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
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.