Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Rules-- or the Ruler?

Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9; Galatians 2:8-21

TODAY, IN THE TRADITIONAL CHURCH calendar, is the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul. I hope you’ll indulge me when I say that means a lot to me, because eleven years ago today I was ordained to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA). It was a good day to be ordained, because it’s the day the Church has traditionally celebrated the ministry of Christ’s apostles and pastors. Even more, it’s a good day to celebrate the message of the Gospel that all true ministers bring to God’s people and the world.

But given that, maybe you think it’s odd that I’ve chosen this passage in Galatians 2 to preach on. St. Peter sure doesn’t come out looking very good here! In fact, St. Paul practically accuses him and St. Barnabas of departing from the truth of the Gospel!

But today is also the Sunday before the 4th of July, Independence Day. Next Friday we’ll be celebrating all that makes America what it is, including the basic principles that our nation was founded upon.

One of those is Tolerance. Here in America, it’s a principle for us to tolerate the different views, opinions, and customs others may have, even if we don’t share them or agree with them. We live and let live, because we accept one another as fellow-Americans. Or with non-citizens, we accept one another as fellow human beings. Tolerance of our differences is part of what being an American is all about.

But in Galatians 2, St. Paul isn’t being tolerant at all! That bothers us. We’re not expecting him to act like a good American, of course not. But, well, isn’t Tolerance also a Christian virtue, not just an American one? Isn’t that what we’re taught?

But the Holy Spirit teaches us some things simply are not tolerable. And tolerating the wrong things will lead us right off the cliff away from the Good News that Christ’s apostles and ministers are called to preach and proclaim.

The church in Galatia was in a mess. Some false apostles had shown up, telling the Christians they had to be circumcised and keep all the Law of Moses in order to be accepted by God in Christ. No true apostle or minister of Jesus Christ can tolerate teaching like that! Not St. Paul, not any of us today. We have to speak out against falsehood like that--even if the one going wrong is as important as St. Peter himself.

Let’s look at our text. In verses 8-10, Paul affirms both his and Peter’s ministries. He tells the Galatians about the time he met in Jerusalem with St. James-- that is, the brother of our Lord and leader of the Jerusalem church-- Peter himself, and St. John. In that private conference he informed them of what he was preaching to the Gentiles, that is, salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone. He had to, because already in Antioch some false brothers were trying to make the believers slaves again to the Law.

James, Peter, and John didn’t dispute Paul’s understanding of the gospel; no, they recognised that the Holy Spirit was indeed working in Paul when he preached salvation through the blood of Christ alone. They saw that God had entrusted this one and only gospel to Peter to minister to the Jews, and to Paul, to bring to the Gentiles. Their only requirement for him and Barnabas was that they should continue to remember the poor. This was a sign of the common ministry and fellowship of the Church, whether in Jerusalem or Antioch. But "remembering the poor" had nothing to do with how a person is accepted by God. That comes through the sacrificial death of Christ, period.

At that time, Christians in Judea tended to keep on celebrating the Jewish feasts and observing the kosher laws, even though they knew they weren’t saved by them. They didn’t have to think about how that’d affect their relations with Gentile believers-- there weren’t that many.

The church in Antioch had to deal with it. Believing Jews and Gentiles met all the time in each others’ homes. If a Jewish Christian in Antioch kept kosher, he’d have to shun his Gentile brother! So in Antioch, the Law of Moses was being relaxed in favor of the law of love in the Messiah. They were, as Paul writes in verse 4, enjoying freedom in Jesus Christ.

Now as we read in verse 11, sometime after his meeting with Paul and Barnabas, St. Peter came to Antioch, to see for himself what the Holy Spirit was doing in the church. He saw how wonderfully Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians met and mixed as one body. He recognised how God had accepted the Gentiles by His grace. Peter went to the homes of uncircumcised believers and ate with them. And if pork roast was on the menu, that was fine with him! After awhile, as Paul says in verse 14, Peter was living like a Gentile and not like a Jew. And in God’s plan and purpose for the Church, that was fine with our Lord!

But then certain men arrived from Jerusalem. They claimed to be coming from James himself. They told Peter he was doing wrong not to keep every last stipulation of the Law. They insisted that to be a good Christian, you had to be a thoroughly observant Jew. They applied so much pressure that Peter was afraid-- not of what Jesus would say, but of what these men in the circumcision faction would say. And he began to stop associating with his Gentile brothers and sisters. And other Jewish believers and even Barnabas did the same.

Imagine how Paul felt, observing this! It was sheer hypocrisy! It was intolerable! Paul had to confront Peter about it. Openly. To his face. In front of all the others who were being led astray by Peter’s example, in front of the Gentile believers who were being hurt and confused by it.

For if Paul hadn’t confronted Peter and nipped this in the bud, it would have destroyed the Church. Not just the church in ancient Antioch, but the Church in all times and places. If Jewish Christians had to go on keeping the Law and couldn’t associate with Gentile Christians, the only way to keep the Church together would be for Gentile Christians to become Jews. The men would have to be circumcised and all of them-- meaning, us, we’d have to keep the Law of Moses down to the last letter. As Paul writes in verse 14, Peter by his behaviour was forcing the Gentile Christians to follow Jewish customs! But trying to please God by keeping Jewish customs and rules is to depart from the faith of Jesus Christ.

