Monday, March 12, 2012

Death to People Pleasing (Scandal series)

Galatians 1:1-17
Apologies for formatting irregularities ... am transferring from a computer without internet access to another that does not have the same software.

First, some background: Last week, we began this series of messages,

“Scandal: The Foolish Grace of God”, with a look at 1 Corinthians 1 and

what could be a theme verse, 1.23, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a

stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”

The Greek word translated “stumbling block” is “skandalon”, the root

for our English word “scandal”. The word for “foolishness” is “moria”, the

root for our word “moron”.

Last week, as they opened the series, Curvin said that God’s word to

us “makes no sense”. Chris declared that the “event of the cross” is

“incompatible with human reasoning”.

Part of the reason that the gospel makes no sense is that, in the words of

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die”

The Cost of Discipleship, 99). So, over this season of Lent, the time of

preparation for Good Friday (Christ crucified) and for Easter (Christ

victorious), we are going to dive into the letter of the apostle Paul to the

Galatians, a letter in which Paul makes clear that following Jesus involves

embracing our own death: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer

live” (Galatians 2.19-20).

There’s a bit more going on in the letter. Paul had started these

churches, with the gospel of Christ crucified, but they were adding to the

gospel, embracing what Paul called “another gospel” all together – the

message that Gentiles had to become Jews in order to become Christians,

that men have to be circumcised and we all have to follow the Law of

Moses. And, if you have been around religious people long enough, you

know that religion is often rule-focused, especially on a list of things that we

are not supposed to do. Paul’s focus, however, was on the spectacular

freedom we have in following Jesus. Instead of celebrating that, however,

and doing so in a healthy way, we find it much easier to clarify rules, define

who is in or out of our boundary line, and book our friends on a guilt trip.

Paul is distressed. His letters often begin with a celebration of his

relationship with the church, their shared struggles, the great news he is

hearing. But not here. He dives right in: “I am astonished that you are so

quickly deserting” (1.6). Paul typically dictates to a secretary, perhaps

because of a vision impairment. But not here, he has to write, and now, no

matter that he doesn’t have a secretary available. He writes, in 6.11, “See

what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!”

I am reminded of a story, from about 15 years ago, of some Orthodox

monks in the Midwest. A new member of their order, a young man, came

out of a Goth background, back before Goth became mainstream and

trendy. They decided to reach out to young people in the Gothic

subculture, opened a coffeehouse with incense (worship incense

repurposed for evangelism), and published a magazine off a copy machine.

The front cover featured a monk in a black cowl, hooded head, and long

grey beard. The monk is holding a human skull. And the title? “Death to

Self”. It was a great hook for Gothic youth, but you call this good news?

Death to self? Scandalous and moronic might be more like it.

The first arena of “death to self” that Paul reveals in Galatians is out of his

own experience, and indeed is part of the defense of his gospel. He

introduces himself as an “apostle – sent neither by human commission nor

from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father”

(1.1). He declares that “the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of

human origin” (1.11). He says that after he met Jesus in that vision on the

Damascus Road, “I did not confer with any human being” (1.16).

“Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying

to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of

Christ” (1.10).

Wow. Anyone here trying to please people? Maybe we’re not dead

yet. Dead people aren’t worried about pleasing people. “For you died, and

your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3.3). Death to people


Just what I wanted to hear! Now I can do whatever I want! Not so fast.

Am I a “people”? “If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of

Christ.” Maybe we’re not dead yet. Dead people aren’t worried about

pleasing themselves. “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in

God.” The only thing that will matter in our death is pleasing God. And,

we’ll let God take care of pleasing us. In my experience, at any rate, God

does a much better, and much wiser job, of that than I do. Death to people


Right now, in our congregation, we’ve got a lot of grief and pain. This

message of “death to self” is not about minimizing our grief or trivializing

our pain. Those are real things, and we know that “Jesus wept” real tears

(John 11.35). W e also know that, theologically speaking, if we are “in

Christ”, then death is behind us. Our old self, with all its self-absorbed

motivations, with all that desire to look good, with all that drive to feel good

by making other people happy – and it’s really the surest way to misery –

all of that is dead in “Christ crucified”. Death is behind us, and because of

that, Life is ahead of us. As Paul tells the Galatians, “Don’t let yourself be

burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (5.1).

There’s a wonderful old story, a fable, that I read years ago. I can’t

remember where it comes from, so if you know, please tell me.

A father and son are going on a journey and taking the family donkey.

The son rides the donkey and the father leads the beast. They go through

a town and hear people muttering, “Why is that strong kid riding the donkey

while the older man is walking? That’s just wrong.”

The father and son switch. The father rides, the son leads. In the next

town they hear people muttering, “Why does that man make his son walk

when he is quite capable of walking? That’s plain mean.”

The father and son both ride the donkey. In the next town, they hear

people muttering, “Why do both of them ride that old broken down beast?

They are going to drive it to the grave! That’s abusive.”

Not certain what to do next, the father and son resolve to carry the

donkey. They are strong enough, but the donkey just isn’t accustomed to

being carried. W hile they are crossing a bridge, the donkey squirms, they

lose their grip, and the donkey falls into the chasm below.

The moral of the tale: If you spend all your time pleasing people,

sooner or later you’re going to lose your . . . donkey. Death to people


This is, of course, much easier to say than to live. The theological truth is

that we die in Christ and rise to a new life. As a practical matter, however,

a death to people pleasing means that we must love Jesus first. “The only

thing that counts is faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). As we love

Jesus first, we’ll have the integrity, wisdom, and compassion, to say “no” to

people pleasing, to live into that Life that lies ahead for us, and to explain

our choices to people who are used to the “Old Me”. “I’m sorry that I am

unable to please you right now. I still love you, and I love Jesus first.”

And, when it comes to pleasing ourselves, to what folks call the “duty

to self” ethic, we are faced again with this Table, and with Christ crucified.

We are invited to take up our cross. “When Christ calls a man, he bids him

come and die.” And, we are given the assurance that the Jesus who loves

us first will care for the things that truly matter.

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