Reflecting on Paul’s words, I realize that I do so in a state of relative safety. In the past week a major earthquake has devastated Japan, and America has entered in a military conflict with Libya. Writing about Paul, the Galatians, and faith feels like a real luxury. But our current context does help me think about Paul and the early Christians. These were people who lived in troubled times as well. Central Turkey, where the Galatians had settled three hundred years before Paul preached the gospel to them, has known many earthquakes. The area had also, because it was extremely fertile, known the ravages of war. When the Galatians had a bumper crop, they knew they had to beware of their neighbors. In this part of the world, the Galatians had built elaborate underground cities to which they could retreat when their neighbors come calling…and pillaging. Life was not stable for these people. Becoming followers of Jesus Christ potentially put them at further risk….risk of social and political ostracization and economic marginalization. And the last thing these folks needed was a conflict within their new faith family.
But family strife is what they’ve got. In Paul’s absence from them, some preachers have come and told the Galatians that they aren’t really part of God’s family, because they aren’t truly part of Abraham (their father in faith). There are some actions they need to take to be truly part of race of God’s chosen people. When Paul hears about this development, he goes ballistic. He even insults the Galatians. By calling them “foolish” he is saying, “You impetuous Celts are living according to your ethnic stereotype: you are acting without thinking! You get all upset because someone has told you that you’re not part of the family? Well, let me tell you something: you already have everything! You have the Spirit of God. I know you do, because I witnessed it. There were ‘deeds of power’ (miracles) done in your midst. You were inspired to trust God’s faithfulness. You were living as a loving family. What more did you need?”
Paul goes on to tell the Galatians that if they wanted to be part of God’s family started in Abraham, the way into the family wasn’t through following some legal code. No! the way into God’s family was through the faithfulness of God’s son, who has liberated all humanity from being slaves, to being “sons” in a household. It was God’s plan all along to bless the Gentiles and bring them into God’s family. Sure, God was going to do this through Abraham, but the crucial part of this was faith, not circumcision. Anyway, Abraham was really only important because eventually God’s Christ and his Spirit would be the fulfillment of all that God had promised to Abraham. We can all be offspring of Abraham through faith, and even more importantly we can all be children of God through Jesus. Everything that separates people in the family of faith has been obliterated in Christ’s death: ethnic distinctions (no more Jews or Gentiles), class distinctions (no more slaves or free people), and gender inequality (no more ‘male and female’). All are one. It’s a radical claim…especially because we still feel those divisions today. In the church it is not to be so. And outside the church walls we are to reflect this same dynamic as we enact our faith in the world. In Jesus Christ, God has created a family of equals. This family is ruled and guided, inspired and energized by love…Love!
In the midst of earthquakes and military conflict it is truly not a luxury to read scripture and reflect on its meaning for us today. This topsy-turvy world is in desperate need of hearing about, and feeling, the effects of our having been loved by God, of our having been made a family of equals. In an abrasive world, we all need to be reminded that the rough edges of grace hone and temper us, leaving us empowered to serve our human family with Spirit-motivated love.