith. God is faithful to his promise, even if we are not. He continues to love us, even when we do our best to make ourselves unlovable. He is like a father who never gives up on his children.

Quite frankly, this is enough for me. This interpretation of Jesus’ cross and resurrection makes Paul my hero. He might get some other things wrong, but he nails this one. Faith is trust in a person, not in doctrines. Faith is complete trust, not rational choice that weighs pros and cons in order to make   an intellectual decision. Faith is stumbling behind Jesus, even falling on our faces, as we struggle to keep up. It is not living by laws of creation which he reveals to us, so we can be rich and better than the other children in the family (as televangelists constantly shout). Faith grants us incredible freedom to operate in a very uncertain world.

Be sure to read Galatians 5 and 6 before Tuesday lesson. It will look at what Paul means by “faith active in love”. You might use “comments” to discuss what you think about understanding “faith” as “falling in love.”

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