Sunday, March 25, 2012

Death to Self-Righteousness

Audio file.

Galatians 2:11-3:5, 3:23-3:29

Wow!  Did you notice that there is some conflict going on here?  Did you hear that there was hypocrisy going on?  Did you notice that one of the leading apostles, Peter himself, was in on the hypocrisy?  Do you notice some people refusing to eat with other people, because they are “better” than them?  Sometimes today I shake my head at the stupid things that God’s people do and say, the way we totally miss the point and are never so proud of being right.  So, conflict, pride, hypocrisy – nothing new.  And, maybe when so much is at stake, our understanding of God, our understanding of ourselves, maybe a little conflict and hypocrisy is to be expected.  We’re dealing with people after all.
            Here at Bethany, we ask members to commit to “guard the unity of our congregation by the practice of reconciliation”.  In this passage, we get an inside look at reconciliation in practice, a reconciliation that, in this case must begin with a confrontation.  And that by a master of confrontation, the apostle Paul himself, calling out Peter and others.  This not simply the act of someone with an axe to grind, a personal pet peeve.  This is the act of someone desperate to protect the gospel, someone who sees the essential Christian commitment compromised by a history of racial suspicion and righteous superiority.
            Paul called Peter, and us, to a death to self-righteousness, and, by extension, a death to division, to all racial and other forms of superiority.  At the foot of the cross, Paul exclaims, we are all equal, we are all God’s children.

Some background: Paul’s sending church was the church in Antioch.  The conflict he refers to here also shows up in the account in the book of Acts.  Peter had been called by God to share the gospel with a Gentile, a centurion named Cornelius, and Jewish believers questioned his judgment.  Paul and Barnabas, sent out on mission from Antioch, head to Jerusalem for the first “church council”, to discuss how non Jews – Gentiles – can be integrated fully into the church, a church that began initially with Jews only.  The big question: Do Gentiles have to become Jews in order to become disciples of Jesus?  That is, do they have to be circumcised and embrace the Law of Moses, the Torah?  The answer given in that first council was “No. Gentiles do not need to become Jews, and Jews can embrace Gentiles as equal brothers and sisters in the family of faith.”  But an assertion like that is so difficult to live out in practice.
            So, when Peter is visiting Antioch, he’s socializing comfortably with Gentiles until the “circumcision faction” shows up.  And that moment of weakness, caving to the pressure of others and the history of racial suspicion and righteous superiority, that hypocrisy moved Paul to hold Peter to account – not to Paul but to the gospel.

Now, if you remember that our message series is “Scandal: The Foolish Grace of God”, you might ask, “What is scandalous or foolish about this?  We all embrace radical equality!  It’s the American ideal of ‘all men . . . created equal’.”

Not so fast.  We’re not quite as in to equality as we like to think.  We’ve all got some prejudicial thinking going on.  In Paul’s time, the idea he states in 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” – that idea was then, and still is, a BIG DEAL.  And we have trouble with it today.  Liberal or conservative?  Gay or straight?  Poor or rich?  And, in a year of presidential politics, there’s plenty of inflammatory language to go around.  If you’re like me, you’re welcome to the table, but if not, we can’t be friends, let alone brothers and sisters in Christ.  “There is no longer liberal or conservative, there is no longer rich or poor, there is no longer straight or gay; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  Would Paul say it that way, today?  It might be a little scandalous.
            But that’s just scratching the surface of this foolishness, this “moronic” (to use the Greek term), this moronic gospel.  For Paul, this radical equality in Jesus Christ is not based on any of the conventional ideas that we embrace today.  For Paul, there is no ethical relativism, no abolition of sin, no essential goodness of human beings.  Instead, Christian equality, at least in this particular passage, is based on human sin!  In 2:15, in his argument with Peter, he borrows the language of Jewish racial suspicion of Gentiles: “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’”.  Then, in 2:17, he declares, “we ourselves have been found to be sinners”.  He uses the same Greek word in both cases, and adds an extra one for good measure in 2:18, calling all human beings “lawbreakers”.

Anyone ever pirate music?  Anyone ever text and drive?  Anyone ever exceed the speed limit?  Anyone ever tell a lie?  Anyone ever steal?  Lawbreakers, and sinners, all of us!  What a wonderful basis for equality!  And, here’s the good news: Jesus declared that he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners (Matthew 9:13).  Good people don’t go to heaven!  Only bad people, only sinners!  And that’s scandalous!  We work so hard to be good.  We evaluate other people on their goodness, “He was a good person; I’m sure he’s with God”.  And, in that moment, we make ourselves our own savior.  We make our righteousness the measuring stick by which others are saved or condemned.  No wonder religious people are known for being judgmental . . . . We’ve abandoned the gospel in favor of saving ourselves by our own righteousness!  We know, or at least we affirm in words, “a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (2:16).  But in practice, we view Jesus as someone who helps us become a better person so that we can really be worthy of salvation.  As Paul writes, “You foolish Galatians!  [You morons!]  Who has bewitched you?  . . .  Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” (3:1-3).
            Only bad people go to heaven, only sinners are saved.  Paul is a man who can legitimately claim that “in regards to legalistic righteousness” he was “faultless” (Philippians 3:6).  And, this perfect guy is reminding us that only bad people go to heaven, that only sinners are saved.  Well, we might as well sin more!  “By no means” (Romans 6:1-2).  That only misses the point.  This scandalous and moronic gospel has at its center the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, and his call to each one of us to die.  And, when we’re dead, we stop sinning.  And, when we’re dead, we stop doing good too.  If we are to die to self-righteousness, then we are to die to sin as well.
            Listen in to the central point of Paul’s letter: “For through the law I died to the law [self-righteousness], so that I might live to God.  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” (2:19-20).
            Did you hear the echo of the equality of 3:28?  “No longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female.”  It echoes, both in some English translations and in the Greek text, the “no longer I who live” of 2:20.  Because Christian equality is tied not only to human sin; it is also tied to the cross.

The cross is at the center of Christian experience and Christian faith.  At the cross, sinners are saved.  At the cross, all are made equal.  At the cross, we die and come to life.
            No wonder there is an entirely different logic to the gospel.  No wonder it does not fit with our self-righteousness and judgmental hypocrisy.  No wonder it is so radically equal.  No wonder it is so scandalous and moronic.  It requires a death to enter life.  And the new life is driven by an entirely new process.  Instead of relative goodness as a path to salvation, we put all our faith in Jesus.  Instead of our own goodness, it’s all about Jesus’ goodness.
            Wow!  What freedom!  And this sets us up for one more look at Galatians, next week, with the theme “death to slavery”.

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