Peter, of all people, should have known better. Didn’t he remember what the Holy Spirit had done for Cornelius the Italian centurion and his household? And now Peter wanted to go back to trying to earn his salvation by following the rules and make Gentiles do the same? No, no, no, no, no!!

In fact, if anybody is intolerant in this Galatians passage, it’s Peter himself, for cutting off fellowship with his Gentile brothers and sisters.

But stop. Please don’t fall into the trap of making Tolerance one more rule we have to follow to become and keep on being good Christians. The Scripture is not commanding Peter and the rest of us simply to "celebrate diversity," as the modern slogan goes. No, Paul rebukes Peter because he was departing from the one basis of our unity, which is faith in Jesus Christ alone. We don’t put our trust in rules, we put our trust in the Ruler, in the one crucified and risen Lord.

As the Holy Spirit says, again in verse 14, even Jewish believers like Peter and Paul "have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified."

Got that? "By observing the law no one will be justified." But it’s our sinful human nature to keep on trying to do it! Even in the church! Today our temptation isn’t trying to please God by keeping kosher or obeying all the Law of Moses. No, we tie ourselves up with other rules. God help us! in our foolishness we try to set aside the grace of God and earn our way into His favor a thousand other legalistic ways.

Like how? How many times have you heard that if you’re not giving money to the poor or tithing or working for social justice, you might not be a Christian? Haven’t you been told that a real Christian will never smoke or go to R-rated movies or drink alcoholic beverages? Ya got yer Ten Steps to living the Victorious Christian Life, and Four Golden Rules for perfect marriages and perfect children and perfect health, and Forty Days to fulfilling your Christian purpose! And don’t forget the requirement to be Nice and Tolerant, no matter what! Have you ever struggled with sin and the last person you could tell was another member of the church? (Maybe that doesn’t happen in this congregation!) Because, hey, you were supposed to be working hard enough to keep all the rules perfectly. And that, as we all know, is the biggest Rule of all.

Last Tuesday, the Tribune-Review published an article about the latest Pew poll on religion in America. It said three-fourths of Americans believe in heaven as a place where people who have led good lives will be eternally rewarded. I expect a large percentage of that three-fourths would call themselves Christians. But let’s have that again: "three-fourths of Americans believe in heaven as a place where people who have led good lives will be eternally rewarded." "Led good lives" means . . . what? It means being good and keeping the rules, whatever you believe the rules to be. "Eternally rewarded"-- that means most Americans-- or at least, most Americans questioned for this poll-- believe that if we keep enough rules well enough, God will have to reward us by letting us into His eternal presence.

Well, golly, if we’re going to do things that way, let’s at least follow the best rules there are and be circumcised-- the guys, at least!-- and go back to trying to keep the Law of Moses!

But the bad news is, "by observing the law no one will be justified." Paul had to face Peter down on that. Every true minister of Christ, in fact, every true Christian in our day and age has to face the world and the Church down on that. The good news is, we are justified by faith in the Ruler of all, Jesus Christ the crucified. Not only are we justified in Him, we are also sanctified and glorified!

We can tell from verse 17 what the false teachers in Antioch and Galatia were trying to feed the believers. Something like, "If you stop trying to please God by keeping the Law, unbelievers will think that Christ promotes sin!"

And it’s true, ungodly people do say that about salvation by grace alone. I had an atheist friend in college, he’d go around singing a satire on "Onward, Christian Soldiers." Like this:

Onward, Christian soldiers,
Plunder, rape, and kill!
Do whate’er you want to,
Jesus foots the bill!

Paul says yes, we justified sinners do keep on struggling with sin. It only goes to prove how helpless we are to keep the Law! What does the Law of Moses do for us? It makes us admit that our only hope for life is to be put to death in the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ.

You don’t have to earn your way into God’s favor! In fact, it’s an insult to the cross of Christ to try! With joy and relief, accept the grace of Jesus Christ! He perfectly kept the Law of God on your behalf, all His sinless life and especially on the cross. Please, understand that this acceptance is not a work that God requires of you, it’s a happy and humble taking hold of the gift that your Father in heaven has handed you!

If you have received this heavenly gift, rejoice! You have been crucified with Christ. Christ is living out His perfect, righteous life in you. The life you live in this body, you live not by your own effort, but by faith in the Son of God. For He loved you and gave Himself for you!

In St. Peter’s own letters, we learn that he took Paul’s words to heart. He repented of his hypocrisy in trying to replace the grace of God with his own keeping of the Law. And to the end of his days, his preaching was always holiness in Christ through the mercy of God alone.

Let’s follow his example. Let’s hold to the good news preached by St. Paul. Are you tempted to make things right with God by keeping the rules? Immediately call on Christ, the Ruler of all: "Lord Jesus Christ, live in me, rule in me, do Your good work in me!" For by observing the law, no one will be justified.

But we are justified by faith in Christ. Like St. Peter and St. Paul, let’s rest and rejoice in the life and freedom we have in Jesus alone. Come now to His table, eat and drink in testimony that everything you need to have peace with God, He has given to you in your Saviour.

This is the one true Gospel we and all the Church proclaim and celebrate. For Jesus Christ did not die for nothing. No, through Him alone, Jews and Gentiles, believers of every nation and race now have justification with God, and life, joy, and eternal blessing in the world to come.